Editor's note: This article contains mature content.
In 2009, a relatively unknown network launched a show starring six relatively unknown actors. It was called "The League," and yet despite these variables, pundits believed that the riskiest thing about the comedy was its subject matter: fantasy football. Fantasy is so ubiquitous now that we can forget the dark cloud of dorkiness that used to hover around it. Even though "The League" is ultimately a show about friendship (and trash-talking), there's no doubt that the characters -- Kevin (Steve Rannazzisi) and Jenny (Katie Aselton), Pete (Mark Duplass) and Andre (Paul Scheer), Ruxin (Nick Kroll) and Taco (Jon Lajoie) -- helped change the perception of fantasy sports more than any show on TV.
And so as "The League" comes to an end tonight (10 p.m., FXX), it's only fitting that we celebrate the show with an exploration of how it came to be. Here's what happened, as told by those who made it happen.
In December 2005, an American couple -- one a writer, the other a producer, both very much in love -- decided to get away from Hollywood during the holidays.
Jeff Schaffer: We were skiing in the French Alps, and Jackie had set up this dinner at a really nice restaurant on Christmas Eve. I was in the Super Bowl of two fantasy football leagues back home. And remember, this is 2005, pre-Skype, pre-smartphone. So I keep telling Jackie that this French food is making my stomach go a little haywire and I need to go to the bathroom. But I don't go to the bathroom. Instead, I walk out the hall and into a snowdrift to call, at great expense to myself, back to the United States to see how I'm doing in my league. I just had to know. And the second time I'm doing this, standing in the snowdrift on my cellphone, I look up and I'm caught. Busted, dead to rights.
Jackie Schaffer: Here was this man, my darling husband, standing in the snow and screaming on the phone. It was ridiculous ... but also entertaining to watch.
Jeff Schaffer: So Jackie starts laughing and then says, "This is a good idea for a TV show."
And, just like that, "The League" was born ...
Part 1: When the world was very young
Jeff Schaffer: I first met Jackie back when the world was very young. We worked together before we ever started to date. She was the producer of a movie that Alec, Dave and I did called "Eurotrip."
Alec and Dave are Alec Berg and Dave Mandel, who along with Jeff Schaffer, all worked together as writers on "Seinfeld." A few years after the iconic sitcom ended, the trio teamed up again to work with Larry David and help him create "Curb Your Enthusiasm." In addition to serving as writers and executive producers on "Curb," the team of Berg-Schaffer-Mandel also started venturing to movies. And the first feature they did, which Schaffer directed, was the film that led Jeff to Jackie.
Jackie Schaffer: Jeff used to say to people that he thought I gave him the best notes of any executive he ever worked with. I don't know what that says about Jeff's priorities that that's what attracted him to me, but here we are.
A couple of years after "Eurotrip," not long after that fateful dinner in France, Jeff and Jackie got engaged. But not only were they preparing for a new life together, as husband and wife, but also starting a new relationship as co-creators of "The League."
Jeff Schaffer: From the very beginning, we knew that we wanted to do a semi-improvised show like "Curb." But with a younger group of people. So this was going to be sort of "Curb's" younger, rowdier cousin.
The Schaffers then sold the idea to HBO and were commissioned to write a pilot.
Jackie Schaffer: We wrote the pilot during our engagement and up until the wedding. And after we were married, Jeff was working on "Brüno," which they were shooting in Rogers, Arkansas. Jeff had a rare day off from the movie, so I came to visit him. We joked that it was our really extravagant, fancy honeymoon. We drove into the Ozarks to find some place that wasn't a roadside diner -- these places that served roadkill, literally -- where we could talk about the show. And we ended up in a rental rowboat. That day we settled on some of the biggest decisions that we made. In particular, we decided that the pilot would kind of center around a child's birthday party, where the guys would pick their draft order by betting on kids in a sack race. And that this character [named] Taco would sing an inappropriate song about how the child was conceived.
Little did the Schaffers realize that, not only did this song already exist, but that this character they created named Taco -- a freeloading, stoner sweetheart with a penchant for musical comedy -- already existed, as well. He just happened to be in Canada.
Part 2: The everyday normal (French-Canadian soap opera star) guy
Jon Lajoie (Taco): When did I know that I wanted to do something creative? Well, I grew up pretty intensely Pentecostal Christian. Canadian Pentecostal, though. It's a little lighter than American Pentecostal. But I grew up in a church environment where for Christmas or Easter we would put on these plays. And I was a very shy kid -- still a very shy person -- and I remember saying something on stage that made people laugh. I thought, "This is cool: I get to play pretend and make people happy."
After a detour to business school, Lajoie eventually followed this passion, picking up a guitar and tapping into a love of music along the way. He ended up on a French-Canadian soap opera called "L'Auberge du Chien Noir." Meanwhile, Lajoie started recording one-man sketches and putting them online.
Jeff Schaffer: Back then, the Internet was like 65 percent porn, 20 percent work emails, and the rest was basically Jon Lajoie videos.
Lajoie's musical comedy videos ranged from "Everyday Normal Guy," a bling-free rap about a dude who has to wait in the line at clubs like everyone else; "Sunday Afternoon," a strobe-infused song about doing pre-Monday chores; and "Show Me Your Genitals," which is self-explanatory.
Jackie Schaffer: We saw his videos, and we said, "Oh my god."
Jeff Schaffer: He exists! Taco already exists!
Jackie Schaffer: So we met Jon Lajoie and told him about this character. And we told him that in the pilot Taco will sing an inappropriate song about how the child was conceived. And Jon Lajoie was like, "I've already written this song!"
Jon Lajoie: The meeting went well, or so I thought, but then I didn't hear from them for like a year."
That was because, not long after meeting Lajoie, things got a little complicated.
Part 3: It's not HBO, it's TV
Jackie Schaffer: We delivered the script and were ready to start casting, but HBO said: We want to let you guys make it, but ...
Jeff Schaffer: ... you have to wait a year.
Jackie Schaffer: At least.
Jeff Schaffer: We didn't want to wait a year.
