In her memoir Bossypants, Tina Fey splits comedy staff writers into two camps. There are the improv guys — brassy, showman-like, physical — and the Harvard guys — quick-witted, conceptual, cerebral. Jeff Schaffer’s a little of both. He cut his teeth as a writer for the Harvard Lampoon, and yet he’s made a career for himself by fostering a friendly environment for long-form improvisation. Whether as a staff writer for Seinfeld (the Festivus Pole is his brainchild), co-creator of The League with wife Jackie, or executive producer of the now-resurgent Curb Your Enthusiasm, Schaffer has always believed in the power of spontaneity. And with Curb returning for a long-awaited ninth season, he’s reaffirming why he’s made it to “industry vet” status.
With two decades’ worth of TV wisdom to share, Schaffer spoke with us about structuring a season of television, the wonders of independent production, and his Piss Pie Theory.
One of the big talking points around the new season of Curb has been how much the world has changed since it was last on TV in 2011. In your estimation, what’s the biggest shift been, from then to now?
The real world, or the world of the show?
Fair question — how about both?
Well, when we talked about doing another season, the first question was how we would address the last six years. When we came up with a reason — I dunno what I’m allowed to say, so I won’t specify for right now what that reason is — that determined the whole season arc. Larry’s spent all this time working on a project he’s very excited about, and he’s ready to show the world. He doesn’t get the response he was expecting in any way, shape, or form. We always try to figure out that arc first, and from there, you can lay the individual stories down. The Blacks moving in, the Seinfeld season, Larry doing the Scorsese movie, we work from those.
Once we knew what the arc would be, I knew we were doing another season. Larry didn’t know he was doing another season yet. He never wants to be in a position where he feels like he has to put out work. It wasn’t until we wrote, like, six or seven of them, that I asked him, “Do you wanna tell HBO we’re doing this, so we can hire a crew and actually shoot some of these?” This happened every year. We pretty much wrote the eighth season on spec. Larry never wants to feel like, “I have to do ten, I don’t have ten in me!” But we reach a point eventually where it’s clear — we’re doing it. But every season feels like the last season, until the next season. He puts all his material into each season until he’s got nothing left, then he thinks, “Why would I do another season if I don’t have another season in me?” And he’s the only person on the planet who thinks he’s never gonna come up with another idea! He just needs time to recharge.
He needs to be talked into each new season?
It’s just that he needs to go out and meet all the terrible people and get involved in all the awkward situations that are going to fuel another season. Chronicling the details of the selfish is an evergreen business. The world is still making terrible people and awkward situations.
That’s the world of the show — what about real life? Has the changing world figured into the new season of Curb?
Eh. The last time we were on, summer 2011, the movies that were out included a Cars sequel, a Pirates sequel, a Planet of the Apes sequel, a Transformers sequel — a completely different world! But no, yeah, in the time that has passed, the landscape of TV has changed and things have changed culturally. But what’s always been important to Larry is to only worry about what he likes. Especially in times when people are worried about the big things, and rightly so, someone’s got to obsess over the little things. Who’s gonna fight for petty minutia? Larry’s our man.
He’s willing to be indecent for the sake of a greater decency.
He speaks for those who have no voice! The genius of Larry is that he can play both sides. You watch him, and you’re either reacting, “Oh, I’m so glad Larry said that!” or “God, how could Larry say that?” He’s fighting for what he believes in. He sincerely believes you shouldn’t upstream, or chat-and-cut. He fights for the little things, and in that way, he fights for all of us. He had to come back! He’s been dealing with six years of indignities. How could he stay quiet for that long?
Since 2011, there have been a lot more shows cast from the same mold as Curb Your Enthusiasm. How’s that make you feel — flattered, self-conscious?
I’d say two things. One: I think it’s great that we’re seeing TV shows from performer-writers who are doing something important to them instead of playing a cop who solves his neighbors’ problems on an NBC four-camera sitcom. When you get to do what’s funny to you and meaningful to you, it’s just better. Who knew? That’s great! So I’m happy about that. On the other hand, how it relates to Curb: Larry’s never once taken anyone else’s opinions about his work into consideration. He does not care what you think. So he’s gonna do the show that he thinks is funny. If you told me, “Larry is making this home movie and he’s gonna put it on his shelf when he’s done,” this would be that movie. He gets to make the show he wants to make. It’s pure him, and that makes it so fun to work on, when you’re only worried about making the best version of the show you can. There’s no other distractions or other bullshit. As my old writing partner Alec Berg used to say, “There’s no they.” There’s just us.
What you’re describing sounds like independent television, a pretty rare commodity.
It’s harder to make an independent series than an independent film, mostly because it has to be a lot longer, and accordingly takes more money and resources. That’s the beauty of Larry, that he’s figured out how to successfully make independent TV.
That’s a privilege that a lot of showrunners don’t enjoy. Did you just earn that blank check from years of being consistent?
Larry has earned everything, yes, but it’s also HBO. The great thing about HBO is that they’ll say, “Hey, you’re good at doing this, let’s help you do it.” There was a joke I used to have when I was on network, called the Piss Pie Theory. You’re a baker, an amazing baker who makes beautiful pies. So a TV network hires you to make the best pie ever, and you do! You hand it to the network, they taste it, and say, “Ooh, this is delicious pie. But you know what it needs? Just a little bit of piss!” And you’re like, “I dunno,” but they’re like, “Don’t worry about it!” So you go back and piss in the pie a little and bring it back, and they go, “Now this is good pie! Just needs one more thing — a little extra piss.” And you ask, “Do people really like piss in pies?” and they’re like, “Oh yes, we’ve done the research, tests indicate blah blah blah…” Back and forth like this, until you hand them the pie and when they taste it, they yell, “My god, this tastes like piss, you’re a terrible baker, take him away!” That is what writing for network television is like. Larry is the antidote to that.