Winnetka, Ill., population 12,370, is home to two overlooked gems deserving of your attention. The first is journeyman actor Bruce Dern, who delivers one of the year’s finest screen performances in the Alexander Payne film Nebraska. And the other is a hilarious improvisational comedy that airs on the newly minted FXX network, vying for your eyeballs amid an impossibly crowded TV landscape.
Now in its fifth season, The League is, like station-mate It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, one of those fantastic TV shows that’s constantly overlooked by critics and awards voters. Created by Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm alum Jeff Schaffer and his wife, veteran film producer Jackie Schaffer, it centers on a group of six life-long friends competing for the Shiva trophy in their fantasy football league—which they will win by any means necessary.
There’s Pete (Mark Duplass), a shlubby albeit confident bachelor who somehow attracts a bevy of gorgeous women, including Brooklyn Decker; Kevin (Steve Rannazzisi) and Jenny MacArthur (Katie Aselton, Duplass’s real-life spouse), a married couple balancing fantasy, marriage, and parenting; Ruxin (Nick Kroll), a ruthless, scheming attorney; Andre (Paul Scheer), a rich plastic surgeon with zero sense when it comes to fashion and women; and Taco (Jon Lajoie), a stoned, unemployed pseudo-musician with a knack for picking up women. The League has attracted perhaps the most love from the Hollywood community, playing host to a plethora of cameos, including Seth Rogen as a porn director, Jeff Goldblum as Ruxin’s father, and Allison Williams as a Pete paramour, to name just a few. The Daily Beast sat down with the cast of The League—save Lajoie, who was busy celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving—at PH-D at the Dream Hotel in New York for an amusing discussion about the show, football, pranking, and much, much more.
How were you all cast on the show?
PAUL SCHEER: The show creators approached it in a very interesting way. We had these feeler meetings where they met with us, saw us perform stand-up live, and saw our performances in other TV shows and movies. They wouldn’t say it was a fantasy football show. It was this secretive show.
KATIE ASELTON: But they were also very vague. When we were taking these meetings, we didn’t know what we were meeting on. They just said, “We have this idea…”
MARK DUPLASS: Guys, I have never heard this story before! I was brought onto a game show where I had to hunt and gather to survive for three days. It was me, Ron Livingston, Chris Pratt, and a bunch of other actors vying for the part, and I won. I beat out Chris Pratt. And that guy’s good with guns. We were excited though, because we knew Jeff [Schaffer] had run Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, so we knew we’d be on this improvised narrative that was funny. And Katie and I were hearing that Nick Kroll was meeting, and Paul Scheer was meeting. So we were all like, “We’re gonna do this if we get this.” SCHEER: I met with them for the first time, and then it died for like a year. From my first meeting to the actual audition for the show was a full year.
NICK KROLL: They brought us all together to audition, and we all sort of messed around with each other. We all knew of each other—I knew Paul—but nobody really knew each other. And Jon [Lajoie], who is French-Canadian, was a YouTube star, but before being a YouTube star, was on a French-Canadian soap opera.
DUPLASS: And he is goddamn sexy on that show! You haven’t seen clips of this stuff? He’s got like a five o’clock shadow, and the mellifluous, French-Canadian accent, and the burning stare. He’s just fucking everybody in the whole country, and it’s amazing.
And the show isn’t really shot in Chicago.
SCHEER: We use exteriors. The same way Friends was shot in L.A., but is set in New York.
KROLL: The beauty of shooting L.A. summers for Chicago winters is we’re in sweaters and coats in the Valley, or in Encino. It’s a real tough life! [Laughs]
You guys have so many side projects. When does the shooting take place?
SCHEER: August through Nov. 1.
DUPLASS: We shoot somewhere between three and four months out of the year in a concentrated period of time.
STEVE RANNAZZISI: Usually in line with football—always right before or during the football season.
SCHEER: It took us 55 days to shoot the entire season, which is 13 episodes. So it’s about three-and-a-half days to shoot an episode. But we’ll jump around, so if we’re in the bar, we’ll shoot three or four episodes of bar exposition.
There must have been a fear early on that the fantasy football conceit was too niche, but now obviously that’s put to bed since the show’s just wrapped it’s fifth season.
SCHEER: It is niche, but at the same time, over 37 million Americans play fantasy football, so if half of that watch our show, we’d be the most popular show on television.
ASELTON: Jeff Schaffer said it best, “It’s not about fantasy football, but about a group of friends that are in a fantasy football league—a group of friends in this sub-culture.”
DUPLASS: And I think in the second season, when we brought in Danny DeVito, everything just changed. I think that was the key. [Laughs]
The chemistry is what really makes the show click. We really believe that you guys hang out all the time together. When did you know that you had the right mix?