Nick Grad (FX's president of original programming): Jeff and Jackie called me and said, "I don't think HBO is doing the show, and we think it's perfect for you guys." And they sent me the scriptment for the pilot.
Jackie Schaffer: Jeff and I had both known Nick for, I don't know, 15 years, and he responded immediately.
Nick Grad: I've been playing fantasy football for over 20 years, so that's partly why I sparked to the idea of the show. And they came to us at a good time, when we were trying to ramp up comedy, albeit low-cost comedy. And so it was sort of a perfect storm. It was not a particularly difficult decision.
Jeff Schaffer: It was a little difficult for us. Because remember, FX was a much smaller network at the time.
Jackie Schaffer: But from the moment we walked into that first meeting with FX, it was love at first sight. They all got it. From a character standpoint and from a comedy standpoint. It was a great date. And HBO was really lovely. They let it go.
With FX on board, the Schaffers set their sights on casting the show.
Jeff Schaffer: We wanted people who were "value-added," people who were used to making stuff. Like Jon Lajoie did on the Internet. But we wanted people from different places. Stand-up, the UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade) world, filmmakers. We wanted people who could go off and do their own stuff and bring that to the show.
Jackie Schaffer: And we loved Rob Huebel [for Pete].
Rob Huebel (Russell): I had an early, early meeting with Jeff and Jackie, before they had even cast the show. They were like, "We can't tell you what the idea is, but it's going to be an improvised show. Sort of like 'Curb.'" I remember telling them that I'd love to do whatever you're talking about. But ...
Jeff Schaffer: But he was being held for something else [a comedy at Fox]
Rob Huebel: So I couldn't do it regularly. But before we left, I remember telling them, "You guys gotta talk to Scheer, Mantzoukas and Kroll." And they were like: Yeah, yeah, yeah, we're already on it. We're on to Scheer, Mantzoukas and Kroll ...
Part 4: The boys of UCB
Paul Scheer (Andre): So basically, as a kid, the thing I always wanted to be was Eddie Murphy. He was the funniest guy in the world. I remember sitting in front of a scrambled television, watching his stand-up special on HBO and not understanding exactly what a lot of his jokes meant, but I just remember crying with laughter.
Although becoming Eddie Murphy proved to be scientifically impossible, Scheer's father helped him achieve the next best thing.
Paul Scheer: My dad was my introduction to comedy. Like, Eddie Murphy was an idol to me, but I couldn't see any of his movies really because they were rated R. So my dad would record his movies on a VHS and cut out the violence and nudity so that I could see them. He'd also tape "Saturday Night Live" for me every week, and then on Sunday mornings, we'd watch the tapes together.
Scheer's love of comedy eventually led him to the Upright Citizens Brigade, a sketch comedy troupe that performs shows in L.A. and New York and whose famous alums include Amy Poehler, Adam McKay and Ed Helms.
Paul Scheer: The comedy at UCB was different than I'd ever seen. I know it sounds weird to say, but it was "dangerous." It had a punk-rock vibe. Performing in dark theaters. Five-dollar shows. No drink minimums. You could see a sketch show, a one-man show, a premise show; you didn't know what you were gonna get.
Not only did Scheer hone his craft at UCB, but he performed there with several future collaborators, including Rob Huebel and Aziz Ansari, whom he joined forces with to create a series for MTV called "Human Giant." Despite attracting a devoted fan base, the guys decided to retire the show after two seasons. And just as Scheer was starting to have second thoughts about pulling the plug, he was approached by Jeff and Jackie Schaffer.
Paul Scheer: I was pretty interested in doing something with them ... until they told me it was a show about fantasy football. I was a fan of football, but I didn't play fantasy, and, with improv, I knew how important it was to have specifics. And so to opt out of not embarrassing myself, I said, "I won't do it. I'm not auditioning." It's not like they offered me the show, but I thought it was not the show for me.
With Scheer out of the picture, the Schaffers locked onto one of his UCB collaborators.
Jeff Schaffer: We saw Jason Mantzoukas in New York at the Del Close Marathon. Thought he was super funny and brought him in.
The Del Close Marathon is UCB's annual improv comedy event.
Jason Mantzoukas (Rafi): I auditioned for the roles of Pete and Andre in that beginning stage when they were just kind of seeing a lot of people and trying to figure out who would work where. They were interested in me for Andre, and I made it to the final callback, which was actually a chemistry read.
Nick Kroll (Ruxin): I was there for that chemistry read. That was a couple months after I'd first met with the Schaffers at, I think, the Beverly Hills Hotel. They wouldn't tell me what the subject matter was, but they told me about the kind of character I would be playing. They described Ruxin as a "concierge of evil." It was based on an amalgam of their friends, corporate lawyers. And Ruxin was a lawyer who would help corporations accomplish their worst goals. So that was funny to me. But what really interested me at first was the people they were talking to and the kind of show that they were pitching.
Paul Scheer: After the chemistry reads, Nick gave me a call to say, "Hey, you should really reconsider auditioning for this show. I think they still want you, and it's not really about fantasy football." He told me about what the show was like, and I called up the casting director, Jeanne [McCarthy], to see if it was too late.
Jeff Schaffer: [speaking like Paul] No, wait! I want to come in! I want to come in!
Paul Scheer: Jeanne said Jeff and Jackie would still see me. So I came in and auditioned by myself. It's crazy to think that if I'd been left to my own devices, and I didn't know Nick Kroll, I would never have auditioned for it.
Jeff Schaffer: After casting Paul, we sat down with Jason and said, "Look, we do not have a part for you."
Jason Mantzoukas: It made total sense. I think Scheer is unbelievable in that role.
Jeff Schaffer: But we also told Jason that we thought he was hilarious and that if we can make it to Season 2, we knew exactly who he was going to be.
But before they could think about that, they needed to cast the rest of the show. And they had their sights set on a married couple who made independent films.
Part 5: The filmmakers
Katie Aselton (Jenny): We didn't come from the comedy world at all. And I'd never taken any improv classes or anything.
