‘The League’s Jeff and Jackie Schaffer on Moving Networks, Rafi and Dirty Randy and Keeping Things Fresh

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Frank Ockenfels/FX
Frank Ockenfels/FX

Despite the fact that FX moved comedy stalwarts like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The League to their new channel FXX, the audience for both shows has been holding steady. Believe it or not, The League is already in its fifth season, with the boys (and one girl) from Chicago competing once again for the chance to take home “The Shiva” for winning the league and, more importantly, avoiding taking home “The Sacko,” the last-place trophy that comes complete with the requisite insults and ball-sack jokes.

Just ask Ruxin (Nick Kroll), who’s had to wear a mascot costume with its own humongous scrotum attached as well as display in his home a custom Sacko trophy with his bust on it. But, as usual, the fifth season has been more about friendships than football, and there’s even been a one-episode diversion where we followed the exploits of the show’s resident sociopaths Rafi (Jason Mantzoukas) and Dirty Randy (Seth Rogen), an episode that seemed to split League fans down the middle in the “love it” and “hated it” camps.

Jeff and Jackie Schaffer are the creators of The League, and the show is partially based on their own experiences in fantasy leagues, both separately and together as a couple. Before they gave me some tips on how married couples can survive competing against each other in a league, they talked to me about the fifth season, the Rafi and Dirty Randy episode, and how they’ve been weathering the move to FXX (where it airs Wednesdays at 10:30 PM ET).

Antenna Free TV: How’s the move to FXX been going?

Jackie Schaffer: I mean it’s not easy. I’ve got to tell you, it’s exciting and certainly flattering when a network like FX wants to split off and create more content, which, as content creators, is really a very exciting thing. Then you have more buyers and more distributors for good content. But as people who’ve been making this show with a loyal following on FX it’s hard to move to a network that fewer homes get and that’s a different tier in the cable packages and costs people more money. That can be a bummer but again we try to just remind ourselves that it’s meant to be a compliment that FX is trusting us to launch this brand, which is really important to them.

Jeff Schaffer: On the plus side, if someone’s on DIRECTV and they’re on Fox Sports New Hampshire and they accidentally hit the channel up button instead of volume they’ll find FXX and we just got a new viewer. That’s the lemonade.

The ratings were holding pretty steady, though.

Jackie: Yeah, it’s amazing. I mean it really is. As everybody accounts not only the live ratings but the live plus same day and the live plus seven, Nielsen and everybody else is starting to use the time shift as more of what people base the ratings on. Our ratings are really strong. FX was really lovely. The first time they called us about our premiere numbers they used the words “Amazing, incredible, towering achievement.” I mean they really thought we were going to take a giant hit in terms of the total viewers, live plus same day, live plus seven. In fact, somehow we’ve managed to really retain our following, which is very cool.

Jeff: Especially since FXX is somehow like 59 million homes versus 96 million for FX.

Jackie: Like I said before, it costs money to have FXX. You know, FXX is a premium basic cable channel and FX is a basic cable channel. So, it’s amazing to us that people are finding us.

Jeff: We’re happy with who’s finding us but we are still, like Jackie was saying…we feel for all the fans who can’t watch the show.

Jackie: We get a lot of that on Twitter and Facebook. People who’ve been loyal from the beginning and they don’t get FXX. A lot of college students where in their college dorms or whatever the more expensive package which includes it isn’t offered. You know, it’s a real bummer because these people are reaching out and wanting to see the show and they can’t. That’s not a problem network comedies have. That’s a really unique problem that we’re sort of battling against right now.

Jeff: A lot of our most loyal fans are in prisons and they do not get FXX we’ve learned. That accounts for some of the ratings hit we’ve taken.

They didn’t spring for the premium channels?

Jeff: No. Minimum security springs for the premium channels. Anything over minimum security, no FXX.

Jackie: By the way, our audience is definitely not minimum security.

Prison cable money goes to HBO first, I guess.

Jackie: For sure. They want to watch The Wire and they want to watch Incarcerated.

