The largely improvised, fantasy football-obsessed comedy series “The League” has been a favorite of both comedy fans and football fans for seven years now, which makes this upcoming season — its last — a bittersweet moment worthy of discussion.
Thus, at this year’s TCA Summer Press Tour, Indiewire sat down with creators Jeff and Jackie Schaffer as well as stars Katie Aselton, Nick Kroll, Jon Lajoie, Stephen Rannazzisi and Paul Scheer to go over the show’s epic run on FX (and now FXX). From the strategy behind assembling an ensemble cast like this, to the complicated lexicon that’s evolved over the years, to the show’s relationship with the NFL, to Rannazzisi’s early difficulties with making out in front of Mark Duplass (Aselton’s real-life husband)… Well, a lot was discussed — including what the show’s ultimate legacy might be.
In General, Here is What These Interviews Were Like
So how are you guys doing today?
PAUL SCHEER (“Andre”): Great, we are doing some great press work. I mean our answers are succinct. We are repeating the questions…
JON LAJOIE (“Taco”): Right, there’s some jokes we throw in there to lighten things up…
SCHEER: We repeat them, but we slightly change them for every interview. We’re doing really good.
Because I’m sure you’re getting asked a very diverse range of questions.
SCHEER: Oh my gosh, we are being asked… There’s something we’ve never talked about, which is that we are in a fantasy football league…
Wait, so the show is about fantasy football? You’re not playing football?
SCHEER: See, these are the kind of answers that we have!
LAJOIE: And also the show is improvised. A lot of it’s improvised.
Whoa! Really? So you don’t have it all written down?
LAJOIE: Yeah, we don’t have actual scripts, we have outlines that we work off.
SCHEER: If you’re familiar with a show called “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” it’s kind of a “Curb” vibe.
LAJOIE: Similar vibe.
That must be really fun, you guys must have the craziest stories from the set– God, I want to keep this going…
SCHEER: Oh, I would engage you in this for a long time, I’m pulling myself back only because I should let you do your interview.
LAJOIE: But seriously, this is about fantasy football.
SCHEER: I just don’t want to get you in trouble.
Assembling the Original Cast
JEFF SCHAFFER (Creator): Our casting was sitting down and having lunch or dinner or drinks with people that we knew were funny.
JACKIE SCHAFFER (Creator): As Nick Kroll says, we only bought him tea. He’s like, “Everybody else got food. All I did was get a peppermint tea.” I’ve been living that down for seven years.
JEFF SCHAFFER: We sat there and talked to them. They didn’t even know what the show was. We didn’t say it was about fantasy football, we just said we were going to do it semi-improvised, like in the style of “Curb,” and we started meeting with people we liked. And then when we actually came down to casting the show, it was really about getting these guys together. The only one we did not know [was] Steve. Jeanne McCarthy, our casting person, was amazing, was like “You gotta meet Steve, you gotta meet Steve.” And then we just started bringing these guys together, and I was like, “These are the people we want.” And we said to FX, “Here’s the show.”
NICK KROLL (“Ruxin”): Jeff and Jackie are very, very smart, very talented writer-directors, executive producers, and one of the things they did, I think, incredibly well, which is slightly a backwards brag, is put together a very funny, smart, talented group of people who have done a lot of their own stuff, and therefore know how hard it is to make something, and are really team players. So, you’ve just got a lot of people who are writers and performers in their own right, and then they know how to work in an ensemble. With a show that’s largely improvised, that could have been very tricky. But, in the end it was not at all, it was such a given from the beginning that we were all going to just try to support each other, both on and off camera.
JEFF SCHAFFER: Jason Mantzoukas was in that original casting stuff and we’re like, “You’re amazing. We don’t have a part for you right now, but if we make it to Season 2, we’ve got something for you.” And so the cast was put together with the same focus that we do every show, which is, “How do we make the funniest thing possible?”
JACKIE SCHAFFER: We had a small session where we did kind of a chemistry read session and tried out different combinations of different people. In one of the funnier turns, Steve Rannazzisi was being pushed by his representatives to be up for Pete, the single guy, and we just said to him, “There’s no way that amount of aggressive comedy can be allowed to be on basic cable, untethered, without somebody to just keep him in his place.”
And so he initially came in for Pete, and then once we had him read for Kevin and put him with Katie, it all started to flow. We knew Nick was Ruxin when we met Nick, and Jon Lajoie had been attached as Taco from the very first meeting when we met him.
JEFF SCHAFFER: We created this character Taco, and then we met Jon Lajoie and we’re like, “This is insane.”
JACKIE SCHAFFER: “This is Taco. This is Taco walking around in the world.”
JEFF SCHAFFER: “This is what we wrote, and you’re here.”
