Paul Scheer always surrounds himself with a diverse lineup of projects. Starting as a regular performer at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York, Scheer appeared in UCB’s self-titled Comedy Central sketch show before becoming a regular panelist on the formerly ubiquitous Best Week Ever on VH1. Human Giant, his sketch project with Aziz Ansari and Rob Huebel, gave Scheer some prominence, as did his roles in all-star comedy projects like Party Down, Parks & Recreation, Reno 911!, and The Sarah Silverman Program. Now he’s working to create a new comedy institution with FX’s The League, a fantasy football-tinged ensemble comedy from Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld alumni whose final second-season episodes aired last night. He’s still taking the occasional odd job—like his role in the stupidly fun Piranha 3D—but The League is a natural fit for Scheer’s playful wit. The A.V. Club sat down with Scheer to talk about The League’s slow build, ridiculous Ving Rhames stories, and the Eddie Murphy movie that changed his outlook on comedy.
The A.V. Club: How has this season of The League been treating you?
Paul Scheer: FX does a great thing with its comedies where they give them a slow push out there. Those first six episodes we were able to do [season one] are good, but you find your rhythm. Episodes four, five, and six are definitely my favorite from last year, then this year we could come in knowing everyone’s voices a little bit better. And we’re more comfortable with each other, too.
AVC: Most shows don’t even get that much time to find their voice. Running Wilde, for example, is being looked at after every single episode.
PS: The problem is, you can’t do expensive comedy. Our show is relatively cheap. The budget is similar to Human Giant. We scrape for every dollar we get. But when you do a show that cheaply, you don’t have to worry about it being a four-quadrant hit. I think Parks & Rec was able to fly under the radar, too. I might be totally talking out of turn about that. Running Wilde, unfairly, was judged on the first couple episodes. It’s like, the pilot is separate from the series—the only two good pilots I’ve ever seen were Taxi and Arrested Development, as far as comedy. They were like, “Here it is, and we’re going.” If you look at The Office, even 30 Rock, comedy ultimately builds as the writers see what the cast can do well.
AVC: Is FX more willing to give The League time because it’s improvised?
PS: Nick [Kroll] and I wrote two episodes this year. We give them a 12-page outline, and it’s dense. Reading a 12-page improvised show is almost harder than reading a script. You have to encompass so much information, some lines are in there, most are description—it’s a beast. FX in general isn’t shooting for everyone loving this show, they’re shooting for, “We know there are people out there who will love this show; that’s our first goal, then expand from there, then expand from there.” It’s not like we need to get everybody on board. It was helpful. In the first season, we got a lot of fantasy football guys. Then they told their friends, then their wives and girlfriends started watching. It’s the only show I’ve ever done where once it was on Hulu, it really started to pick up. People were talking to me about it last January and February.
Television now is so weird. You look at The Cosby Show, getting like, 40 million viewers a week—some ridiculous number. Forty million, not four. Back then, everyone was watching the best shows. Now, $h*! My Dad Says, Big Bang Theory, Two And A Half Men—those are the shows that get the highest ratings, but they’re only 10 million, if that. Everything else is on a much smaller scale. But when you factor in that our show airs five times in a week, you can buy it on iTunes, you can get it on DVR—there’s yet to be a system that can encapsulate all viewers.
AVC: When did you decide you wanted to be more involved with the show and write an episode?
PS: I love being involved from a first step. On Human Giant, we wrote it and got to see it to its conclusion. I’m doing this show for Adult Swim called NTSF:SD:SUV—
AVC: So that’s a real show, and it wasn’t just a trailer?
PS: Yes, it’s going to be a real show. What happened was, I had written an episode of Childrens Hospital this year, and one of the guys at Adult Swim was like, “Remember that pitch you gave me a long time ago? Can you show that to me again?” So I did, and he was like, “Let’s do this!” I was in the middle of locking down a pilot deal, and the head of Adult Swim asked if I wanted to make a trailer instead of a pilot. I wrote the trailer first, they liked it, then I wrote the pilot, they liked it, and now I think they’re going to give me a series. Fingers crossed. It’ll be on hopefully with Childrens Hospital next season.
AVC: When the trailer came out, there was some speculation about whether it was going to become more than that.
PS: We didn’t really want to answer too much, in case they didn’t like it. It was a great way to test out a concept, too.But yeah, I like being involved. My background is in improv and writing. Nick and I had an idea, we pitched it to Jeff and Jackie [Schaffer, The League’s creators], and they were very gracious and kind. Their combined background is insane. Jeff has been in Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm [writers’] rooms, and Jackie worked on Brüno and Borat. One of the reasons I really like Curb is that those are not improvisers on the show. Yet they do improvisation. It’s interesting to see how they approach writing for improv. It’s very story-based and smart, and challenging.