SCHEER: We have this weird thing where, even though we’re not from the same background, we all respect what each other does. When we first met each other, we were like, “Oh, I’m a fan of you, and a fan of you…” ASELTON: And you’re all very nice human beings. You’re nice and generous with your jokes, and nobody is the “scene-stealer,” and nobody tries to be the funniest in the room.
DUPLASS: It’s a recipe for disaster putting a bunch of comedians in a room and saying it’s an improv show, because then you have a bunch of people fighting to tell the funniest joke. We all kind of clicked in where it’s, “I’ll do the assist in this scene, and the next, I’ll do the slam dunk.”
RANNAZZISI: I remember shooting the pilot and having fun, and I’d never had that kind of fun where it’s laughing and high-fives on any other show I’d ever been on. I think that resonates with people—it looks like we’re having fun.
DUPLASS: The “cheers” moment at the first draft party where Andre is trying to get everyone to cheers at the same time, and everyone just keeps drinking their drinks before—that wasn’t scripted and just started happening, and there was an enjoyment on all the faces and it just started clicking in.
SCHEER: The show is softly scripted, so we just get an outline. We’ll go into a scene and there’s just a paragraph with some suggested dialogue, a beginning, and an end, so it allows ourselves in every scene to find something, and that’s exciting.
ASELTON: Spunk, man-cave, toilet-kitchen…
What were some of your favorite things on the show to come out of improvising?
DUPLASS: Toilet-kitchen. Favorite thing of all-time.
KROLL: Was that improvised? Ah. And Rafi (Jason Mantzoukas) was funny in it, but it’s the landlord and the way he says, “This is this toilet-kitchen!”
DUPLASS: You’re the one who breaks I think the most on the show.
KROLL: I break a lot on the show, and that made me laugh.
DUPLASS: You broke for like eight consecutive takes!
RANNAZZISI: There are tells too when you’re about to break—a little shake in your cheek.
Who is pictured on the Shiva trophy?
KROLL: Okay, so the woman pictured was an actress who got called in a random casting, and they took her picture and we just started using it throughout. Around Season 3, all of us were doing stand-up at Largo [in Los Angeles], and a nice, sweet Indian girl walked up to us and said, “I’m Shiva.” She’s a doctoral student at UCLA and she came and hung out, and we bought her drinks. 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. And now they’re married! That’s not true. They died in a murder-suicide.
DUPLASS: There’s a great lore to it. It’s like Kevin Costner being the body in The Big Chill. She’s gonna have that story: “I am Shiva.” RANNAZZISI: Hear me roar.
What football teams are you guys fans of? I’m a life-long Jets fan, which is torture.
SCHEER: I’m a Jets fan! It’s not bad. Geno Smith is exciting this year.
RANNAZZISI: I’m a Giants fan, so it’s worse this year. And they just lost to the Bears.
ASELTON: I have Eli Manning. I forgot to set my lineup and he was like … five points.
KROLL: I grew up in New York and was a Cowboy fan. My brother had Dallas Cowboys cheerleader playing cards, so he became a Cowboy fan, and then I became a Cowboy fan.
ASELTON: I really didn’t know anything about football whatsoever. I grew up in a town in Maine [Milbridge] that is so small, our high school didn’t have enough kids in it to have a football team, so I never learned the rules. I have an older brother and a Dad who would sit and watch games and never took the time to explain it to me. I never really watched until I met Mark, who I am with in real life…
KROLL: Wait, WHAT? Mind BLOWN.
ASELTON: …And he’s a huge Saints fan—he’s from New Orleans—but that was 12 years ago, when the Saints were really horrible, but really fun to watch. I’m always a fan of the underdog.
DUPLASS: But we were never fantasy players.
Were any of you in a fantasy league prior to the show?
RANNAZZISI: I was in a fantasy league with some of my high school buddies.
KROLL: And how are you doing in our league?
RANNAZZISI: Not great … I’m doing OK!
KROLL: Lajoie, who is a very smart guy, plays fantasy football like Taco, and is beating ALL of us.
SCHEER: He auto-drafts, doesn’t set his lineups, and is 4-0.
RANNAZZISI: He had two players on a bye, but because he had Peyton Manning, it didn’t matter.
ASELTON: I’d like to say that I won the league our first year, the trophy is named after me, and I don’t need to try anymore. I want to give you all a chance.
So you guys have your own fantasy football league trophy?
KROLL: The Aselton Cup!
SCHEER: It looks like a punch bowl. For a show that revels in our trophy, it’s a crappy-looking trophy.
DUPLASS: You lost the first Aselton Cup! You got drunk and stoned and you lost it!
