Emmy Award-winning actor Hank Azaria has never been short on work, having provided multiple voices on “The Simpsons” since 1989 and a steady flow of TV and feature film roles.
But over the last few years he’s occasionally put on a garish sports jacket and slipped into the persona of Jim Brockmire, a smooth-talking TV and radio play-by-play announcer with a tortured past and a love for baseball and booze.
Seven years after Azaria first introduced Brockmire in a widely viewed 2010 digital short he created for the website Funny or Die, the passion project will get a shot for wider exposure on IFC, the AMC Networks-owned outlet formerly known as the Independent Film Channel that has repositioned itself in recent years as a home for offbeat comedy.
IFC is looking to accelerate that transition through parent AMC Networks’ recently acquired 20% stake in Funny or Die, the digital comedy outfit based in West Hollywood. Launched 10 years ago by actor Will Ferrell and screenwriters Adam McKay and Chris Henchy, Funny or Die is known as a place where comedy writers and performers can develop daring ideas. IFC President Jennifer Caserta now has a seat on Funny or Die’s board of directors and will have the chance to guide some of that content to her channel.
The Funny or Die name will be used to promote a full night of IFC programming in the fall and feature some of the company’s video shorts.
Cable channels such as IFC and AMC’s Sundance Films have had to reinvent themselves by developing original series and their own distinctive brand of programming as they compete with streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon that are pulling viewers away from traditional TV.
“Brockmire” will help fill the IFC programming pipeline as its signature series “Portlandia” ends its run next year after eight seasons.
The sketch show starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein playing an array of eco-friendly eccentric characters earned critical acclaim, awards and a loyal following of upscale viewers. “Portlandia” also helped IFC establish itself as a comedy brand name for cable viewers.
Both IFC and its new partner have high hopes for “Brockmire” as screenwriter Joel Church-Cooper gave Azaria’s creation a raunchy, complicated back story and a wild but often poignant, alcohol-fueled romance with his boss, an idealistic minor league team owner played by Amanda Peet.
“Joel put a lot of depth in it that I never anticipated,” Azaria said. “I was just shooting for sophomoric, amusing and smart.”
Early signs for the show’s prospects are positive, with 2.3 million views of the first “Brockmire” episode made available on the IFC and Funny or Die websites ahead of the TV premiere. IFC announced Wednesday that it has already ordered a second season.
Caserta is hoping for more than just ratings success from “Brockmire.” She believes the show and its Funny or Die auspices will send a strong signal to comic talent that they can come to the channel with passion projects that might be considered too narrow for more broad-based TV networks. Highly personal shows that can generate discussion on social media and dedicated followings are also welcome.
“We have a reputation for approaching smart comedy that speaks to what’s happening out in the world,” Caserta said. “It tends to be more edgy in tone and what’s reflective of what’s going on in the culture today. We’re making funny stuff that people want to talk about.”
Seth Meyers, the former “Saturday Night Live” head writer and current host of NBC’s “Late Night,” will vouch for Caserta. Together with “SNL” alums Armisen and Bill Hader, he’s been turning out “Documentary Now” for IFC. The meticulously produced series parodies classic documentary films such as “Grey Gardens” and “Stop Making Sense.”
Last year, the series was nominated for an Emmy Award for best variety sketch show — competing against “SNL,” which won the statuette.
Meyers said “Documentary Now” gave him a chance to take a more artisan-type approach to comedy as well as a break from the constant churn of a late-night show with a daily deadline for crafting jokes.
“I love my day job, but it’s all about volume,” Meyers said. “It’s working in a shipyard, and my IFC show is like making a ship in a bottle.”
IFC, which also recently renewed writer Dana Gould’s bizarre comedy horror series “Stan Against Evil,” has found that providing talent with the freedom to indulge in passion projects of their choosing can be a decent business.
Although the channel doesn’t draw huge audiences, IFC is seeing ratings growth at a time when most other cable networks that rely on movies and scripted programming have declined. In 2016, Nielsen data showed IFC was up 7% in prime time to an average of 200,000 viewers, and up 4% in the 18-to-49 age group coveted by advertisers. The channel — now in 72.5 million cable and satellite homes — has also seen an uptick in the number of cable and satellite homes where it’s available.
“They added over a million subscribers last year, which is pretty rare for any network in the age of cord cutting,” said Derek Baine, research director for the media industry analysis firm SNL Kagan. “Most of the cable networks have been losing 2 or 3% due to cord cutting or cord shaving. Viewership is also up. It's bucking a lot of trends we’re seeing in cable networks.”
AMC Networks does not break out IFC’s financial performance, but SNL Kagan data show that the channel’s revenue was up 11% to $269 million in 2016, with cash flow up 8.4% to about $95 million compared with a year ago.
Baine notes that having original series is now a must for cable channels as they face more competition for traditional TV viewers. But IFC is courting online viewers as well, as it will be part of the package of the AMC Networks channels available on YouTube’s live streaming service.
Original shows also matter to advertisers. According to Standard Media Index, advertisers are paying three times as much for a 30-second spot in “Portlandia” than they are for a movie on IFC’s prime-time schedule (Even with its emphasis on comedy, IFC still runs a heavy schedule of feature films).
Originals produced in-house also allow IFC to integrate advertisers’ products into their show — a valued service because the audience has grown impatient with traditional commercials. Boston Beer Co.’s Samuel Adams brand was featured in sendups of PBS-style pledge drives that ran in “Documentary Now,” as if the series was an actual high-minded program on public TV.
On “Brockmire,” Azaria’s character may appear as spokesman for the beer — a bold move considering that he’s a functioning alcoholic on the show.
3:30 p.m.: This article was updated with additional analysis.
This article was originally published at 3:00 a.m.