AVC: What is the perception of improvisers in the industry?
PS: In a way, it’s much ado about nothing. It’s like, “Wow Steve Carell improvises! Oh my goodness! Will Ferrell improvises!” But it’s like, people have before those guys have done it, and will continue to do it. They’re both hilarious; I’m sure Robin Williams and Billy Crystal at their height were improvising, too. It’s been a talking point in articles, though. The difference now is that the people experiencing success used to be mostly stand-ups. Now it’s a lot of people coming out of an improv background. So we do have a chance to flex those muscles. People are willing to trust us with money to do so. It’s what we were doing when we booked commercials. We all got them because we were improvising. Rob Huebel will tell you most of his commercials are him improvising on set.
AVC: In the show 10 Items Or Less, which you were also in briefly, it felt like they were letting the actors improvise, but cutting only to the funny parts, which didn’t work without any set-up. The League feels much more natural with how it’s edited; they keep the lead-ins to the jokes, not just the pay-offs.
PS: I feel like that’s the difference. Certain shows feel really improvised. Those are not my favorite. Then there are shows that feel much more tightly scripted. Matt Walsh did this show called Players. It was improvised, but it was cut together nice and tight. If you’re going to improvise, you don’t want to show the strings. That’s why people are impressed. They see Steve Carell and go, “That was improvised?” Not only is he improvising hilarious stuff, but he’s also well-supported. It’s great that people think The League is scripted. It means we’ve done our job. But when it looks like we’re just riffing—I love doing it onstage, but when you’re doing it in TV and movies, you need to keep it tight. These 21-minute shows are rushing. There’s a scene that’s really funny that plays in five minutes, but you don’t have the time to build it. Jeff and Jackie direct all the episodes, and they’re very conscious of that. It’s a constant compacting. I did a movie called Blackballed, and we would do hour-long takes. The movie had 90 hours of footage. It was cut down to an 88-minute movie. God bless that editor. You do yourself a disservice just turning on the camera and saying, “Just go.” You have to know how to use that effectively.
AVC: How does working with close friends influence the end result?
PS: If you’re a good comedian, you want to let everyone get their stuff out and not step on people’s lines. When you work with people you don’t know, there’s an ability you need to feel everyone out. That ensemble is built over a little bit of time. With The League, everyone jumped in, but as we’ve gone on, we’ve learned each other’s grooves. That’s what’s fun. Rob Huebel and I do a show every Monday in L.A. we’ll go out there with the smallest of ideas, and we know each other’s rhythms and paces, where we can take a bit that’s underwritten and make it a lot better than it probably would have been.
AVC: You were in the original Upright Citizens Brigade TV show, then later performed on Players and with Amy Poehler on Parks & Recreation. What is the experience of reuniting with people you performed with so long ago?
PS: I came to New York and took classes from Amy Poehler when she was just out of Chicago. It was just the four UCB people there. I remember they took us all on the roof above the hardware store in this un-air-conditioned, rickety-stepped place for classes. Now getting a chance to work with Amy is awesome. It’s a family in a sense. You may not see each other all the time, but we were all in the trenches. We all painted the UCB. And even though they were my teachers, now they’re kind of my peers. The cool thing about us is that we’re finally becoming what Second City was—are. I like that we can be a part of this larger community.
AVC: In Chicago, UCB would do these ridiculous promotional stunts, like one time when they threw a dummy off the roof of a building to fake a suicide. Were you ever involved with anything similar with UCB in New York?
PS: Yeah, oh man. UCB prepared me for the entertainment industry more than anything else. We were writing our own shows, acting in our own shows, producing our own shows, and advertising our own shows. To advertise our Saturday night show, we would dress one of our guys up like Santa Claus, and you could hit Santa with a wrapping paper tube. People would come over and do it, and we’d give them a flyer. We’d stage protests in Union Square. We’d create scenes wherever we were. That was every Saturday for years, in freezing cold, in pouring rain, in hot summer. There was a time where UCB wouldn’t sell out automatically every Saturday night. Now any night of the week, 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. shows are sold out. Back in the day it was like, “We got 25 people! Awesome!” Matt Besser really instilled that in us. He’d say, “Give your shows funny names that people would respond to. Get them in any way you can.”
AVC: Do you feel that hustle still with stuff you’re working on now?
PS: If you’re proud of your stuff, you always want to get the word out. You’re only as good as your body of work. Internet campaigns aren’t going to help anything, you have to make funny videos to get out there—do something. I feel that a lot. Even doing this show for Adult Swim, getting into something full-on, I feel like I have to hit the ground running.
AVC: You were pushing Piranha 3D really hard, to the point where I assumed you were a producer.
