Stand-up Jim Jefferies plays himself on Legit, but that doesn’t make it a Louie clone

Stand-up Jim Jefferies plays himself on Legit, but that doesn’t make it a Louie clone

FX’s Legit, which premièred January 17 and airs Thursdays at 10:30 p.m. Eastern, has surface similarities to the network’s critical hit Louie, but beneath those surfaces, it’s a very different show. What makes the two shows seem most comparable, however, is the fact that both star stand-up comedians. In Legit, that figure is Jim Jefferies, an Australian native who’s become successful on the American comedy scene with his long, rambling stories taken from real life, many of which have made it into the TV version of his life (mostly) unscathed. Like Louie, Legit is filtered through a comedian’s unique perspective, but unlike that show, Jefferies and his co-creator Peter O’Fallon are attempting to tell a gently serialized story about personal betterment. Jefferies recently talked with The A.V. Club about what it means to be “legitimate,” the show’s heavy level of improvisation, and telling stories about a character with muscular dystrophy.

The A.V. Club: The idea of becoming legitimate is meant to be what this show is about, and it’s even mentioned in the pilot. How do you see that as an idea for a TV series?

Jim Jefferies: To be honest with you, most TV shows are all about the characters and less about the concept, in my opinion. Friends is really just six people who got along. The fact that they called it Friends didn’t distinguish it from any other show. [Legit] is basically just those three main characters and a world of side characters, such as John Ratzenberger and Mindy Sterling and all these people. 

But as for the theory behind the legitimate stuff, that all came from, no matter how successful I got, my mother still thinks I’m a bad person, basically. [Laughs.] Because of the way I’ve made my money or the way I’ve conducted myself in public to get success, [it] doesn’t make me any better a person. So I always thought money and achievement would make me a more legitimate person, where my family seems to think it’s all about actions. So the idea behind the show is a fairly morally corrupt person trying to do good. You can carry that all the way, but it won’t be as obvious as something like My Name Is Earl, where he was actually trying to do a different thing every day. It’s just trying to live your life in a pretty decent way, while still holding onto fun, if that makes sense.

AVC: How do you see your fictional self vs. your real self?

JJ: First of all, the real me at the moment is sitting next to a 2-month-old baby, who I’m trying to keep from crying, so that’s a vastly different guy. The fictional guy is basically the stand-up character, which is me, I would say one hour a night. I will say the jokes I come up with are only my emotions or my opinions for the fleeting moment that I have an argument with someone and I think, “Oh, that’s funny.” They’re not really how I live my life on a day-to-day basis. But in saying that, the fictional me is probably me from five years ago. I don’t get myself into as many scrapes as possible now. I’ve tried to clean my act up so that I can have some proper career, where before, it was all just drugs and hookers and I was pretty self-destructive. Now I feel like it’s a show about me trying to get to where I am now.

AVC: How did you develop a show out of your stand-up routine?

JJ: Likely enough, whenever you see something, like, based on the stand-up of Tim Allen or based on the stand-up of Ray Romano, it’s pretty loosely based, those shows, in the fact that they may have one or two jokes about being a tool man or what have you. Ray Romano, the only similarities is that he was married and he had twins. For me, it’s not just based on, it’s really my stand-up. That story about muscular dystrophy [in the pilot], that’s directly from my stand-up. About eight out of the 13 episodes are direct stories from my stand-up. Unlike a lot of comics, I don’t really do many bits. Most of my stuff is long-winded stories, and not a lot of comedians do that these days. We could just mine the stand-up for the first season. We’ve still got another six stories for the second season, but after that, I’m sure for season three we’ll just have to start making shit up. 

AVC: What are some stories you couldn’t work in right away that you’re really interested in still trying to get in there?

JJ: Well, there’s a couple stories that we may have to get some famous people to guest star in. It’s not very easy to get them to guest star in the first season. There’s a story about me meeting Paul McCartney, and obviously, we’ll probably never be able to get Paul McCartney, but we could get someone else, some other rock star of that ilk. There’s another story about me going to Iraq that I told in my second DVD, and I saw an Iraqi citizen shot down from a helicopter I was riding in. We were a little nervous about doing an episode that was set in Iraq or Afghanistan because Louis C.K. had done one, I think, in Afghanistan last season, and we didn’t want there to be any real comparison to that show, so we thought it was best to get our identity up and get everybody into the character stuff, and then we can start doing that way-out stuff. Plus, I don’t think FX was going to give us the budget of a helicopter yet. [Laughs.] 

