When The League premiered on FX on Oct. 29, 2009, it wasn't the only show to shine a spotlight on the lives of terrible people doing terrible things. It wasn't even the only show on FX doing this at the time. (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia was airing its fifth season when The League debuted.) But the comedy, about six friends in a fantasy football league, didn't feel like a sports-themed knockoff of any of the other extravagantly vulgar sitcoms that came before it. It felt like wish fulfillment for the fantasy football league we all wanted to be in (even for those of us who had never been interested in fantasy football prior).
The semi-improvised rapport between the ensemble — which was made up by Nick Kroll (Ruxin), Paul Scheer (Andre), Mark Duplass (Pete), Katie Aselton (Jenny), Steve Rannazzisi (Kevin), and Jon Lajoie (Taco) — turned trash talk into an art form years before Veep was being celebrated for its shattering putdowns. But while the banter between the friends was often biting, or downright offensive, it was executed in a naturalistic way that simultaneously grounded the characters while making you long to be as uninhibitedly articulate as they were. And no matter who you were, there was a member of the league with whom you could identify, whether you were a nonchalant free spirit like Taco, a try-hard, trend-chaser like Andre, or the sole woman fighting for respect in a boys' club like Jenny.
The friendships between the central group, which eventually expanded to include Ruxin's brother-in-law, Rafi (Jason Mantzoukas), is what drove The League's success, resulting in seven glorious seasons of eviscerating insults, Shiva blasts, and collusion. For the 10th anniversary of The League's series premiere, TV Guide spoke with creators Jeff and Jackie Schaffer as well as stars Paul Scheer, Katie Aselton, and Steve Rannazzisi about what it was like to create a comedy that never saw a line it didn't want to cross, what they're most proud of The League bringing into the world, and what — if anything — the future might hold for Jenny, Andre, and the gang.
While 2009 also saw the premieres of Parks and Recreation and Community, two comedies that, at their core, were about a group of people coming together and bettering themselves and their peers, The League had no interest in watching their characters grow. In true sitcom fashion, the joy of the series came from the groups' emotional stasis, as each new challenge they faced didn't spark introspection or self-betterment, but instead saw them devolve into the worst version of themselves, often pushed to the brink by their so-called friends.
By centering each season around the league's "Shiva Bowl," named after the valedictorian of the members' high school graduating class, Shivakamini Somakandarkram (Janina Gavankar), the series had built-in stakes that easily leant itself to taking full advantage of the characters' immaturity and moral ineptitude. "Look, we're not as crazy as those savages on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Those guys are reprehensible. But we weren't much above them," Rannazissi told TV Guide over the summer at the ATX Television Festival, where the cast came together for a reunion panel.
Painting a swastika on a pothole in order to force the city to fix it, using a fantasy trade as leverage to negotiate a plea deal for a criminal, and stealing their friend's casket to retrieve their hidden draft board from within it are among a few of the more memorable abhorrent acts the members of the league took part in over the course of the show's run. But even those don't top the lists of the actors' personal picks for the worst things their characters ever did on the FX, and later FXX, comedy.
"Inadvertently, the worst thing my character ever did was unload in my fiancée's face and blind her for life," said Scheer, whose character Andre's was briefly engaged to a woman who was allergic to his semen. "It was a washcloth that she used and it blinded her. So I didn't do it intentionally."
"I don't think that's that bad; I faked cancer," Aselton assured Scheer, referencing a Season 6 storyline in which Jenny, aided by her husband, Kevin, faked breast cancer in order to get out of contributing to an elementary school bake sale. "I even had an issue while we were doing it. 'I don't know about this one. This one is woof.' That was bad."
The fact that The League was largely improvised added an interesting challenge to playing out some of the more indelicate storylines, particularly when guest stars were involved. As Scheer explained, the team typically kept their guest stars (often athletes with little acting, let alone improv experience) in the dark as to what to expect in their scenes, giving them only the minimum information they would need before cameras started rolling. While this would typically result in good reactions from the guest stars, Scheer said this could sometimes lead to unease going into particularly off-color scenes. Scheer recalled, in particular, the Season 2 episode in which Andre throws a white party (as in guests could only wear white attire) but it accidentally comes off as racist.
"I think I was saying 'no blacks allowed,' but I meant it in the color of their outfits but [the producers] didn't tell [the guest stars] that," Scheer said, seemingly recalling a scene with Cleveland Browns kick-returner Josh Cribbs and Baltimore Raven's linebacker Terrell Suggs that was cut from the episode. "So I had to then, like, basically be racist to two football players, but all about clothes, not the color of their skin. All on camera for the first time. And that was a daunting thing. Jeff and Jackie were like, 'Go over there, do it. It will be fun. It will be fun.' They didn't know what was going to happen and they were hilariously great with it. But yeah, it was daunting for us."
Aselton admitted that doing such aggressively terrible things on camera together for so long did lead to the cast becoming "very desensitized" at times. "It's very shocking actually to see each other since the show has wrapped and to realize what good people we actually are," Aselton explained.
"We are very good people," added Scheer. "We have not blinded anybody nor [has Aselton] faked cancer."