The other half of the "we" that Katie is referring to is her husband, Mark Duplass, who was eventually cast as Pete.
Jeff Schaffer: But what Mark and Katie did was just a different improv. The indie movies they do [like "The Puffy Chair"] were actually very improv-heavy themselves. And very natural. Mark and Katie talked how people really talk. So they fit right in because we wanted everything to feel authentic. That was our big thing.
Katie Aselton: And it was so funny, because I had just come out of a pilot season where, and I'm not kidding you, I had a note given to my manager that "she just doesn't get the comedy beat." So I was baffled, and I didn't know where I belonged in the world. My comedy background, coming into "The League," all came from basically my most uncomfortable human experiences.
Mark Duplass (Pete): What really attracted me to the idea of the show is that Jeff Schaffer had run "Seinfeld" and, in particular, had created "Curb" with Larry. I just thought: I'm gonna be able to connect with a dude who is really interested in the minutiae of everyday living and trying to mine comedy out of that.
Katie Aselton: "Curb" was so funny, but there's never a ba-dum-bum joke, you know? I think that's why it resonated with me so much. That was my world. That was where I wanted to live.
Mark Duplass: Our daughter was, I don't know, 6 months old at the time, so we had Jackie and Jeff over to talk about the show. And they came over, and we had street-meat tacos and s---ty beer, and we all got along.
Katie Aselton: We sat down with Jackie and Jeff, and I was like, "Yes! These people talk the way I talk!" I fed them a lot of tequila, and at some point during the night they were like, "You're just Jenny, you just are." I didn't know what that meant, really, because at that point we hadn't even really seen a treatment, they were just sort of pitching us ideas. But it seemed good!
Mark Duplass: Later, we did this day of readings where I read with a bunch of the other potential cast members as Kevin and as Pete. And Steve Rannazzisi did the same thing, reading as both Kevin and Pete.
Katie Aselton: The next week, Mark got the offer to do the show, and I didn't. I hadn't heard anything. So I was trying to be super supportive and happy for him and not lose my s--- and freak out. And I guess they had to close Steve's deal before they could offer it to me. Because, I think, the network wouldn't sign off on me unless they had signed off on the Kevin character, because they wanted to make sure that we had good chemistry. So, meanwhile, I'm just sitting there like hoo-dee-doo [whistling], don't know what's happening, my husband got the show that I really want, but I don't know what's happening.
What was happening was that, after several years of struggle, the stars were finally aligning for Steve Rannazzisi. So much so that it almost cost him a spot in "The League."
Part 6: Stand-up and deliver
Steve Rannazzisi (Kevin): When I was growing up, I wasn't sure what I wanted to be. I guess I thought I'd be a cop, a Suffolk County cop, and then I met Kim Megna. Yeah, Kim Megna. I met her in high school, end of summer sophomore year, and she was a big theater person. And I wanted to spend time with her, so I was like, "OK, I can try that." And they were putting on this thing, this series of six short, one-act plays, and I was maybe one of five guys in the entire school who auditioned for a role. So I got the part of Adam in "Adam and Eve". And I remember going out there in just my underwear, which people thought was a "brave choice." Me going up there in my underwear, all skinny fat, on that high school stage.
Despite breaking up with Megna soon after that brave choice, Rannazzisi never stopped acting and, along the way, discovered an equally strong passion for stand-up comedy. These interests eventually led him to L.A., where he spent his days at a nonprofit called TreePeople, teaching kids about things like soil, wildlife and recycling, and his nights at The Comedy Store, either performing or working the door. Soon after, a third job was added to the mix when he booked a role in the second season of MTV's "Punk'd."
Steve Rannazzisi: "Punk'd" was a great job, but people see you on television and they think you're rich. I mean, I would do "Punk'd" during the day and then still work the door at The Comedy Store at night. And people would come in, recognize me and say, "You're the guy from 'Punk'd' aren't you?" Yeah, it's me. "Wait, am I being Punk'd right now?" No, sir. No. You're not getting Punk'd. I'm getting Punk'd. My life is getting Punk'd. This is my real life. And I still didn't know if I'd ever be able to make it. But I was surviving and hanging out with these other comedians and sort of getting accepted. And after "Punk'd," I got an agent and a manager, and I started to book here and there.
In 2006, Rannazzisi booked what he thought was his big break: a show on ABC called "Big Day," which ended up going to series. It was cancelled, though, after 13 episodes, and so the following pilot season, Rannazzisi returned to the batter's box -- and the pilot season after that, and after that and after that. Meanwhile, he continued to hone his stand-up skills and started getting small parts in movies, including Christopher Guest's "For Your Consideration" and the Kevin James comedy "Paul Blart: Mall Cop."
Steve Rannazzisi: I had just done "Mall Cop" and was at the wrap party for that. And so was Jeanne McCarthy, who had casted the movie. And she said, "Hey, I'm doing this show for HBO. It's about a fantasy football group that plays together, and it's like 'Curb'. I want to bring you in for that. Would you be interested?" I was. I loved "Curb," and I loved fantasy football. But I didn't hear about it for a little bit. Then a few months later I get an email from my agent saying that Jeanne wants me to come in for this show. It also said that the show was now at FX, and that Jon Lajoie was attached. Jon Lajoie? Who's that?
Jon Lajoie: I'm the guy who makes those YouTube videos!
Steve Rannazzisi: So I went and looked up his YouTube videos, and I was like, "Wow! These are great." And then I went over to Jeanne's. Jeff and Jackie Schaffer were there, and I read for the part of Ruxin. My version of Ruxin was more Vince Vaughn snarky. More aggressive, in your face. It went OK, but then after I left, Jeanne ran out to the parking lot and grabbed me. She said, "Hey, they thought you did great. But they didn't really feel like you're a Ruxin. Would you come back and read Pete?" Yeah, sure. So I came back and read Pete. And then they asked if I would read Kevin, so I stayed and read Kevin. And then about a month goes by, and I get an email from my agent saying they want to bring me in for a chemistry read. OK, great. Which part? "They want you to read for Kevin," my agent says, "but also have Pete in your back pocket."
