The League’s Paul Scheer Discusses Network TV, His Love of Bad Movies, and the ‘Piranha 3D’ Sequel [Interview]
A new season of “The League” premiered last night. The show’s hilarious Paul Scheer sat down for a talk about the limitations of network TV, his love of bad movies, and the “Piranha 3D” sequel.
As a child growing up on Long Island, comedian Paul Scheer revealed on the WTF Podcast last year that his initial introduction to comedy came through watching Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams specials as a child, and then later sneaking off to the city with his father to watch performances from a broad array of comedians, including names as diverse as Martin Lawrence and George Carlin. Another defining moment occurred when Scheer’s mother shattered and disposed of his Weird Al Yankovic LP, claiming the song “Nature Trail To Hell” was inspired by the devil, a story he relayed to Weird Al years later in an odd twist of fate.
Scheer began his improv training as a freshman in high school, and after meeting Rob Huebel and Aziz Ansari through the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York, had his first brush with success writing and acting on the MTV sketch-comedy show “Human Giant.” Though it only lasted two seasons, the show was insanely popular by MTV standards, and it eventually helped propel Scheer and his cast mates on to future projects. Specifically, Scheer used it to further his writing career, collaborating on episodes of the F/X series “The League” with Nick Kroll and creating his own series for Adult Swim, NTSF:SD:SUV, an 11 minute satirical jab at crime dramas NCIS and CSI.
During his WTF interview, Scheer also discussed some of the rougher parts of his childhood, including his parents divorce which left him with a stepfather who he joked had “more guns than shirts.” To this day, it’s clear some of the darker experiences in Scheer’s life partially inform his sense of humor, the tone of which ranges from poignantly satirical to purely deranged. One of “Human Giant”‘s most memorable sketches is one in which Scheer and Huebel run over their friend Aziz with a car repeatedly in hopes of getting him a wheelchair-only ticket to a sold out Ghostface Killah concert.
After wrapping up a successful first season of NTSF:SD:SUV, Scheer is currently back at work starring and writing on the F/X series “The League,” which just began its third season. He also continues to pursue stand-up comedy, which he started last year during a promotional tour for the show, and releases a weekly movie podcast called How Did This Get Made? with fellow castmate from “The League” Jason Mantzoukas and his wife, actress June Diane Raphael. I spoke with Paul Scheer last week about his transition in to the stand-up world, his love for bad movies, working on multiple TV projects, and his role in the upcoming sequel to “Piranha 3D.”
I wanted to talk about the upcoming season of “The League.” I understand that you’re still filming. How is it coming along so far?
We’re directly in the middle of the third season right now. We’re about 25 or 26 days in. Our show schedule is pretty crazy. With NTSF, we shoot 12 episodes in 24 days, which is crazy, and with “The League,” we shoot 13 episodes in 52 days. So we’re at about Day 26 right now, and what I love about these abbreviated schedules in this new landscape of basic cable or whatever you want to call it is there’s a lot less money so they want you to do things quicker, but that’s been a real benefit for people like Mark Duplass and myself and Nick Kroll because we all get to do other things. Mark is directing films, Nick Kroll is going off and doing his Comedy Central show, and I get to do my Adult Swim stuff. So we all get to do different stuff and then come together and work for these three months out of the year, and this season has been great so far. We’re having amazing guest stars. Seth Rogen is going to be on the show this season. To have him on the show has been really cool.
What can we expect from Seth Rogen’s character and how has it been working with him
He plays Dirty Randy, which was based on like a pornographer that Jason’s character mentioned last season, and he’s great. He totally kills it. It’s really funny. It was originally just a throwaway joke, but we found people on Facebook and online were always referencing it. People really connected to this character that you couldn’t see and only heard about, so since the middle of last season we were talking about who could Dirty Randy and then we finally settled on Seth Rogen. He’s a great Dirty Randy.
But we’ve got two other guest stars that we can’t mention yet and they’re pretty amazing too. Like I was really surprised when I looked at the call sheet the other day. I was like, “Whoa we got that guy?” So it’s all been really fun this season. I think we’ve all hit our stride. Nick and I wrote another episode for this season too so it’s been really fun.
The season finale of NTSF:SD:SUV just aired. Are there any notable changes we should expect from the second season?
For me, it was really fun to do a show the way we did it because we didn’t shoot a traditional pilot. We just shot the full series based off a trailer we shot for Adult Swim. So now seeing the series as a whole, there are definitely a few things we want to change, and also I just think that we’ll get better guest stars involved too. In the first season, we just kind of had to beg and borrow whoever we could get to do the show because besides the script, there was really no show that they could watch. They just had to trust us, like “Hey! It’ll be fun. It’s going to be a good time!” But now since we’ve had so many great guest stars and stuff, we’ll be able to get some more guests and get a budget where we can hopefully afford an explosion. I’d like to see an explosion.
