Comedian Nick Kroll is one of those hyperactive UCB grads who pops up everywhere from Funny or Die shorts to Reno 911, but he truly won Vulture’s heart when he played Nick, a Neanderthal trying to make his way through a modern world in ABC’s tragically short-lived 2007 sitcom Cavemen. Next up for him is The League, an FX comedy premiering tonight, about guy friends in suburban Chicago with a highly competitive fantasy-football league. Kroll spoke to Vulture about improvising, what you can’t say on TV, and peppermint tea.
I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but there was a lot of love for Cavemen at the nymag.com office.
You guys were better to us than anywhere else! I don’t know if I ever thanked you. The whole thing was an amazing learning experience from start to finish. I learned how to act on that show, how to deal with criticism, and met some really good friends. And I still very much stand behind the work we did. But I can’t say that I’m not upset that I don’t have to swab on a ton of makeup every morning.
The League is described as semi-improvised. Is it the Curb Your Enthusiasm format, with just the outlines?
It’s the same exact format. Often they give us lines they want us to say, but it leaves a lot of room. Setups don’t take as long, it doesn’t take as long to turn things around, and there are always three cameras going on, so that things organically can happen. These are all good questions by the way. You should be very pleased with yourself.
Thank you. Since it’s FX, are you allowed more leeway with what you can and can’t say?
I think we’re allowed to say “shit,” I think we’re not allowed to say “fuck” directly to camera. I think occasionally you can’t say “retard” or something like that. Oh, well. I’m never like, I can’t believe we can’t say that! I’m almost always like, I can’t believe we can say that! But it’s not always the words, it’s the content that’s edgy. But it’s also me talking to a baby, saying I’m gonna go balls deep in my friends.
What’s your own sports background?
I’ve always watched games. Originally, I played soccer, basketball, and baseball. And then I slowly discovered women and narcotics, and eventually just became a soccer player, ‘cause soccer players got to have long hair and I thought that was cool. And now in L.A., I hike. I’m striving to become a cliché.
How’d you end up getting the part?
[Creators] Jeff and Jackie Schaffer — he was formerly the showrunner on Curb — they really did their homework to figure out which young improv actors would elevate the material. And I sat down with them, and I don’t remember when it was, but I do remember I was drinking a peppermint tea and I thought I was gonna get a free breakfast, but I didn’t.
Were there any concerns that a show about fantasy football would be restricted to a niche audience?
Everyone’s striving to find a show where guys talk like guys. But it’s always guys who talk like guys … in a space station! Or guys who talk like guys … in a Nascar pit! Or guys who talk like guys ’cause they’re in a fantasy-football league together. Basically fantasy football is a way for men to insult one another’s masculinity over the Internet, and we have continued that tradition.
Your father, Jules Kroll, a pioneer in “corporate intelligence” who has chased down dictators, was just profiled in The New Yorker. Was it weird doing comedy coming from a background like that?
I think my dad looks at what I do as entrepreneurial, and so I think he gets a kick out of seeing me build a business and build products and be my own sort of boss. And so it’s obviously very different from what my dad does. I don’t think world leaders are terribly frightened of me. But I think the sort of entrepreneurial spirit of taking chances and creating your own opportunities is something that I learned from him. And more important, what I respect most about my dad is the way he treats people, so no matter how successful he became, he still knew everyone’s names, he knew every one of my friend’s names, he treats everyone with respect. And I have taken that lesson from him. Was that the kind of schmaltz you were looking for?