This was all good news, except for two things: 1) In a few days, Rannazzisi and his family were heading to New York for the summer; 2) He seemed pretty close to getting the supporting/best-friend role in "Going The Distance," an upcoming feature comedy at Warner Bros.
Steve Rannazzisi: Before going into the read, I remember saying to my wife, who I left in the car with our 4-month-old son, that I'd be back in 15 minutes.
Katie Aselton: We were there for two hours.
Steve Rannazzisi: But I remember going in to read as Kevin, with Katie as Jenny, and from the moment we started improvising together, it was like we just had it.
Katie Aselton: Steve and I clicked immediately, which is so funny because he's not like anyone I've ever dated. But we just have a great thing. And honestly, I'm going to have a hard time being fake-married to anyone else.
Jeff Schaffer: Once we teamed Steve up with Katie, it was like: Oh, this is fantastic. That's Kevin and Jenny. And then we put Mark Duplass and Nick Kroll in a room.
Nick Kroll (Ruxin): Normally, in that kind of scenario, I can usually outsmart or outmuscle whoever I'm improvising with, you know? And I remember doing that scene with Mark, and I was like, "I cannot f---ing lose this guy."
Jeff Schaffer: He couldn't get around Mark!
Nick Kroll: He was just so smart and sure and clear and confident.
Jeff Schaffer: And then you see Nick getting frustrated. So Jackie and I we were like, that's perfect. That is the Ruxin/Pete dynamic in a nutshell. Ruxin going, "I'm smarter than you, I have a better job than you, I have a hotter wife than you, why am I not winning?"
Steve Rannazzisi: Meanwhile, every 15 minutes my wife is texting me, asking me what the f--- is going on. Anyway, we finally finish, and the next day, I'm in the car with my family (on our way to New York), and my agent calls. "They loved you, and they want you to do that show. As Kevin." Awesome! "And I have more good news for you. The 'Going The Distance' producers are super interested in you, and it shoots in New York this summer. How great is that?" Amazing! But then my agent says, "You can't do both." I really did love everything I knew about "The League," but who knew if it was going to get picked up? And who knew if it would stay on the air? So obviously, if I got the movie I was going to do the f---ing movie. But there were a lot of moving pieces.
Katie Aselton: They were basically waiting on the studio to decide if they were going to give it to Steve or [Jason] Sudeikis.
Steve Rannazzisi: And then a couple weeks went by, and the Schaffers needed an answer. Did I want to do the show, or possibly be up for this movie?
Katie Aselton: Do the show! Do the show!
Steve Rannazzisi: You know what? I had a good time at that audition. There's something to this show. I have a good feeling about "The League." And so when they came to me and said that I only had an hour left to decide, I told them, "Let's do the show."
Part 7: In which the guys (and girl) become Forever Unclean
Steve Rannazzisi: And then we shot the pilot. Day 1 we were in the backyard of Kevin and Jenny's house. I remember the first scene we did was making fun of Andre's hat around the keg. Because Paul wasn't at that chemistry read, I didn't really know him, and I had to go verbally abuse this guy. I threw an insult at him, and he came right back, and that's when I realized, "OK, this is going to be a blast."
Mark Duplass: We function a lot more like a basketball team, where it's like: OK, you get the fast break, you pass the ball right here, and this guy is gonna slam it, and now we're good.
Nick Kroll: For an improvised show, it was a very generous collaboration. Everyone sort of knew their lane and played to that.
Steve Rannazzisi: Wait. I'm now remembering that Nick Kroll was like an hour late the first day of shooting. Because he overslept. And I remember thinking, "Look at this guy! An hour late the first day? Who is this guy?"
Nick Kroll: Ha! I believe it was the second day of production. ... And if you watch the kids race in the pilot where our draft order is chosen, I have crazy bedhead because I slept through the alarm and had to rush to work.
Katie Aselton: I remember shooting the pilot and being like, "I'm gonna get fired." Cause I don't ... they just kept saying, "Speak up," and I was so used to speaking from a quiet place, not used to being around this big group of guys and needing to be on top of them all. "Katie, we can't hear you. You need to speak up!" And I was like, "Oh god, they hate me, this is terrible." And I think that's where standing next to Steve and Nick and Paul, that's where we just absorbed from them, learned from them, borrowed from them and stole from them. And Jeff and Jackie sort of lent us the same skills.
Jeff Schaffer: You never want to leave the actors hanging out to dry. So you need to come up with funny individual stories for each character, and then you do this sort of comedy geometry, weaving them together. Once you've got a funny structure and you know why the scenes are funny, then you get super funny people to say your own lines, say their own lines, say things in their own way, and every scene is a live rewrite in front of the camera.
Patrick Stewart (director of photography, associate producer): Which makes shooting the show really, really difficult. I can't count the number of days where I went: How the hell are we going to make it through today and make it look good?
Jackie Schaffer: But he always did. Patrick was a necessity.
Jeff Schaffer: I mean, the show should not exist. It's like shooting a live comedy sporting event.
Nick Kroll: Like there's a bit in the pilot when Steve and I are using a trade to negotiate over someone I'm defending who has done something like grand larceny. So Steve leaves, and I'm talking to the prisoner, and I say, "You had to go to the third liquor store? Just go to one! I stole a Kit Kat last week! Nobody knows! You keep it small!" And Jeff loved that, and it got into the show. And that's when I kinda realized: Oh, they're going to use stuff like that. They're going to use the weird details of a character. That will be the show. And that's just a little thing, but it definitely informed Ruxin.
Mark Duplass: I understood, right away, who Pete was. Episode 1, Season 1. I knew it on the second take of the first day of shooting. And to be perfectly honest with you, I was a little disappointed and a little relieved at the same time. Because, you know, the stuff I make [as a writer/director] is a bit more dramedy-based, where there's a certain kind self-aware quality and darkness and shame. And I was bringing some of that into Pete's opening monologue. I did the first take and felt pretty good about it and then Jeff came in and brought me in a whole other direction. And I was like: F---, OK, this is not going to be something like what I make. This is going to be something totally different. So I kind of mourned it for about 30 seconds, and then I was like: Wait a minute, I don't want to be in charge of this show creatively. I just want to be an actor here. And then at that point, I became a vessel for Jeff Schaffer and what he needed this character to do on this show.
