Plenty of football players can relate to being torched by former Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch — but probably none quite as literally as actor/comedian Steve Rannazzisi can.
The former Seahawks star's guest bit on long-running fantasy football-inspired FX sitcom The League ended up with Rannazzisi's character literally on fire after the unwise decision by his brother to toss him a beer instead of simply handing it to Lynch resulted in Rannazzisi's stumble into a flaming grill.
The scene's — and entire series' — blend of absurd slapstick, real football jocks and highly improvised dialogue between Rannazzisi and comedy costars like Paul Scheer, Mark Duplass and Nick Kroll earned The League a rabid audience over the course of seven seasons.
"We're not like Big Bang Theory, where 50 million people watched us every week, but the people that did watch, they are tremendous fans," says Rannazzisi from his L.A. home. "They know all the references to the show, and they are very boisterous."
For Rannazzisi, a relative unknown outside the Los Angeles comedy scene before The League, that "boisterous" response takes form in unusual ways: Getting yelled at on the street by his character's name, Kevin, or having random strangers yell "Shiva blast!" as he walks by. That kind of positive reinforcement was not a given when the show first came together.
"We shot the pilot and we knew it was funny. We knew it made us laugh," Rannazzisi says. "But we'd all been through the network system, where stuff gets canceled regardless of its quality." He credits FX with letting the series find an audience as the actors continued to "figure out our tone and how to be funny for our audience, and we did. It just got bigger and bigger year after year."
The show's popularity allowed Rannazzisi to hit the stand-up circuit around the country, thanks to his face suddenly being familiar. He was no rookie to comedy, working for eight years at the legendary Comedy Store after moving to Los Angeles from his native New York. Between auditioning for acting roles by day and working the door or parking cars at the club at night, he wrote jokes and got on stage to perform them whenever possible.
"That was really my entrance to the stand-up world," Rannazzisi says. "You think you have a couple of jokes and you can go up on stage and make people laugh, but you don't really know what it takes to continue to do that. Working there, I saw how guys like Joe Rogan or Andrew 'Dice' Clay, these big names, I saw how they develop their material and worked to develop their voice."
While Rannazzisi's acting training from college helped him always feel comfortable on stage, writing material and crafting jokes was a challenge, he says. But seeing legends like Robin Williams drop by and work out new material — not always successfully — helped the aspiring comic with his own work.
"Seeing that no one is impenetrable, no one is bulletproof, even Robin Williams, that was an eye-opener," Rannazzisi says.
While The League raised Rannazzisi's profile to the point where he's headlining stand-up tours across the country now, including a stop in Spokane this week, his newfound fame came with a cost, too. Shortly before the last season of The League debuted, reporters found he had lied in some podcast interviews about working in the Twin Towers on 9/11. The discovery cost him a job doing commercials for Buffalo Wild Wings and forced him into a public apology tour; watching his 40-minute conversation on The Howard Stern Show is excruciating.
It seems like Rannazzisi will survive that scandal, though, thanks to his genuine regret, as 2017 will see his appearance on a new episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Also in the works is a role in a feature film, Avengers of Justice: Farce Wars. ♦
Steve Rannazzisi • Thu, Nov. 17, at 7:30 pm; Fri, Nov. 18, at 7:30 and 10:30 pm; Sat, Nov. 19, at 7:30 and 10:30 pm • $18-$24 • Spokane Comedy Club • 315 W. Sprague • spokanecomedyclub.com • 318-9998