On Christmas Eve 2005, Jeff Schaffer kept sneaking away from dinner with his wife Jackie—telling her that he was getting sick from the food—just so that he could find out the score to his fantasy football championship game. When Jackie caught him doing this, there was nothing they could do but laugh. And a show was born. Or at least, the idea of a show.
Over the next several years, Jeff and Jackie started to put together the pieces of the puzzle that would soon become the improvisational comedy, The League, which airs its final episode after seven seasons on Wednesday, December 9, on FXX. The cast and creators of The League share how it all came together, what each person’s sensibility brought to the show, and Andre’s sense of fashion.
In the beginning
Jackie Schaffer: We were originally at HBO and they had sort of hit their cap for production money for the year for half-hour comedies. We were very lucky that we had very supportive, aggressive reps and a very kind partner in HBO that was willing to let us move it to FX.
Jeff Schaffer: We got really lucky that FX needed something right when we had something. It was a perfect “FX show” FX was excited about doing it as we were and they weren’t scared off by the fantasy football aspect. They knew it wasn’t about fantasy football, it was about a group of friends that were in a fantasy football league together.
Jeff: Every fantasy football league has certain archetypes, but we wanted to make sure we weren’t just doing that. We wanted to work on the characters not as a group of fantasy football players, but as a group of comedy characters.
Jackie: As a group of friends. First, we knew we wanted to talk about a marriage that had elements of what we experienced in our marriage or in other marriages that we’ve seen, so we started with Kevin and Jenny. Ruxin was a character that is a little bit Jeff and a little bit some other people that we know.
Jeff: The worst parts of every character I think are me.
Jackie: We knew what we wanted to do with Taco. We knew there was going to be an Andre. A guy that basically no matter how successful he was, he’d always be the butt of everyone’s jokes. We had already been thinking about Paul Scheer.
Paul Scheer: I sat down with them at a restaurant and they told me about this idea for a show. I didn’t hear anything else about it for a long time, and then one day out of the blue I got a phone call: “That show that you met for, they’re auditioning for it. It’s a show about fantasy football and it’s improvised.” My first reaction was, “I don’t want to do this show. I don’t know anything about fantasy football. I don’t even know how to improvise for this thing.” It’s like someone wanting you to play guitar in their band but you play drums. So I passed. Everyone was going in for their auditions and Nick Kroll hit me up and was like, “Hey, you should really go in for this show, I know they want you to come in for it.” I told him that I don’t know anything about fantasy football, and he said, “Trust me, you don’t have to. We’ve been improvising these scenes: They’re not like fantasy football scenes; they’re just scenes.”
Nick Kroll: I told him, “I don’t think the actors on ER know anything about medicine.”
PS: I thank Nick for that phone call or I would have missed out on this 100 percent.
Jeff: Jason Mantzoukas was reading for Andre when Paul wasn’t going to do it. When Paul came back, we told Jason, “You’re hilarious. We don’t have a part for you right now. But if we get picked up for another season, we know exactly who you’re going to be.”
Jeff: We spent a lot of time just meeting with people that we knew were funny.
Jackie: As we were writing, we knew we were then writing those characters toward those people. Steve [Rannazzisi] and Mark [Duplass] were sort of the last to come along. We knew we were writing Nick as Ruxin and Jon Lajoie as Taco.
NK: I met with them at a breakfast meeting and I thought, “Whatever happens, at least I’ll get a free breakfast out of it.” I got there and all we had was coffee and I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t going to get a full breakfast. But the meeting was great. I knew that they had been going to a lot of shows at UCB and talking to a lot of my friends who I thought we were really funny. That was what was most impressive, that they were trying to assemble the right kind of people to make a show with.
Jeff: Back then the internet was like 65 percent porn, 20 percent Jon Lajoie videos, and the rest was work emails. He was so funny. For us, there was never any question, we just knew he knew how to make comedy things.
Jon Lajoie: I was up in Montreal doing my own thing and I moved to L.A. but didn’t really know anyone in the comedy community. I probably met with Jeff and Jackie like a year before we shot the pilot. My big worry going in was that I wouldn’t be able to improvise sports. But within the first two minutes they told me, “Your character is the guy who knows nothing about sports. You’re stoned all the time. You’re kind of a weirdo.” And I was like great, I’m into this.
Jeff: The only one that we hadn’t met before we started the real casting process was Steve Rannazzisi.
Jackie: He read for Ruxin, which was an accident. Somebody in the office gave him the wrong sides or something. So we asked him to come back and read for Pete. He left and when he was in the parking lot I said, “Call him and get him to come back and read for Kevin.”
