The first season of The League debuted quietly last fall in the midst of football season—a six-episode basic-cable blip on the crowded TV radar. But home network FX knows how those blips can grow—see It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia—so it renewed the ensemble comedy about friends in a fantasy-football league for an expanded second season. The decision has paid off with The League hitting its stride, thanks in part to comedy heavy-hitters like Nick Kroll and Paul Scheer, and a boost from the It’s Always Sunny lead-in. Surprisingly, the show’s focus has shifted slightly from the titular league to the antics of its characters—old friends who care deeply about one another, yet take every opportunity to make each other’s lives miserable. To write the show, creators and real-life married couple Jeff Schaffer and Jackie Marcus Schaffer draw from their own fantasy-league experiences as well as an impressive comedy pedigree—Jeff wrote for Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. The pair recently talked to The A.V. Club about The League’s loosely scripted nature, how the show has enveloped their marriage, and the real-life experience that inspired the whole series.
The A.V. Club: Now that you work on a show together, do you have any time to be husband and wife?
Jackie Marcus Schaffer: That’s what we do at nights and then on the weekends.
Jeff Schaffer: Yeah nights and weekends when we’re not editing, but we have time to be a husband and wife who do a show together. I mean, the show is just us. It’s a real mom-and-pop sort of organization, except instead of making organic cranberry butter, we’re making a basic-cable TV show.
AVC: How often does the work come home with you?
JMS: Every single day, but that’s great. Jeff and I took a vacation for a really quick weekend right before we started shooting to go to a friend’s birthday out of the country. And I thought, “We’re insane. We’re in pre-production, and we’re literally going to fly somewhere for 48 hours.” But we came up with a great idea for the show based on something that happened while we were there. Not only was it great to see our friend, but this hilarious idea never would have happened if we didn’t go.
AVC: What was the hilarious idea?
JS: You’ll see it. But that’s the great thing. When you write with your wife, the writers’ room travels with you. I’ll take her out to dinner on Saturday night, but because she also runs the show with me, she’s bringing scripts and notes and we’re getting stuff done.
AVC: You could also write it off.
JMS: I hadn’t thought about that, but it is the only writers’ room I know of that you can drink in, which works for us.
JS: And for this show, its not like we’re going to work and turn a crank for 17 hours. It’s really fun. We’re wearing what people would wear to wash their cars in, and we’re with these amazingly talented actors saying the most inappropriate things, and being rewarded for it. So it’s a good life.
AVC: A lot of the show’s press when it debuted focused on the raunchy language and subject matter. What do you make of the fixation?
JMS: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because people have been asking me about it. The thing is, on basic cable, when you’re not allowed to say the swear words that people abuse most frequently, you have to be a little more creative. The reason language has been getting so much attention is that we’ve had to generate a lot of new language to get the point across that we want to be profane or insulting, let our characters slam one another. I’ll never forget the first week of the show. Nick Kroll’s very first day of shooting, very first scene, he was talking to his baby about his fantasy draft, and in the script, we had a few “fucks” in there. We just knew we’d get to the set and on the day, we’ll replace the fucks with other language. And shooting that scene, everyone was thinking it was so great that he was going to say, “Daddy’s gonna fuck his friends.” We talked about what he could say to get the point across that this guy just wants to fucking pummel his friends, and I remember leaning over to Jeff and saying, “What if we said ‘balls-deep’: Daddy’s gonna go balls-deep in his friends.” I whispered it, and Jeff said, “Just fuckin’ say it out loud!” It’s funny thinking back on that, because now having shot 19 episodes after that day, I don’t shy away from saying something like “balls-deep.” That’s why we get killed for the raunch, is for that turn of the phrase, if you will.
JS: We like to say we like our comedy like we like our oil: smart crude. The Eskimos have 17 words for snow, and old friends have 17 ways or more of saying “Hey, you suck.” We’re not trying to be raunchy as much as we’re trying to be real. You’ve got these amazingly, wickedly funny actors saying the most inappropriate things—and we’re encouraging it. We’re doing it too. It’s not that we’re sitting there going “What’s the foulest thing we can get on the air?” It’s “All right, what will he actually say to his friend that he wants to destroy?” I think that’s what people like about the show: It sounds like friends really sound when they’re giving each other shit.