Another story was Neil Diamond’s band getting on a plane before me. So there were things that we couldn’t really physically do in the first season. Other than that, there were a lot of stories about my childhood and my parents that in 13 episodes, we just didn’t have the space to bring in the characters of my parents. In season two, I’m not counting my chickens, but if it were to happen, we would bring in the characters of my parents.

AVC: FX has Louie, which is somewhat similar to this. What did you want to take from that show, and how did you want to differentiate yourself from it?

JJ: I had watched the show. I don’t think we really took anything. I think it’s a completely different feel. The things that I’d like to take from his show are critical acclaim and success. [Laughs.] You can’t really put your finger on what causes that aura. To critics, I’m probably not as palatable as Louie is. Louie is a divorced guy in his 40s with a couple of kids. I think you’ll find there’s a lot of critics that fit that mold as well, you know? I think we’re going for a slightly different demographic, not a hugely different demographic. I like the feel of Louis C.K.’s show. I like the way it’s shot and that kind of stuff, but I have very little to do with the actual camera work or directing in this show, unlike Louie. In short, I want it to feel as different as possible. I’d hate for us to be compared to it. I also believe that Louie didn’t invent the stand-up comedian playing himself in a TV show. Seinfeld did it and Larry David and Sarah Silverman, Louis, me. It’s become a genre in its own right, I guess.

AVC: So the fictional Jim is really an asshole, but there are also these moments of great compassion and sweetness in the show. Do you think having Jim be such a jerk opens you up for sweeter moments?

JJ: Definitely. I’ve got to thank Peter O’Fallon for that, because most of the jokes I write and the storylines I write for it are pretty jerky. He’s the guy who put all the heart in the show, who I created it with. It’s good because this is the first time Peter’s really done a comedy. He’s from a more dramatic [background]. He made The Riches and Suicide Kings, and having a guy that’s made feature films—this is the first time he’s done half-hour comedy—I think he helped give our show more heart than your standard 30-minute comedy. To answer your question, I definitely think the formula to making my character seem sweet is to let him act like a jerk, give him a redeeming moment, and have a sweet song playing over the background when it happens. I’ll take a lot of my niceties from the music that’s playing in the background.

AVC: The evolution of that tone throughout the pilot is fascinating. How did you break out that story and sneak your way into the nicer moments?

JJ: I always thought it to be a very nice stand-up routine. I think it could have been a drama almost. Having a guy who’s dying, getting laid. When this happened to me in real life, when I took my friend with muscular dystrophy to a brothel in real life, I went into it like, “This is going to make an awesome story.” I went to the pub before and told all my friends about how I was going to a brothel with a disabled guy, and we planned it the day before, and we got all excited, and we got in the car and drove out to the brothel. And by the end of it, I was almost in tears. The reality of the guy could die and that this meant so much to him, it really was the equivalent of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, but for an adult. Taking a dying kid to Disneyland, it was exactly the same as that as far as I’m concerned. So I came back from that a fairly changed person. Maybe not in a huge way, but enough that it really stuck with me. I hope that that translates well onto film.

AVC: How much research did you do into muscular dystrophy and people who are disabled? 

JJ: Well, this is the thing: As I said, it’s a real person from my life. I don’t know a heap about muscular dystrophy, but I know enough about it. I know that we let DJ Qualls have a lot more liberties on the show than someone who has the condition in real life. I think the fact that there’s certain things we just let him do, like he can move his neck, it seems, with no problem whatsoever and he can move his fingers a little bit, but the guy I know who actually has it, he can barely eat mashed potatoes because his jaw’s not powerful enough, and he has the oxygen mask on him constantly. Obviously, that was a hard sell, to have it be too realistic. So we know enough about the condition to know the finer points, but we also are bullshitting a little bit onscreen. 

I think instead of getting anyone Christmas presents, Pete and I donated quite a bit of money to the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation for two reasons. First of all, it’s the right thing to do, especially because we’re doing a show about it and it’s nice to give to charity, rather than give everyone a fucking mug that says Legit on it. And second of all, in the hope that they’ll think we’re good guys and they won’t try to get the show canceled. [Laughs.]

