On October 29, 2009, FX premiered a semi-improvised show about six Chicago suburb-based friends in a fantasy football league. Husband-and-wife team Jeff and Jackie Schaffer originally pitched the idea to HBO, and they ordered a pilot. But the catch was the Schaffers had to wait at least a year to develop the show. They didn’t want to wait a year, so they took the idea to FX.
Jeff Schaffer worked as a writer and executive producer on Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld, so he wanted to create “Curb’s younger, rowdier cousin.” For each episode, he and Jackie created a loose outline and then the actors filled in the dialogue through improvisation. The Schaffers cast actors from the independent film world (Mark Duplass as Pete Eckhart, and Duplass’s real-life wife Katie Aselton as Jenny MacArthur); comedians Steve Rannazzisi (Kevin MacArthur, married to Jenny), Paul Scheer (Dr. Andre Nowzick), and Nick Kroll (Rodney Ruxin); and a French-Canadian musician (Jon Lajoie as Taco MacArthur, Steve’s brother).
Over the years several celebrities made cameos, including Jeff Goldblum, Brie Larson, and Seth Rogen. Sports figures like Deion Sanders and quarterback Jay Cutler played themselves. Every football season, the winner of the Shiva Bowl received a trophy called the Shiva—replete with a photo of a girl named Shivakamini Somakandarkram (Janina Gavankar), a woman Kevin lost his virginity to in high school—and a worst-player-in-the-league trophy named the Sacko. After seven seasons, the Schaffers decided to end the show; the final episode aired December 9, 2015.
“We wanted to finish the show with people going: Wait, why are you ending? And I think seven seasons felt right,” he told ESPN. “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.” Here are 10 winning facts about The League.
1. THE IDEA FOR THE SHOW WAS BORN IN THE FRENCH ALPS.
The Schaffers spent Christmas Eve skiing in the French Alps, and Jeff was in the middle of managing his fantasy football leagues. “This is 2005, pre-Skype, pre-smartphone,” Jeff told ESPN. “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.” Jackie walked in on him and surprisingly wasn’t too mad. “Here was this man, my darling husband, standing in the snow and screaming on the phone,” she said. “It was ridiculous ... but also entertaining to watch.” They agreed a show about obsessive men in a fantasy football league would make a good show.
2. IF IT WEREN'T FOR NICK KROLL, PAUL SCHEER MIGHT NOT HAVE AUDITIONED.
Because he didn’t know enough about fantasy football, Paul Scheer didn’t even want to audition for the show. “And so to opt out of not embarrassing myself, I said, ‘I won't do it. I’m not auditioning,’” he told ESPN. “It’s not like they offered me the show, but I thought it was not the show for me.” Eventually, Nick Kroll called him and told him to audition, saying the show wasn’t just 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 ... 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.”
3. THE WOMAN ON THE SHIVA TROPHY WAS A REAL PERSON.
Kroll told The Daily Beast the origin story of the woman on the Shiva trophy. He said she was an actress “who got called in a random casting, and they took her picture and we just started using it throughout.” One night the cast was doing stand-up in L.A., and a woman walked in and said she was Shiva. “She’s a doctoral student at UCLA and she came and hung out, and we bought her drinks,” Kroll said. “And the craziest part was she brought a friend of hers who’s a big fan of the show, and he didn’t realize that his avatar for his fantasy football team was the Shiva, and did not realize that she was her.”
4. MR. MCGIBBLETS SCARED ELLIE IN REAL LIFE.
On the show, Kevin and Jenny’s daughter Ellie (Alina Foley, daughter of The Kids in the Hall's Dave Foley) is attached to an Elmo-like stuffed animal named Mr. McGibblets. During the fourth episode of the first season, Steve has Taco dress up in a Mr. McGibblets costume to try and frighten Ellie into not liking the toy anymore. However, Ellie loves the life-size toy, but Foley didn’t have the same reaction. “Honestly, it was very scary for me,” Foley told ESPN. “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.”
5. THE PRODUCERS MADE THE FOOTBALL AS ACCURATE AS POSSIBLE.
Because the show centers around real-life football players and teams, the showrunners had to anticipate possible changes. “Every time we shot people’s computers, we see the roster and all that stuff,” Jeff Schaffer said during a Paley Center for Media talk. "We also shot a green screen so we can go into change it if we really need to, if someone’s injured or out. We’re trying hard to make it accurate.”
6. JASON MANTZOUKAS HAD AN ALLERGIC REACTION EGGS.
The second season starts in Vegas, where the group is assembling their draft picks. The episode was filmed on location. Mantzoukas ate a yogurt from Starbucks only to find out it had eggs in it. Apparently allergic, he fell sick and had to be rushed to the hospital. “It was a disaster,” Mantzoukas told ESPN. “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.”
7. DIRTY RANDY WAS DESCRIBED AS “THE GROSSEST AND WORST PERSON EVER.”
In season 2, Mantzoukas joined the cast as Ruxin’s brother-in-law, Rafi, who has a friend named Dirty Randy. In season three, Seth Rogen made his first of six appearances as 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,” Rogen told ESPN. Instead of one of them playing the straight man and the other playing the crazier person, Rogen said their dynamic “turned it more into a game of idiotic one-upmanship. Instead of arguing, we were always building on each other's jokes, making them bigger and more elaborate and gross.”
8. THE SHOW CREATED ITS OWN VOCABULARY.
One of the glorious things about The League is how the characters created their own slang words. In addition to the Shiva Bowl, the series is full of words and phrases that are unique to the series and its characters. Frittata is one example, which is a term Kroll used to bypass FX’s Standards and Practices when making reference to a less-than-intelligent person. “That was never a word before this show, but now I hear other people saying it," Scheer told Esquire. "It encompasses a lot of different words and a lot of different insults.”
9. “THE BIRTHDAY SONG” EXISTED BEFORE THE SHOW.
In the pilot, the friends are gathered at Ellie’s birthday party. Taco sings a sexually explicit birthday song about how she came to be. Turns out, the song existed when the Schaffers cast Jon Lajoie to play Taco. “We met Jon Lajoie and told him about this character,” Jackie told ESPN. “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!’” He licensed the song to them. Currently, the clip has more than 4.6 million views on YouTube.
10. JEALOUSLY INSPIRED TED'S FATE.
During the fourth season, league member Ted (Adam Brody) wins the Shiva, and he finally makes an appearance in the first episode of the fifth season. He’s a friend from high school who the guys have always been jealous of. The Schaffers revealed to Slate why Jackie gave the character such a harsh disease. “I was literally making a chopped salad for dinner as our baby is asleep, and I said, ‘Let me just throw something at you: Ted has AIDS,’” Jackie said. “Because what is more insane that a bunch of guys trying to figure out if somehow the AIDS has made him more successful and more focused. Is it the drugs? Because that’s what our characters are like. They’re completely obsessive.”
“I do think that a lot of shows wouldn’t touch this, and we’re very happy to,” Jeff Schaffer said. “We’re not looking to shock, we’re just looking for what’s funny, but this is a real thing that you don’t see a lot of stories about.”