The Musical Stylings of Jon Lajoie
JEFF SCHAFFER: The other thing that was very important to us, was people that made things. In fantasy football, you’re always making videos. You’re doing stuff, so we wanted people that were comfortable with making their own stuff, and all the more with Jon, who owned a third of the internet at that point.
LAJOIE: If you watch the first couple of seasons, we’re trying to figure out how that fits in with the world. On the page they were like, “We have this show, and we want you to do this thing on the show,” and we found that sometimes it really works well within the context of the show and sometimes it’s just “Oh, we’re trying to force this thing.” So I think over the years we’ve figured it out. The birthday song from the first episode, he’s singing at a birthday party, it all makes sense. The worst one I’d say, the one that makes the least amount of sense, is me rapping with [Chad] Ochocinco in Vegas where I have like eight seconds to think it up and all of a sudden I’m rapping. And he knows the lyrics too. That was something where we were like “Okay, let’s see how this fits into the show because this version of it is maybe not the best.”
SCHEER: All the songs are hilarious, like the Vaginal Hubris and the Vinegar Strokes song, but the ones I enjoy watching are the smaller ones that are a little more DIY. Like the “EBDBBnB.”
JACKIE SCHAFFER: Jon’s contribution to the music of the show has been such an amazing thing. I think those tunes are so catchy, whether it’s “Vinegar Strokes” or “Eskimo Brothers” or “Vaginal Hubris” or “The Birthday Song,” I think those songs are going to be revisited over and over and over again.
Football Fans vs. Comedy Fans
JEFF SCHAFFER: We have no real relationship with the NFL, but the players love us. So the players love being on the show. The NFL, two years ago, three years ago, we did the draft. We did the draft thing, and we had all the first people. They thought we had snuck in to the real NFL draft, and they were like, “How did these people get in here? How did they do this? Who let them do it?” And we’re like, “Guys, we shot it at the Avalon nightclub in Hollywood months later. We just made it look [like the real thing.] That’s what a TV show is.” I think they will probably not miss us. [laughs] Let’s put it that way. But the players will, because they love being on the show.
JACKIE SCHAFFER: People say, “Now I don’t know anything about football, but I know if I’ve heard a player discussed in ‘The League,’ they must be really bad or really good.” Because if you know we’re talking about them, it’s important, it’s worth talking about.
JEFF SCHAFFER: We’re actually real football fans, but we’re also big comedy fans. I think that’s what the show’s about. It’s like, “Well, how do you please both?” You don’t, you sort of do the show and fans of comedy will like the comedy and fans of football will like the football, but maybe they’ll like the comedy. You can’t even worry about that, so worry about telling these funny stories with these funny characters, and the rest is out of your control.
JEFF SCHAFFER: There are so many people, who get like, “I thought this show was supposed to be about fantasy football.” It’s like, we just had JJ Watt on, he’s the Defensive Player of the Year. Yes, we didn’t mention a fantasy thing, but he’s on, is that not enough? Is that not enough to satisfy you?
“A Seven-Year Faux Marriage”
STEPHEN RANNAZZISI (“Kevin”): The emotional stuff and the arguing and stuff, I feel like we got pretty quickly, because we’re both in situations where we have spouses.
KATIE ASELTON (“Jenny”): We literally got married a week apart. We have our kids, our families are like mirror images of each other.
RANNAZZISI: As far as the physical stuff, yes, there was a hurdle of like, being in a bar and having her come in and her coming over and kissing me while we’re standing next to Mark [Duplass].
ASELTON: They would call Steve over and be like–
RANNAZZISI: “Can you try one now where you, like, look at her when you kiss her, instead of just staring at Mark while it’s going on?”
ASELTON: But we’re really good at it.
RANNAZZISI: But now we’ve figured it out.
ASELTON: We just make out.
RANNAZZISI: And I make out with Mark, too, to make things even.
ASELTON: I make out with Paul. It’s all blurred lines.
RANNAZZISI: It’s very sexual on the set. It’s like an “Eyes Wide Shut” scene.
ASELTON: It’s just like “Friends.” [laughs] I was with Steve and his wife last night — because that’s how we roll — and the reality that I might not work with Steve in this capacity was such a weird thing, and it just came crashing down on me. I was like, “Oh my God, you’re going to come with me wherever I go, right? Because we’ve already done this, and I already love Tracy and this is already fine.” I don’t want to have to go do this with someone else’s husband.
RANNAZZISI: It’s the main reason why I don’t get divorced, because it’s like, my wife knows what kind of ice cream I like. Do you think I need to explain to someone else in my life?
ASELTON: And to be in a seven year faux marriage, we’re in it. Like, the idea that we actually have to start another faux marriage most likely, somewhere else.
RANNAZZISI: I know Katie’s likes and dislikes, so it makes things easier when you’re doing the scenes.
