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The Simpsons
Hank Azaria plays the town barkeep, Moe Szyslak, as well as a wide cast of male characters ranging from Chief Wiggum and Apu to Duffman (can't breathe! oh no!). Brad Barket—Getty Images; Fox

Hank Azaria: I've Lived The Simpsons Marathon

Aug 22, 2014

If there's a vocal equivalent of rubber face, Hank Azaria's got it. The 50-year-old actor joined The Simpsons when he was just 22, and has collected four Emmys for an impossibly long list of oft-imitated and diverse creations: Moe, Chief Wiggum, Professor Frink, Dr. Nick Riviera, Apu, Cletus—and on and on.

To mark the show's 25th season, and the 552-episode marathon on FXX that threatens to keep fans in doors for days, Azaria talked to TIME about what it's been like to embody some of the funniest characters on television for more than half-a-lifetime—as well as what he remembers about the late, great Robin Williams, with whom Azaria worked on the 1996 comedy The Birdcage.

TIME: Are you going to be watching any of the [FX] marathon? What is the most hours you’ve spent watching your own show in a row?

Hank Azaria: Well, I’ve lived the marathon. Really. I’ve been doing this for over half my life now. Every few years I’ll sort of binge-watch the last crop of episodes. I’m due for another one of those.

TIME: How do you continue to find surprises within these characters and make sure that it stays interesting for you as an actor?

HA: I love these characters so it’s really fun for me to do them. It’s script to script. There aren’t as many new ideas on episode 512 as there were on episode 12. That said, we’ve never repeated a joke. I can’t recall saying the same thing. I think certain tropes come back. You know, Moe has fallen in love, what, four or five times. So some of it becomes an ongoing story that you’re telling. You learn more about them. You’re inside a character and you’re exploring a character and his relationships or ambitions. That’s really a writer question. They’re the ones that really have to dig deep.

TIME: What’s an episode that you felt handled a current event or a zeitgeisty thing in the news really well?

HA: One episode recently, called The D'oh-cial Network, about social media. I thought that was a great statement on how we’re a completely Internet obsessed society. [And] going way back, when the aliens Kang and Kodos took over [Bill] Clinton’s and [Bob Dole’s] bodies and sort of made this ridiculous election.

TIME: On Simpsons Wikipedia, that very reliable source, there’s something that describes all your characters and who they may have been based off of: Moe is based off your impression of Al Pacino and Dr. Nick Riviera is a bad Ricky Ricardo and Chief Wiggum is Edward G. Robinson. Did a lot of these voices start out as celebrity impressions you had done over the years? How did you warp these more familiar voices into something of their own?

HA: I’m a mimic at heart so, yes, they were based on a lot of celebrity impressions. Or whoever—they didn’t have to be celebrities. They were people I knew, people I met. Family members, college buddies. Whoever’s voice stood out to me that I could imitate.

TIME: Who is Comic Book Guy based off of?

Comic Book Guy of The Simpsons FOX 

HA: Comic Book Guy is based on a guy who lived next door to me freshman year of college. Everybody back then had those dry erase boards where they left messages for each other—before cell phones—and he would put a listing, a ranking of the top 5 or bottom 5 people in the dorm--people he liked and didn’t like. In CBG voice: You just made the top of my list.

TIME: So he was extremely popular?

HA: Oh, he was big man on campus. But yeah, he sounded like that, except with a Boston accent.

TIME: What character would you say is the most like you?

HA: The character that seems the most rational and that I relate to is Lou the cop. Even though his vocal quality is kind of based on [Sylvester] Stallone, he’s sort of the sensible, normal guy. I relate to Moe a lot. He has a big New York accent—which, I grew up in Queens. I was a bartender. I joke that if I didn’t become Moe the bartender I’d probably still be Hank the bartender. He’s such a miserable guy, like the dark side of my personality.

Moe of The Simpsons FOX 

TIME: I saw the segment with all of the cast, Dan [Castellaneta], Nancy [Cartwright], you, etc. on Inside the Actors Studio. I was struck by was how easily you guys were able to banter with each other in these characters’ voices. Are you guys comfortable enough with each other and with the writers where you improvise to come up with scenes? How has that changed over the years?