AVC: What was the model for the depiction of friendship on the show?
JMS: The model for all the relationships are either things we’ve seen or things we’ve experienced. Jeff is in a fantasy-football league with guys he went to boarding school with. There’s some of Jeff and I in Kevin and Jenny.
JS: We’ve both been in lots of fantasy-football leagues, and for us, the show wasn’t about what relationships are like in fantasy-football leagues, but what relationships are like between people who have known each other for 15 years. What we love is the idea that, like, you made a mistake when you were 15. Junior year, you were convinced by your friends that your girlfriend didn’t have a vagina, that she was a smooth saddle. And you thought that for a while, you even went down there and told your friends, “Oh my God, I think you’re right! She’s one of the 5 percent of women who don’t have anything down there, and are smooth like a Ken doll!” And they’ll never let you forget it. Now that you’re successful—a doctor or whatever—they are still going to remind you that you thought your girlfriend junior year was a smooth saddle.
AVC: That’s a real story, right?
JS: It didn’t happen to me, but in high school, we definitely convinced a guy that his girlfriend was a smooth saddle. This went on for months. Then he finally got in her pants and came back saying, “You know, I think she is a smooth saddle.” And we were like, “Uh huh! We told you!” Then it was, like, another few weeks when he was talking to a teacher about it, and they were like, “What are you talking about?!” It was one of the greatest moments of my life.
AVC: What sorts of elements from Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld did you bring to the show, particularly with the way it depicts friendship?
JS: Jackie and I were both very interested in making a show that was built like Curb, meaning we had outlines and talented improvisers to go through the outlines. Seinfeld and Curb were actually written the exact same way—it’s all about the structure. We literally wrote Seinfeld by making an outline on a dry-erase board. Then once you figure out the outline, you write the script in a day or two. Same thing with Curb, except we don’t write the script. That’s what we’ve learned, and that’s the same thing we do here: The story has to be funny, and once you know what’s funny about every scene, you get these great comedic performers and talk them through. The maze itself is really satisfying.
JMS: The specifics of the scene are less daunting than the idea.
JS: They’re talking like real people. They’re not saying lines. The camera’s finding lines; the actors are finding lines. It makes it feel much more authentic, and these guys are so funny that they take what we think is a funny scene and bring it to new places. Then we write on top of that. It’s this crazy, collaborative circuit, and you get magical digressions you never thought you’d get.
AVC: What role did fantasy football play in the original show pitch? Was it always the framework through which to tell the story?
JS: Well, no one bought our fantasy-volleyball idea, so we regrouped. No, it was Jackie’s idea.
JMS: It was a while ago. I just thought it was an amazing prism through which to do an ensemble comedy. Fantasy sports had become the way people get together and give each other shit. The message boards had become this amazing form of communication. What we’re doing on our show has finally met with reality. If you look on ESPN.com, they’re starting to go from text-based posts to having people talk into their laptop cameras and post it on your league message board. Jeff and I realized it hadn’t been done because everyone was afraid of it, and we didn’t quite understand why. But it’s gotten to a point where fantasy sports have gotten so popular. It’s become something to embrace—this is the way people communicate. And Jeff and I really wanted to do a show together.
JS: One of the inspirations was from our own lives. We were on this vacation in the Alps having Christmas dinner in this amazingly romantic restaurant. But Sunday dinner in France was game time back in the States, and I was in the Super Bowl in two of my leagues. I keep pretending the food is making me sick and I have to run to the bathroom, and I was running outside to call back to the States to see how I was doing. This was pre-Skype. She knows something’s up; she catches me standing shivering in the snow calling just to see what was going on, and she just starts laughing at me.
JMS: He’s standing there with no coat on, in the snow, stomping his feet going “No, no, no!” It was the most hilarious, pathetic—it was a show.
AVC: If this was a typical TV show, you would have stormed off and it would spark a big fight.
JS: Right, and this was a win-win. She has this idea, and I did win both those leagues. So it had a happy ending all around.