ASELTON: He knows that I can’t drink a lot of bubbly water or my tummy makes weird noises. And I know that if he eats too much pasta, we will all pay the price.
Improvising In Character
KROLL: Since Day 1 they wanted us to improvise, from the moment we started doing the show. The audition was a scenario — a paragraph scenario — there was nothing on the page, really. They wanted our voices in there. So, it’s always been that and in that way, it’s amazing. It’s really cool. I love being able to improvise and find details to characters, and Ruxin is one that is very close to who I am, and incredibly distant from who I am. He probably exorcises some demons within. A lot of us have horrible mean things that we have in our head that we don’t get to say out loud, and Ruxin spends most of his time saying those things out loud.
SCHEER: Jon, [Jason] Mantzoukas, and myself… I think are these larger-than-life characters that we are not. Jason Mantzoukas is the sweetest guy, Jon, I don’t think in seven years I’ve ever seen you smoke a joint…
LAJOIE: Nope. The entire time. Zero.
SCHEER: I like it because I feel like when you have these characters that are bigger, you can just kind of go anywhere with them. They’re not necessarily grounded. Tethered, but not grounded, if that makes sense.
LAJOIE: We do have the advantage of having these bigger characters, that their worlds are very clearly defined. For myself, if I’m in a scene and I’m “locked in” to Taco, it’s very clear the line between what can I say, what can I not say, what can I respond to, what do I not respond to. So you are operating within this world that is already limited, but within that space you can do whatever. Paul locks in to Andre and sometimes he jumps out of it just to make a joke or to make us all laugh because it’s clear that he’s being Paul versus being Andre.
SCHEER: I’d prefer on a show of seven years to have a character and not be, for lack of a better term, an “everyman.” You can do anything, you can go anywhere, and that’s what you need to do on any type of sitcom I think, you need to arm yourself. I remember Will Smith told somebody, “Hey, if you’re going to do a TV show, make sure they name your character your name, because for the rest of your life you’re going to be called that name.” So instead of walking through an airport and people yelling “Andre,” at least have them yell “Paul” because that’s better. When you’re walking into something you have to be like, “Do I have seven years of traction”? It’s not like a movie, you have to find more. I feel like having a character gives you way more.
KROLL: Sometimes Ruxin will describe what one of the other characters looks like in a way that you’re like, “Ooh, I don’t know if I would say that.” I love, as Ruxin, talking about how big Stephen Rannazzisi’s head is. He’s just got a big, fat melon head. I mean, he’s not a fat head, but he’s just got a big, huge head and I love talking about his big melon head. Every once in a while I’m like, “Oh, maybe Steve doesn’t like it when I talk about how big Kevin’s head is.” You are conscious of the person behind the character. But so much of it is free reign once we’re in there, and I think partly because we all know and trust each other, and feel like we’re all rooting for each other in real life, that your character can say something to another character and it doesn’t get carried over in to the real world.
RANNAZZISI: I get to work with the funniest people on the planet, so to me it’s like whatever job I get after this, yes, I’m sure we’ll be with funny people, but it’s almost like having a superpower. I can now take my superpower and bring it to other sets, and chances are, you’ll be the funniest person on other sets because working with these guys every day, I feel inadequate sometimes, and that fear I think will help me going further in my career.
ASELTON: It is true, to walk onto other sets after this, you’re like “Oh, shit.”
RANNAZZISI: “Oh, hey can you improvise a line?” That’s all I ever do, so yeah, no problem.
ASELTON: Sure, that’s all I’m asked to do. It’s all like, when they’re like “Will you memorize these lines?” I’m like “Woah, woah, woah.”
KROLL: The beauty of the show is it’s equal opportunity. Paul Scheer’s character, Andre, gets just mountains of shit, and it’s got to be tough. He’s fine, because he’s Paul and he’s amazing, but it’s got to be tough because just takes just loads. But we all kind of give each other shit, and everybody’s got the things about them that are like, “Oh I guess I am shorter than everybody. I guess I do have a very Jewish looking face.” But everybody gets it and everybody takes it.
“Sort of Catch Phrase-y Stuff”
SCHEER: I think we take a lot of credit for the dialogue and the way the characters interact, but I would say the world building really goes to Jeff and Jackie. Jeff coming from that “Seinfeld” kind-of-mind and even the “Curb” mind, to just keep on building up this world slowly but surely, and it starts to pay off really well. I feel like terms like “Eskimo brothers”… I was watching “The Bachelorette,” I’m a huge “Bachelorette” fan, and they were using the term “eskimo brothers” like it was nobody’s business in the last couple episodes. So I love to see that, the transition of something from a show– It’s there as if it’s always been there, it was always a term.
LAJOIE: “Vinegar strokes,” “fire crotch,” it’s all stuff that is actually on the page that Jeff has thought about, or him and his buddies back in the day.
