Sitting down with the creators and cast of FXX Network’s The League, it’s easy to see how each actor has a different style and approach and how that echoes what viewers see on screen. Co-creators Jeff Schaffer and Jackie Marcus-Schaffer were joined by cast members Mark Duplass, Jon Lajoie, Stephen Rannazzisi, Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and Katie Aselton at the New York Comic Con to show off a rough cut of an upcoming episode and to talk with the press afterward.
The husband and wife team of Schaffer and Marcus-Schaffer hadn’t previously worked together, but both were interested in improv. He had been a writer, producer and director for Curb Your Enthusiasm after a long run as a writer-producer on Seinfeld, while she had been a producer, citing Old School as one film she worked on where the moments and lines people remember were improvised. That doesn’t mean their jobs as writers are easy, though.
“We write single-space outlines/scripts that are 15 pages long,” Marcus-Schaffer explained. “There’s a lot of dialogue in them because it’s our responsibility as showrunners to make sure that when we get there on the day – because we have very little money and very little time – to make sure that we have something to shoot. If you can beat what’s in the script, beat it. If you can elaborate on it, elaborate on it. We definitely go in there with fully fleshed out stories and dialogue, but a lot of the great stuff we end up using is improvised because it’s a better version of what’s in the script.”
“We call it semi-scripted or semi-improvised because it’s the best of both worlds,” Schaffer said. “We have a script with an outline that we worked really hard on so the scenes makes sense and the scenes are funny and we have some dialogue. Then these brilliant guys come in and say things you didn’t know they were going to say when you were writing. Every scene we do is basically a live rewrite. What we love about it is that it doesn’t feel scripted because of the improv, but it doesn’t feel like improv because of the script. It’s basically a way to get as much funny shit out there as possible”
As far as how long the scenes take, it varies widely depending on the type of scene. “You’ve got a two-person scene at a bar that’s going to be somewhere between 20 and 40 minutes,” Duplass said. “That’s going to fly. You’ve got three cameras on it and you’ve got to nail it once, and that’s your only coverage for the scene. You’ve got a five-person scene at the bar and you’re looking at a table across the room at something else going on over there that’s more of a three- to four-hour thing. In those other scenes we have to be a little bit more organized and keep the clamp down on the crazy improv.”
Duplass had a recurring role on The Mindy Project, has been directing movies, including last year’s Jeff Who Lives at Home, and just signed a deal to write, direct and produce a series for HBO with his brother — so scheduling is complicated. “I’ve come up in the indie world where you just do everything yourself,” he said. “That’s how I was trained, and I still have that mentality. It definitely makes for a packed schedule but I like it that way.”
He joked that he doesn’t lose sleep, although he has lost friends. “I’ve got a good marriage,” he said. “I’m really close with my kids. I work hard and I sleep eight hours a night so I can be functional, but my social life is completely gone.”
Duplass’ films also utilize improvisation. “I was doing a lot of that before I was on the show, but the type of improvisation that I employ in my movies is very different from what we do on the show. The League is like joke-hunting. It’s trying to as quickly as possible get to a joke where the scenes in my movies are like slower five-six minutes scenes,” he said, explaining that he’s often trying to avoid jokes.
“That being said, I’ve learned a a lot from Jeff just about efficiency and watching what he does,” he continued. “The pace in The League is just so frenetic; it’s crazy. I’ve learned a lot about when and how to pace things.”
When asked who he thinks is the improv king on set, Duplass didn’t hesitate. “Paul Scheer, in my opinion, has the most limitless and most endless possibilities of where he goes,” he said. “He’s so fucking dialed into his character and how to do it. The key is when people are throwing verbal assaults at him, he not only takes them but knows how to juggle them around and throw them back up so it invites more. It’s a very particular skill set and he is incredible at it.”
Stephen Rannazzisi aslo praised Scheer, but made the point that everyone is a very different actor and has a different approach. “Everyone has specific ways that they improvise and they tailor characters around that,” he explained. “Nick is very quick with the insults. Paul is a genius – I mean a genius – at taking loads on his face, verbal loads on his face, and then turning it into something positive and giving it back to you. You never throw something at him and let it go by the wayside.”