Paul Scheer: From my perspective, Andre's gotta be friends with these guys. So there has to be something about him that lets him give them the latitude to go so far and make him the butt of the joke. So when I was thinking about the character early on, I felt like the best way to play Andre was not to play into the anger, not to play into being hurt. To kind of spin it like you can't knock this guy down.
"It's crazy to think that if I'd been left to my own devices, and I didn't know Nick Kroll, I would never have auditioned for [The League]." Paul Scheer (Andre)
Jon Lajoie: I mean, it's such a joy for everyone to make fun of Paul, but he is so good at taking insults and flipping them as compliments.
Steve Rannazzisi: He's a brilliant improviser. Everything you give to him, he manipulates and gives it right back. If I were playing Andre, would I have broke over the course of seven years? Absolutely. But Paul, he's a superhero.
Katie Aselton: The things that we say to Andre, we're terrible human beings. But even when Jenny is nasty, it's not because she doesn't like someone. It's because she's competitive. It all stems from her competitive fire. Well that, and her vaginal hubris ...
... by which Aselton means the peerless, genitalia-inspired confidence that her character is often known to brag about
Katie Aselton: Getting to play Jenny, getting to say so many of the things that I would never say, that was such a great coming-of-age moment for me as a person, as well, you know? Playing Jenny gave me a voice, and it was a very strong voice. She always has something smart to say, even if it's, like, totally stupid. She always has something to come back with.
Steve Rannazzisi: Katie's the best. But in the beginning I was, I guess you could say, a little hesitant to be affectionate with her husband standing there. But Mark would say, "It's OK, man. It's OK." And we have a joke where every time I do something to Katie on the show, I have to go over and do it to Mark afterwards. So I started to get more comfortable, and I think it was around episode 4 or 5 when I realized who Kevin was. He's kind of the grownup of the group.
Jon Lajoie: That's interesting. Because one of the first scenes where I sort of got the dynamic between Taco and everybody else, but especially Kevin, was when he wants me to come over at night and scare his daughter [Ellie]. To dress up like Mr. McGibblets and break into her room so that she'll stop playing with her favorite toy.
Jeff Schaffer: We made up Mr. McGibblets because Ellie [Alina Foley] was 6 at the time, and we wanted to give her some kind of Elmo. And back then -- this was before we had kids ourselves -- we had a lot of friends who had kids, and we used to buy them the most annoying toys possible. Loud noises and bright lights, you know? Just to torture the parents. So we talked to our costume person and said it should look vaguely like Elmo, but be an original character. We went with purple and green and then spent a lot of time fiddling with the eyes so that it looked as stupid as possible. And, of course, we wanted the thing to dance and be super annoying.
Jon Lajoie: So I come over, dressed as McGibblets. And I'd got it completely wrong, coming over to his house with a cleaver. So Kevin says, "No dude. Just scare her!" And in that dynamic, I think we found what the next seven years were going to be between me and Steve. OK, Taco is this guy who just misinterprets what everyone is telling him. He's the younger brother who feels like he's the older brother, but really he's this little child. And my brother is really concerned about me, and how stupid I am. And sometimes slightly embarrassed and disappointed. Got it. That's Taco.
Unfortunately for Taco, Ellie is delighted to see her hero. But even more unfortunately, the real-life Ellie was not delighted at all.
Alina Foley (Ellie): Honestly, it was very scary for me. I was very confused as to what was happening. And Jon had to take off the mask a few times just to prove to me that he wasn't actually a weirdo purple monster thing. Because I had a major fear of Barney at that time, so Mr. McGibblets was definitely, like, bringing out my phobia.
Jon Lajoie: Hahahaha!! Oh my god. That is adorable and borderline child abuse.
Katie Aselton: Alina's just a really sweet girl. And I feel terrible about all the things we had to say in front of her. Like, she was 5 years old when we started! I remember I used to look at her and be like, "I'm so sorry, Alina." I remember we were about to do a scene where she walks in on me [in an adult situation]. So we tell her I'm looking for zipper fairies. But before we shoot, she comes up to me and says, "I don't get this joke, Katie. What does it mean?"
Alina Foley: Most of the stuff, when I was younger, went over my head. So it didn't really bug me that much. But yeah, there are some things that I wish I could unsee.
Nadine Velasquez (Sofia): Like a huge porn collection? My first scene as Sofia [Ruxin's wife] was downtown at Andre's apartment. I think it was the second episode. I just remember being there and the guy who owned the apartment -- this loft downtown -- he had a porn collection that was huge. Huge! And it was like: Uh, is this supposed to be Andre's collection or what? And they were like "No, it's the guy who lives here. He's a swinger or something." I was looking through his stuff and was like JESUS!
Nick Kroll: Forever Unclean! The idea that that became a catchphrase is so weird to me. I mean it's great. I love it. But the idea that people I don't know will scream that at me is such a weird thing. As to where it came from? It's the Chinatown episode, where I get confused and think that one of those trough urinals is a sink, and it's a great example of me sniffing around the humor, Jeff hearing it, and then the two of us massaging it into: Chinatown urinal, Forever Unclean. And I think it worked because it was something that no matter how wealthy or hot Ruxin's wife might be, there are things that are going to curse his life in various ways forever. There was a rejoicing in the fact that, yet again, Ruxin's soul has been stained forever.
With lines like "Forever Unclean" and side characters such as McGibblets, Season 1 was filled with plenty of soon-to-be recurring jokes. But perhaps none was more popular than Taco coining the term "Eskimo Brother."
Jon Lajoie: By the way, Eskimo Brother was not something I improvised. That was in the script, and I Googled it right after I read it. Nothing. Urban Dictionary? Nothing. So I had to ask Jeff, and he was like, "Oh, it's this thing." And I was like, not according to the Internet. So where did that come from? And he was like, "No, no, it's a thing." Everything you ask him, he says it's a thing.
