Comic Steve Rannazzisi, co-star of the mostly improvised cable sitcom The League, appears in Bay Street Theater’s Comedy Club series on Monday.
In a recent interview, he describes his stand-up act as self-deprecating, but says he also points fingers at other people. “I’m observational a lot,” he says. “I talk about my family a lot—I talk about how I’m not a typical dad.” He also talks a bit about The League, the FXX network show that launched him into stardom.
Rannazzisi, 35, is a Long Island native and a graduate of Smithtown High School. He briefly attended Catholic high school at St. Anthony’s, but he left after one year in what he characterizes as a mutual decision. “They weren’t sad that I was leaving and I wasn’t sad that I was going.”
After studying theater at a state college, he took a desk job in Manhattan. Both Rannazzisi and his future wife, Tracy, worked at the World Trade Center. On 9/11, he was downtown during the attacks and Tracy had been on her way to the Twin Towers on the subway when she got stuck.
The couple had already been planning on moving to the West Coast, and once 9/11 happened, they said, “All right, we’re out the door.”
When they got to Los Angeles less than two months later, Rannazzisi set out to do stand-up every night and learn how to improvise. He got a job at the Comedy Store in Hollywood and during the day he took improv classes at the Groundlings. “My teachers were unbelievable,” he says. He got to work with some very funny people, including Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy and Will Forte.
In 2003, while Rannazzisi was emceeing open mic night at The Comedy Store, Ashton Kutcher, who was making the MTV hidden camera show Punk’d, happened to come in. “Ashton had just done the first season of the show,” Rannazzisi says. “It just filmed and had just started to air and was a hit right away.” Kutcher enjoyed what he saw from Rannazzisi and invited him to interview and try out some improvised situations.
Soon after he received word, “You got the show; we’re picking you up tomorrow.” His first punk was pulled on Tracy Morgan. B.J. Novak, of The Office, played a valet and Rannazzisi played a tow truck driver, who told Morgan his Jaguar was towed and the window was smashed.
“I felt like a part of show business for the first time in my life, which was kind of crazy,” Rannazzisi says.
He landed roles on a number of shows since then, including Big Day and Samantha Who?, and some movies, though he found his biggest success in 2009 with The League, which puts his improv training to use. The show, about the antics of friends in a highly competitive fantasy football league, is in a sitcom format, but there are no strict scripts for episodes.
“There is a detailed outline, usually about 12 pages, kind of running down how the show’s going to run scene by scene and weave in and out,” Rannazzisi explains. Who is in the scene and what’s going to be accomplished is set, then, “We just kind of beat it out… You’re always free to go off.”
He originally auditioned for Ruxin, a role they already had Nick Kroll in mind for. Then he read for Pete, and that wasn’t the best fit either. He was called back in to read for Kevin, the league commissioner, whose wife, Jenny, becomes the only female member of their league. Kevin and Jenny were going to be played by real-life married couple Mark Duplass and Katie Aselton, but Rannazzisi was found to have better on-screen chemistry with Duplass’s wife than Duplass did. So Duplass became Pete and Rannazzisi became Kevin.
Fantasy football isn’t just an on-screen hobby for Rannazzisi. “I play in what is now too many leagues,” he says. He’s in one league with the cast of the show and one with his friends from high school. None of his leagues ever get quite as competitive as on the show, though he says once his high school friends nearly came to blows in a pumpkin patch while taking their families pumpkin picking. He says that long-standing league means a lot to him. “I wasn’t famous and no one knew me from a TV show about playing fantasy football.”
His work outside of The League includes Daddy Knows Best, a short-form web series that he makes with his stand-up buddies from L.A., Jeff Danis and Ryan O’Neill. So far, they have completed two seasons of the show that stars Rannazzisi as an inept father and husband. He is hoping to make a third season, though it’s become complicated. “We got into bed with some pretty gnarly producers that we don’t want to work with anymore,” he reveals.
About two years ago, Rannazzisi returned to Long Island, purchasing a home in Miller Place. He is no stranger to the Hamptons. His grandmother used to rent a home out here for at least a week each summer. “It’s an awesome, awesome place to visit,” he says.
On his upcoming visit to Sag Harbor, he promises a good time. “What better than to laugh on a Monday night?” he says. “It’s going to be warm, buggy—come inside and sit in the air conditioning, and laugh.”
Steve Rannazzisi performs June 30 at 8 p.m. at Bay Street Theater. Admission is $69.50. Purchase tickets by calling 631-725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.