Paul Scheer’s career, like so many of his friends and colleagues, owes nearly everything to a simple creative edict: if you want to make it in this business of show, you have to keep writing or performing no matter what. It’s an ethos that took seed during his days on an improv team at the UCB Theater in New York, the place where he met his future Human Giant co-stars Aziz Ansari and Rob Huebel. And he’s kept to that ever since, landing roles both big and small in TV and film.
Scheer has truly started to see the rewards from this works over the past six years or so, since joining the cast of the recently wrapped up FX series The League. One of his most high profile gigs to date, the show allowed him to stretch his acting and improvising muscles as Andre, the sartorially-challenged and oft-verbally abused member of the fantasy football league at the center of the sitcom. Even as that show remained in production, Scheer kept up a busy schedule, creating and starring in the Childrens Hospital spin off NTSF:SUV:SD:: and the Hulu series The Hotwives, writing comic books for Marvel, and curating the pop culture-centric podcast network Wolfpop. He’s even in virtual reality in the Funny or Die VR short “Interrogation” alongside Huebel.
Paste spent a few minutes on the phone with Paul Scheer to discuss the end of The League, his recurring role as the clueless waiter Mitch on Fresh Off The Boat, and his many future projects.
Paste: I want to start off by talking about The League, which just wrapped up its seven-season run. How did you land this job? Did you have to run the audition gauntlet or did they just invite you to join?
Paul Scheer: Jess and Jackie [Schaffer] launched a pretty extensive meet and greet with a bunch of different people for about a year before the show even saw the light of day. I got a phone call from my agent, like, "Hey, can you have a drink with these two people? Jeff worked on Seinfeld and Curb and he wants to have a drink with you." So I went and they talked to me about the show, but at the time it was very vague about what the show actually was. The words "fantasy football" never really came up. They were, like, "We can’t tell you what the show’s about. We just wanna tell you about these characters." And it was one of those things that I had just kind of forgotten about. It had gone away and I thought nothing is ever happening with that show. Then I got a phone call out of the blue about a year and a half later, and they were like, "They’re auditioning now and they want you to come in. And the premise of the show is fantasy football!" And I was, like, "Nope. I have no interest in doing that. I’ll pass." I had no idea about fantasy football and I felt like I couldn’t be funny if I didn’t know what I was improvising about. And then Nick Kroll called me and said, "Dude, you gotta come in and audition for it. You don’t know need to know much about fantasy football. All you have to do is just improvise scenes." Now I had waited for such a long period of time to audition that they had already kind of put the entire cast together. They decided to reopen casting just for me.
Paste: Was the character pretty set by that point? Was it already determined that he was going to be the punching bag of the group?
Scheer: That’s kind of how they described that character in the beginning. The guy who was the nerd in high school and now even though he’s successful and probably making more money than all of them, he’s still seen as that nerd. As far as what the character became, it was a much more collaborative effort. Jeff and Jackie are really great at giving you enough that you aren’t out there totally naked when you’re improvising but it allows for tangents to build and grow. A lot of the things that became "Andre" were things that grew out of improvisation. You keep on following the path that’s most interesting. So it was never like the character was locked and loaded the way it was.
Paste: Is that a fun thing for you to play such a buffoonish character? You’re doing something similar on Fresh Off The Boat as well.
Scheer: I feel like on Fresh Off The Boat, I’m just an idiot. I’m a dumb dumb. I feel like Andre is probably the most confident member of that group and is just clueless to their insults. We were talking about how the show should end with Andre killing everybody for being so brutal to him for these seven years. But he never realizes that they make fun of him. He’s so teflon to their insults. He’s so kind of them. And he’s always out there 100%. So, yeah, there’s something fun about that. In comedy you want to be able to play a character that has a deep well of things to play with. The more options you give yourself, the more longevity you get. I’d rather be playing a character like that instead of just the straight man. It gives me a lot of different realms to go down.
Paste: As you said, the cast was pretty much set before you came on board, and it was mostly people you had never worked with before. Was it an easy thing to jump in and find the chemistry with them or was that something that you had to lean on your improv experience to build that?
Scheer: One of the toughest things there is in comedy is improv. And everything now is, like, "We’ll improvise! Let’s improvise!" Judd Apatow in many respects has gotten that into people’s minds. There are some good improvisers but a lot of the time there are two people in the scene who aren’t and never really know what to do. With this group, it was definitely nerve wracking because Mark [Duplass] and Katie [Aselton] come from the independent film world, Steve [Rannazzisi] was more of a stand-up, and Jon [LaJoie] was this YouTube star. And from day one, moment one, it was so easy and fun. I think the problem with improv in TV or film is everyone is trying to make themselves look good and they forget that one of the biggest tenets is to make everyone look good. This group…I don’t know how it was or how it came together but everyone is always looking out for each other. We’re always trying to set each other up. We were all playing to make the scene and not ourselves look better.
Paste: That’s something I’ve always admired about the show. There seems to be so little ego involved with the cast. Everyone was OK with looking as buffoonish as possible.
