The star of The League, NTSF:SD:SUV::, and the "How Did This Get Made?" podcast talks creative control, paycheck jobs, and why big-budget movies usually suck.
A veteran improv comedian, Paul Scheer is comfortable switching roles in an instant. It comes in handy when the 36-year-old cycles between writing and playing Dr. Andre Nowzick on The League; writing, producing, and starring in his police procedural parody, NTSF:SD:SUV::; and producing his “How Did This Get Made?” podcast, where he dissects bad movies with wife June Diane Raphael and The League co-star Jason Mantzoukas. Complex sees if he can juggle all that and play the willing interview subject, too.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)
Improvisation has played a large role in your career, from Chicago City Limits and the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater to The League. How has improv informed you as a performer and creator?
Improv teaches you a collaborative listening skill. That transcends everything I do. In acting, it makes you be more present. On a TV show like The League, which has an outline for episodes but is improvised, we listen to each other in scenes and build. I can work with anyone because we can build an idea together. People who do improv don’t feel as possessive as other people do, like, “This is my idea and my way is the only acceptable way.”
If you’ve worked any time in this business, you have been in things that you’re not so psyched about. I was on a TV show called Meow TV, which was television for cats, by cats. At the time, I was like, 'This is gonna be fun!'
In improvised projects, good editing is key. How involved are you in that process?
Anything that I produce, like NTSF, Human Giant, and Funny or Die videos, I’m involved from conception to release. I prefer it that way. You’re able to deliver what you want. I get a lot of anxiety about leaving something in somebody else’s hands. Like, which line are they gonna use? In writing, performing, and editing, you get three chances to evolve and refine a piece. Editing makes you a better performer because you start to understand how things will be used and what will make the final cut.
You’ve said that the quality of what you work on is most important to you. You’ve never worked strictly for a paycheck?
No. I’ve never even been in a situation where I could say I was in it for the money. [Laughs.] Ultimately you’re judged by what you’ve done. Paycheck gigs often come with bigger consequences—you may be making a lot of money but your body of work is less interesting.
How have MTV (Human Giant), FX (The League), and Adult Swim (NTSF:SD:SUV::) shaped your shows?
I’ve been lucky. All three of these places—at least the MTV I worked at, under Tony DiSanto—are very creator-driven. FX and Adult Swim don’t give you a ton of money, but they let you do whatever you want. If it succeeds then they look like geniuses. If your show fails, it’s like, “Well, he did his own thing and we never saw eye to eye.” [Laughs.] With cable networks, there are only two people you have to go through: your network executive and the head of the network. You don’t have a panel of people putting their two cents in before the head of the network sees it because they’re afraid their boss might not like something.
NTSF began as a parody of police procedural shows. How difficult is it to one-up shows that are already over-the-top?
We don’t try to be funnier than CSI, NCIS, or Hawaii 5-0. We try to be equally as funny as them, because those shows are ridiculous. On Hawaii 5-0, they went to North Korea to rescue one of their guys who got kidnapped. They meet up with Jimmy Buffet, who says, “I have an old Vietnam War helicopter,” which they hop in for the rescue mission. In the writers’ room, we wonder, “What do the producers of these shows think?” We put ideas through the filter of a fictional 57-year-old guy who’s been running this show for the past 10 years. What does he think is a good episode?
Those shows have way more time and money.
No matter what your time frame or budget, you never feel like you have enough of either. I’d rather work in a constricted environment. It makes you cut the fat. When things get bloated you feel it. The lack of money allows you to be more creative. You’ll never see us have a car chase or explode stuff, but we strive. Lack of budget will never stop us from being funny.
Having dissected numerous big-budget fails, what have you found to be the root of shittiness?
Too much interference and trying to be too much to too many people. When you’re spending all this money, you have all these big stars, and you’re trying to launch a franchise like Green Lantern, there are so many ideas going into the pot, watering things down. It falls apart.
Have you experienced any backlash from laughing at people’s failures?
Fortunately, no. Our podcast isn’t a bunch of people sitting in a room being bitter, saying, “Man, screw that person! That director sucks!” A bad movie is a mistake—and if you’ve worked any time in this business, you have been in things that you’re not so psyched about. I was on a TV show called Meow TV, which was television for cats, by cats. At the time, I was like, “This is gonna be fun!” And then it was terrible, not fun at all. I don’t want to take a movie that people have mixed feelings about and make them think it’s bad. We pick real bombs that can’t be defended.