Talking to Jason Mantzoukas About ‘The League’, Improv, and Playing Lovable Lunatics

Jason Mantzoukas is known for playing the crazy man, and he couldn’t be happier. The UCB-trained improviser, actor, and writer is most known for his over-the-top and likely psychopathic breakout character Rafi on FXX’s The League, but he’s also appeared as eccentric perfume magnate Dennis Feinstein on Parks and Rec and nuclear specialist and sidekick to Sacha Baron Cohen in The Dictator. Mantzoukas co-hosts the bad movie podcast How Did This Get Made? and has written for Childrens Hospital. Most recently, he co-wrote an episode of The League with Seth Rogen that polarized fans of the show when it chucked the main cast to focus almost entirely on otherwise secondary characters Rafi and Dirty Randy on a road trip to Los Angeles to avenge a friend’s death.

I recently got to talk with Mantzoukas while he was visiting NYC about that episode of The League (spoilers below), How Did This Get Made?, and his love of improv.

Earlier this season, The League aired a very special episode called “Rafi and Dirty Randy” starring and written by you and Seth Rogen. It was definitely a departure for the show with little screentime from The League regulars, no football, and full-on murder on-screen.

Oh yeah. Multiple murders.

Was it everything you hoped it would be?

Yeah, I was very happy with it. The only things that I was bummed about were the kind of classic restraints of a 22-minute TV show. There are scenes we cut out. There’s stuff that we just couldn’t do. What we wrote was a descent into madness. It was absolute insanity, so it was a blast to write. Very rarely do you get a chance to do something like this with somebody else’s TV show, and that was very generous of [showrunners Jeff and Jackie Schaffer] because they really were like, “Whatever you guys want to do.” And then [Seth] and I chatted, and we came back to them and said, “Well, we think we want to do this.” And they were like, “All right, let’s do it.”

Did they have any requirements about the end point? Or Rafi’s future?

No, we fully expected to get push-back on some stuff, especially that ending. I was shocked. To their credit, they are game for whatever. Especially, where Rafi is concerned, there’s just so much leeway given to that character. Almost everybody else exists in the real world — or The League’s version of the real world — which is not too dissimilar. I think that’s what people love about this show: they see themselves and their buddies and their marriages reflected amongst these guys. But nobody has a reference point for psychopaths. To their credit, the Schaffers were very generous in being like “Yeah, you want to do like a whole other ‘else-world’ story almost about this? Go for it!”

When you were first approached about the character, there wasn’t much of a framework to him. When you helped craft Rafi, did you think it would grow to the point it’s reached now?

Oh no, no. I was only supposed to be in like three episodes of season two because what they pitched me was the storyline. They knew that they were going to need a new guy in the league, and that they wanted it to be Sophia’s brother-in-law so that Nick [Kroll] could curry favor with his wife but that the guys in the league would hate him. It would put Nick in a position in which he would be in between his wife and the league. So that was the arc.

I sat down to lunch with them and — Sophia’s brother was named Sheldon for some reason, I could never wrap my head around that — they were like, “What do you want to do?” And I had been playing some version of this kind of character in improv shows or in sketch shows that Jess St. Clair and I had done. A kind of lovable maniac. A real dangerous crazy person but like, what I love about Rafi is that he loves these guys. He thinks he and Kevin, who he thinks is named Brian, are best friends. And that’s what I love is this bizarre amount of heart to Rafi, even though he is completely capable of murder.

It seems like you often play the crazy or unusual person.

Yeah! Weirdoes, psychopaths, sexual deviants. Just coming here, I texted my friend Ed Herbstman who I do a show with here called The Mantzoukas Brothers to say like, “Hey, I’m coming to town, let’s try to do a show together” blah blah blah. And he was asking what I was doing, and I said “Well I’m coming to do Broad City.”

“Oh, are you playing some kind of sexual weirdo who assaults the girls?”

“I mean, you’re not too far off from what it is.”

So I get a lot of that. It’s all shades of the same kind of deranged weirdo.

Including Dennis Feinstein on Parks and Rec, who at least started out as a more stable if a bit eccentric guy.

I like that what they’ve done is build out Pawnee as an almost kind of almost Simpsons-level world and being that kind of weird, like, ‘Why does a tiny Indiana town have a perfume mogul? Why does that exist?’ And yeah, he’s escalated into being a crazy person who wants to shoot the guys with a crossbow.

Do you think that persona is what you’re giving out to the universe or are people seeing it and wanting more of the same?

