Hank Azaria’s Lawsuit Details What Defines A Character

Voice acting isn’t Hank Azaria’s only talent. He’s also an actor and comedian who just happens to excel at creating great characters. One of those creations got him into a bit of difficulty when it emerged that someone else had created something very similar first. Cue a lawsuit to sort it all out that also reveals (at least in the legal sense) what defines a character.

DHS simpsons history lesson

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When creating ideas. concepts and pitches, it’s invariably easy to assign or endow characters with certain traits. They can be upbeat, melancholy, feisty (although I’m still not sure what exactly that means), or funny. There’s no shortage of descriptive terms to define what kind of a character a character actually is.

However, it’s all too easy to get sucked into a trap like that. Simply draping terms like the ones above over a character doesn’t really define them, or make them fully-formed. Instead, the require a lot more information and back-story to be relatable.  Hence what makes Asaria’s lawsuit so appropriate.

The gist is that Azaria and another person called Craig Bierko used to play around with the concept of an old-timey baseball announcer. When the former wanted to develop it further in 1997, the latter was against it. Fast forward to 2010, and Azaria creates a Funny or Die video featuring such a character. Ergo: lawsuit to figure out whose copyright was infringed.

The ruling and opinion provide the parts we’re interested in (emphasis mine):

Reviewing the record, U.S. District Judge Gary Feess says the Jim Brockmire character qualifies as such. The judge rules that Azaria has expressed particularized character attributes including Brockmire’s marital relationship, lucky pen, career arc, volatile temper, affinity for specific cultural trivia, plaid jacket, red tie, the rose on his lapel and a classic sign off to his wife. “It is therefore like those character driven movies where audiences watch more for the character – Tarzan, Superman, Sherlock Holmes, or James Bond – than the story,” writes the judge. “For these reasons, the Court finds that Jim Brockmire is sufficiently distinct to warrant copyright protection.”

If you read through that slowly, you can start to form an idea of what the character of Jim Brockmire is like without ever hearing a single word of his voice or even laying eyes in him. The judge is right that going to these kinds of lengths is sufficient artistic effort to warrant copyright protection.

So where does this play into animation? For one, do animated characters these days even have such depth and complex characterisations? If animated TV shows are anything to go by, the answer is almost certainly no. Even current hits like Adventure Time place more emphasis on things like the setting and back-story to the character than the characters themselves. Jake the Dog is complex, but he remains relatively flat compared to his voice-actor’s other paying gig: Bender from Futurama.

You can extend it to features too. For a medium that really requires character traits to be defined and developed in a very short space of time, recent animated features are shockingly lacking in that regard. Consider Frozen. Can you name anything, even a singly solitary thing that defines either of the lead females in terms of their character outside of what you see on-screen? Nothing is inferred, nothing is left to the viewer to decide. The characters come pre-formed after the title and are fully inflated before the end of the first act.

Is this a problem with creators simply not putting in a suitable effort or the fact that viewers simply don’t care is hard to say. However the slide in characterisations of pretty much the entire Simpsons cast should provide some indication of how far things have fallen.

9 thoughts on “Hank Azaria’s Lawsuit Details What Defines A Character”

  1. There’s a troublesome kind of negative feedback loop between audiences and creators. The less audiences care, the less writers/artists have to work, and so on. With popular entertainment, it gets worse because the lowest common denominator is the most reliable audience. Then, with international film marketing, characters have to become even more generic so that they will appeal to audiences across culture and language barriers. The bigger the target audience, the blander the content.

    The thing is, the era of mass audiences is gradually coming to an end.

    Considering the increasing fragmentation of the entertainment world today, the odds of being involved with a huge smash hit are vanishingly small. The new “long tail” market environment can work two ways. On the one hand, it pushes young artists to compete for fewer and fewer jobs on bigger and bigger tentpole features. It pressures these artists to conform to the artistic cliches of what has been popular in the past. The success of Disney/Pixar and their plot-heavy, character-weak movies is a depressing influence on too many people.

    On the other hand, the artists who accept and embrace cult/niche status have never before enjoyed so many opportunities to distribute their own work and have complete creative freedom. I hope more artists turn away from the allure of big studio features and become liberated to create work that is thoughtful, sincere, quirky and original. Unfortunately, animation school graduates seem to keep clamoring for the false promise of security within the industry, even as that industry eats its own tail.

    1. Well said Zoe.

      Part of the problem is that success in both a personal and professional sense is still very much defined by who you work for and what you worked on. Disney (and Pixar) remain extremely alluring despite the fact that they might not offer the fulfilling kind of work or experience that an artist craves but they have history and the name and will market that to graduates till the end of time.

      Once that illusion is broken, and someone figures out a way to reliably monetise niche content, there will be a large shift that could catch many people unaware.

    2. So, you’re saying that there could be a sustainable future where franchises with niche/cult followings (whether they’re in the realm of animation, video games or some other form of entertainment) will become more profitable and possibly marketable?

      1. I’d like to think so. There are some new and promising-looking avenues for creators to get paid directly by viewers/subscribers. I recently learned about Patreon, which looks like a better option than Kickstarter for shorts or series.

        It’s all relative. When the TV & film distribution channels were monopolized, a weird cult project would just get rejected outright. Whatever little money might have been made from it was not enough to justify the cost of distribution. Now distribution is effectively free. The potential revenue from indie projects is still small, but at least now they’ve got a chance instead of being barred from any possibility of being seen. And since the creator can self-distribute, a larger percentage of that revenue can be kept by the creators themselves. It’s a challenging landscape, but the issues for now are logistical, and I think/hope they will be solved.

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  4. I was really interesting in reading/learning about this lawsuit when I started your article, but it’s littered with grammar mistakes, misspellings, and is just poorly written. Really killed the article for me.

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