“The League” is every comedy snob’s dream come true

FX is the new destination for badass shows. Shows that are edgy and willing to take chances, and, most importantly, free of the PG handcuffs that tie up broadcast series. Sons of Anarchy, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia… This is the network that thought a pot-smoking dude in a dog costume sounded just right.

So, it makes total sense that FX’s wickedly crass comedy about fantasy football, The League (Thursdays at 10:30p), has found its feet – and a hugely devoted fanbase of hardcore comedy-philes. The series, which began its third season on Oct. 6, is enjoying its highest ratings ever.

Don’t be fooled by the premise. The fantasy league is simply the backdrop for a what is an incredible comedy series. It’s Seinfeld‘s diner or the Friends‘ apartment. It’s the excuse. You don’t have to care about how many touchdown passes Aaron Rodgers can throw in Week 7 to have a blast. That is thanks to Jeff Schaffer and Jackie Marcus Schaffer, the co-creators, the executive producers, writers, directors — The League extraordinaires.

The husband-and-wife team recognized the importance of casting – bringing in comedians Nick Kroll, Paul Scheer, Stephen Rannazzisi and Jonathan Lajoie – and then giving their talented actors some breathing room. By establishing the semi-scripted hybrid of story outline and improv, they’ve allowed funny people do what they do best: be funny. And the rest of Hollywood has taken notice. An ever-growing lineup of guest stars includes Seth Rogan, Will Forte, Sarah Silverman, Ray Liotta and Jeff Goldblum.

In a recent conference call, Jackie and Jeff, who previously worked with Larry David on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, offered some behind-the-scenes insights.

On the set

Jeff: “We don’t really rehearse. We basically, we sort of have the little outline, we talk to the actors for a second about logistically where people are going to be and ins and outs, and then we shoot. I mean, we shoot the show very quickly. We shoot three and a half days per episode, and we’re on location. So we’ve got three cameras going, and we’ve got improv and lines from this, and we’re shouting things out.”

“It looks like insane people are making a show, but that’s how you get the best comedy. Everyone’s throwing jokes out there. And we do a few takes, and we’re changing the coverage, and often in the scene we’ll be yelling jokes out, telling the camera guys to switch over to get from a single to a two-shot or go wider here, and it’s just all happening at the same time because there’s no one else behind the monitor.”

“The people that make the show, there’s our six amazing cast members in front of the camera, and there’s Jackie and I behind the camera, and that’s it. So that’s the show. And so every day it’s this crazy, frantically paced race that somehow makes this really, really, really funny product at the end of the day.”

On The League’s appeal to fans

Jackie: “The fan base that grew between Seasons 2 and 3 watching the show online, finding it on Hulu, finding the DVD, started to understand that this wasn’t a show that was primarily about sports. And we think that the idea is that this is first and foremost a comedy.”

Jeff: “The show is a comedy about guys who play fantasy football. It’s not a comedy about fantasy football, if you know what I mean.”

Jackie: “It’s one of those things where we don’t want to sound like the people who are apologizing for the fact that our show is based around sports. I’m sure people who did Coach and Arli$$ and all those things go up against the same things, but it’s interesting that people say—”

Jeff: “By the way, the people who did Coach have other things to apologize for.”

Jackie: “I wasn’t going to say that.  You were so cruel during the Hulu panel to certain other people; I thought we should be nice this morning. But the idea that the woman from the Midwest who says, “I hate fantasy football; I hate sports; but I love the show,” that’s been a big surprise. That’s really from the fans and sort of educating us as to how they found the show in the word of mouth.”

Jeff: “Our hardcore comedy audience has really grown because people, I think, love the comedy of the actors on our show and of the show itself. And we’re also getting a lot of really great guest cast from the comedy world who want to come and play with our amazing guys.”

On Season 3 guest stars

Jackie: “We have amazing guests cast this year. And it just happens so organically. I mean for example, we knew we wanted to do Ruxin’s boss, who’s a big corporate lawyer, concierge to evil. ‘What can I get you; what can I do for you?’ And, we start looking at our list of people we know we want to cast and people who are around, and you think, ‘Oh my gosh, let’s go get Ray Liotta!’

“It’s like going down the rabbit hole, every time, whether it’s Ray Liotta as Ruxin’s boss, or Eliza Dushku as the hot instructor that steps over the line with Kevin, or Sarah Silverman as Andre’s sister, or Jeff Goldblum as Ruxin’s dad. It literally is going down the rabbit hole. We can’t stop thinking about things that we want to have them do and say, and situations we want to stick them into. It’s the best”

Jeff:“We get to meet Rupert Ruxin, the father of Rodney Ruxin, played by Jeff Goldblum. And we get to see sort of how exactly Ruxin was formed. We get to see the spite volcano that shot the little piece of lava out known as Ruxin. So that stuff is all really fun.”

“We’re also going to see another — one of the members of the league that we don’t usually get to see — one of the out of town idiots. We get to see Chuck, who’s a guy that is in the league with them but lives out of town, who’s played by Will Forte, who comes back to visit and is not the way they remember him. So that was also really fun. And the one other special, special guest appearance that is going to be coming down the pipe is Mr. McGibblets will be back in full force.”

Jackie: “Oh, that’s a big announcement, Jeff.”

Jeff: “Yeah, Mr. McGibblets will return to delight and offend.”

On the NFL lockout

 Jackie: “FX is great and allowed us to push a few weeks to sort of play chicken with Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith to see how far this was going to go. And we started shooting the Monday morning after the news was out that the lockout would be lifted and that the players and owners had really come to an agreement.”

Jeff: “But a lot of the players didn’t know, so they’re training in one place; they don’t know if they have to go back to their camp; they don’t know when they’re going to have to report to camp. So it was sort of a crazy time for everybody. No one knew where they were supposed to be when.”