SR: I came back and I read for Pete. But when they didn’t want Mark [Duplass] and [his wife] Katie to do the husband and wife thing, so they brought me in to read for Kevin. I did a chemistry read with Katie and we hit it off from the moment we started talking to each other.
Jeff: Steve can have this very aggressive comedy and Katie was just sort of… winning. She softened him and they were so good together. It was just perfect.
Jeff: We felt very strongly that we didn’t want a married couple in real life to play a married life couple on the show.
Jackie: We honestly didn’t see Mark as Kevin. He’s so Pete now that it’s hard to imagine him as Kevin. I can’t imagine any other version than Katie and Steve. It was our job to write characters and then the cast took it to a level we could have never imagined. It was unbelievable.
On Paul Scheer (Andre)
Jeff: Paul has the most amazing ability to get insulted, and when he’s defending himself he gives you more ammunition to insult him. It’s such a hard skill and he does it so well.
JL: He was locked into Andre from day one. He can take insults and spin it in some weird way into a compliment, and come up with the most intricate ways of describing the ways he was dressed. I would try to throw things at him and try to make him laugh. He would catch it, throw it right back at me, and I would laugh. He wins every time. In one episode he started talking about corn on the cob, and we were like, “He eats cobs, we mean cocks, we have to do a thing with that.” So we just start throwing things at him like “Do you like to sometimes eat two cobs at once?” and he’ll be like, “Oh yeah, I’ll double team some cobs.”
PS: I’m like, “Oh I love eating cob” and it’s basically a metaphor for sucking dicks. But I was serving that up to them and I know that they were getting into it. It’s the giddiness of knowing it’s gonna be fun; 50 percent of the time we don’t use any of that stuff. It’s just a tangent on a tangent on a tangent. But a lot of the time it gets in the show and Jeff and Jackie are really great about that.
Jeff: It changes. We used to not be able to say “cocksucker.” You used to be able to do everything else with the cock. You could munch it or kick it or chew it, but you couldn’t suck it. I think you can suck it now, but we haven’t said it in awhile so I’m not sure.
SR: I think [Paul] has the hardest job on the show. Andre is a character that—at this point, why would he still be friends with these people? There’d be absolutely no reason that he’d still be friends with us. The way that Paul can take an insult and turn it around and make it a positive thing. I mean, it’s seven years. I know I probably would’ve quit by now if I didn’t get to change it up, or be a better person, or dress better, whatever it is that is going to take me out of this thing. But Paul no matter how bad it is, he will turn it around, make it into a funny positive spin.
On Nick Kroll (Ruxin)
JL: He’s another one where he was locked in during season one. The thing that he does so well that blows my mind is somewhat similar to Jeff in many ways: It’s specificity of insults. His use of metaphor. A good example is this year: I died laughing because he had to make fun of Andre’s sleeveless hoodie. Without dropping a beat, he goes, “Your sleeveless hoodie makes you look like a moderately successful Vine star.” I don’t know how to do that at all.
NK: I think it’s natural thing that I’ve done in my comedy over the years but has definitely been honed on The League. It’s one of the skills that I take away from it, which is being able to look at something and oftentimes it would be Andre’s outfit. He’d walk into the room and we’d see his outfit and would have to quickly make the equation of what it looks like.
PS: Owen Burke and I were on an improv team and he goes, “Look, this other improv team wants to bring us to Georgetown.” We all packed up our van—a shitty one we rented—and went to D.C. to perform for Nick. He was the guy that hired us to go to Georgetown. We were all young guys, we were maybe one year out of college, and performing for Nick’s group. He tells a story about scrounging up money to pay us. “Well, you gotta pay us for the gas or whatever.” That was my first time meeting Nick.
NK: When I was a senior in college, I was the director of my improv group. I had gone up to New York in the summer and done workshops and I knew Owen. He was in an improv group with Scheer, Rob Huebel, and Rob Riggle and I brought them to our improv festival. I siphoned off like $200 from our ticket sales to pay for a rental car to get down there and a hotel room for all of them.
PS: What’s so funny about him is that you could be having lunch with somebody and that person could get up from the table and within a line he could sum up everything that is funny, weird, and different about that person in such a succinct way. But he is the sweetest, nicest, loving… if you’re ever in a jam, Nick is the guy you want on your side. Over the course of the seven years we’ve become very good friends and I love him to pieces.