“Jason [Mantzoukas], when you have a character like he has, when you can literally say and do whatever he wants, there are ways to make that go wrong but he is perfect and so quick and smart about the choices he makes,” he continued. “Katie and Mark and Jon are all good, but everyone has a niche that they are very, very good at.”
Rannazzisi is also one of the cast members who had been into fantasy football long before the show started, and while the cast has a league, he hesitated when asked if there’s a rivalry.
“It depends on who you ask,” he said. “If you ask me, it is. I feel like besides Jeff Schaffer, I have the most knowledge and most experience going into this thing and I just can’t fucking put it together. There’s no way I should not have won this league at least once. It’s really embarrassing.”
That helps him easily find his character Kevin’s frustration, but Rannazzisi admitted that beyond that, the actors’ personalities have made it into their characters.
“I think as the years have gone on, you see we take traits of ourselves and amplify them a little bit,” he said. “The way our show is run, your voice is heard. The way you want the character portrayed can really be brought forward because it’s not something someone is telling you to say; you’re in the moment in the character’s voice and saying freely what you think. I think people really like that.”
When Mantzoukas sat down, the first question he was asked was whether is Rafi dead. Although he didn’t answer directly, he said, “I’m certain there will be more.”
The show is highly structured, but when it comes to improvising, the actors don’t censor themselves. “We do a lot of takes so you’re going to do some things that are way over the line and crazy because they’re heightened and we get a kick out of them,” Mantzoukas said. “A lot of the times some of the initial takes are more tame because we’re still trying to figure out how it’s going to work, so over the course of however many takes we do, you’re going to get a bunch of different levels. It’s up to the producers in the editing process to use what narratively works and what comedically works. There’s no censoring on our part. We’re just doing what we do.”
That lack of censorship was how he worked from the beginning, as he was given very little guidance about the character in the beginning. “They didn’t have any idea how crazy I was going to be — at all,” Mantzoukas said. “What they approached me with was the set-up, the set-up being I’m the brother in law of Ruxin’s character. He gets me into the league to kind of curry favor with his wife but then gets shafted because it’s doing a terrible thing for the league. They were like, that’s the set-up, so you just have to be terrible somehow. I said, I want to be this version of terrible and they were like, sounds great, let’s do it.”
When asked if people approach him on the street and make him say his lines, he had a different experience than some actors do. “They want to buy me shots or punch their friends. They don’t want me to say stuff, they want to shout my lines at me. That’s the difference,” Mantzoukas said. “People want to scream my lines in my face, which I do not care for.
“Some guy passed me a note in a coffee shop one day and I opened it up – it just said: ‘scrot squad.’”
He admitted the recent episode that featured him and Seth Rogen was a polarizing one. “I would rather have people love it or hate it rather than have people go, ‘Oh, it was fine,” he said. “I was glad people were either like, ‘I fucking hated that,’ or ‘That was the best.’”
“I’m so thrilled and excited they let us do it. For us it was like, we love doing these characters and we would love to do some crazy episode and the Schaffers were like, go for it.”
When asked whether Rafi represents an aspect of his personality, he hesitated before replying, “Not really. I don’t do any of that stuff. I’m a very normal person. I’m not a psychopath. But yeah, there must be something about it that resonates with who I really am.”
Like Mantzoukas, Lajoie has had some odd experiences with fans. “It’s just weird when fans like now walk up to me and go, ‘Let’s get high, Taco.’ I’m like, ‘You are a creepy stranger asking me to get high with you.’”
He laughed because he admitted he shares some similarities with his character. “I know nothing about football, I know nothing about sports. I do watch and play hockey, because I’m Canadian,” he said. “I guess one of the main differences is that Taco knows nothing about fantasy football and yet he loses, I don’t know anything about fantasy football and yet I win.”
Lajoie laughed when told about Rannazzisi’s annoyance about this. “I don’t know if he told you this story, but we got to work on a Monday morning and he was like, ‘I can’t believe you beat me’ and this and that. I’m like, ‘I was moving this weekend, I was playing,’ you?”