Google it for yourself now. It's definitely a thing.
Jeff Schaffer: A long, long time ago, right out of college, I was working on my first show with Alec Berg and Dave Mandel. And there was an older "[Harvard] Lampoon" writer who was supervising us named Billy Kimball. And he mentioned something about Eskimo Brothers. I don't even know if he just made it up on the spot, but it always stuck with me. And so it was just this thing that had been floating in my head from Billy for forever and forever. And I thought: That seems like a fun thing to actually put into a story.
Another it's-a-thing thing from Season 1 was "Three-Penis Wine," which was something that the Schaffers discovered while traveling.
Jackie Schaffer: It's real. It even came in "Six" and "Nine." A lot of the stuff we put on the show comes from our own lives.
Jeff Schaffer: Like the Shiva and the Sacko come from my Ohio Outcasts League.
He's referring to, of course, the traveling trophies that annually go to The League's winner and loser.
Jackie Schaffer: Sometimes when we're writing, we feel guilty about the idea of going out. Because if we're going out, then we're not writing, not working. But we remind ourselves that we have to go out into the world and see people. Because people are inherently terrible, and from there comes your stories. Jeff and I know that there are some people who, if we go out with them, they'll behave badly. And, of course, sometimes those people are us.
Part 8: The legend of Bro-Lo El Cuñado
Jason Mantzoukas: After the first season, the Schaffers reached out to me to see if I would want to come on and do this part of Sheldon.
The idea was to have Jason's character be Ruxin's brother-in-law.
Jackie Schaffer: So Sheldon was a remnant from way back when, before we decided to make Ruxin's wife Latina in Nadine Velasquez. And so we took out the Sheldon character, and then Jeff and I had some crazy dinner where we came up with Rafi. So Sheldon became Rafi, which became Jason.
Jason Mantzoukas: Rafi was only supposed to do two or three episodes. The plan was that Nick's character convinces the guys to let Rafi -- his Bro-Lo El Cuñado -- into the league to curry favor with his wife; the guys would all not like Rafi; then he'd be tossed out of the league. And this is where I think the Schaffers are pretty great. That's about as much as they had, and they were like, "What version of that would you be interested in doing?" At the time, I thought that what the show didn't have was someone who was more extreme than everybody else. "What you don't have is a maniac," I said. "So I would like to do it as a lovable maniac." I wanted him to be truly a whirlwind of appetite and insanity, but someone who is very sweet and emotionally almost raw.
Jon Lajoie: When I found out about Rafi, I was a little worried. They're bringing in another weird character? Who's crazy? Honestly, I was a little bit like, "Oh s---." And then I shot my first scene with him, and I couldn't keep a straight face
Mark Duplass: The first scene I remember shooting with Jason was Pete, Andre and Rafi going to a party. I think in the first take we had some expositional business to do. So we get that out, and then Jason comes and says something about how he was going to have a couple of drinks, and then he'd drive us all home. I thought, "Oh, this'll be interesting. I'll explore the idea of drunk driving and see what happens."
Jason Mantzoukas: Mark Duplass really had no frame of reference for me at all.
Mark Duplass: I did not know Jason well, and at this point, Rafi as a character was basically undeveloped. It was just like, he's the brother-in-law and we'll just see what he's like. And then Jason started improvising his theory about how to drink and drive, which is: Five minutes before it's time to leave, you take a mint, you crap out the booze and then you're fine to drive.
Jason Mantzoukas: Totally fine! [laughing] And I remember Mark being like: Whoa. What is going on here?
Mark Duplass: And right there in that moment, everyone felt it in the room, it was like electricity, and Rafi was born. And by bringing in this outside force, and we didn't realize it at the time, he was going to start doing this Kramer thing to us.
"Jon [Lajoie] had to take off the mask a few times just to prove to me that he wasn't actually a weirdo purple monster thing. Because I had a major fear of Barney at that time, so Mr. McGibblets was definitely, like, bringing out my phobia." Alina Foley (Ellie) on getting scared by Taco's Mr. McGibblets costume
Katie Aselton: Jason, honestly, he's a comedic genius. He's like an idiot savant, just spewing ridiculousness that makes you laugh.
Mark Duplass: And so we were immediately like: Let's keep him here as long as we can.
Jason Mantzoukas: So yeah. That first day? It was kind of like a bomb went off.
But before that Rafi bomb could erupt once again, Jason ran into a little hiccup during the show's trip to Las Vegas.
Steve Rannazzisi: That Vegas week was fun. We all bonded and went through a lot. One of those things being that Jason is horrifically allergic to eggs. Like he can't eat any eggs. And he had a bad, bad allergic reaction.
Jason Mantzoukas: We were staying at the MGM Grand. I went to a Starbucks in the lobby and bought a yogurt with fruit and granola. And I read the ingredients, it didn't have eggs: Great. So I ate like two bites of it and didn't feel good. So I asked them about the ingredients. They said the yogurts were made in the kitchen, so they called down there, and the people in the kitchen were like, "Yeah, there's egg whites in the granola."
Steve Rannazzisi: They had to take Jason to the hospital.
Jason Mantzoukas: It was a disaster. And it was also a disaster because it completely f---ed that entire day of shooting up. Because I was supposed to shoot that whole day, but I wound up in the hospital for like seven hours. And then when I came back I was all pumped full of crazy drugs and had to shoot all of my scenes in like 90 minutes. Which was crazy. It was all the nightclub stuff in the episode, like when I say, "Chicks dig it when dudes kiss and bump stuff." And I have no recollection of any of it.
Jackie Schaffer: It's funny, shooting with our cast in Vegas was kind of like the last time that no one really knew who they were. They were able to walk through a casino and be like just occasionally noticed.
Steve Rannazzisi: And toward the end of the week, we had a blast. We were on a TV show! We were back for a second season! I remember getting stoned and playing the slot machines at night, the six of us. It was a real bonding experience. I feel like for all of us, we were sort of at the same place in our careers. But once we got together and connected, we all started growing together. As a group and as individuals.