SR: He’s so funny, so quick, and so cutting that it’s just mesmerizing to watch him. You watch his wheels work. Someone will say something and then he will just come back with a horrible statement about that person as that character in the shortest amount of words that cut so deep that there’s nothing you could say back that would help the situation. I was like, “This guy is a verbal assassin.”
On Jon Lajoie (Taco)
Jeff: We had this character of Taco that is exactly what you see in the show and when we met Jon—he was the first person we cast in the show—and we just went, “How is it possible that what we wrote actually existed? You’re perfect!”
Jackie: Jon was improvising from the minute he walked in the door. He was great.
PS: I knew of his work—I wouldn’t say like “Oh, that’s Jon”—but his videos were so huge. What I remember about Jon’s thing was that he was doing something that a lot of people do, but he was doing it in such a smarter, better way.
SR: I met him the first day of shooting. When I heard he was doing the show I checked out his videos and I was like, “Oh my God, this kid’s got a million hits on YouTube” and it was incredible. Meeting him I was like, “Okay, he’s not that impressive. He’s sort of a loser.” My opinion hasn’t really changed over the course of seven years.
On Mark Duplass (Pete) and Katie Aselton (Jenny)
PS: Mark is the same person that I met on day one. He’s a very smart, savvy, creative guy. If you ever want a champion on your side, it’s Mark. Through sheer will and fortitude, he created this world in which he exists and then made these movies for dirt cheap. People would say, “You can’t make these movies for less than a million dollars” and he’d say “Really? I can make 50 movies for under a million dollars.”
JL: I think he’s really into that. Like, “I’m not directing this thing or writing this thing, thank God.” One of the first scenes I shot with him he made a joke about that. It was a Waiting For Guffman reference. He had gone into directing mode. He was like, “I know the lingo. I’ve done this before. I’m a director. Do you want me to strike the chair? Yeah, I know the lingo. I’m in the theater world.”
NK: One of the things that drew me to the show originally was working with Mark and Katie, who had an improvisational background but not comedic improv really. I remember being in the audition with Mark and I remember not being able to dominate him. He’s so smart and centered and grounded. I can’t do what I’d normally do to someone in this situation. I can’t get the upper hand in the scene. I was really impressed and excited about the possibility to work with him and Katie.
SR: Mark’s versatility is what I admire most about him. He can come in and do this playboy-like arrogant character that’s Pete and then go direct Jeff, Who Lives At Home. We were once talking in year three or four about “Whose career could you have if you could have anyone’s career?” and I remember Mark saying Jeff Daniels, because he can do it all. That makes total sense to me. He can be this dramatic actor and then go do Dumb And Dumber.
PS: Some of my favorite memories of the show are doing scenes with Katie. It’s so fun to play that side of it. To be the Gayle King to her Oprah. My memory of Katie is that she’s always been really fun. Down for whatever. Just a powerhouse. She can do pretty much anything she sets her mind to. There’s always this idea that, “There’s no funny women.” That’s obviously changed in the last five years but she was a woman that just jumped into the show right away, and is as funny, if not funnier, than us. She’s as quick as us. She was never anything but one of us. We’re a team of equals.
On Steve Rannazzisi (Kevin)
PS: Steve is a teddy bear and also one of the most genuinely funny guys. He’s perfected this persona.
JL: Those one-on-ones between my brother and I or his wife and I are so fun and it’s always constantly like, “Taco, why are you fucking shit up?” There’s a look that they give me that is not quite pity, not quite angry, but it’s a mix of those as well as love and embarrassment. It’s so fun to play off of that. Kevin never hates Taco, he’s just so upset that “You’re this way and I can’t stop it.”
SR: I know exactly what that look is. It’s bewilderment at the fact that he is still this stupid. Mesmerizingly stupid. It’s hard to put into words. When Jon says something as that character I just shoot him the look, especially when he says something really stupid and I shoot the look at him. At least one take he will break and he’ll go, “I know how bad this is. I know how stupid I sound right now.” So yeah, he’s a victim of the look.
On Jason Mantzoukas (Rafi)
JL: The entire time I’m laughing. He’s so good. He locks into crazy-ass Rafi and no one knows what the fuck he’s going to say. To this day I can’t be in scenes with him.
SR: No one can. Ruxin can because Nick dealt with Jason for so long that he knows that we just have to get through a take and we’ll be okay. But if you put multiple people on there and you have Jason in it, it’s going to take a long time to shoot because the chances of none of those people breaking is very small. Now when we add a stranger in there, a guest star, the chances of us making it through a take without laughing when Jason’s there is 0.00 percent. I’ve never seen it happen. Never.