Jackie: “And also the trading. What was really interesting is it held up a lot of the trading because a lot of players weren’t sure that [they’d be] staying on one team; a lot of owners who wanted to trade weren’t allowed to do so until that window opened as well. Players who knew that they probably weren’t staying in the team that they were on didn’t know where they were going until right up to the very end. So for example Sidney Rice, we shot the Shiva Bowl Shuffle with him, and less than 24 hours later — he was a Viking when we shot it with him, and he was a Seahawk less than 24 hours later because we were shooting it right in that window.”

On whether the guys would’ve really joined a Fantasy Curling league if the NFL lockout continued

Jeff: “Fantasy curling league was definitely a joke! One of the things we definitely did talk about, though, we did talk about Andre would’ve joined a fantasy NBA league only find out they too were locked out. So it would’ve been very disappointing for him.”

Jackie: “What could be funnier than watching something very precious taken away from our favorite frustrated characters. So that would’ve been, we think, the first place we would’ve started…watching them suffer.”

Jeff: “We definitely would have explored the relationships between the guys. ‘Hey, if there’s no league, are we really going to hang out together?’ So that’s the big avenue we would’ve explored. And we actually—”

Jackie: “And when Jeff says that, he means are they really going to hang out with Andre.”

On the semi-scripted format and improvisation

Jeff:The League is built basically the same way Curb Your Enthusiasm is built, which is it’s based on stories. So the writing itself—it’s all about taking the story and sort of weaving it into other stories we have. The most important thing is the nugget of what’s that story. And that story may only give you a scene, and then it’s our job as show runners to turn that scene into a show by interconnecting it with other little nuggets of story.”

Jackie: “There’s definitely a script. It’s not a script in the same format of final draft that you see on other half-hour comedies. It’s a more unique format that has been developed by Jeff and his partners on Curb Your Enthusiasm where it’s more of like a single-spaced outline-type format. But you know, these are 14-page, single-spaced documents. They have a lot of dialog in them.”

“But here’s what we think is great about the way we make the show is our cast is so amazing that they can take our dialog and make it sound ten times better than we ever would’ve imagined it would’ve when we wrote it. Or they could take the dialog in the script and say, ‘You know what, I got a joke that’s going to top that,’ and do their own thing. And that’s the way that we shoot the show is either of those are okay.”

“We’ve got the safety net of a story, like Jeff said, that’s funny. So if the scene is funny, for example—‘Taco puts on the Mr. McGibblets costume, walks up to the window while Kevin’s tinkering with his lineup, raises a cleaver, Kevin’s scared.’ That’s funny. And whatever they say while they’re doing it, it’s going to be even better with that addition.”

Jeff: “We think we sort of have the best of both worlds, which is we work really hard on the structure of the show, so the stories are all funny, and the scenes are funny. And then we have amazingly, ridiculously talented cast, and they … stuff from the script, we write new stuff — we’re writing stuff on the day all the time, the cast and us. Jokes are flying, and we get the benefit of having a solid structure and also having the freedom to explore new things.”

“When Paul Scheer pulls out his phone and says, ‘Oh, I’ve got a slam list on my phone,’ and they go, ‘What’s on there?’ Okay, we’re going to hunker down, and the scene may be about that now. So we have a script, but we’re also super, super flexible to let the wanderings of the cast go where they need to go to get some amazing digressions.”

On The League Live Tour

Jackie: “It’s something that, actually, I started. The guys on the show, Steve Rannazzisi, Jon Lajoie, Nick Kroll, and Paul Scheer are all terrific stand-ups, all four of them. And when you’re in your show early on, and you’re trying to sort of get a fan base and educate people — especially the way we shot the first season, which is, we came on the air within six weeks of shooting the pilot. So we really came on the scene without any time to be able to be in those falls or preview magazines or anything.”

“No one really knew what we were and what we were doing.  And we were picked up for the second season during the first season after the fifth episode aired. So we had basically from episode 5 all the way to Season 2 to try to say ‘Hey, we’re out here, and we want to let you know what the show’s going to be about.’ And so we went on the road, and the guys performed.”

“What’s really amazing is how the show has evolved. Because the first season when they performed, Jon Lajoie would get up, for example, and perform ‘The Birthday Song’ from the pilot episode. And now, not only does he do that, he does ‘Vaginal Hubris,’ and he does ‘Pete’s Little Tiny Erect Dick,’ and ‘Fear Boner.’ And the guys do a bunch of bits. We do stuff with Mr. McGibblets.”

“So in the same way that the world of the show has grown, the world of the live tour has grown where the audience has such familiarity with the stories and the characters and the guys that now we do a big Q&A part at the end that’s like a comedy Q&A and it’s great. The guys really enjoy it; Jeff and I really love doing it; and it’s been, we think, a really unique way to promote the show.”

On using social media to interact with fans

Jackie: “Jeff and I are basically The League Twitter account and The League Facebook account—I don’t think people realize that it’s really the creators of the show who are running those two things. It’s great for us because it is like that old school sort of testing dial, where when you test a pilot, and you go behind that glass, and you see them turn the knob.”

“Then we have a tradition — which actually I’m doing right now on my laptop as I’m talking to you guys — which is when people get excited about something in an episode, we turn it into a ringtone. And the @Tacotones Twitter account releases it as a ringtone for people. So we basically wait to see what the fans latch onto via Twitter and Facebook during an episode, and then we pull a couple of those audio files, turn them into ringtones, and let ‘Taco’ put them out there from ‘Taco’ Corp.”

“It’s like that every week with watching the show. So the immediate real-time reaction of people and what they think of the show is — the fans — is fantastic, and we love watching that and learning about the show from that. But what we’ve learned is that we have some really obsessive, funny, and probably disturbed fans.”