Scheer: I heard this story the other day. There was this big budget studio comedy and one of the lead actors was giving script notes, like, "I like all this stuff but you definitely can’t have this scene where that guy fucks my wife because no one would fuck my wife." And it’s, like, "It’s not your wife! It’s a character!" To be in a comedy, you have to strip yourself down. No one’s ever, like, "Oh man I love that comedy because the character’s so cool!" It just doesn’t go hand in hand.
Paste: Since the second season of The League, you’ve written the occasional episode of the show. Was that an idea you presented to Jeff and Jackie or vice versa?
Scheer: When I first came on, I was coming off doing Human Giant and I really like writing and producing and I was nervous about doing a show where I couldn’t do any of that. So early on, Nick and I, when we made our show contracts, we said, "The level of money you’re paying us isn’t that great so in deference to that, could you let us write an episode a year?" And they were very cool and agreed to that. I feel like it just helps me be more connected to it. Those are some of my favorite episodes of the show because I got to be involved on all levels.
Paste: Is The League the thing you get recognized for the most or is it true what you said on The Best Show that it’s parents remembering you from your appearances on Yo Gabba Gabba?
Scheer: I think The League right now is in the lead. It depends on the person. I always feel like I understand whoever the person is by what they say they recognize me from.
Paste: You work harder than most folks in the comedy world. Is that an easy thing for you to maintain? Are you giving yourself space to chill out?
Scheer: You know, I try. I have a baby now, who is amazing, but that takes away all the relaxation time ultimately. But it’s been great because it’s forced me to draw some limits on stuff whereas I would work sometimes until 2 a.m. and I don’t do that anymore. I can’t. I think we are in this new space in comedy where you’re kind of forced to do more stuff because things are not as long as they have been in the past. The League is only 12 weeks out of the year so it gives me more free time. I show a new series that I’m on in that I just created. But that only took 12 days. It’s really about filling in slots. I consider myself kind of like a freelancer. One construction job is ending, let me go get the other one so I can make sure I’m working.
Paste: Is that show you were talking about Filthy Preppy Teen$? What can you tell us about that?
Scheer: Basically, on NTSF, we thought it would be fun one year to like spin off one of the storylines into its own show. It was a joke for us because we felt like that’s kind of indicative of this network; whatever’s successful, they’ll do a spinoff. "Here’s a new show!" So we started playing around with that idea. There’s this episode where all the characters went undercover in a high school and we spun off the high school show into a show called Sultry Sexy Teens. And Adult Swim really, really loved it, and were, like, "Actually can you make this into a pilot?" We found after that it was too female-skewing for Adult Swim so we kind of shopped it around and Fullscreen, who is this company that accounts for ? of the YouTube business, they wanted to do it. So we did a half-hour series with Max Carver, who you know from Teen Wolf and The Leftovers, and Chris Parnell is also in it. And Scott Wolf plays the dad, which was fucking awesome to get Scott Wolf on the show. It’s not a parody. It’s really just a teen comedy that takes place in a high school with all the trappings that new teen shows have, which is murder, betrayal, and excessive richness.
Paste: That sounds amazing. I can’t wait to get a look at that.
Scheer: I’m really psyched for it! It’s one of those projects where we only had 10 days to shoot eight half-hours, which I’m not not used to because we did Hotwives in seven days for seven episodes. But it was intense.
Paste: How is it to be a part of Fresh Off The Boat, which is one of the best sitcoms going right now?
Scheer: It’s such a cool show to be a part of. I love the creator Nahnatchka Khan. She does these things that I don’t think I see that much on network shows. She walks the line of doing a straight family show that has hard jokes. It’s legitimately funny but also you have these moments of feeling and it doesn’t feel shitty, you know? I definitely have a small part on it, but I love it. I love to pop in. It’s just a fun group of people. I got lucky. They couldn’t cast that part. The studio wouldn’t sign off on the Mitch character. He was supposed to be series regular. So he became a guest star and I got asked to do it and I got lucky because it should’ve have been a regular part that I would never have been able to do.
Paste: You’re also doing the voice for a show that’s premiering on Vine?
Scheer: Yeah, the first ever Vine series, I believe. It’s an animated show called White Ninja, which is this funny web comic that are like these, for lack of a better idea, Far Side-like panels. Very quick. Very funny. They felt like this was a great way to merge it with Vine. They’re six second cartoons and I play the character White Ninja. They’re really funny and weird and I can’t wait to see how they all come together. I think we did 60 episodes probably in the course of a half-hour.
Paste: Is voice work something you’d like to do more of?
Scheer: Yeah! I’m actually doing an animated show for Adult Swim with my partner Nick Giovanetti. We’ve written a bunch of stuff for Marvel together. We’re in the middle of production of a show called Bad Guys, which is basically a group of wannabe terrorists who are in the vein of COBRA. It’s like if Kanye was heading up a terrorist organization. Again, to go back to your question from before, that’s the reason why I do so much stuff. If you go in on one project, you have to wait such a long time and you never know what’s going to happen. There’s no sure thing. I’d rather be in a situation where I’m working a lot rather than getting my hopes pinned to one thing and getting them smashed. In the past, I’ve developed for network and it’s such a pain in the ass because it takes up such a long period of your time. And when it’s done, that’s it. You’ve got nothing to show for it unless it goes forward.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can find more of his writing here;.