It’s some of both. I think part of it is I enjoy those characters. I certainly could have created Rafi to be totally different. He could have been more of a Sheldon, for example. But, yeah, I enjoy those characters a lot more. I enjoy characters who go way far over the line and then win you back with some kind of heart or some kind of vulnerability. There’s something about that that I find really interesting.

Also, there are now plenty of people who reach out to me to play variations on this theme. That comes up a lot. Like, ‘Oh, this character is Rafi, but he’s a hedge fund guy.’ I get that pitch a lot from people who are doing a movie or a pilot or whatever, a lot of which I don’t do. And then some of the stuff I do because it’s fun! Like what I just did for Broad City is in that same general universe but is super different and was really funny to do.

And even though your character in The Dictator was very weird, you’re not the weirdest person in the room. There, you play much more the straight man.

Oh, totally. That and Enlightened are the two really straight man roles I play against people who are themselves either spiraling out of control.

But both of those versions of what I do in the jobs I end up getting are just versions of improv scenes. The League is all improvised, so Rafi becomes crazier and crazier simply because of heightening. All it is is just heightening. When we’re improvising all day, crazier and crazier stuff starts getting said, and then that just becomes canon. That’s it. Because it’s been said, that’s now what it is. And it’s sometimes, “Oh no, but that was the tenth take” when it’s the most insane stuff we would say.

Often The League’s Facebook page and DVDs will feature some of those alternate takes. It seems like there’s a lot of material generated from trying out different paths through a scene.

Absolutely. Just the way The League specifically works — or the way The Dictator worked very similarly just because Sacha [Baron Cohen] really wanted to improvise a lot — the early takes are incredibly long. The first couple takes of a League scene that’s going to wind up being a minute long are like 10 minutes. It’s all calibrating exactly who’s going to enter when and how it’s going to exactly go, and then I’ll say something that is way off topic. Then that kind of big giant take will get honed down to something that is probably two minutes long.

But watching those, some of the best jokes in The League come out of big long weird takes when suddenly somebody says something weird and everybody jumps on it. Like, one of the beats that I love from last season, which is also actually on DVD, is the episode where [Nick] Kroll wants me to protect his balls and I say, “I’ll be Kevin Costner; your balls are Whitney Houston.” And he goes “RIP,” and then Rafi doesn’t know that Whitney’s dead, so Rafi has a very big reaction to that and then he says finally “How’s Michael Jackson taking it?”

So the stages in which that happened are crazy. Like, the first bunch of takes, we don’t have any of that language in it. None of that exists. It’s all just the negotiation of him hiring me to be his bodyguard, and at some point the word ‘ballsy guard’ was introduced. And then it became a couple of takes of that, and then I said, “Your balls are Whitney Houston; I’m Kevin Costner,” he said “RIP,” and we did a bunch of that thing. Then it wasn’t ‘til way later in the game where I figured out the Michael Jackson thing.

So what happens is that once every new piece of information pops in, especially for Kroll and I, we just start laughing. So that tiny scene took forever to shoot because we couldn’t stop laughing at the stupidity of it, but every one of those discoveries is what makes that beat, I think, really funny. If we had just done three takes of that scene, it would have been just a very tame kind of expositional “Hey, I want you to protect my balls” and a back and forth which were really just the plot points that we needed to get out. Again what I like about that show and what I think is good about the Schaffers and what they’ve created is that they’ll give us a bunch of time to find weird stuff and populate the scenes with that weird stuff. They’re great that way.

How fleshed out was the “Rafi and Dirty Randy” episode? Was it also a scriptment?

Yes, it’s all bare bones, and it’s not unlike one of their scripts. Ours was even more bare bones just because there weren’t a lot of moving parts. In a typical League script, it functions not unlike other shows like Curb or Seinfeld where there’s a typical A, B and C story. They all start together and then branch out, like a Harold or some version thereof.

For “Rafi and Dirty Randy,” it’s a straight narrative. It’s a genre exercise. It’s Beverly Hill Cop, essentially. So for us, it really was just, “What’s the scenic breakdown? What are the bits we think are funny?” Stuff like lighting the car on fire was written, but it was just scene-by-scene-by-scene breakdowns, and there was no complicating it with having to bring in other people.

Ours really just was that story. If he and I came up with what we thought was a funny joke, a funny bit, or some dialogue, that would go in. But most League scripts just look like scene descriptions. It’s just ‘INTERIOR: THE BAR’ then whatever the story of that scene is: these two guys are talking about a trade, Ruxin then enters, he and Sophia start fighting, and that’s it. Every League episode is like 10 pages long. And then the Schaffers, who are writing a majority of the episodes, will put jokes in. And sometimes they’re great and sometimes we end up doing other things just because that’s what we found on the day.

