Considering that it takes place in the world of fantasy football, it's fitting that The League is filmed in a style its co-creator likens to a "live comedy sporting event." Of course, the more obvious reason the show is filmed this way is because of Jeff Schaffer's pedigree in semi-scripted productions.
After cutting his teeth as a Seinfeld writer and producer, Schaffer later re-teamed with Larry David to write and direct on Curb Your Enthusiasm—the gold standard of semi-scripted TV shows. "Semi-scripted," which is also referred to as "semi-improvised," is when much of the dialogue, even some containing plot points, is created during filming. It's a production style movie audiences got an uncomfortable lesson in while watching Sacha Baron Cohen's films Borat and Bruno, the latter of which Schaffer scripted. By that time, though he was well on the way to his own show.
Jackie Schaffer came up with the premise of The League, while she and husband Jeff were away on Christmas vacation in the French Alps. She had set up reservations for Sunday dinner at a lovely French restaurant, but since Sunday night in France was Sunday during the day back in the U.S., Jeff resorted to faking an upset stomach to leave and call Los Angeles—just to find out his status in the championship of two fantasy football leagues. Jackie busted him red-handed, though, and the idea for a show about friendships barely held together by fantasy football was born.
With The League having just launched it's fifth season, Co.Create spoke with Jeff Schaffer to find out how to anticipate improvised outcomes, generate laughs with little direction, and, if semi-scripted TV is like a sporting event, how to win at it.
I learned how to write comedy from Larry [David] and Jerry [Seinfeld] and it was all about structure. Structure, structure, structure. A Seinfeld episode and a Curb episode and a League episode are all written the exact same way: Working out a structure on a dry erase board, figuring out what the scenes are and what the beats of the scene are, making this sort of comedy geometry out of all the stories. The same thing we did with Seinfeld—"We need a Jerry story, we need a George story, we need an Elaine story"—it’s the same thing we do on The League. We need stories for all the guys. And you figure out what’s funny about the story and all the intersections and connections that make it a satisfying 22 minutes, and put all that in an outline.
Here’s the difference, though. In Seinfeld, we take a few days to write it into a full script. At Curb, we don’t write it, and at The League, we write it a little more than Curb, but less than a script. And it all starts with the structure. If the stories aren’t funny and the connections aren’t funny, then it doesn’t really matter. I think with a lot of improv, the last thing you want to do is have these funny people get on set and let them hang out to dry. That’s why I think this is the best of both worlds. It’s a funny story, and then on top of that, you've got really funny people saying funny things and they're all value added.
Here’s the way The League works: we write an outline and it’s 10 to 12 pages for a 21-minute show. It’s got all the scenes in it: what happens in the scenes, a lot of jokes, and a lot of specific lines. The first time we're doing the scene, it's basically like rehearsing on film. Everyone’s sort of feeling out his or her spots and you do a little air-traffic control. "Okay, let him say that. You're saying these things way too early. Maybe say that after this." You’re figuring out where everything goes. After people start revving up, the trick is to always leave room for amazing digressions. That’s where the magic happens.
The beauty of a semi-improvised show is that you've got a script that works, you've got a structure that works, but you're leaving room on the day to have these magical digressions and these other conversations that feel super natural and weren’t there when you started, but might be the funniest thing in the scene. At the same time, we shoot each one of these shows on location in three and a half days, so you are flying. You're always out of time, but you always need to spend the time to get all the benefits of the semi-improvised nature of the show. If it’s funny enough, we'll spend the time to do it. And if it’s funny enough, it'll always end up in the show.
We've gotten to where we know the story works. Then we get to the location and these brilliant actors walk through the door and say things you've never heard before. Directing for semi-improvised means you need to be a writer because all of our performers, all of our actors are writers. They’re generating a lot of material and we're generating a lot of material. You have to know, right there, "Oh, that’s great, we're going to do that, we're going to run that with you instead, and we're not going to use that." You’re making 1,000 editorial decisions with the cameras running and everyone’s saying funny lines. They're saying the lines that are written, they're saying new lines, we're throwing in lines through the walkie talkie. It’s basically like shooting a live comedy sporting event, so you’ve got to be able to just go.
You’ve got to be able to come up with lines on the spot just like the performers are, doing improv back and forth with them, but at the same time, you're shooting and also telling the cameras where to go. "Back up, back up. When he says that, point over there." First we block the scenes, like on a regular show, but then everyone starts talking and you’re suddenly doing a live rewrite. Improv directing is all about figuring out how to get all the stuff you didn’t know existed five minutes ago. Sometimes you've done your wide shots, you’ve gone into tighter coverage, and the actors are fucking around and you go, "Wait, this is hilarious," and it's worth it to get the cameras back out and you have to cover that too.
It’s great to know how the scene’s going to end. Then you sprinkle in stuff before hand. You retrofit. I'll give you an example from Curb Your Enthusiasm. With the brilliant improviser JB Smoove, who plays uncle Leon. He and Larry are talking and JB starts telling Larry he has long balls. The scene was in the doctor's office and I was like "Okay, this scene is now about long balls. There’s a doctor there, let’s have him say ‘Oh, your testicles are more distended than the average male.’ And now we’ve set up Long Ball Larry. Then we’re thinking ahead to how this show’s going to end. Okay, Larry’s going to get in a scuffle and someone should knee him in the thigh and he’s going to be like, "Oh, my balls!" "I hit you in the thigh." "I've got long balls! I've got long balls!"
It’s things like that. You're always thinking about pay offs and that wasn’t in the script before we started shooting but ideally there’s something that’s great that happens in a scene and you haven’t shot what happens after it. You're always trying to put more stuff, call stuff back.
Shooting a show is like getting mugged in an alley: it’s really fast and you can’t remember what happened. Like today, we're shooting eight scenes from four different shows. And they're in all sorts of different orders, because we're a location-based show so if were at the bar, we're shooting as many scenes as we can at the bar. By the end of the day, you’ve shot all these different things from all these different shows and then you get back in the editing for a specific show and you remember something that was really funny. But you might not remember it if it’s been a month since you've seen it.
What we end up doing now, if there’s something we really like, right next to us is our script supervisor and we tap her. It’s a tap and a point to which camera, so we're also shouting out stuff and telling the cameras where to go, and at the same time we're tapping her and pointing to one of the three cameras on the monitor so that she knows to mark that thing that we liked.
It’s definitely a different process when writing and directing for different people. I think I’ve grown up with Larry [David] and Jerry [Seinfeld]—that's my first language. Just writing that way is kind of the Seinfeld story telling which carries through on Curb and The League. Going out in the world finding funny stories and trying to figure out how they intersect. The one difference on most of the Sacha [Baron Cohen] movies I've worked on, the other person doesn’t know they're in the movie.
Part of the beauty of Sacha was he was an amazing mirror. He's just fearless. You may see a five-minute scene in the movie he was doing for four hours. He would be these amazingly larger-than-life characters who had these amazingly terrible flaws, and he would go into an amazingly terrible world and you go, "Wow, those people are worse than he is." He walked into meetings for Bruno in character, set up the lights in character, and did a rehearsal in character. The people who ended up in this world with him, they never knew. It’s a skill set he has uniquely. I've never seen anything like it. It is different writing for Sacha, but at the same time the jokes are still jokes and funny concepts are still funny concepts; they're just going to be playing them very differently.