Exactly. At least on my cable the HD version of FXX is at channel 1512. So, trying to find it sometimes is a bit of a chore, but I do find it.

Jackie: Yeah. We’re glad FX did that website, getfxx.com, which you can put in your zip code and your provider and it’ll tell you what channel it is. So, thank God for that. I really honestly am not sure anybody would have found it at all without that.

Jeff: Our goal, when we knew this thing was happening, was we wanted to be the most brazen and funniest of all the local Fox sports networks. I think with Sunny and us we’ve been able to do it. It’s hard. You’ve got the Lumberjack Channel and the Chinese Wrestling Channel and the Off-Track Betting but I think right now…

Jackie: We’ve got more comedy.

Jeff: Yeah, I think we’ve got a little more comedy.

Jackie and Jeff Schaffer (Michael Becker / FMC)
Jackie and Jeff Schaffer (Michael Becker / FMC)

What do you think is compelling people to find you guys and make the effort to watch, despite the fact that everything has been moved around?

Jackie: We have really loyal fans. We have fans who really bought into this work and who just love our cast and the characters and want to see them week after week. There’s a huge following of fantasy sports and part of that is the community that it creates and people that you love to hate. I think in addition to your own fantasy baseball or hockey or football league, people also love to be a part of our league and being part of a league with this cast. They’re really amazingly funny and magnetic and I think people just can’t get enough of them.

Jeff: I also think that every year we get all of these things, whether it’s on Facebook or Twitter, where it’s like “My friend told me about the show. How did I not know about it?” It’s been happening. Basically, we get that every week for five years. I think the reason why people are finding the show is because they’re hearing from their friends, “Oh my God, you’ve got to watch this. You are not going to believe what I just saw on television last night.”

Jackie: I think when you asked how do people keep finding the show, because so few people knew about it because we’ve never had a marketing budget. So, I think people keep finding the show because somehow, someway a friend’s going to tell a friend and you’re going to say “I’ve discovered this thing that I can’t believe I’ve been playing fantasy for 13 years” or that “I love ensemble comedies like this.” But I’ve never seen an ad off of FX.

How much does being on Netflix help?

Jackie: Amazing. I’m not as privy to all the ins and outs and the numbers, but I think Netflix has been the saving grace of our show. I think that every year between the seasons we’ve always wondered and we’ve said to FX, “Hey, do more marathons. Replay the episodes.” For whatever reason it just doesn’t make it on the list of priorities. We’ve got to battle for space against Anger Management reruns and all these other shows and great movies that they have. There’s never space to rerun The League. After the finale finishes in November or December every year, the whole sort of awareness just goes dark. Because of Netflix and the way that people search and the fact that it’s been so popular on Netflix, it shows up amongst the most watched shows and it shows up amongst popular recommendations. People are discovering it via Netflix all year round without the machine of the network pushing it, which is great.

Jeff: Also, our character, Taco (Jonathan Lajoie), on the show has a tie renting business called Neckflicks, which has not helped us publicity-wise at all. So, Netflix has been very helpful and Neckflicks hasn’t done anything for us.

You have to make sure you keep them straight.

Jeff: Very important. You’re not going to find The League on Neckflicks.

How do you think the show has changed since day one to now?

Jackie: I think as the characters… their worlds expand, you introduce people in a pilot and you get to see a small slice of what they do and then the years go on and you get to see where does that guy work? Who are his colleagues? Let’s meet some of his family and let’s put him in different situations. I think Paul (Scheer, who plays Andre) has had some really interesting arcs in terms of being a guy who was really crapped on by his friends and being on the outskirts of the group and then in season one becoming a champion that they had to start to learn to respect. Then sort of dating a girl that they were all kind of impressed with, getting engaged. Just as the years go on, just like people, you get to really see these guys live. I think that’s what’s allowed it to change over the years.