When did you guys get the idea to pitch the episode, and how did you get the go-ahead?

Rogen had done two episodes prior, one in each of the last two seasons. Last season, he came in and did just that tag at the end of the episode where we’re shooting that Mayan Apocalypse porn. It was just a half-day’s worth of work. He and I were talking afterwards — and he’s a dude who is a fucking huge movie star, huge writer, director now, super busy dude — he was basically like, “Man, this is fucking fun, you know, what a fun show.” He was just sweetly being very complimentary to the show and telling us what a great time he had.

Kind of offhand, he mentioned it would be fun to be able to do something longer between the two of us just because that scene had been so short. He was like, “I had such a blast just doing these crazy characters with you. It would be really fun.” So then I mentioned that to the Schaffers and we said, “Let’s see if he’ll commit to an episode, and let’s just do a whole side-story episode.” Then it took a while. He had his schedule and I had mine, and so when the season started coming together they reached out to Seth, and he was totally down with it. Then it became like, “We’d like to write it.” And they were like “Perfect.” And so we got together a bunch and wrote it and once that happened, it went quick.

You’ve said you thought Rafi was effective in spicing things up every once in a while but that an audience might tire of too much of Rafi’s insanity. Did you change your mind when you were considering a full episode?

No, but I do feel like that in terms of the people who want Rafi in every episode. If Rafi was in every episode, you would be very quickly like, “Fuck this guy. I hate this.” Rafi is in like half the episodes, maybe a little less than that, and that to me is perfect. He comes in, comes out. I don’t worry about people getting tired in one episode. I mean more that you wouldn’t want a series regular Rafi.

And by the way, there have been plenty of people who watched that episode and were like, “I did not need to see this. I did not care for this. I did not think it was funny.” And people said exactly that. “I like Rafi in small doses. I don’t need to see a whole show of Rafi.” I totally get that. People are entitled to that, especially the people who like The League for the bros and the football and that kind of trash talking about trades. For those people, yeah, they’re going to hate the episode. And, yeah, by the way, they hated it. People hated this episode, and there were a lot of people who loved this episode and thought this was their favorite. Whatever.

For me, I still think Rafi is best in small doses, peppered through the season. I think he is a fun guest person to create chaos, but, given the opportunity to do a fucking crazy else-world episode where insanity happens, of course I’m going to do that. And if they let me do it again, I’ll do it again.

You’ve also written for Childrens Hospital. How much improv goes into the script for that show?

Very little. That is much more carefully scripted. They’ll still improvise certainly — tons of great stuff comes out of improvising — but a show like that doesn’t have as much room for it because even though it’s like a joke machine, you’re still trying to obey all of the archetypes and jokes of the genres that it’s aping. All those kind of procedural elements wind up meaning something. In an episode like “Ward 8,” the one I did with Nick Offerman, I’m certain there were improvised lines there, but a lot of it really is doing it this way. So for a show like this, instead of a lot of improv, there will be a lot of alt-jokes. Like, ‘For this joke let’s do this line, let’s do this line, let’s make sure we get a bunch of these jokes because we’re not sure which one we like better so let’s see how they all go.’

Also, it’s 11 minutes, and it’s servicing an enormous amount of storylines. More often than not, a traditional Childrens episode that’s jumping through all of the characters is a lot in a very little time. So you can’t meander like you can in shows that have more improv. Like for 30 seconds, ‘You know what, I’ll eat 25 seconds of this to give light to this weird improv bit they’ve found.’ That can’t exist because within those 30 seconds we have to do three cutaways to three other things.

The show seems to have rules, but so much is allowed to change week to week that that it seems like anything could happen in this world. How much freedom did you have in pitching an idea and then taking it and making it into something?

Plenty of freedom. The way Childrens works is it usually begins with a big group of us sitting down for a day and pitching ideas. It’s kind of like the opening of a Harold where you are just populating the room with ideas that you will then use for the show. Everybody comes in with ideas, but the room also percolates with a lot of cool stuff, some of which doesn’t work for the world, some of which does.

Everybody sort of falls into different slots. I wind up pitching and writing a lot of weird episodes that diverge from the norm like “Ward 8,” “Imaginary Friends,” or “Childrens Lawspital,” which was truly a departure.