With the storyline there wasn’t really much to tie each episode together. You could watch any episode and still pretty much understand the premise. Are you going in the same direction with the second season?
It works best that we keep all the episodes separate because you can watch any episode and not feel like you missed anything from before, but I do think that we want to keep delving in to the relationships that we have, like Kove and Trent and their marriage and stuff like that. So we want to do it in a way where you can catch on to it without having felt like you missed out on something from before.
And I think we’d definitely like to experiment more with how CSI sets up CSI: Miami and how people from different shows come in to already preexisting shows. I think that mostly happens in NCIS, where like the NCIS team will come to NCIS: LA. I think we’re going to do some things like that so you might see other NTSF teams, or other potential spinoffs that will never be actual spinoffs. It’ll just be something where we kind of introduce another cast that fills out that whole world.
I think in our mind with the show, whenever we’re writing it we try to picture it as if like a Jerry Bruckheimer type guy were creating the show. So what would he want to do? We’ll just keep doing what he would want to do, which is building this crazy empire. One of the jokes we have, we’ve talked a little bit about doing a biography on the guy that created NTSF and how he has to have 17 shows on the air at any given point. Like he never has less than 17 shows on the air, so we may get the chance to see some of those other shows.
I wanted to talk about some of the guests that have been on the show so far. How were you able to get people like Gabrielle Union and Jeff Goldblum?
Well it’s funny, I worked with Jeff Goldblum on a cop show that he did called Raines a long time ago, and it was about a cop who would see ghosts, but they weren’t really ghosts. They were just images of people in his head he could talk to and then at the end of the show, they revealed he could also see ghosts as well, but it was a pretty crazy idea for a show. Anyways, we got along really well and he was always super nice to me, so when this came around I decided I wanted to get Jeff Goldblum on the show, and we gave him the script, and he was the first person signed on to the show.
So once we had him signed on to the show, it was easier to get people like Gabrielle Union and J.K. Simmons. J.K. Simmons is a guy that loves doing comedy too, so once he saw who was involved and became familiar, he was definitely ready to get on board. So it was all about growing and I think once people saw that actors like Ed Helms or Jeff Goldblum were involved, it became a little more legitimate and people were more willing to be a part of it.
So how did the idea for the show initially come about?
Well I had done a few episodes of Children’s Hospital. I played Rob Corrdry’s brother, a clown called Tinklebutton, and I wrote two episodes and just loved what they were doing over there. I loved how Adult Swim was just giving the reigns to all these smaller productions to do whatever they wanted to do and it seemed really fun. At that point I was doing “The League,” which is such a fun show to do, but I was missing the idea of producing and writing and having a say in everything like I did with “Human Giant.”
So I loosely pitched an idea to one of the executives about doing a show that would be a companion to Children’s Hospital, but it would sort of attack the action drama instead of the hospital drama, and they went with it. They said, “Why don’t you just do a trailer for it and we’ll air the trailer?” So they gave us money and we shot the trailer and the head of the network Mike Lazlo really loved it, and they gave us a show sort of based on what I had done already on Children’s Hospital and “Human Giant,” knowing that I could actually do that.
With all that experience under your belt, the style of the jokes and writing seems really evolved already. It sort of reminds me of Dan Harmon a little bit, in the sense that you waste very little time between jokes.
Well we have only 11 minutes and 20 seconds on every episode, so it’s really hard to slow down and it’s great. For me, to do comedy in only 11 minutes and 20 seconds, it’s a restraint but at the same time it’s freedom because you never get sick of it. You just have to keep moving so you’re forced to decide what’s the most essential thing, what’s the funniest thing we can get out and visually, what’s the best that we can do. So having that handcuff, I think it makes the show better.
Having that success on Adult Swim already, would you ever be interested in trying to pitch another show to NBC or Comedy Central?
No, I don’t think so. To me, I love working with the 15-minute format. I’ve written half hours and stuff like that. I think a show like NTSF too, which is kind of based in parody, exists much better in a smaller format because you don’t get sick of it. I’ve also written episodes of “The League,” which are super fun to work on with Jeff and Jackie Schaffer, and I’ve definitely learned a lot from Jeff, who worked on “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Borat.”
It’s all about different tones. To me, these Adult Swim shows are just giant joke bags. It’s just all about “What’s the funniest thing we can do?” We don’t have to worry about it. You could literally kill off a character and then next week they’re fine. It’s like a live action cartoon in a way. You can just refill the machine every week, and for me that’s really exciting. I’ve worked in other formats too. This is just more fun for me right now.
You’ve also been doing stand-up for the past year. What has that transition been like and were there any sort of insecurities you had to get over in moving to that one-man format?
Well it’s been a little bit crazy because I really started doing stand-up when “The League” went on a tour, and most of the people on the show, John Lajoie, Steve Rannazzisi, and Nick Kroll, all do stand up, and I was more of a sketch/improv guy, but they really wanted me to go out and promote the show. So I decided I was just going to do the weird shit I do at UCB, which is more characters and bits and stuff, and I quickly found out it was much more well-received in places like San Francisco, Chicago, New York and LA, than in all the other places we played.