PS: I pushed it the same way I’d push Crank two : I think this movie is ridiculous and awesome. I want people to see it. I’m a big fan of those movies—dumb-but-fun kind of movies. I get nothing out of it monetarily. Even with Human Giant, we could sell one DVD or 10,000 DVDs, it would not make a difference financially. People approach me with things like, “You’ll send three tweets, and you’ll come to this event, you’ll make one video…” It’s very transparent.
AVC: How did you get involved with that film? Because the cast is ridiculous.
PS: The cast is nuts. They asked me to audition, and I was immediately like, “No thank you. Pass.” I didn’t even read it. I heard the title and said no. Then Elisabeth Shue and Christopher Lloyd were in it, and I thought, “That’s kinda cool.” So I went in for it; I auditioned on Thursday, and I was shooting it on Friday. That’s how quick the movie moved. I wasn’t replacing anybody, it’s just that they wanted to go quick. I read the script: A guy’s getting his dick ripped off, it’s in 3D, and I was like, “Yes, yes, yes, 100 percent yes.” I think Adam Scott had the same point of view, that it’s kind of cool to be in a B-movie that’s actually fun to watch.
AVC: Any Ving Rhames stories that leap to mind?
PS: He’s an interesting guy. I only met him a few times, but there was, um…I’m trying to think what’s good on-the-record stories and off-the-record stories.
AVC: The fact that you even have to think about that says a lot.
PS: First of all, if you haven’t heard the Ving Rhames thing where he calls into the radio show, you have to see it. It’ll explain Ving Rhames better than anything.
He’d go around set picking out extras—guy extras, girl extras, 20-25 of them—then take them out to dinner, then not invite us. We’d be at a restaurant across town. He just liked to surround himself with these locals, have a big meal, and pay for it all. I remember one time he got really upset. His call time was 10:30 a.m., and they asked if he could come in at 10. I saw him say to this person, “Let me tell you something. My call time is 10:30. I come in at 10:30. Do not play this shit where you bring me in a half an hour early when my call time is 10:30. You have one chance to make a mistake, and you just made your mistake. Now you can never make another mistake like this again.” Meanwhile, we all lived in Havasu for three weeks; there was nothing to do there. There was a Chili’s, a gun range, and a supermarket. That was it. I just thought, “Wow, Ving Rhames brought down the law.”
AVC: You’ve been in a lot of online videos—your own with Human Giant, stuff for Funny Or Die and College Humor, etc. What has been your experience transitioning stuff made for the web onto TV?
PS: Everything is so segmented. I almost feel like if Chappelle’s Show was around when the Internet was getting hot, that show would have exploded on YouTube. There are people who come up to me and say, “I love your Funny Or Die stuff,” then list off five Human Giant sketches. People have no idea that Human Giant was a TV show. It’s a great place for things to live that doesn’t go away. Human Giant season one and Funny Or Die premièred around the same time, and we let them air one of our sketches as an exclusive. MTV wasn’t paying for billboards, ads, not even a publicist. So we used that to get eyes on the show.
The Internet is just a chance to do something. Nowhere else can you go, “I have an idea, I can write this idea, and I can execute this idea.” Rob Corddry had the funny idea for a series, and if he’d pitched Childrens Hospital to a TV network, it’d be two years, it’d be done, and he’d be bored with it. But instead he got a little bit of money to make his show and launch it online, where people could find it. We work in this business where it’s so difficult to get anything done. Movies are impossible. TV shows on the network are tough; TV shows on cable are easier but still hard. The Internet is a chance for people to be creative and have an immediacy to it.
AVC: When you were doing sketch and improv, what was the trajectory that people were shooting for, career-wise?
PS: If the Internet had been around, I probably would have made way more shitty videos. We were experimenting with video, though, shooting videos in our show and airing them in our show. I don’t know what the goal was, though. To me, SNL never felt attainable. It was something for people in The Groundlings and Second City. But then, Lorne Michaels came to a showcase, and I was the only one picked besides Amy Poehler, who was already going in [for a callback]. I was doing this thing called Chicago City Limits which was like Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and the goal for those people was getting a commercial agent.
Then at UCB, I was so blown away by how raw and cool and—for lack of a better term—punk rock, with quotes around it, everything was. We had the energy of not caring where we were, we didn’t need costumes or sets. I was excited to do that. I wanted to do that and do that well. The goal I guess was to audition and be in movies and stuff like that, but back then—I sound like an old man saying that—there was a purity to what we were doing. Now I feel like UCB, while it maybe hasn’t changed much, the people coming in have probably changed somewhat. It is so much of an institution.
