Hank Azaria is getting out from behind his cartoon bodies on The Simpsons to play a real-life, leading-man character on the new NBC sitcom Free Agents (premiering tonight at 10:30 p.m.). The show, created by Party Down’s Jon Enbom, follows a sad-sack divorcé (Azaria) who cries often and seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of ABBA lyrics, and his PR-firm co-worker (Kathryn Hahn), who recently lost her fiancé. We spoke with Azaria about starring in a rom-com, running out of Simpsons voices, and being a funnyman sex symbol.
As a dude, it’s hard watching you cry during sex.
You sound upset. Are you okay?
Yeah. I’m okay.
I think so.
I’m just teasing. It’s definitely challenging. And to be technical, I cried after sex instead of during. Mildly more macho. But no, I kind of relish the opportunity to play an emotional guy and then to be funny at the same time. It’s quite a challenge.
There are Lean Cuisine jokes and a detailed breakdown of ABBA’s “Fernando.” I don’t want you to go all Christopher Hitchens, but is there a different art to making women laugh than men?
This show tested better for men than it did for women, actually. I think guys relate to it a lot. There’s a lot of, for a lack of better term, tapping booty, that goes on in it. And I totally relate to him. I think he’s brave with his emotional honesty. And I’ve been through a divorce personally, and I know how miserable he is.
How much of a drain on your career is The Simpsons at this point?
It’s about four hours a week.
Do you have any new characters in you?
Really, no. A few years ago, I kind of … ran out. I’ve done literally 100, 150 different characters. Some of them have only appeared for a line or three. But the point is, every sound I can make has been harvested for the show at this point. It used to be — like in year ten — there were a couple of new ones a week. Now, one or two or year. I have no new voices — they’ve all been used.
Party Down seemed so improvised, but Free Agents feels almost Sorkin-esque.
The interesting thing about Party Down is it wasn’t improvised. Everybody assumed — me included — that it was highly improvised. But it was actually highly scripted. Party Down just seems grittier and you expect [improvisation] from those actors. I think if [our show] were shot in more of that handheld documentary style, you would think it was more improvised. That really lends a lot to making it feel like it’s just off the cuff or spontaneous. Which is probably why I liked it. There was some debate up front about how to shoot this. I kind of wanted to go in that, for lack of a better term, Office-style direction. (A) because it’s just easier to shoot, and (b) because it lends a level of reality to it that makes it feel spontaneous and improvised. But a lot of television looks like that right now. And we wanted to lean into a more romantic-comedy look.
Have you ever taken your shirt off as a plot point before?
As a plot point, I don’t know. All I know is that very often, Hollywood has asked me to be some version of the naked foreigner. Naked and accented seems to be the image they expect me to assume.
Like The Birdcage, but I haven’t seen you do the rom-com leading man, with gratuitous shirt removal.
I kind of fought that a little bit on this. I was sort of shy of taking my shirt off in this. But you know, it wasn’t written for that reason. Anybody playing this would have been naked from the waist up two times: There’s a scene in bed right after sex and there’s a scene changing shirts. And that wasn’t written for me, that existed before I came aboard.
See! You’re a reticent sex symbol in real life, too! Why does this make you so uncomfortable? It is harder to be funny without your shirt?
No, this isn’t uncomfortable. I just didn’t want to distract from what was going on emotionally with the character. But having seen it, it doesn’t seem to. It seems organic. It’s brief, and it’s no big deal. It doesn’t bother me.
Maybe some of your embarrassment is character-based.
Now that you mention it, it felt wrong to be sort of whipping your shirt off. Not that I do that in the pilot. I don’t know. I just wanted to play up that this guy is more vulnerable. A quart low, you know what I mean.
But he is a high-powered PR executive who’s used to lying and being full of bluster. That must be part of his personality somewhere in there. We’ve just caught him at a weird time.
Well, I think that he’s a very reluctant PR person. That’s not what he wanted to be, at all. And finds himself good at it, almost to his astonishment, but he hates the grosser parts of the job. He sort of finds himself trapped economically. He really wants to be a music print journalist and was that for a while, starving but happy. But then he has two kids and has to do what he has to do. And that will become clear as the show goes on: He really has problems with what he does. He kind of hates it.
Are there parallels to any Simpsons character?
Do you remember the episode that has Frank Grimes in it? Remember that show? Kind of a one-off character. This guy comes to the Springfield the nuclear power plant, works for Homer and gets really jealous that everything works out for Homer even though Homer is an idiot. There’s a lot of Frank Grimes in Alex — nothing works out for him and he’s tremendously sad and yet somehow, hopefully, it’s funny.