Jeff and Jackie Schaffer, the showrunners for FX’s The League, had to deal with an NFL lockout which delayed production of the 3rd season episodes of their comedy about a group of friends obsessed with fantasy football. Then the October 6th season premiere, with guest star Seth Rogen, was the show’s most-watched telecast ever for women 18-34 and its third most-watched among total viewers. FX has just renewed The League for a fourth season. The Schaffers talked to Deadline contributor Diane Haithman the day after this season’s premiere:
DEADLINE: OK, I have to admit major sports ignorance – how do you play fantasy football?
JACKIE SCHAFFER: We’re always happy to explain it, because clearly we’re obsessed.
JEFF: Fantasy football is actually an amazing American pastime, because it takes the ultimate team sport, NFL and football, and turns it into the quest for individual achievement. Your fantasy team can be pulled from any team in the NFL. You can have Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, but you can also have Matt Forte, the running back of the Chicago Bears. And how they do is how you do. If your running back scores a touchdown, you get those six points. And you play head to head with the other people in your league. What this is really about is gloating and bragging rights. The heart of every league is the message board where you can just trash-talk and dredge up any embarrassing thing about any of your friends since you guys were in high school. That’s what we always say about the show: You don’t have to like fantasy football, you just have to have friends that you hate. Fantasy football leagues become a social unit. It’s a way for old friends, high school friends, or people at work, or families to get together. It’s like a book club, except you would never tell people in your book club to take a ride on your suck stick.
DEADLINE: Why did you think fantasy sports would make a good comedy series?
JEFF: We thought it would be an opportunity to explore what friends are really like, especially friends with deep history. It doesn’t matter if you are now a successful doctor or lawyer, your friends are going to dredge up stuff you did when you were 13 and will never live down, and what better way to do that than in the form of fantasy football?
JACKIE: In the television business, I don’t think anyone will let you go in and pitch a show unless you use the words ‘organizing principle’ or ‘this is the prism through which we see their lives’. Everything needs a hook. This is something that provides a great way to see people interact. Every week, because there’s a game to be won and rankings, there are always winners and losers. Watching people experience victory and defeat week after week in different combinations is a great dynamic for the show.
DEADLINE: Do enough people play fantasy football to make this a viable TV series?
JEFF: People always say to us: ‘It’s such a niche show’. But 35 million people aren’t a niche. There aren’t 35 million doctors or lawyers or priests that solve crimes, but there are plenty of shows about them. Whether you are in a league or not, everyone knows someone who is in one or acting like a maniac during a meaningless game because they want to beat their friends.
DEADLINE: TV series about sports have a checkered history finding an audience. What makes you different?
JACKIE: We hope it’s first and foremost a comedy. With all the hours we spend on the whiteboard every week, we aren’t thinking about who’s going to win and lose from a fantasy football standpoint. We’re thinking about what are the funniest stories? It used to be that our guest stars who got the most attention were the football players. But now we’ve got Eliza Dushku and Will Forte and Brie Larson in addition to Seth Rogen who was on the season premiere. We like to think it is as much a home for comedy as it is for the fantasy sports fans.
JEFF: It’s not a comedy about fantasy football. It’s a comedy about a bunch of guys who play fantasy football.
JACKIE: I think people who are fanatical about anything are funny.
DEADLINE: Jeff, as a veteran of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, what did you bring from those shows to The League?
JEFF: I would say we definitely do The League on the Curb model. I think The League outlines have more lines in them that the Curb outlines, and that’s partly because you have to do some air traffic control with up to 6 or 7 characters. A lot of the Curb scenes are Larry David and one other person. They are more elaborately written than the Curb treatments, but they aren’t scripts.
JACKIE: Sometimes we’ll whisper something in someone’s ear and the other person doesn’t know it’s coming – all those tricks that Jeff has been sort of crafting at Curb, he’s used stylistically on our show. It’s somewhere between Curb and a network sitcom. I would say a major misunderstanding about the show is that it’s 100% improvised and there’s no script. People want to label these shows because it’s a model that to some networks or some buyers may be a little scary – loosening the strings and letting people go play. Our outlines tend to be between 11 and 16 pages single-spaced. That’s a lot of content for a show that ends up being 20 minutes and 45 seconds.
DEADLINE: Where do you draw the line on content and where does FX draw the line?
JACKIE: I don’t think that there’s anything that we’ve said: ‘We’re not going to do that because it’s going to gross people out.’ We always like to say we are equal opportunity offenders. We are not interested in picking on any one group or cause, singling anyone out. We are interested in stories that are funny. It’s not a soapbox. For better or worse, we’re just trying to entertain.
JEFF: Usually, if it’s funny, we figure out a way to do it. And yeah, FX has been great about basically giving us enough rope to hang ourselves, and we haven’t had had a hanging yet, so we’re feeling pretty good. If it’s funny, we’re going to try to get it in there. I can truly say we’ve never thought about whether the audience is going to like something or not like something. We just think: is this going to be funny?
DEADLINE: Describe the show’s process.
JEFF: Working on this show is like being with a group of your wickedest, smartest, funniest friends. I don’t know that people understand how tiny the show is. There is no staff. There are no other directors. There are no other producers. There’s the cast in front of the camera, and us behind the camera on the day we’re making it, and that’s it.
JACKIE: We think it looks pretty darn good for 3½ days an episode with a $750,000 budget. It’s not an expensive show, it’s a show shot entirely on location cross-boarded within an inch of its life, Literally, if we’re in a bar, we’ve got to shoot every scene for that block of episodes at that bar. I think that’s how we like it evaluated, very honestly, based on what it is.
DEADLINE: Any advice to would-be comedy writers?
JEFF: If you only have 10 jokes, and they’re all in your spec script, and someone says, “Eh, I don’t know if I like that one,” you’ll say: “But I can’t lose that one, it’s a 10th of all my jokes!’ Jackie and I are going to produce 13 episodes in a few months. You are going to have to have hundreds and hundreds of jokes. And some are going to end up on the cutting room floor, some aren’t going to work, some are going to change in ways you never expected. That joke will find its life somewhere, but it doesn’t have to be right here.