KROLL: There’s a ton of like what has become sort of catch phrase-y stuff. I think the thing that a lot of people will quote back to me is “forever unclean” as this thing that my character will occasionally say. I remember, we were shooting in this Chinatown urinal where it was like I thought it was a sink. It just became something like “Chinatown urinal forever unclean.” Then it becomes this thing that gets said back to me, and then the character starts to say it in certain scenarios, and then it starts to evolve. Jeff and Jackie are very good at remembering those things and trying to bring them back or finding new ways to do stuff. It’s a weird crazy lexicon of characters and sayings and things that have been scripted by Jeff and Jackie, and then other things. There’s a scene coming up that I just shot a couple days ago that I improvised, that tied in like two or three of those things that have built over the last seven years, that all culminated into this disgusting little moment that I have by myself.
JEFF SCHAFFER: The fantasy football was a good construct, but what we wanted to do was a show about deep history. Friends that have known each other for a long, long time, that have 10 years of shit to pick up and throw at each other. Ten years of arrows in the quiver. When Jackie was like, we should do a show about fantasy football, it was like “Oh my God, that’s the perfect venue.” [Because] it’s not just a group of friends who’ve known each other all this time, but the fantasy football gives you an arena to literally be really competitive and really mean and funny to each other, instead of just doing it at random. It was always about doing a show about friends in a way that was authentic. No guy friend has ever said to another guy friend, “You’re my best friend.” Friends are your friends because you’ve known each other forever, and they follow you around like a bad credit score, and that’s what it is. That’s what a friend is, they’re your friends, you deal with it. There it is, Andre’s just there. So, he’s there.
What, Ultimately, Will “The League’s” Legacy Be?
KROLL: We were very early on what I think has become a very popular trend, which is like loosely scripted ensemble comedies where there’s a lot of freedom given to the actors to also be writing on stage. “Sunny” obviously paved the way for us to get to that kind of stuff; some darker, funny, really strong stuff that wasn’t the one HBO comedy or Comedy Central comedy or network comedy. It’s really a different kind of thing.
JEFF SCHAFFER: I think 10 years from now, I think there will be children named Ruxin, there’ll be dogs named Chalupa Batman, there will be–
JACKIE SCHAFFER: –trophies, named after Shiva.
JEFF SCHAFFER: Shivas and Sackos. There will be people still talking about how they’re Eskimo brothers, people talking about vinegar strokes, fear boners… From this tiny little show with six cast members, we actually were able to, for a group of people, really resonate in a way. Like, team names will still be “Password is Taco.” People will still be yobogoya-ing.
JACKIE SCHAFFER: I do really know one thing: 10 years from now, everyone will still be playing fantasy. When we started, there was 30 million some odd people playing fantasy sports. Now it’s up to close to 60 million. I know people will still be playing fantasy football. More importantly, I know people will still be completely in love with our cast. I know that they’ll be doing all sorts of other things, and that people will come back to revisit the show and think what we do, which is that this is one of the most magical, funniest, impressive casts that has ever been on a half-hour comedy.
KROLL: [In 10 years] they’re going to look at this cast of people and be surprised that they were able to put everybody together in a show. You can already look at what everybody’s doing on their own, and I really think that people are going to look back at this cast and think, “Wow, what a talented group of people.”
RANNAZZISI: When you have those ensemble casts of people that you’re like, “Oh, I know that guy, I know that guy, I think I know that guy.” And then 10 years later, you’re like, “Oh, I know every one of those people.” I think that would pretty much be the trajectory that our show is on. Ten years from now, hopefully we’ll all be household names on different things, and doing other things where it’s like, “Oh, remember when they were all on that show together?”
ASELTON: I’m going to be selling Tupperware. [laughs] It’s a show that will feel like it stays relevant because it’s football, and the center of it is sports and it’s always a fun one to like, when a rerun is on, to catch it and be like, “Oh God, that was really fucking funny.”
SCHEER: I think good shows beget good shows and that’s the thing I would hope for the most. I feel like “Seinfeld” and “Curb” created an opening to create a really fun ensemble show like this. I think our show has a lot of fans and I think has opened up some other big ensemble shows like “Brooklyn Nine Nine.” I would say even shows like “Silicon Valley” and “Veep,” these bigger shows, I feel like maybe bringing back that ensemble show or feeling like you can do that kind of stuff. The “Workaholics” are fans of ours. Hopefully our show inspires people who like good things, and then they make good things, and then that inspires. Hopefully it’s just feeding a well of creativity in a good way.
LAJOIE: I think maybe 10 years from now people are going to look back and say, “Oh, that’s when it became okay to make semen jokes on TV.” [laughs] They’ll be like, “Oh, that’s when it started happening. ‘The League.'”
“The League” premieres tonight at 10pm on FXX.