There aren’t a lot of rules in the sense of ‘Oh you can’t do that’ because you can do almost anything. You just have to finesse it a certain way. A lot of times it’s very flexible depending how in love with the weird idea everyone is. If everyone is like, “This is bending further than we like, but we really like it,” that’s up to Corddry, David [Wain] and [Jonathan] Stern. They’re the final arbiters of what bends it and what breaks it. And if they love something, everybody will try to figure out a way to make whatever work.

I wanted to ask you about improv. You trained and taught at UCB and it’s so much a part of what you do now. What still excites you about it?

Just improvising. Oh my God, I mean I get excited just doing it. We’re shooting The League right now, and shooting a TV show can be really long hours. Like, you have to be somewhere at 5 AM to be funny. A lot of times I’ll go through hair and makeup and put on the weird Rafi medallions and jewelry, we’ll eat breakfast and then go to set, and then we just get to start cracking each other up improvising and I’m like, “This is the fucking best. This is great.” The process of not knowing what’s going to happen and then discovering what’s going to happen as it’s happening, I find entirely thrilling and compelling. That to me is the most fun and the most interesting, the most creative work that I feel like I do. The idea that we’re not exactly sure how this scene is going to work, how it’s going to happen, what is exactly going to end up being the product, but when we’re done shooting we’ve figured all of that out. It’s not just being funny and finding funny stuff, it’s the process of — in the case of that show specifically because it’s so improv-heavy — problem-solving and improvising in-character stuff that’s finding a narrative.

It’s also really hard to phone in an improv performance because you have nothing to lean back on. When you have lines, you can phone in an acting performance like ‘I know my lines, but I’m just not there today.’ To be improvising you have to be really listening, really pushing forward whatever is going to make this scene work, whatever it is. And that carries through almost anything. There’s something about improvising that necessitates complete focus in a way that everything else can kind of fade of away. It’s a place where I can stop stressing about whatever I’m stressing about, and, whatever the other noise, the minute I step onstage at UCB or I get on set and we’re improvising, it really becomes, ‘You have to be in the moment now, you have to live right now in the moment because you’re going to create everything, you and these other performers.’ And the audience are there to be the arbiter of whether it’s good or bad.

I feel if I were given a job on a procedural, if somebody was like, “They want you to be the new lab technician on CSI” where all of my dialogue was like, “Oh, well I went through the corpse and it’s got pretty high rates of blobbity blu and this that and the other,” I think I’d be miserable. If all I had were pages and pages of jargon and whatever, I don’t think I’d like that that much.

This is going to sound like the most pretentious thing I’ve ever said, but, to me, it’s the difference between classical musicians who are meant to play a piece perfectly and jazz musicians who get to diverge wildly and discover new weird versions of the same song. Whether it’s “My Favorite Things” one way or Coltrane’s version, I’d much rather listen to the version that continues to diverge and be surprising.

How important are those relationships that you formed in the improv community?

Oh, massively important. What I value about the improv community is that it’s a community. It’s certainly competitive. Everybody is ambitious and wants to get ahead and succeed, but the nature of the scene is predicated on not singular exceptionalism but ensemble. I feel that ethos is what makes the improv world a very collaborative world.

It’s no mistake that I get a lot more jobs now that my friends are in positions to run their own shows. Everybody in our world is always looking out for each other. There are certainly those people for whom it’s all about them, but those are few and far between in the improv world. It’s more about teams, whether it’s a sketch group or an improv team, everything is based on the ensemble. That began then and continues now.

Some of the people that I first met when I got to this world are some of the same people that I do shows with now. Paul Scheer is somebody I’ve known for 15 years and somebody I met at the original UCB and that I’ll do a podcast with in LA. Whether it’s Brian Huskey and those guys, who I do the Soundtrack show with in LA.,  these are people I’ve known forever. I like that. It’s a community that, as everybody succeeds, everybody is looking at everybody else to help and be a part of, which I think that in an industry that is aggressively cut-throat and narcissistic and kind of difficult, it’s a nice way to exist in the business. I see a lot of friends who are just straight actors or writers in the business and they are solo units. They’re going to an audition and waiting to see if they got it or not or they’re writing a spec script in their house. Whatever it is, they don’t have an outlet to do their stuff. They don’t have a community of people constantly fostering advancement which, I think, would make this business insufferable.

I would be very disappointed — I would have dropped out a million years ago had there not been UCB or a UCB equivalent when I came to New York. I don’t know what I’d be doing because it operated simultaneously as a center for creative growth and an outlet for creative energy but then also was like a clubhouse. It was a place where we all got to meet each other and hang out as fucking nerds. The number of hours we spent in McManus just talking about the Harold is embarrassing. It’s ridiculous how much we talked about improv.