AVC: It’s happened all over. When I worked at Second City in Chicago, a woman came into the training center during the break of her first Level A class and asked when she was going to get on Saturday Night Live.
PS: That was never there at UCB. You had to find the theater. It was not in accessible spots.
AVC: How did you first find it?
PS: I remember the day. I was in Central Park playing ultimate Frisbee—something I did once, and that was the day. Andrew Daly was there, and he said, “There’s this group downtown, we should check them out.” We went up to this fifth floor walk-up and I was blown away. There was an audience of, like, eight people that night. I was in way on the ground floor. Now commercial agents are like, “You need to go to UCB to learn how to improvise.” It seems like there are two kinds of people there, the ones who want to move on and do whatever, and those who just love comedy and find UCB engaging to them as a performer.
AVC: Once you move past that and get into TV and film, do you still see those two types of people?
PS: I feel like comedians are a cool little group. We all know each other and take care of each other. Everyone is rooting for you. I’d rather be doing The League for less money than some big network show for more money and more people watching. Nothing against that show, but this is fulfilling in every way. It’s about what you do that’s good, it’s the only thing you’re judged on. The only thing you have is what you’ve done before. I’m very conscious of who I choose to work with.
I made a decision a long time ago: I worked with this director on an Eddie Murphy movie, Meet Dave. We were doing the Human Giant 24-hour marathon, and we had 10 days to prepare for the whole marathon. Nothing. That’s a live show, 24 hours, we have to book bands, come up with bits—we were dead-set on not ever letting it drop. We were going to be on air the entire time. The most we were down was four or five minutes at a time. I got a call that Tuesday before the Friday that I got the part and I had to come out to L.A. to shoot it. I told them I had this marathon, and they said, “Well we can move your day to Thursday.” All right, great. I get on the airplane, I land Thursday morning, and go right on the set. I’m gonna play Lieutenant Buttocks. Eddie Murphy’s in a spaceship; everyone’s in a spaceship, and I’m Lieutenant Buttocks. My first line of the movie is, “We had a gas leak sir. It was silent, but not deadly.” And that was it.
You can’t mess that up. The director was Brian Robbins, and the first thing I say to him—I’m on this green-screen stage, there’s a chair on a painter’s balcony—I go, “What am I looking at in this scene?” He goes, “I dunno man, it’s a ship.”
So I feel like a jerk already, I get up there, the camera’s coming into me, and no one’s there. I say the line, and he cuts saying, “You gotta look at the screen.” I’m like, “What screen?” and he says, “You’ve got a screen next to you.” I was like “Oh, well that’s why I asked what the ship looked like. All right.” Now I’m a dick twice. I do it again and he goes, “More military!” I do it again, not thinking I could possibly fuck up the line. Now I’m starting to get that flop-sweat. He’s talking to people—it doesn’t look good—and he walks off set. The AD comes over and says, “We have some camera problems—why don’t you go back to your trailer?” I know there are no camera problems. Something is wrong. I go back to my trailer, then knock-knock, and these two producers come in. One says, “I hate to do this; this is the hardest part of the job. We’re going to recast your role.”
I’m mortified. But he says, “Look, if you want you can stay and be an extra, to make some residual money.” I was like, “I think I’m just going to go home.” So I’m walking out of the parking lot with my bag on my back, and I look through to the soundstage to see he took the sound mixer—the fucking guy who mixes the sound—is doing my part now. The sound mixer. Maybe he’s a great actor, but whatever. As I’m leaving, though, I see the other producer who goes, “What happened? Where are you going?” I told them I got fired, and he says, “You didn’t get fired! We got confused. Brian thought you were a fat guy, and you weren’t a fat guy. We’re going to write you a new part—you’re going to be Lieutenant Kneecap, do you like that?” So I go back to my trailer—
AVC: What’s the timeframe of all this?
PS: This was all three hours, from the minute I get on set to this moment. So Eddie Murphy finds out hot dogs fuel his planet, and at the end of the movie I take a hot dog off my leg and say, “Sure beats protein squares!” It works without a problem. I get a call a week later from a friend who says, “Where are you? We’re reshooting the ending.” And I was not in the ending. I think you can see my shoulder. Long story short, that was the moment I realized I only wanted to work with people I really like and really respect. Obviously I wanted to do that movie because I’m such a huge Eddie Murphy fan, but I don’t want to work just for a paycheck.
AVC: Did you even get to meet Eddie Murphy?
PS: I did, and that was the best part of the whole day. I’m a giant fan. I feel like Brian Robbins was very like, “Fuck this guy” to me, but then when he saw Eddie Murphy talking to me, he was like, “Oh….” You have to be careful. There are so many shitty things where you think, “I really want to get this part,” but later you go, “Did I really need to be in The Tooth Fairy?”