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Writer and TV producer Jeff Schaffer talks shop

By on January 19, 2021 0

remember that Seinfeld episode where Kramer collected skeletons and restored them to museum quality by washing the bones in Jerry’s dishwasher so he could sell them?

No? Maybe it’s because it never happened. Writer, director and television producer Jeff Schaffer ’91 and his friends Alec Berg ’91 and David Mandel ’92 were writing for the series in 1995 when they took this idea as the head of screenwriter and co-creator Larry David. He rejected it. Two years later, Schaffer and Berg were leading the series as executive producers and revisited the concept. “We said, ‘Hey, Larry was right,’ Schaffer recalls.

Seinfeld transformed Schaffer’s career, as with those of Berg and Mandel, and not just because he came up with the concept of the Festivus Pole and that he and Berg helped write the episode which added “re-gift” to the English language. It’s because of what he learned from David behind the scenes as he transitioned from writer to executive producer. “We had to follow him around and harass him and he taught us everything from blocking to editing to sound mixing,” said Schaffer, who later became executive producer of David’s next show, Calm your enthusiasm, in which David plays a fictionalized version of himself, living in semi-retirement after the success of Seinfeld.

The crucial lesson was knowing where to find the humor. “The foundation of comedy is finding interesting stories and then figuring out what container they fit into,” he says. The idea of ​​the skeleton was funny, but it always felt stuck. “A story should be funny when you tell it—[Seinfeld’s] George gets caught eating in the trash can, but that should also be fun in the way it intersects with the other stories. So you keep collecting stories even though sometimes you have stories that you have recorded for years and years.

Schaffer picked up another valuable comedy tip in college from a less likely source than David. He came to Harvard in the hope of joining The Lampoon, although he didn’t realize that writing comedy was a legitimate career. He had a “wandering curriculum”: he was briefly pre-med, was a concentrator of classics, and studied Mayan civilization before earning a degree in biological anthropology.

Jeff schaffer
Photograph courtesy of John P. Johnson / HBO

By this time, however, he, Berg, and Mandel were writing a fake Pamphlet documentary scheduled to coincide with MTV’s tenth anniversary. (This television parody of birthday specials was picked up by Comedy Central, a crucial part of the curriculum vitae.) So when Irven DeVore, Moore’s professor of biological anthropology and then chair of the department, asked what his plans were , Schaffer said: “Comedy writer.” DeVore, a social anthropologist, offered advice from his own field: “Comedy is about social taboos.”

“I took this with me and all I did was break the taboos,” Schaffer says. When something embarrassing happens to him, he always thinks of ways to use it for laughs on TV. “When people ask, ‘Do you know where the line is? “” – the line he shouldn’t cross – “I say, ‘Sure, I can look back and see him. Sometimes the actors say, ‘We can’t do this’, and I say, ‘We can do it and we will do it too’.

When Schaffer first met Dave Burd, better known as rapper and comedian Lil Dicky, to discuss a possible collaboration on what this spring became the sitcom Dave, Burd has revealed personal details of his disfigured genitals. “He said, ‘It’s a secret, no girlfriend even knows that,’” Schaffer recalls. “So I said, ‘Actually, it’s going to be in the first scene of the show.’ And it was.”

The success of Schaffer’s television comedy – he and his wife, Jackie Schaffer, also created The league, about Chicagoans in a fantasy football league, and led it for seven seasons, it’s about more than collecting stories and pushing people’s buttons. His penchant for speaking too much and too fast actually makes him effective at what he calls “puzzle solving”, going forward until he finds the best option.

Mandel agrees. When something doesn’t work, he explains, many comedy writers, including himself, “stare into the abyss, even though the silence is deadly. Jeff is going to strafe you with jokes. Not all of them work, of course, but many do and it keeps the conversation going. “

Burd, a television novice before Dave, adds that Schaffer is “a master of structure and understanding of script flow”, but “even more valuable on set, as a quarterback of everything that goes on – he’s not the director, but he’s so handy and good with the actors, never getting angry. ” Recognized star and co-creator of “high maintenance”, Burd also marvels at Schaffer’s commitment. “He was working on our show and on Sidewalk and he has a family but I will email him, sometimes based on complaints, at 11 afternoon and he answers at 11:06 am. How does he do that? “

Schaffer’s own shows share stylistic similarities to the hits he worked on with Larry David, but he also overcame the differences. Seinfeld was a very structured and tightly scripted series, while Sidewalk turns with nothing but a story of a few pages. “Each scene is semi-improvised with live rewrites,” Schaffer explains. “It feels real because people are actually listening to each other.” During the filming, David doesn’t want to know what the other actors are going to say and wants to be surprised. Meanwhile, Schaffer, as executive producer, often creates jokes and conflict on the spot: “I whisper in the ears of other actors, ‘Maybe you can say this.’ So the show is made as if Larry’s life is being lived – the whole world is against him. ” Sidewalk Also leaves room for what Schaffer calls “magical digressions,” in which David and, say, co-star JB Smoove talk about something random on set and decide to make it part of the series. “It can still be a solid comedy,” Schaffer explains, “because we worked so hard on the structure,” the underlying narrative framework.

Dave, As The league before her, is between the Seinfeld and Sidewalk approaches. “We picked some good improvisers,” he says, “but the show is more scripted for each scene, although we encourage everyone to say things their own way, so they talk like people really talk. This makes the humor more spontaneous and organic.

Schaffer does not know if he has always been able to adapt or if he has developed these skills during his career. To be fair, he also doesn’t understand how he came to be one of the top comedy producers on TV. “I’ve never done a lot of soul searching,” he admits. “It’s about playing. In college we would talk about weird and silly things to make us laugh. Now I just do it professionally – all the things I was in trouble for, I am now handsomely paid for. And I can wear what most people would wear to wash their cars.