'The League' Uses Fandom To Explore Friendship

Originally published on October 7, 2011 5:51 pm

The stereotypical Fantasy Football fan is a 30-something suburban man-child. And the FX program The League is about their ilk. But even though fantasy football is what brings several friends together in the TV show, you don't have to be a fantasy football fan to enjoy it.

Creators Jeff Schaffer, of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Jackie Marcus Schaffer say that anyone who has friends they hate can relate to the show. The comedy duo, who are also a couple, talk to NPR's Guy Raz about how they explore the bigger theme of middle-aged male friendship through the prism of rabid fandom.


Interview Highlights

On where the idea came from

Jeff Schaffer: "The idea was all Jackie. We were actually on vacation. ... We were at this amazing restaurant for a Christmas Eve dinner, and that was a Sunday night. Sunday night in France is game time back in L.A., and I was in two fantasy football championships — basically the fantasy football Super Bowls of two leagues.

So I kept pretending that the rich French food was making me sick to my stomach and I had to go to the bathroom. I would leave the table and run out into a snowdrift to call at great expense — this was pre-Skype — to do what, I don't know. Just to find out how I was doing. ... It was touch and go at first, but about the third time that I had to 'go to the bathroom,' Jackie followed me. And literally, I'm standing in a snowdrift, she is standing in the doorway to the restaurant, and she catches me. She just starts laughing and she just goes 'This is the most pathetic thing I have ever seen. This is a great TV show.' "

On being a fantasy football widow versus deciding to embrace it

Jackie Marcus Schaffer: "I'm both. I mean, I play fantasy, I'm a giant football fan and I think anybody is a widow if your partner is in four to five fantasy football leagues. So even though I play fantasy, I'm still a widow because he spends so much time on it. But I totally embrace it. And it seemed to me that fantasy sports were really, really growing. There's so many things about it that make it such a more contemporary book club, if you will, that brings both men and women together in a really organic way."

On the show's characters reflecting the kinds of people that the creators are in fantasy football leagues with

Jeff Schaffer: "I think when ... we hear things like 'Boy, these people are awful,' we sort of take 'awful' to mean 'authentic.' And we're just trying to capture what it's like to hang out with a group of people who've known each other for forever and ever. The mistakes you made when you were 13 are still gonna get brought back to haunt you even if you're a very successful plastic surgeon or a defense attorney."

On getting away with vulgarity on a basic cable TV show

Jackie Marcus Schaffer: "I have a really good friend — I won't name the person or the network — who is a reporter on basic cable, and she frequently calls and emails me and says to me, 'I am on basic cable. There's no possible way that we are both on basic cable.' This has been going on for three years, and every year she just can't believe that we are both employees of basic cable. When we first started with FX, they gave us a very clear list of five or six words that we were not allowed to say that bent their standards and practices."

Jeff Schaffer: "But I don't think they thought we were going to say every other one."

Jackie Marcus Schaffer: "And they didn't expect us to make up so many to sort of compensate. ... The colorful language is part of what we think makes our show different than a lot of the other half-hour comedies that are out there. I feel like the language of The League is a very unique vernacular that, if you had the picture off, you wouldn't mistake it for any other comedy."

On finding a cohesive cast that knows each other well

Jeff Schaffer: "It was a series of drinks or coffees or lunches with people that we thought were really funny, and going through the Curb world ... we get to see a lot of amazing improv actors. There were a lot of people who were just younger than [Curb creator Larry David's] contemporaries, who we knew we wanted to do a show with. We actually were thrilled — we got all of our first choices. We just said, 'Here are the people we love.' We brought them to FX and they said, 'That's a great cast.' "

On the relationship between Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm and The League as comedies

Jeff Schaffer: "I've been working on The League and Curb Your Enthusiasm almost at the same time for the last few years. ... Curb and League and Seinfeld are all written the exact same way, which was you come up with ideas for the characters that you think are funny and everyone has a story that way. Then on a dry-erase board, you do this comedy geometry to try and make interesting connections and build a structure that works. That's what I learned from Larry David ... structure, structure, structure, structure. That's the key, is just having stories that, if you tell them, they're funny. It's really all about the connections."