“I’m a little bit in my own head, I’m a little aloof and in my own bubble so people will say things to me,” LaJoie said. “That look Kevin always gives me of, I can’t believe you are related to me–a lot of the time I get it from the other cast members, going, I can’t believe you are an actor on this show. We were shooting and now I know this but Terry Bradshaw is this bald quarterback guy. I was talking about him and they were like, you mean Terry Bradshaw? I’m like, I don’t know who that is. I’m talking about that bald guy on TV.”
Lajoie collaborates with the Schaffers on the songs his character makes on the show. “The only song that I wrote on my own was the birthday song in the first episode, which was amazing that Jeff and Jackie were open to having that as a part of the show,” he said. “They were talking about how it would be a children’s party and I was like, I just wrote this song that I think would be pretty awkward for my character to play.
“After that it’s been a collaboration where they come up with an idea like ‘vaginal hubris’ or ‘fear boners’ or ‘vinegar strokes’ and we go back and forth with lyrical ideas or what the tone of the song should be,” he said. “I wrote ‘vinegar strokes’ and it was this intense, electro thing and they were like, it would be funnier if it were this ‘60s light-sounding song. I went back and I recorded something at home and sent it to them and I do feel like it was way funnier as a really poppy ‘60s song.”
Scheer, who when he’s not appearing on The League is working on Adult Swim’s NTSF:SD:SUV and producing podcasts, managed to live up to his reputation as an improviser when he went on an extended riff about Arizona Iced Tea, Arnold Palmer and the end of the world before talking about Human Giant and complaining about Lake Havasu as one of the worst places he’s ever been.
He also described the scene in a recent episode where birds kept crapping on him as one of the worst experiences of his life. “First of all, it was vanilla pudding, so it was a delicious experience,” Scheer said. “I have to talk to Jeff about that because he made me shoot that twice and there was no reason for it. I need him to explain himself. It was disgusting. Because also the outfit that I’m wearing has layers and a majority of it was vanilla pudding, which is delicious, but the other part was yogurt and some yogurt got in my mouth and warm yogurt is the most disgusting thing.”
When asked if his Human Giant collaborator Aziz Ansari will make an appearance on The League, Scheer said “Maybe. Read that as you will. If I could say no, I would say no.”
Scheer said that FX and Adult Swim are very similar places to work. “They both give you very little money and say make what you want to make, and we will stay the fuck out of it,” he said. “And if it succeeds then it’s like we’re geniuses for letting you do what you do, and if it fails we’re like, they did it and we have no control over it.”
“There’s a lot of times where I think the funny choice is to make Steve and I really go at each other but Steve and I try so hard to keep the love in there,” Aselton said. “If you start thinking that Kevin and Jenny don’t love each other then you’re just going to kill yourself because there is no love left. They’re the heart, I think. I love them as a couple. We fight really hard to keep it real, keep it grounded, keep the love in the relationship as crazy as their arguments can get.”
After all, she said, if it weren’t for her, the show would be “just really depressing dudes. I’ve got to class it up just a little.”
One way that life imitates art, though, is that she beats Rannazzisi is the cast’s fantasy football league. “Did he not mention that?” she asked, laughing. “He’s not a good fantasy football player. I try to help him, but he doesn’t want my help.”
Just before making The League, Aselton wrote, directed and starred in a movie, The Freebie. “I had just had my first child. I was jonesing to work. I had been a stay at home mom for six months and I was like, I’m going to lose my mind. I’m not a stay at home mom. I never realized how much I loved working until I couldn’t work. I was just frustrated that I wasn’t getting the opportunities I wanted and being married to Mark you can’t say no, I’m going to wait for the phone to ring. He said, go make something. So I did. That was a super quick shoot. It was like twelve days. A few weeks after that I met with Jackie and Jeff.”
When asked whether she and Duplass are competitive about creative work, she said no, but it is difficult. “Mark works overtime and he’s on such a tear right now,” she said. “He’s super-talented, and his brain works like a machine. He has ideas that come to him all the time. I will sit for hours and be like, I got nothing original. I envy that. I want that depth and wealth of ideas.”
The League airs Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. ET/PT on FXX.