ASELTON: When we were down in Austin doing our show, they presented me with a huge trophy that had a gigantic football on it! I don’t know where it is…
Who’s the most despicable character on the show?
ASELTON: Ellie. Ellie is. [Laughs]
KROLL: Everyone has an opportunity to be despicable on the show. What’s ironic is I consider these people very dear friends. We’ve become very close, and everyone is very decent to each other in real life, but on the show, we’re all horrible, emotionless monsters.
DUPLASS: There is no sense of duty, no sense of feelings…
ASELTON: God, when we shit on Andre at the end of the premiere of Season 5, after he blinded his wife with his jizz and had to call off the wedding…
KROLL: We pulled one of our favorite pranks where we filled up Paul’s trailer with human excrement. We like to have fun on set. We do little pranks. [Laughs]
There are all these great expressions on the show, like “Eskimo Brothers”—two guys who’ve slept with the same woman.
SCHEER: Jeff Schaffer worked on Seinfeld and Curb, so he’s very attuned to coming up with names for things that are common practices, but a name hasn’t been coined for it. “Re-gifting” was a Seinfeld term.
RANNAZZISI: “Fear Boner” is my favorite.
SCHEER: Have you gotten a “Fear Boner?”
RANNAZZISI: Yeah. I’ll get nervous boners. [Laughs]
KROLL: The “Tinker Stinker” I like, in that it felt like a true labeling of something that happens. Sunday morning you wake up, have your breakfast and coffee, have about an hour before the game, so you sit on the can, and you make some choices.
Are any of you guys actually “Eskimo Brothers?”
ASELTON: Don’t answer that, you guys!
SCHEER: Well Steve and I fucked Nick, so we’re Eskimo Brothers.
STEVE: Does anal count?
KROLL: What does that make me, though?
There have been so many great celebrity cameos on the show, from Jeff Goldblum playing Ruxin’s father to Seth Rogen as Dirty Randy. What are your favorites?
SCHEER: One of my favorites was Ike Barinholtz, who’s now on The Mindy Project. He’s really funny and brought a different energy to the show. He was a different type of asshole, and had this attitude and bravado to him that was so funny.
ASELTON: And Ken Marino was great.
DUPLASS: Nick didn’t like Ken Marino. They had some problems on set.
KROLL: Ken Marino punched me in the face against my will! [Laughs] And Seth Rogen, who is so cool, and funny, and such a pleasure.
ASELTON: And literally out of our league.
DUPLASS: You know what was weird, and oddly a little bit of a disappointment? Meryl Streep.
KROLL: You’d try to improvise with her, but then she’d keep going back to the script.
DUPLASS: You can tell she had, like, rehearsed it in the mirror. She’s not a very good listener.
KROLL: She has her thing, and god bless her. God bless her.
ASELTON: If she hears this and gets her feelings hurt you guys, I will take it personally!
You finally landed Bears quarterback Jay Cutler on the show this season.
ASELTON: He made it quite clear that he was not doing that for him or for us, but for his wife [Kristin Cavallari]. We had Kristin on last season and had a really funny story line where I stole her breast milk to empower our child and also give me some drinking time, and that was fun and she was totally game. And then this year, miraculously, Jay said he would do it too, and we were like, “Oh my god, thank you so much!” And he was like, “This is boring, I have no interest in doing this, Kristin asked me, and I said yes.” DUPLASS: But he loosened up a little bit.
SCHEER: We know that the secret to getting NFL players on the show is to feature their wives, so if we get Gisele on the show next season, we’re going to be golden.
Do you have favorite individual moments when it comes to your characters?
RANNAZZISI: When Nick Kroll popped me in the B’s Season 1. He got the vine and the berries.
ASELTON: My favorite moment as an actor was the ghost monkey getting on my head, but my favorite moment to watch was when [Steve] went crazy on the Baby Jesus.
DUPLASS: I love those Kevin tirades. I love that within six hours of shooting the first episode of the show, Leslie Bibb was walking her fingers down my back to put them in my butthole. That was a good icebreaker.
Had that ever gotten weird for you, Katie and Mark? Mark dates all these hot women on the show, from Brooklyn Decker to Leslie Bibb.
ASELTON: I get to be married to this incredibly hot man [Steve], so we balance it out!
KROLL: Everybody wins.
DUPLASS: Look, it gets uncomfortable, and what a lot of people don’t know is that Steve and I, behind the scenes, are…
KROLL: Wait a second … these two [Steve & Paul] are Eskimo Brothers with me. Are you cheating on me?
DUPLASS: Have you noticed how our trailers are next to each other’s? We have a glory hole in our trailers is what we have. [Laughs]
ASELTON: This is what it gets like.