HA: That’s always been permitted and encouraged. Honestly, it’s hard to remember at this point what the beginning was like. It was so freaking long ago. But basically, if you do four takes, you want to do two completely as-written, word-for-word, and then a couple where you can play around a little bit. Sometimes, if you feel a joke isn’t working, you say, 'maybe you try it this way, maybe he’s not so angry,' you make a little suggestion. Then there are times where it really does feel like two characters should improvise with each other. Play off each other, play around. Every once in a while, we’ll do that when it calls for it.

Meet the Voices of The Simpsons

The Simpsons
Dan Castellaneta is the voice of Homer, the bumbling patriarch of the Simpson family. He also voices other adult males such as Grampa Simpson, Groundskeeper Willie and Krusty the Clown.Michael Tran—FilmMagic/Getty Images; Fox
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The Simpsons
Dan Castellaneta is the voice of Homer, the bumbling patriarch of the Simpson family. He also voices other adult males s
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TIME: Were there any characters you wanted to do, or the writers wanted you to do, that ended up on the cutting board?

HA: None. Because I’ve really only ever suggested one character and that’s [Professor] Frink’s father. And Jerry Lewis ended up playing him. Professor Frink was so inspired by Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor that I always thought it would be great if we could do that. And I nagged them enough that they finally did it.

I have these voices ready that I think are amusing, or entertaining. And then when the time comes, a character gets presented and then in my brain, I go ah, great.

TIME: You said you’re constantly developing new voices. Is there anything you’re working on now?

HA: This process is so organic. It’s not, 'ok let me take the next hour and develop the voice.' It’s just something I’m always doing. I love it. To me it’s like a toy. It’s really fun. [But] over 26 years, I’ve sort of hit the limit. There are new people I try and get now as things come up. We did a monologue [recently]--remember the movie Network? Remember Ned Beatty’s rant?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NKkRDMil0bw

TIME: That’s a great scene.

HA: What I’ll do is just listen. I’ll get a recording of it, just listen to it, try to work it out. The good thing about it is—let’s say I do it and it’s not that great. Dan or Harry will take a whack at it.

TIME: [The Simpsons has] had a lot of guest stars over the years. Is there anybody that you felt giddy and nervous and excited in a big way to work with?

HA: This is an interesting phenomenon, I find, because you don’t know who you’re going to freak out at. The year Dustin Hoffman won for Rain Man—I was at that Oscars, and Vincent Price walked in and I lost my mind.

TIME: Did you actually say hello to him?

HA: I didn’t. I was too thunderstruck. But down the line, I’d say it’s the rock and roll performers that have gotten to me. The top would be Mick Jagger. It was like viewing history. I flipped out. All those guys. Tom Petty, Elvis Costello, David Byrne, Steven Tyler in Aerosmith. Maybe because I’m used to actors. I so admire people who can make music like that.