AVC: Even taking some liberties with the real-life condition, what are some challenges about writing for a character with that condition, and what are some avenues of story that have opened up?

JJ: It’s really hard sometimes to work him into every story, because obviously all the stand-up stories don’t have a guy in a wheelchair in them, and DJ was just meant to be a guest star in maybe four episodes. I can’t remember when we made him a series regular, but it was pretty early on.

Every challenge we’ve been given, another door opens up. We have an episode at the baseball [game], and we try to think, “Why would we bring Billy to the baseball [game]?” And it’s like, “Oh, we’d get good seats.” Rather than having the complication, we suddenly get to sit in a good section, because we’ve got a disabled guy with us. And the things that he can’t be involved with, we’ve just had to give him B-stories when that happens. We’ve paired his character up with another who comes in in episode four, called Ramona. [She’s] basically his caregiver who stays at his house four to five days a week while me and Steve may be out at work or whatever. The guy I know in real life, his brother married his caretaker, and because of that, they got another woman from the disability home [to be his caretaker], who wasn’t anywhere near as attractive as [the first], or as nice. So my mate became Public Enemy No. 1 to all the disabled people. When he went down there, they all teamed up against him and rolled away from him. I thought that’s a funny sort of concept, so we did an episode that’s set in the home with that same scenario. If we didn’t have the DJ character, these things wouldn’t happen to begin with, so you take what you can get. Plus, DJ’s really funny, so you try to use him as much as possible. I think out of the whole cast, he’s probably the best actor as well.

AVC: Do you have plans to add more female characters in the future besides the caretaker or recurring female characters?

JJ: Ramona, the caregiver in the home, she’s a series regular. She’s in about seven episodes after [her first]. Apart from that, obviously Mindy Sterling, she’s a series regular in every single episode. And then I have a girlfriend in the show that lasts for about five episodes. Mostly, it’s just the three guys. But we have some cool guest stars. John Ratzenberger is now a series regular. It’s just good to have him around because he fucking tells us great stories about Cheers. Marlon Wayans is in the final episode. Who else do we have? Andy Dick is in an episode. He comes in and plays my acting coach. 

So that’s not that many more females. I just mentioned three male guest stars, but we have a lot of… it’s a boys show. On a fairly male network. The hope is that our show is slightly sweeter than something like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia or Wilfred, got slightly more heart than that. We’re hoping that women will tune in. We just don’t know. I don’t know who’s going to tune in at all. We’re going to the première tonight. I’m going to see it for the first time in front of an audience of people. I’ve been to premières of movies before, and everyone licks your balls when you’re in the room, and they watch the first and they laugh at anything. So I don’t know that tonight will be that good a gauge, but if it goes badly tonight, I know it’ll go real badly on television. 

AVC: How tightly scripted is this? Do you allow for improvisation?

JJ: We allow a ton of improvisation. The script for the pilot was actually less than 20 pages. We had to edit it down from 45 minutes. We went a bit mental on the pilot. And I really loved the 45-minute version. There were a lot of scenes that got cut out. It got tested so many times, it really got defined down to what people liked. Apart from that, we sort of start with a 30-page script, but we do each scene as scripted, but then we do each scene improvised, and Dan Bakkedahl, who plays Steve, he’s a Second City guy, so he’s good to have around for improvising. Obviously, Mindy Sterling, she’s one of the head people at Groundlings and a teacher there. So if you’ve got those people, you might as well see what they can do in different scenes. The good thing is for me, because I’ve written it, no one seems to question me if I change the words. If I ever get another acting job besides this, it’s going to be a bit of a rude awakening for me, because I’ll have to actually say what’s on the page, I guess. It’s a lot easier when you just have to show up to work and vaguely know what’s going on.

AVC: Where would you want to see this show go past season one? Do you see this guy ever becoming a better person?

JJ: Not too much better. You don’t want him to be boring. I see the world opening up a bit more for him. I don’t necessarily see him having a kid and a girlfriend like I do now, maybe in season four, if we ever get to that point, that would be something that I would like to do. But no, I would like this show to go as long as possible. [Laughs.] I’m not going to give you too much information straight off, so that everything resolves itself like a British sitcom in 12 episodes. That would just be stupid of me. I just want to hold everyone’s attention for as long as possible. This has been the funnest experience I’ve had in my career doing anything, and I’ll be sad when I’m told I can’t do it anymore.