Part 9: Can you hang?
Janina Gavankar (Shiva): Shivakamini Somakandarkram. That's who I went in for, and the audition was wild. Because it's all improv. So it really just felt like a conversation. A very relaxed conversation. And the original idea, which was really all I knew going in, was that Shiva does genital reconstruction, and she treats all of the wives of the NFL players. Because, you know, they get beat up. Which is such a terrible vagina joke. But that was the original joke. So I was already laughing at the breakdown. I mean, I love a risky vagina joke. Who doesn't love a risky vagina joke? But I did come in with one joke, I remember. It was a slogan, like one that Shiva would put on bus bench ads, and it was, oh god: "Bring Power Back to Your Flower." So that was the only thing I went in there with. And I ended up getting the part.
Gavankar appeared in at least one episode for the show's first five seasons, and a total of nine episodes overall.
Janina Gavankar: Years after I had gotten the part, Jeff told me that he'd never seen anything I had done before the audition. And I said to him, "None of that really matters anyway, right? It's really just about who can hang." That's what "The League" is: Who can hang and show up?
Jon Lajoie: A lot of times, the best way to loosen up our guests involves telling them to they can insult Andre however they want. Just, like, tell him how s---ty his hat is. And they laugh, and all of the sudden they're in the scene.
Adam Brody (Ted): Well, I've never been in an improv group. I've never done actual improv in the traditional sense. So I was a little out of my comfort zone. They brought me out of my shell.
Ted was one of the two oft-mentioned but previously unseen league members. The other auto-drafting out-of-towner was Chuck.
Will Forte (Chuck): I have the worst memory, but I think my first scene as Chuck [Season 3, Episode 9] involved going to some crazy loft where I kept having to dip my pelvis over somebody. [laughter] I started in the Groundlings. It's a mixture of improv and writing sketches, so I kind of got by on my sketch-writing, and I was never the greatest improviser. But I think a lot of it was confidence. I'd be scared up on stage. So ["The League"] really showed me how much being comfortable counts towards being good at improv. Because they really made me feel relaxed and right at home.
Ike Barinholtz (Frank "The Body" Gibiatti): I remember going downtown to shoot my first scene with Nick, and right away I was like, "Oh god, what a fun thing they've got going on here." I played the part of Frank Gibiatti. Jeff and Jackie described him to me as "the asshole you went to high school with who hasn't changed." He's a piece of s---. It's not like he's a nice guy who can sometimes be a dick. No, he's just a dick. And when someone gives you that gift of a character like that, it allows you to really kind of go places you never thought you would go.
Brooklyn Decker (Gina Gibiatti): Ike's character is so deplorable, he actually raised the bar for all of us.
So deplorable, in fact, that in Season 4 the Schaffers decided to grace the world with another Gibiatti: his sister Gina.
Brooklyn Decker: Some of the most horrifying things that I have ever uttered in my life were Gina's lines. But it's funny, because on the show I have this romance with Mark, and his wife -- Katie, you know -- was right there. So that was a first for me. And we had a few romantic trysts together, and I remember asking Katie if she was really OK with this. And she was like, "Yeah, I don't give a s---." She's always making out with Steve, so she was like, "Go to town, Mark deserves it!" So we just had fun.
Matthew Berry: Oh, it was so much fun. Everyone couldn't have been nicer. So either they are great actors, or they are genuinely nice. And my suspicion is they are both.
Berry played -- drumroll please -- himself. ESPN's resident fantasy expert. Hounded for fantasy advice by Kevin.
Matthew Berry: Jeff directed my episode, and he basically said, "Just act how you act when this stuff happens to you in real life." Because it does happen to me a decent amount in real life. Should be pretty easy, right? Well, before we started shooting, my brother Jonathan, who's in the industry and came with me to set, says to me, "Whatever you do, don't try to be funny." I was like, why are you telling me this right now? You're killing me. "Listen," he says, "these are some of the best improv actors in America. They're hilarious. And I've seen you act. Don't try to be funny." Only a brother can say that, right? But I got there, and everyone was great.
Jayma Mays (Trixie Von Stein): Yeah, but I was terrified about the improv stuff. Because if you don't already know how to do it, it is really intimidating. Especially knowing that you'll be in the midst of these improv geniuses. They didn't need to be handled with kid gloves, which I needed desperately. But I just thought, well, it's a great opportunity to be on a great show and the character just sounded zany and ridiculous.
Mays' character, Trixie, was a tasteless, ostentatious interior designer. And unfortunately, the guys couldn't warm her up with a quick game of pile-on-Andre because she played the love interest of Paul Scheer's character.
Jayma Mays: Just watching Paul was really helpful in forming who Trixie was. Because I knew we were supposed to match up really, so I had to somehow match his cuckoo. My cuckoo needs to match your cuckoo. So we can be, like, a pair of cuckoos. And I'll tell you, something else that helped me tremendously was the wardrobe for Trixie. It's so funny what you can kind of connect to and lean on when you're doing a part. The costumes are brilliant. And I realized: OK, I am the female Andre. Like, she does wear some hats and other quirky things, but it's always too much. That was really helpful because it made the improv stuff less scary, once you find the character, because you realize: I can kind of say anything.
Jason Mantzoukas: That's where a lot of my favorite stuff on "The League" comes from. It happens from the inside out and then heightens over the years. A good example of that is Dirty Randy. I just thought it would be funny if there was someone in Rafi's life that was basically Rafi's Rafi. Like the guy that Rafi thinks is too much. So I made up Dirty Randy.
Katie Aselton (Jenny): I mean, Dirty Randy was a throwaway line.
Jason Mantzoukas: But the Schaffers aren't afraid to take an improvised moment -- a reference, really -- and run with it. So the next season they were like: Well, let's introduce that character to the show.
Jeff Schaffer: The fun thing about a show like this is that you get to keep expanding the universe, you know? Ruxin has a brother-in-law. Season 2, we get to meet Rafi. Rafi talks about his good friend Dirty Randy. Season 3 we get to meet Dirty Randy. And it's Seth Rogen.