The 30 Best Celebrity Cameos on The Simpsons

Michael Jackson: The pop star, credited as John Jay Smith, voiced the character Leon Kompowsky in the 1991 episode “Stark Raving Dad,” in which Homer encounters Leon (a patient with Jackson-like tendencies) after he is committed to a mental institution.
Michael Jackson: The pop star, credited as John Jay Smith, voiced the character Leon Kompowsky in the 1991 episode "Stark Raving Dad," in which Homer encounters Leon (a patient with Jackson-like tendencies) after he is committed to a mental institution.FOX
Michael Jackson: The pop star, credited as John Jay Smith, voiced the character Leon Kompowsky in the 1991 episode “Stark Raving Dad,” in which Homer encounters Leon (a patient with Jackson-like tendencies) after he is committed to a mental institution.
Leonard Nimoy: Leonard Nimoy made his first cameo as himself in the classic episode "Marge vs. the Monorail” in 1993. Nimoy comes to Springfield as a guest of honor for the maiden voyage of the town's fraudulent monorail. Nimoy also appeared in “The Springfield Files” in 1997 as himself. The 2015 episode “The Princess Guide” was dedicated to his memory.
Barry White: The singer appeared as himself in “Whacking Day,” where Lisa uses White’s voice to lure snakes to safety. He also appeared as himself in “Krusty Gets Kancelled” in 1993 and his song “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” was used in the final scene of “The Last Temptation of Homer” in 1993.
Stephen Hawking: Dr. Stephen Hawking first paid Springfield a visit as himself in 1999 on the episode "They Saved Lisa's Brain" and is summarily unimpressed by the improvements to the town made by Lisa and her MENSA compatriots. He went onto make three more appearances as himself, “Don’t Fear the Roofer” in 2005, “Stop or My Dog Will Shoot!” in 2007, and “Elementary School Musical” in 2010.
THE SIMPSONS: Lady Gaga (guest-voicing as herself) wants to help  Lisa realize that being herself is better than being like anyone else in the "Lisa Goes Gaga" season finale episode of THE SIMPSONS airing Sunday, May 20 (8:00-8:30 PM ET/PT) on FOX.  THE SIMPSONS ™ and © 2012 TCFFC ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Johnny Cash: Cash notably guest starred as Homer’s Spirit Guide, the Space Coyote, who Homer meets in a Guatemalan pepper-fueled hallucination in the 1997 episode “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer (The Mysterious Voayage of Homer).”
Paul and Linda McCartney: Paul and Linda McCartney help teach Lisa that it's alright to be a vegetarian in the 1995 episode "Lisa the Vegetarian."
Elizabeth Taylor: Maggie's first word, "daddy," was voiced by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1992 episode "Lisa's First Word.” She also appeared as herself in the 1993 episode “Krusty Gets Kancelled."
Jon Lovitz: The Saturday Night Live alum has voiced a variety of characters since 1991, including Marge's ex-prom date Artie Ziff, theater director Llewellyn Sinclair, paparazzo Enrico Irritazio, Professor Lombardo and Aristotle Amadopolis. He has also appeared as Jay Sherman, his character from the TV series The Critic.
Bart's boy band from New Kids on the Blecchh
Gillian Anderson & David Duchovny: Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny voiced their X-Files alter egos, Scully and Mulder, in "The Springfield Files," which aired in 1997.
THE SIMPSONS: Stan Lee guest voices as himself in "Married to the Blob" episode of THE SIMPSONS airing Sunday, Jan. 12 (8:00-8:30 PM ET/PT) on FOX.  THE SIMPSONS ™ and © 2014 TCFFC ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
George Takei: George Takei appeared as the voice of Akira in "One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish" in 1991 and in "What Animated Women Want" in 2013. He played Japanese game show host Wink in "Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo" in 1999, and a waiter in "A Hunka Hunka Burns in Love" in 2001. He also voiced himself in "The Burns Cage" in 2016.
Dustin Hoffman: Credited as Sam Etic, Hoffman appeared as Mr. Bergstrom in "Lisa's Subsitute" in 1991. Bergstrom takes over for Lisa's teacher while she is on medical leave. Impressed by Bergstrom's personality, she is devastated when he eventually has to leave her class.
FOX's "The Simpsons" - Season Twenty-Five
Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman: Mythbusters Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman played parodic versions of themselves in 2012's "The Daughter Also Rises," hosting a show called MythCrackers.
Jon Stewart: The former Daily Show host appeared as himself in "E. Pluribus Wiggum" in 2008, when Springfield holds the first presidential primary and its the residents rally behind their own candidate, Ralph Wiggum.
Keith Richards/Mick Jagger: The Rolling Stones rockers make cameos as themselves in "How I Spent My Strummer Vacation" in 2002, when Homer Simpson is sent to a rock and roll fantasy camp so he can attempt to live out his childhood dreams.
Snoop Dogg: The rapper guest starred as himself in the first hour-long episode, 2017's "The Great Phatsby," alongside RZA and Common.
Ricky Gervais: Ricky Gervais first appeared on the episode "Homer Simpson, This Is Your Wife" in 2006, voicing Charles Heathbar. Gervais also wrote it, making him the first Simpsons guest star to write an entire episode. He also appeared as himself in the 2011 episode "Angry Dad: The Movie."
Liam Neeson: Neeson guest starred in "The Father, the Son and the Holy Guest Star" in 2005. In the episode he plays Father Sean, who encounters Bart at the Catholic school to which he is sent after being expelled from his school for pulling a prank on Groundskeeper Willie.
Glenn Close: Close voiced Homer's mother, Mona Simpson, in six episodes. Her first appearance in "Mother Simpson" was in 1995, when Homer fakes his own death, and her most recent appearance was in the 2014 episode "The Yellow Badge of Cowardge."
Patrick Stewart: Stewart first appeared on The Simpsons in 1995 in "Homer the Great." His character, Number One, is the Springfield chapter leader of the Stonecutters, an ancient secret society. Stewart also appeared as himself in "The Fabulous Faker Boy" in 2013.
Meryl Streep: Streep voiced Jessica Lovejoy in the 1994 episode "Bart's Girlfriend." In the episode, Bart has a crush on Reverend Lovejoy's daughter Lisa, though his infatuation comes to an end after she steals money from the church collection plate and Bart is blamed.
Tony Hawk: The pro skater appeared as himself in the 2003 episode "Barting Over," in which Bart gets angry with his dad and moves out, befriending new neighbor Hawk, who lets Homer beat him in a competition so that Bart can move back home.
Susan Sarandon: Sarandon appeared in "Homer vs. Patty and Selma" in 1995 as a ballet teacher and voiced FeMac, a computer won by Ned Flanders in a rubber duck racing contest, in "Bart Has Two Mommies" in 2006.
Anne Hathaway: The actress appeared twice as Bart's love interest Jenny in "The Good, the Sad and the Drugly" (2009) and "Moonshine River" (2012). She also voiced Princess Penelope, who marries Krusty the Clown, in "Once Upon a Time in Springfield" in 2010. Hathaway won an Emmy for her role as Penelope and was declared by Matt Groening as his favorite guest star.
Danny DeVito: DeVito appeared three times on The Simpsons as Homer's half-brother, Herb Powell, first in "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?" in 1991 and then in 1992's "Brother, Can you Spare Two Dimes?" more than 20 years later, in 2013, in "The Changing of the Guardian."
James Earl Jones: Jones' trademark voice provided the narration for the ending of the 1998 episode "Das Bus." He also appeared in two special Halloween episodes.
Steve Martin: Martin voiced sanitation commissioner Ray Patterson, whom Homer chooses to run against after avoiding taking out the trash in "Trash of the Titans" in 1998.
Michael Jackson: The pop star, credited as John Jay Smith, voiced the character Leon Kompowsky in the 1991 episode "Star
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TIME: You guys recently combined the Simpsons and Family Guy, which is obviously influenced by the Simpsons. I was wondering what that experience of being a guest star as a character was like. Was it on Family Guy rules? What was it like joining up with them and getting to do the same role but in a different way?