In your podcast How Did This Get Made, you’re dissecting bad movies, a lot of which are from the ‘80s. Do you ever revisit a childhood favorite and have to reevaluate what you were thinking as a kid?

It’s interesting because I’m older than Paul and June [Diane Raphael] so the movies they saw as kids are a little bit different than movies that I saw. Like, I was obsessed with a movie growing up called Ladyhawke, which I thought was amazing. It’s Matthew Broderick, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Rutger Hauer, and it takes place in medieval times. Matthew Broderick is a thief who’s caught stealing by Rutger Hauer, and what becomes clear is that a witch as put a curse on Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfieffer, who are in love, so that during the day Rutger Hauer is a man a Michelle Pfieffer is a hawk and during the night she is a woman and he is a wolf. Matthew Broderick travels with one or the other, and I thought this was the fucking greatest movie.

And I would tell people about because it wasn’t at all a big movie, so it held that kind of position for me where I know about this super cool movie not a lot of people know about. Then at a certain point I watched it later — maybe I was in my late 20s — and I remember being like, ‘Oh no. This movie is terrible.’ What was so glaring about it when I watched it more recently is how a movie set in medieval times was scored with aggressive synthesizer music. Like, fake Casio-sounding music that doesn’t fit at all with the time period. That alone was hilarious. But I want to watch it again to make sure it’s bad enough for the show.

One of the things I like is that there are a lot of these movies that I never saw. I like that there’s a lot of people out there a lot more obsessed than me with shitty movies and they’re doing a good job coming up with movies, whether its through the message boards or now there’s a website you can go in and nominate movies. But I wasn’t aware of Sleepaway Camp, and that’s what I like about the show. It’s a lot more fun for me because I will watch the movie right before or as close as possible to the taping so that it’s really a genuine reaction I’m giving. We just did Toys where I was parked in front of the studio watching on my iPad like the last 15 minutes just so excited because I was so angry and so impressed by how stupid it was that I could just walk in and do it. For me, it wouldn’t be as fun if it were movies I knew well just because I like to discover the weird fucked up movie and then just go and record it.

It sounds like you’re getting to do all kinds of things you’re excited about. Is there anything different you want to do?

Yeah, I’d love to do an action movie. I want to be the dude that shoots a machine gun in an action movie. That’s all. Like, kid fantasy stuff. I’d also like to do something that’s more of a drama. Just from an acting perspective, I’d like to do more drama, not just comedy. I’d like to direct at some point, TV or a movie. I wrote a movie last year that I’m putting together now to direct soon. Some time in the next year hopefully.

Honestly, I feel like the last couple of years have been really fun because I’ve gotten to do a lot of stuff that is very varied. To get to the point of working consistently, I spent a lot of time having a lot of stuff to do and then some time where I’d have nothing to do, so I like that, in the course of a year, I get to be a crazy person on The League, I get to be a straight man on Enlightened, I get to write an episode of Childrens Hospital, I get to write a movie for Imagine. It’s like exercising all those different muscles. I’d like to keep doing that.

Oh, and keep doing the podcast, which, to be honest, it’s one of the things that’s surprised me the most in terms of how it’s penetrated the culture. I’m truly shocked. I go into a sound studio in LA with Paul and June and we talk about some movie that I just watched for an hour and blah blah and then I walk away and forget about it completely. Then a couple weeks later, Paul will be like, “Hey, just so you know, X number of hundred of thousands of people have already downloaded that episode.” When I think about more people have listened to me talk bullshit about the Twilight movies than have seen every single improv and sketch show put together in 15 years of performing — that’s great. I love that. I never would have predicted that because How Did This Get Made? seems like doing an improv show. It’s not like I don’t take it seriously; it’s just that it’s not something I really prepare for. I don’t put a lot of crazy hard work into it. I watch a movie, we sit down and we have fun, and then it goes to a huge amount of people. And that I love. I really appreciate those fans and that weird podcast world I would not have predicted would have been as big as it this.

I have to ask. Did Rafi really die?

Well, that’s such a good question. I mean, the most important thing is the title card that says ‘One Year Later.’ And I think that’s all I’ll say. But Rafi was shot in the chest a year from now. A lot can happen in a year.

Joel Arnold is a writer and improviser living in New York.

Talking to Jason Mantzoukas About ‘The League’, […]