Seth Rogen (Dirty Randy): I remember being told that there was a character that was always alluded to as the grossest and worst person ever, so it seemed pretty natural that I play it. It all happened very fast. Usually in comedy duos, there's more of a straight man and more of a crazy or stupid guy. I remember that dynamic instantly went out the window, and me and Jason turned it more into a game of idiotic one-upsmanship. Instead of arguing, we were always building on each other's jokes, making them bigger and more elaborate and gross.
Jason Mantzoukas: And we did that quick scene [in Season 5, Episode 4] -- the one where we're making the porno in Andre's apartment -- and Rogen basically said to me, "This scene is so fun, I wish we could do a whole episode of it."
Seth Rogen: I liked how fast and loose it was. Movies are much more precious in a lot of ways, and that's great, but there was something nice about the pace of it and that we couldn't overanalyze it too much. We just had to keep moving forward, and I liked the momentum of that. And the characters were just insane, and Jason makes me laugh really, really hard, so it's always fun to perform with someone like that.
Rob Huebel: None of the guys are ball hogs. It's a very generous group. So whenever I come on, I get to be, creatively, like a 3-point shooter. It's been a blast.
Mark Duplass: But the biggest challenge with something like "The League" is that you have six cast members who all have careers outside the show and are very busy doing a lot of things.
And so, after seven seasons, the gang decided it was time to say sayonara.
Jeff Schaffer: As Jackie always says, it's better to be Barry Sanders than Brett Favre, you know? We wanted to finish the show with people going: Wait, why are you ending? And I think seven seasons felt right. Like we've been on longer than World War I. We've been on longer than World War II. We've been on longer than the Civil War. Hell, we've been on longer than Ken Burns' "The Civil War." And that thing was endless.
Part 10: Funny things are like cockroaches
Mark Duplass (Pete): What sums up my "League" experience?
Nick Kroll: Hmmmm ...
Mark Duplass: Boy, that's a really good question.
Jon Lajoie (Taco): So many days of being with these guys (and girl). It all sort of blends into one mush of moments
Katie Aselton: But one moment? One image? I don't know. Maybe when the monkey was humping my head? I mean, I'm tempted to pick something with the group, but the monkey humping my head is pretty accurate.
Nick Kroll: Probably us sitting around that couch at Kevin and Jenny's house, waiting for them to figure out how to light it after seven years, all of us on our phones as Jeff tries to give us notes, with like a weird bowl of fruit that craftie made four hours ago.
Mark Duplass: It would be one of two things. I have two very, very strong images. One is us sitting in the television room of the McArthur household, all of us in our cast chairs in a circle, hanging out, waiting for the scene to start and just catching up. The other central image is I'm in my trailer with a scene off and I've got my laptop up and I'm editing either "Cyrus" or "Jeff Who Lives at Home" or Togetherness" and they're trying to get me to set, and I'm trying to get an edit off before I go. And that sense of being torn between my two worlds [acting and writing/directing] was a big part of my "League" experience.
Jon Lajoie: Even though it's not the most interesting image, the one that comes to mind is standing around that bar table at Tony's bar [the real-life bar that doubles as Gibsons on the show]. Just all sitting there trying not to eat the pretzels that are in front of us. And we're talking about something that's either quite sensitive or emotional, someone's talking about their family, the most serious heartfelt conversation, and then the moment when we shut all of that emotion off, all that grounded love goes out the window.
Steve Rannazzisi: Well, Paul probably won't tell you about the time he got drunk in New York and threw up in the elevator and passed out. So something print-worthy? I remember we were at the Super Bowl in New Orleans, and we went out to Bourbon Street. We were walking around, trying to zigzag through, going to a bar. And so we cut down a side street, and Jon steps into a gutter. And when I tell you, his foot went into the gutter to the point where he couldn't pull it out. And it's stuck, slurping into the gutter. We finally pull him out, and it smells, and Jon just slop-footed around for the rest of the night, just going from bar to bar. Dude, you should cut that foot off because it's definitely got disease in it.
Jeff Schaffer: We did this pilot of the show in 2009 and now you see McGibblets at major sporting events. We see dogs that are named Ruxin or Chalupa Batman.
Jackie Schaffer: There was even an animal rescue place that reached out to us and told that dogs and cats get adopted more quickly when they name them after characters on "The League".
Mark Duplass: When the main goal on set is to find, you know, the best and smartest version of a d--- joke, I think it keeps everyone in a relatively relaxed mood, you know?
Paul Scheer: Actors spend a lot of time hoping to get on a show, and then hoping that the show gets picked up, and then hoping -- if the show does get picked up -- that it'll continue for many years. But very rarely do they think about who is going to be on that show with them, and that makes all the difference.
Mark Duplass: And I think it helped that all of us were nowhere in our careers when we started this show. Or at least relatively speaking, we hadn't really done much. So we were all feeling very much like pound puppies, and very appreciative to be taken in.
Katie Aselton: On the final day of shooting, we took our daughter to the set. She's sort of like our mascot from the beginning. She's 7 and was there on our last day, and I said to Jeff, "Look, our show is this tall now."
Nick Kroll: Four or five children were born. Two marriages. A bunch of houses purchased. Just a lot of life lived together. It's so funny to me that the show couldn't have been more about a group of friends who hate each other, and yet the cast was just chock full of genuine love for each other.
Jeff Schaffer: We like that people can no longer think of Frittatas, or Eskimo Brothers or "class acts" in the same way. People are still wishing they had a pee bib or a bathroom cubby. Funny things are like cockroaches; they're hard to kill. And we spent seven years making the funniest thing we could with the funniest cast on television. And you can't make everyone happy, so the truth is that we've never tried to make anyone happy. Except us and the cast.
Blake J. Harris is a writer and filmmaker based out of New York. He is the author of "Console Wars" and will serve as executive producer on Sony's feature film adaptation of his book. Currently, he is writing oral histories for Earwolf's How Did This Get Made? podcast and is also working on a new book for HarperCollins about the unlikely resurgence of virtual reality.