Jeff: I think our little solar system of characters has expanded into this galaxy of really great guest stars. Everyone from, well, Ruxin has a wife and then Ruxin’s wife has a brother. So now Ruxin has a brother-in-law played by Jason Mantzoukas, Rafi. Who’s Rafi’s friend, Dirty Randy, played by Seth Rogen. You just keep going like that. Then Rafi and Seth Rogen have a friend named Spazz played by Jorma Taccone. You just keep getting these great people and the world just keeps expanding in a really enjoyable way. I think that’s one thing that’s changed.

There’s a lot more people on the bench, these great guest stars, that we can pull up and play with. I think the other thing is the guys are so comfortable and so amazingly adept in their characters that it seems like they’ve been friends forever now. I think that’s one of the things people love about the show. It feels like hanging out with a bunch of your wickedest, cleverest, funniest friends.

I spoke to Paul and he mentioned the fact that the cast has grown closer over the years has helped.

Jackie: Oh, yeah. I mean it’s amazing. It’s a credit to them as actors at the very beginning, they barely knew one another when we first started shooting and now I think that they really like and respect each other and spend a lot of time together. You can sense that camaraderie as we shoot.

Jeff: There’s never a doubt now what’s an Andre line and what’s a Ruxin line and what’s a Taco line. They know their characters so well that they’re all brilliant improvisers but it just feels natural when they’re hanging out.

The rhythm of the show feels a little bit different than it did in the first season because it feels more natural to me. Do you guys see that?

Jackie: Yeah. I mean I think over time as people sort of inhabit their characters more and get more comfortable with their storylines and sort of what their character would and would not do, they’re getting to know them better. I think that really comes across in the show in the authenticity and sort of the smoothness of how it’s portrayed as opposed to feeling like it’s just reciting lines.

Jeff: We try very hard to make sure that the show feels very natural. It’s a semi-scripted show or semi-improvised, whatever you want to call it. It’s the best of both worlds where the improv nature of it provides a natural feel. But because it’s also written it never feels like improv.

Patrick McElhenney/FXX
Patrick McElhenney/FXX

Speaking of Rafi and Dirty Randy and Jason and Seth, where did the idea for that episode come from? How much of a risk did you guys think it was to completely go off on an episode with these two characters that we had only seen in little bits over the years?

Jackie: I have to say, I think people thought it was a much bigger risk than it was. I can’t say that we thought twice about it for literally one minute. Jason and Seth really enjoy working together, they had not met until they met working on the show. We cast Jason in season two. Then we had a relationship with Seth through our agency and we thought he’d be a perfect Dirty Randy. We brought him in as Dirty Randy. They just immediately on day one clicked, similar to what you’re talking about with the cast. Now they’ve become great friends and work on things together.

So, as we were working with Jason last year, he suggested that they wanted to maybe do this. We thought it was a great idea. We never thought twice about it. Now in retrospect, I could see how some people may think it was a huge risk, but we didn’t see it that way at all. After five years I think it’s good to switch things up. I mean we talked about that. It’s fun to just throw a curveball a little bit to people and change things up a bit.

Is it interesting when you have someone like Seth Rogen who right now makes his living with movies and he comes to you guys and says, “I want to write this script with Jason for your show on FXX.”? How do you guys react?

Jeff: We were thrilled and it’s super flattering. I think he has so much fun. We’re thrilled that he had so much fun being on the show that he wanted to keep doing it. We were flattered that he liked the show enough in the first place that he wanted to do an episode with Jason. I mean for us, we’re all about expanding the universe. We were thrilled, one, because… by the way, we should say this, Jason and Seth, like he’s a big movie star and he does all of these movies. All of that is true.

Jackie: He was no different on our set. He was there and completely comfortable. We talked a lot about that in the course of shooting because Jeff and I both come from movies as well. We were talking about it. He does a lot of stuff online, he’s done television in the past, he does movies now. But content’s content. Everybody who I think really loves comedy just loves making comedy, whether it’s a two minute short that you’re making online or a two hour movie or a 22 minute television show. He was just there, excited about making content that he was happy with and excited to work with actors Jorma and Rob Huebel and Jason Mantzoukas, who he loves being around.