So I started having to develop this stand-up thing, which is something I really feared doing because I really loved working with other people, and it’s really been an uphill battle. I’m always kind of learning on that front, but it’s definitely a different thing because I’m always used to having someone else up there. Now I feel like I’m just getting comfortable doing it.
You also have a podcast with Jason Mantzoukas called How Did This Get Made? Did you initially meet Jason from working on “The League”?
No, actually Jason and I go way back. We’ve been performing at the UCB for years, and for like almost a decade now. So we’re just old friends and one night we were at a friend’s house and I was telling him about this shitty movie I had seen, and he was like “Dude, that should be a podcast, just you talking about shitty movies”. So I asked him to it with me and he said yes, so we just put it together and now we’re almost 20 episodes in and it’s been super fun. I’ve known Jason for a long time though.
What is your favorite bad movie of all time?
I feel like it’s a simple answer for me because it was the movie that really inspired the podcast, and it’s Old Dogs with John Travolta and Robin Williams because that movie is insane. It’s made for kids but there’s a human robot in a puppet suit. It’s Bernie Mac’s last performance. There’s some crazy stuff in that movie and it’s one of those movies that makes you want to look over to someone else and say, “Is this really happening?”
I like bad movies that have all the money behind them. Yes, “Birdemic” and “The Room” are bad movies, but those I understand why they’re bad. I don’t understand why a 40 or 50 million dollar movie starring John Travolta and Robin Williams turned out so crazy. That’s the thing that really gets me: big budget movies that have giant plot holes and crazy dialogue.
So do you think these big budget Hollywood movies are getting worse as time goes on?
Well I think there’s going to be a change in this too in the future, but I think that it’s such a hard business to make a successful movie. There are so many hoops you have to jump through when trying to appeal to different groups of people that things get really watered down, and sometimes you get great things out of that process too. Something like Iron Man, where there’s a million cooks in the kitchen, but it turns out to be a great superhero movie. I guess what I’m saying is that I feel like whenever you’re spending a large amount of money on a movie, there are going to be people poking their heads in so they don’t lose the budget, and I think sometimes when you have so many people meddling in something like that, it gets diluted and watered down and you get these movies that are neither here or nor there. They’re not for fans of the franchise or if they are for fans, it doesn’t appeal to them.
They just become these weird things, whereas if you see something like a Christopher Nolan movie, where no one bothers him, or something like “Drive” or “Kick-Ass,” these are movies that are a little bit more outside of the studio system where they don’t have to answer to anybody else, and I they’re more of a pure thing. I think that’s why I like working in TV right now because I feel like there is a landscape in TV where if you’re not on network, you can kind of do whatever you want. Like I can cast whoever I want on NTSF and the network is like “Yeah that’s cool,” but if it was on NBC or something they’d be like, “Well, who is this person? What’s the age group they appeal to? I think we want someone with blonde hair.” So I think that’s what’s attractive to a lot of people about doing TV right now.
Especially with shows like “The League” and “Louie” on F/X, they seem to be pretty hands-off when it comes to notes and editing.
F/X is actually one of the few examples of a place that gives good notes. Whenever they have a note, you’re like “That’s cool. I didn’t think about that.” I think it’s a network where they want you to succeed, and if you succeed you can take all the credit for it, but they’ll be like we’re the geniuses that made it. And if it fails, they’ll be like, “Well. It was your fault.” They give the kind of creative power to let people do what they want to do and if it works it works, if it doesn’t it doesn’t, but at least they take chances and do cool shows. Even the ones that don’t work commercially, like Terriers or Wiped Out, are cool shows but they just didn’t click for whatever reason.
Before I let you go, I wanted to ask about your character in “Piranha 3D” and his reappearance in the upcoming sequel. Can you tell us anything more about your role in the movie?
Basically, my character Andrew from the first movie, the videographer of Wild Wild Girls, has survived the first film. If you watch the “Piranha 3D” Blu-Ray, you’ll see my death scene, but they couldn’t afford to finish it. I basically had this crazy death scene where my nose gets ripped off and I die, but they couldn’t finish it so my character just kind of disappears early on in the third act of the movie.
So I come back in this movie with Ving Rhames and we’re now buddies. I guess we met in a piranha attack support group of some kind, and we’re going for a nice day at the waterpark because Ving Rhames doesn’t like to get in the water anymore and I’m trying to get him back involved in the water. I feel like our part in the movie is like a little short film. It’s just about Ving and I. We don’t interact with any of the main characters. We’re doing our own thing, so we have like a little rudder throughout the second film. Ving, Christopher Lloyd and I were the only three characters they brought back, and Ving and I were there for one day so we shot a lot in one day. It comes out Thanksgiving Day weekend with The Muppets too, so I guess you could say the table is set with some alternative programming.