HA: It was very much a Family Guy driven episode. It was technically their show. I love Family Guy, and whatever it’s borrowed from the Simpsons, it’s certainly become its own thing that is funny and original [and] in its own way deserves a lot of credit.

TIME: On Twitter recently you said that Cape Fear was one of the episodes you can watch over and over. What’s a bit that makes you crack up the most?

HA: From Cape Fear, the part about [Sideshow Bob] stepping on the rakes… It really hits my funny bone. No pun intended. Homer being really stupid cracks me up. Like when he hops on the scale and it’s wavering back and forth and he says 'woo-hoo!' or 'd'oh!' depending on literally whether the scale’s on the high end or low end. There was a while where for no reason Homer just adopted a southern accent and spoke like a girl thinking he’d be disguising himself. That really killed me.

TIME: So Homer’s stupidity is a gold mine.

HA: And Ralph Wiggum. The writers say that Ralph is the hardest character to write, by the way, because he has to be so stupid in just one sentence all the time that it’s almost like writing poetry, like writing comedy haiku. I think my favorite Ralph moment is when he walks into the adult section of the comic book store. The joke they didn’t use, because they censored it, was Ralph saying, ‘She’s hungry!’

TIME: One of your best-known live action movies was The Birdcage with the late Robin Williams. How did Williams affect your sense of comic timing or influence you as a comedian?

HA: Robin on that movie was really reining himself in. It was almost physically painful for him to do that. Mike Nichols was really sort of iron fisted with all of us about keeping it tight, and keeping it moving. I really admired the way Robin handled that. He would absolutely throw himself into the completely scripted version and give Mike exactly what he wanted, and then literally beg for what he called 'wild takes,' where he could just do whatever he wanted and go nuts. I think mostly it was very purging to Robin. Like if he didn’t let that out, I think he was going to go cuckoo. I was impressed how he took care of himself in that way. He was really gracious and didn’t argue with the director. He gave him what he wanted, which is smart, but also really advocated for his own process and did his thing.

The other thing I have to mention—as an actor, [Williams] was an amazing listener. He was always paying attention and responding. He was really there with you for whatever you might wanna try. He was very surprising, and a generous laugher.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

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