One of the funniest shows on television right now is also one of the most reprehensible. The League is about five guys and one woman and their fantasy football league. And the comedy comes from the fact that they are, pretty much without exception, horrible horrible human beings. Horrible. And my gosh is that funny.
So for example, two attorneys are plea-bargaining; the accused guy is also in the room. And they’re going back and forth: ‘five years,’ ‘no, eighteen months max, plus probation.’ Then the defense attorney says, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll agree to three years, plus you trade me LeDainian Tomlinson.” The accused is sitting there: ‘uh, excuse me?’ But that’s what they agree to.
It’s awful. These guys take their silly fantasy football league so seriously, it becomes part of their professional lives, it destroys marriages, it involves children and family members. It’s also incredibly funny. in fact, a lot of the humor is based on that; ‘did I hear that right? Could he possibly have said that?’
To make sense of why, some quick theatre theory. Sorry, I promise, it will make sense. I used to teach a class at BYU in dramatic structure. It was a required 100 level class for all BYU Theatre and Film students, and in it, we talked about all the various ways narratives get structured: tragedy, comedy, melodrama, and so on. Two of the trickiest units (but also my favorites) were the units on naturalism and on satire. Naturalism comes from Emile Zola; the idea is that you take some particularly nasty part of human life and put it on stage as is, slice of life. Audiences could watch it, and in Zola’s mind, become amateur sociologists–see the environmental factors that lead to social disorders with an eye to fixing them. I don’t think that happens much, but I do think naturalism is a viable and important dramatic form, where you just take flawed human characters and watch what happens, without mediation, comment, or apology. Some of the greatest films I know are naturalist in approach: The Bicycle Thief, A Separation, Lost in Translation. The Duplass Brothers, Mark and Jay, are outstanding practitioners in contemporary American naturalism; films include The Puffy Chair, Jeff, Who Lives Alone, Cyrus. Satire is often closely allied with naturalism: in satire, you take some social group and somewhat exaggerate their worst excesses for comedic effect. Much like Sasha Baron Cohen has done in films like Borat.
The League is a naturalistic satire, semi-scripted, starring Mark Duplass. See how it all came together? Lots of critics have compared it to Seinfeld; the guys on Seinfeld were also exaggerated, and also selfish and awful, so that works too. Oh, and if you don’t play fantasy football (I don’t, but know how it works), you create fake teams made up of real professional football players, and if they do well in a game, it’s as though you did well through them.
Mark Duplass plays Pete, divorced (because of the league) and on the prowl. Ruxin (Nick Kroll) is an attorney, and a real jerk to his long-suffering wife. Taco (Jonathan Lajoie) doesn’t work–for the fourth season, he suddenly sold an idea to a start-up, and become rich–and has no appropriateness boundaries. Paul Scheer is Andre, a physician, unmarried and socially awkward; for one thing, he’s blissfully unaware of his own tendency to talk in sexual innuendos. Kevin (Stephen Rannazzisi), is the league’s commissioner, and pretty much always has the worst team in the league; Kevin and Taco are brothers. His wife, Jennie (Katie Aselton) is my favorite character in the show. She’s much better at fantasy football than her husband is. She’s the kind of fun woman who is very comfortable with guys, gives as good as she can take. Beginning of Season Four, she had a baby, naming rights for whom became a major trading item for the guys in the League. Taco ended up winning the naming rights, and Jenny’s baby was given the name Chalupa Batman. (Jenny insists the child’s name is Christopher).
So, for example, this dialogue, between Ruxin and Andre. Andre insists that a Facebook friend of his, a former high school bully, is threatening him, and asks Ruxin to file a restraining order on his behalf.
Ruxin–How did he find you?
Andre–I friended him.
Ruxin–You friended him?
Andre–We all went to high school together, it’s all about creating a social network.
R–Of people who hate you and who you hated in high school?
And then they don’t hold for the laugh, unlike sit-coms where they always hold for the laugh, probably even cutting to the reaction shot of other characters responding to the zinger. That’s not The League, where the filming is basically objective. Stationary cameras, just recording conversation. It’s not punch-line humor. It’s not sit-com, set-up, set-up, pay-off, laugh track funny. The dialogue is sharp and funny, but it’s more funny in the sense that you can’t believe what they just said to each other. It’s also very seriously R-rated, or, because it’s TV, rated MA-L.
I am very reluctant to recommend it. If you’re troubled by sexually explicit conversation between guys, don’t watch it. If you don’t find comedies about horrible awful people funny, don’t bother. If, however, you’re untroubled by bad language, and thought Seinfeld was hilarious. . . give it a shot. It’s on FX, on whatever night I’ve set up my DVD to record it.