NK: Jason is pretty electric on the screen in general and even more as Rafi, so supremely unhinged and unbelievably free of human morality. It’s so fun because Jason’s one of the smartest people I’ve met in comedy. So unbelievably fast comedically—so he’s quick with whatever, but it’s fun to watch someone be so quick and so stupid simultaneously and genuinely the character is so unhinged. But I know him as such a sensitive and thoughtful guy. You’re looking at two people at once.
SR: In his world, he calls me “Brian.” The first day we were shooting he called me Brian. And then Jeff in between takes says, “Oh, his name is Kevin.” Jason says “Oh yeah, that’s fine. I’m never gonna call him that.” Like with Dirty Randy, played by Seth Rogen, is just an improvised name that Jason came up with out of nowhere.
On Jeff and Jackie Schaffer (co-creators)
SR: Having the two of them together, I know that I go to Jeff for certain things, I go to Jackie for certain things, but there’s no back and forth between the two of them. They are a team. That’s what you look for, especially when it comes to being showrunners. Jeff’s a total joke machine, a joke king. He’ll say, “You say it funny and we’ll get away with it.”
NK: A little stupid thing in the first episode, Steve and I are negotiating over a client and I’m defending the client, he’s prosecuting. I look to the guy who’s under arrest and I’m like, “You had to steal a car. You gotta do small things. Like I stole a Kit Kat last week, it’s small.” And Jeff kept that in the show, like they’re gonna keep the weird details that we come up with that inform our characters. Not only do they like it, but Jeff and Jackie were encouraging us to do that. That takes a lot of confidence to let your actors come up with something that could be theoretically funnier than what you had envisioned originally. They were always open to that.
JL: A lot of the songs are so fun to write. Jeff and Jackie will come to me with an idea, something like “vinegar strokes” or “fear boner.” Those are two examples that I think really work in the show. They pitch a concept of a “fear boner” to me, then we talk style, and I go write the music and they throw in some lyric ideas, and it’s a really fun collaboration. They’re producing, writing, directing every episode. So they want to be around funny, cool people. If someone doesn’t have good vibes, or good energy, we shoot the thing and they go and maybe they’re not invited back. People with good vibes could come on and be funny and they’ll be like, “You’re in the world now.” Huebel, Riggle, Jason, especially. They’re great at cultivating a good environment.
On doing the show for seven years
JL: Recently Mark brought up, “Do you guys realize that in seven years, not once did we get into an argument?” No drama. Nothing. It’s fucking crazy.
PS: It’s true. No temper tantrums. No door slamming. Because it’s a family. You’re gonna get irritated with people, but we really respect each other. We’re all in the same boat, as far as the cast is concerned. As we’ve grown into being adults and parents and husbands and wives, we’ve also been able to respect that and say, “Oh I now know what you’re going through.” There’s a camaraderie and we’ve been in the trenches a long time.
SR: In seven years it’s never once been like, “Fuck that guy, he doesn’t have our back.” I think that because we are on an ensemble show, we’ve always looked at each other as a group. If we’re posed a question, we’ll have dinner and talk about it or start an email chain and talk about it. So we’ve all been on the same page, never going behind anyone’s back. I’m pretty sure I’ll never have a job like that again.
NK: We’re very lucky. It’s the perfect mix. We work together for four months, we spend a lot of time together. We’ve gotten to know each other, watched our families grow. People have gotten married, had kids. We’re all in touch throughout the year, but really it’s like going to summer camp for four months where everybody just bonds and shares a life together but also have our own lives.
Jackie: We knew from the very first day of shooting that we loved doing it. It was so fun and the cast was so magical.
Jeff: We expected them to be as great as the people that we had been hanging out with, but what we didn’t expect was that they would so instantly seem like a bunch of people that had been friends for 15 years. The fun thing now is that these guys are all great friends in real life. They’re better friends in real life than the characters they’re playing.
PS: We love being with each other as much as our characters love being with each other. I remember Vegas very specifically. We were a new show, we’re shooting in Vegas and after a 12-hour shoot day and we’d go hangout with each other for another four hours. Everything we’ve done: I’ve been covered in bird poop; I’ve been beaten; I’ve dressed as a woman. I’ve gotten hair, a beard, lost hair, done everything. My character has been through the proverbial ringer. I had a trophy up my ass. The one thing that made every day fun is knowing that when we’re between a lighting setup, we go to lunch together still. That’s what I love.