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

And the cable network FX is no stranger to controversy either. In fact, they're inviting it. The network show "The League" about a group of guys in a fantasy football league is jaw-droppingly vulgar for basic cable. It's so crude we can't play most of the show's scenes on the radio, and much of the show isn't even about football but the good nature and not so good nature of ribbing that goes on between adult, mostly male friends. Here's a scene from last season. One of the main characters is confronted by two of his friends for having a secret library.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LEAGUE")

RAZ: The third season of "The League" premieres tonight. It was created by Jeff Schaffer, an executive producer of "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and his wife, Jackie. And if you're a fan of "Seinfeld" or "Curb," it's the same style of humor but taken to new heights.

JEFF SCHAFFER: We always say that to enjoy "The League," you don't have to know anything about fantasy football. You just have to have friends that you hate.

RAZ: But fantasy football is what brings these guys together, right? So how did the idea come about?

SCHAFFER: Well, the idea was all Jackie. We were actually on vacation. We were skiing in the French Alps. We were at this amazing restaurant for a Christmas Eve dinner, and that was a Sunday night. And Sunday night in France is game time back in L.A. And I was in two fantasy football championships, basically the fantasy football Super Bowls of two leagues. So I kept pretending that the rich French food was making me sick to my stomach, and I had to go to the bathroom. And I would leave the table and run out into a snowdrift to call at great expense - this is pre-Skype - to do what, I don't know. Just to find out how I was doing.

RAZ: And how were you doing?

SCHAFFER: Well, it was touch and go at first, but about the third time that I had to go to the bathroom, Jackie followed me. And literally, I'm standing in a snowdrift, she is standing in the doorway of the restaurant, and she catches me. She just starts laughing, and she just goes: This is the most pathetic thing I have ever seen. This is a great TV show.

RAZ: And, Jackie, were you sort of like a fantasy football widow, or did you kind of just decide to embrace it?

JACKIE MARCUS SCHAFFER: I'm both. I mean, I play fantasy. I'm a giant football fan, and I think anybody is a widow if your partner is in four to five fantasy football leagues. So - but I totally embrace it. And it seemed to me that fantasy sports were really, really growing. And there's so many things about it that make it such, you know, a sort of more contemporary book club, if you will, that brings both men and women together in a really organic way.

RAZ: Can you guys describe the characters in the show? I mean, are they a reflection of the kinds of people that you guys are in fantasy football leagues with?

SCHAFFER: Yeah. I mean, I think when you're saying - when we hear things like, boy, these people are awful, we sort of take awful to mean authentic.

RAZ: You - and you give your actors a lot of leeway. And let's face it, I mean, you can get pretty vulgar, really vulgar in some episodes. And I wonder, how you do you guys get away with that on basic cable?

SCHAFFER: You know, I have a really good friend - I won't name the person or the network - who is a reporter on basic cable, and she frequently calls and emails me and says to me: I am on basic cable. There's no possible way that we are both on basic cable. And this has been going on for three years. And, you know, when we first started with FX, they gave us a very clear list of five or six words that we were not allowed to say that bent their standards and practices.

SCHAFFER: But I don't think they thought we were going to say every other one.

SCHAFFER: And they didn't expect us to make up so many to sort of compensate.

RAZ: So these characters in the show, they are ostensibly friends and - but are consistently kind of like backstabbing each other. And there's a scene in this new season where they kind of get together and confront this issue of trust. Let's hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LEAGUE")

RAZ: These characters, obviously, continue to lie and cheat and steal from each other. Why would they be friends at all?

SCHAFFER: I think they are friends because they have been friends. And there are very few opportunities in life to actually win, right? Can you win at work, you know? Can you really win at home? But with fantasy football, every Sunday, you have a chance to actually defeat someone. And better yet, you have a chance to defeat someone that you've known for a long time, who, you can then tell your other friends I beat him. And I think that's the wish fulfillment of the show is and that's the wish fulfillment of fantasy football is on any given Sunday, you can be a baby or a villain or a genius. You know, and you may be all of those in the course of the six hours of the games.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: That's Jeff Schaffer. He was joined by his wife, Jackie. They were talking to us about "The League," the show they co-created for FX. The third season premieres tonight. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.