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Bad Sport

The Jewish hero of the FX sitcom The League offers an engaging blend of Woody Allen’s neurosis and Larry David’s intransigence

Sam Kerbel
October 05, 2011
Nick Kroll as Rodney Ruxin in The League.(Jeremy Cowart/FX )

Nick Kroll as Rodney Ruxin in The League.(Jeremy Cowart/FX )

Heroes come from unexpected places. Nick Kroll, the actor-comedian who plays Jewish defense attorney Rodney Ruxin on the FX sitcom The League, achieved heroic status for those of us who attended Jewish day school when he shared this tale of middle-school athletics during a 2009 interview with the sports website Deadspin:

The height of my athletic achievement was in eighth grade when I was point guard for my Jewish day-school [Solomon Schechter School of Westchester] basketball team. We played in a public-school league and, amazingly, went undefeated. I say “amazingly” because our power forward was 5’6”. After a number of our games, our opponents threw quarters at us. We took the quarters and bought sodas. It was a win-win.

Kroll’s childhood penchant for sports—and his passing reference to an overt act of anti-Semitism—may not be surprising given his role on The League, which begins its third season tomorrow night. Created by Jeff Schaffer, a writer who has worked on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and his wife, Jackie Marcus Schaffer, The League follows a group of Chicago-area high-school friends in their 30s who bond over a fantasy football league. Like Curb, the show’s scenes are outlined but not written, leaving most of the jokes to improvisation.

In some ways, Ruxin personifies the Woody Allen-esque paranoid Jew with a touch of Entourage agent Ari Gold’s coarseness and incorrigibility. Having never won the “Shiva,” the league’s prized trophy, he believes that his friends are scheming against him. In a second-season episode, he compels three-time champion Pete Eckhart (Mark Duplass) to testify in court as to whether league-commissioner Kevin MacArthur (Stephen Rannazzisi) and MacArthur’s wife, Jenny (Katie Aselton), are guilty of collusion. They are, it turns out, but the lengths Ruxin goes to prove it are absurd, if not unethical. (At the end of season two, long-suffering Ruxin finally wins the Shiva.) In another episode, Pete allows Ruxin to select Pete’s lineup, a plan that backfires on Ruxin when he lets Pete get inside his head. “I beat me,” he frantically proclaims after he loses, and shortly before smashing up his living room. “Pete beat me. Pete let me beat me!”

Ruxin’s neuroses extend into other areas of his life, particularly his sexuality. Ruxin’s sense of self-worth, tied most prominently to his performance in the fantasy league, is also dependent on his Hispanic wife, Sofia. Ruxin attends his high-school reunion only to show off Sofia to a former high-school bully and prove that he is no longer “the Herdsman,” a nickname he’d earned for dating overweight women. This behavior stems not just from the fact that Ruxin’s an asshole—which he is, and a funny one at that—but also from his jealousy. When Ruxin invites his friends over for lunch in a first-season episode, he develops a “stallion theory” as he watches Taco (Jon Lajoie), Kevin’s philandering and pothead brother, helping Sofia in the kitchen. The theory, Ruxin explains, describes horse breeders bringing in a “lesser horse” to tease the mare before they bring in the “breeding stallion.” Ruxin is the stallion.

But as much as Ruxin would appear to fit the mold of the paranoid, sexually frustrated Jewish male, The League veers away from how these traits conventionally play out. It’s not so much that Ruxin isn’t paranoid but rather that his neuroses are distinct from his being Jewish. In another first-season scene, Ruxin tells the newly separated Pete that he would never divorce Sofia because it would impoverish him while she enjoys sex with other people. He wouldn’t be able to have the same sexual freedom, he says, because he looks like “a Nazi-propaganda cartoon of a Jew.” (In a later episode, Pete refers to Sofia and Ruxin as “quinceañera Barbie and Bar Mitzvah Ken.”) The joke works not because Ruxin feels threatened by his Jewishness but precisely because he recognizes his physical inferiority to his “smoking hot” wife—a judgment that has at least a kernel of truth. What’s more, Ruxin’s inferiority complex doesn’t stop him from blindfolding his wife and tying her to their bed during “terrific lady night”—so that he can go make a fantasy football trade without her knowing.

Consider Ruxin’s bout with cold feet minutes before his marriage to Sofia, caught on film by Taco and shown at an anniversary party. “I’m worried that her family full of conquistadors is going to round up my whole family and stick us in a basement and put yellow stars on us,” Ruxin says. “Why couldn’t I just marry a nice Jewish girl, Andrea Greenblatt, in fourth grade?” This statement is as absurd as it is disingenuous, as Ruxin never again suggests that his Judaism conflicts with Sofia’s Catholicism. In fact, raising his child, Geoffrey, as a Jew never comes up as a subject of concern. On the contrary, when Kevin asks Ruxin what his mom thought of christening Geoffrey, Ruxin complacently retorts that he told her it was a “really progressive synagogue.” In another context, this reply could be taken as a serious indictment of the contemporary American Jewish landscape. But considering that Ruxin invokes his Judaism for the sake of a witty one-liner, it’s just funny.

Similarly, when the successful but toolish plastic surgeon Andre Nowzik (Paul Scheer) asks Ruxin on Halloween if he’s a “Jew dressed up as a WASP”—an insult directed at his ensemble of v-neck sweater and button-down shirt—this remark doesn’t stand out from gibes made at Andre’s own cliché-ridden parlance and complete lack of fashion sense. Ruxin’s paranoia makes him come across as a dick, but all the characters on The League are dicks. When Andre replaces the Shiva trophy with “the Dre” after he wins the league in season one, Ruxin disparages him for making “a God in your own image” not because Ruxin is an observant Jew but because Andre has acted in his usual asinine and self-indulgent manner. Fittingly, a solar eclipse occurs when Ruxin raises “the Shi-Dre” up to the heavens after winning in the season-two finale.

To be sure, some of the show’s most unsettling moments—many of which involve Ruxin himself—prove difficult for even the most relaxed viewer to disregard. When Kevin, a district attorney, begins plea bargaining with Ruxin in order to make a fantasy football trade, Ruxin bargains back. After his firm asks him to contribute to a Make-a-Wish project, Ruxin convinces a young boy suffering from melanoma to request a visit from a player from Ruxin’s fantasy team—Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Cribbs—instead of the child’s own favorite player, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs. Even worse, Ruxin lies to Sofia about having a dead wife (whom he names after a coffee maker) after she overhears him trying to get advice from a fantasy talk show by posing as a grief-stricken widower.

Still, if Woody Allen’s neuroticism and Larry David’s stubbornness alienate them from others, Ruxin’s demeanor integrates him into the league’s fold. He is The League’s man you love to hate—but you can’t really hate him since, whether you want to admit it or not, there’s a little bit of Ruxin in us all.

Sam Kerbel has written for the Jewish Daily Forward, Kirkus Reviews, and Guernica, among other publications.

Sam Kerbel has written for the Jewish Daily Forward, Kirkus Reviews, and Guernica, among other publications.