Jeff: The guy couldn’t be nicer. He’s a brilliant improviser, as is Jason. He came to have fun and he was game. I mean the episode was crazy and he was game for anything and everything and never once was it like I’m a big movie star. It was just like I’m Seth, I’m a really funny guy, let’s make this as funny as possible. He was a total dream, just a dream to work with.

Then you’re throwing in Kevin Nealon and David Krumholtz and Andy Daley and all those guys. Was it one of those opportunities where you wanted certain guys to come in because you hadn’t worked with them or you’d worked with them before and you liked them? How does one episode attract a number of different names like that?

Jackie: It’s amazing. I mean we kind of do that with every episode as we look through the casting before we go to casting. Then they put out the breakdowns or make lists. We keep our own list of people that we just love to work with. That’s the cool thing about a show after five years. We look back and we think… like somebody will mention to us, “Hey, have you ever worked with Keegan-Michael Key?” We think to ourselves… it’s like he was amazing in episode seven of season three or season four. Season four.

Jeff: Three.

Jackie: By the way, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. We’ve made so many episodes of this show now that the number of amazing people we’ve gotten to work with is just mind blowing to us and the coolest thing ever knowing that we were picked up for season five. And now also knowing that they’ve already picked us up for season six next year. The possibilities of just writing stories that are open-ended to bring these people back is really a pleasure.

Jeff: A lot of people want to work with… it’s a fun set and the cast is great. People know they’ll come in,, it’ll be quick, it’ll be really funny and they’ll get to do stuff you probably wouldn’t get to do on television otherwise.

What was the reaction on Twitter and elsewhere that you got from the Rafi and Dirty Randy episode?

Jackie: People’s minds were blown. I think that first scene when Dana White…I’m sorry, his name is blanking me.

Jeff: DeRay Davis.

Jackie: Yeah, he’s amazing. And Jorma are in this brightly lit motel room…

Jeff: A bullet to the head and then The League title card comes up.

Jackie: I think had The League card not come up with our title music I’m not sure people would have…even then I’m not sure people believed it was the show.

Jeff: We were very happy because it’s nice that in season five we can still shake things up, like Jackie was saying. There was a lot of “Tthis is the most amazing thing ever” and also “This is the worst thing ever.” Frankly, we’ll take it. We thought it was hilarious. We love that people care enough that they’re talking about it. We love that people care enough that they say, “Hey, where are our guys?” We love that people care enough about seeing the guys every week that they were mad when they weren’t there. We also love the fact that people thought that was literally a fever dream of an episode. I’m so grateful that you did something that bizarre and funny on television.

Jackie: We’re glad that we’re able to still surprise people five years in. I mean thank God, that’s really want we want to do is have people feel like they’re going on a fun ride every week.

Jeff: And that it’s never stale.

the-league-s5-ep1
Patrick McElhenney/FXX

Does the structure of a fantasy football season help you keep it fresh instead of it just fading off? Obviously, it’s not about fantasy football. It’s about friends being together but it’s still always present there.

Jackie: Listen, I mean I don’t think every show has the luxury of having such a clear, sort of seasonal sort of arc that you can always come back to and it always feels actually exciting. People don’t get sick of their fantasy leagues. People always want to win. People are always pissed to high heaven when they lose. So, it’s really a great thing that we have that there is a familiar structure that we can play with.

I think the biggest challenge that we have is we have so many comedy story ideas and so many guest stars and different things that we want to do and bring in that when we don’t do enough football our hardcore fan base that loves fantasy football gets a little pissed off. Like, “I need more football. I need more football.” People have come to expect it from the show. So, we sometimes feel like we have to give them enough football, but it’s only 21 minutes and 15 seconds. We’ve got to make room for these comedy stories. We always end up writing too many stories and our scripts are way too long and that’s hell.

Jeff: I think every year every character thinks they’re going to win it. I think it always gives you a nice build towards the end of the season because, like Jackie’s saying, every year’s a new year and every year there’s a championship. Every year at the end of the season the stakes get higher and the behavior gets worse.