Jeff Schaffer '91 (Writer, Producer, & Director, SEINFELD, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, BRUNO, EUROTRIP)
By Sean O'Rourke MAT '68
In college the friends we make and the groups we join are sometimes more important than the professors whose courses we take. This is certainly true for Jeff Schaffer '91. He came to Cambridge with vague aspirations to become a doctor, an archeologist, or at least a scientist of some sort, and it just did not work out that way.
He drifted from classics to archeology to biological anthropology. But more importantly, he joined the Lampoon. And he spent more time in the Castle than the Yard. His was not a classic Harvard experience (is there such a thing?), but it was great education for a comedy writer.
In fact, when he was taking his oral exams in biological anthropology, Harvard professor Irv DeVore asked what he intended to do with his degree. Jeff responded, "Go to L.A. and write for TV.” Dr. Devore was not at all disappointed. In fact, he explained that much of comedy comes from exploring and breaking societal taboos. Jeff realized how right he was, and that is what he has been doing ever since.
The year Jeff graduated, the Lampoon’s summer project was to do a TV show for Comedy Central parodying MTV’s tenth anniversary special. Jeff and his friends Alec Berg ‘91 and David Mandel ’92 wrote the special, which put them in the unique situation of having a writing sample that, unlike most samples, was actually produced.
After graduation, Jeff and Alec moved to Los Angeles, where their first job was writing an episode of a show created by Tom Gammill ‘81 and Max Pross ’81 called Great Scott starring Tobey McGuire, now better known as Spiderman.
That show was cancelled after a few episodes. Then Jeff and Alec spent a year writing shows which were produced and shot and later, for various reasons, cancelled. This led to some awkward situations. Asked what they did, they said that they wrote for television and then had to explain why no one had ever -- or could ever have -- seen any one of their shows.
In 1994 they spent four months in New York writing for Conan O’Brien and returned to Los Angeles to find that the show they had expected to work on had been cancelled.
Tom and Max were then working on Seinfeld and asked Jeff and Alec to submit ideas. They did, and after hearing nothing for two months, they decided to return to New York and again write for Conan O’Brien. The day before the moving truck was scheduled to arrive, Seinfeld called. They met with Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David and were hired that day. They worked on Seinfeld for four years, rising from staff writers to executive producers and show runners.
Television comedies are usually written in "the room” where the entire staff breaks stories and writes the show before it goes to the cast for rehearsal and filming. Seinfeld was different. Writers worked on their own and came back with original ideas, often based on things that actually happened.
It was necessary to come up with one idea for each of the four characters, weave them together in an outline and then write the script. "The idea was to go out in the world, and whenever you were uncomfortable, or made a fool of yourself, that was a potential story idea” says Schaffer.
But this was not the end. The writers were also responsible for casting, blocking, editing, mixing, everything. This went on seven days a week for four years. They only knew when it was Sunday because "that was the day you went to work and stepped over the big paper.”
Later, with fellow Lampoon alum David Mandel (who joined them for the last three years on Seinfeld), they began working on movies, doing both rewrites and originals. On Eurotrip they both wrote and directed. Since Directors Guild rules permit only one directing credit, they put their names in a hat and held a drawing. Jeff won.
Working alone, Jeff co-wrote Bruno for Sacha Baron Cohen. Shooting involved travel in America, Europe and the Middle East. Scenes were improvised with locals, celebrities, fashion designers and high-ranking government officials who did not realize they were in a movie. Sometimes the locals did not cooperate. In Jerusalem, Hasidic Jews took exception to Cohen’s costume. He had to run for his life.
Jeff, Alec and David are back together again on Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. For the last two seasons they have written, directed and served as executive producers. This season, Jeff’s professional life has come full circle as the cast of Seinfeld "reunited” on the show. Being back on the set with the Seinfeld cast ten years after the show went off the air has been an amazing time-travelling experience.
This fall, Jeff has another series on the air as well. With his wife (Jackie Marcus Schaffer), he has created The League, a show about a group of fantasy football enthusiasts that uses a structured outline and improvised dialogue on the model of Curb. It runs on FX Thursday evenings at 10:30 PM.
For Jeff, Los Angeles is "Lampoon West” and he still sees and works with many friends from college. And he is still using his anthropology degree. He is studying his fellow men, noting their mannerisms and their foibles … and turning them into comedy gold.