Fans latched onto The League not in spite of, but because of just how terrible its characters were, and soon they were emulating the ensemble — fortunately more through words and not actions. "The way we shot the show was really conversational. We would cut each other off and step on each others' sentences and words and make fun of each other," said Rannazzisi. "I think that's the way people really talk to each other and I think that's the way our fanbase really connected with the show in the beginning ... We were terrible people and horrible friends. But good communicators."
"It was friends talking to each other, not in the way people do talk to each other, but I think in the way people wish they could talk to each other," said Aselton.
That's precisely why The League's greatest legacy are its gifts to the English language, which include several memorable catchphrases ("Forever unclean!") and even numerous new phrases that the show either popularized or invented entirely to describe things no one in human history had decided needed describing before. So if you ever hear someone use the phrases anticiperection (referring to when guy gets aroused while anticipating getting laid in the near future), vaginal hubris (referring to a woman who is overly proud of her vagina), fear boners (referring to when someone is so afraid of someone else that they get sexually aroused), vinegar strokes (referring to the facial expressions made right before a man ejaculates), or Eskimo brothers (referring to two men who have shared the same sexual partner), you owe credit to The League.
"I shed a tear of pride every time you hear that someone has maybe gotten a fear boner," said Jeff Schaffer.
"Also, anytime anyone talks about 'going balls deep' in another person," added Jackie Schaffer. "I feel a sense of pride that that has become a unit of measurement, where I don't think that was a standard unit of measuring."
However, as memorable as some of these phrases are, that doesn't stop fans from misremembering precisely what they're trying to quote when they pay homage to The League. For example, Aselton said she still gets people tweeting "sh-- zipper" at her on a regular basis instead of correctly quoting the epic Ruxin putdown "sh-- sipper."
"People really bastardize the quotes from our show," Scheer said, adding that it isn't just the lines that fans get confused by at times. "I was walking down the block with Jason [Mantzoukas] today — Jason played Rafi on the show — and a guy just ran up to him so enthusiastically and was like, 'TACOOO!' And that was Jon Lajoie's character."
Things like that don't bother Aselton and Scheer though, who point to these outbursts, even the misinformed ones, as evidence of "enthusiasm for the show." However, Rannasizzi said he could do with a little less public displays of enthusiasm for The League in his life.
"I don't like when people yell 'fear boner' at me in the streets. That's not exactly my most fun experience. I understand why they're doing it and I appreciate the passion for the show but I'm with my son," he explained. "Shiva gets yelled at me a lot, which is always a little bit — nobody knows what to do with a Shivakamini Somakandarkram. No one knows what that is and just looks around. But if someone yells, you know, 'show me your pretty dick!' that's gonna draw some attention. That will turn some heads. So those are the ones that I'm like, ah, those were fun when we did them but man did they really hang on, huh?"
The League wasn't just about quick quips, though; the show also had incredible visual gags. (What fan hasn't had a nightmare of Mr. McGibblets standing over them in bed with a hatchet?) But perhaps the greatest running sight gag was Andre's wardrobe, which episode after episode, season after season, always seemed to mine a previously undiscovered level of bad taste.
While every character in The League was a monstrous douchebag, only Andre chose (albeit unintentionally) to express the depths of his douchiness in his style, which relied heavily on fedoras, fashion scarves, vests, and — of course — a lot of Ed Hardy. But it turns out, creating Andre's pitiable style wasn't as easy as just putting Scheer in distasteful duds.
"[Scheer's] surprisingly built, so he had guns and legs," Jackie explained. "We had to make a lot of effort to make him look terrible." But boy, did they always manage to find a way.
The 17 Most God-Awful Outfits Andre Wore on The League
"Every season we did The League, Andre had terrible wardrobe and I always felt like, 'Oh, surely you can't top this," Scheer recalled.
"I couldn't even believe the things that Paul had to put on," Rannazzisi said. "Paul had to put on things that I was like, where's the zipper? Where do you pee from in that thing? Layer after layer, just scarves and everything. It was a terrible nightmare. I don't know how he did it."
Though Andre's flamboyant style was always the butt of the joke on The League, there have been instances that made the team second-guess the fashion pile-ons. Rannazzisi recalled one time when Scheer was given a pair of sneakers to wear as Andre that Rannazzisi owned in real life ("I was like whoops! Maybe these aren't cool sneakers anymore. I gotta get rid of these sneakers") while the entire cast has been shocked to see similar fashions be worn in earnest by people like Caroline Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
"Every time there's a Cam Newton press conference and we see what Cam's wearing, Paul literally texts us going 'Oh my god, I should have worn that. Oh my god, I could have worn that,'" Jeff said.
"If you look at any Cam Newton press conferences," Scheer declared, "you will see he's been inspired by Andre."
As the trend of reboots and revivals still shows no signs of slowing down — and as the NFL continues to make plenty of headlines that would make easy fodder for the FX/FXX comedy — it's hard not to wonder if The League will be the next show to jump on the bandwagon and find new life as a limited series, movie, or reunion special.
"I feel like we're always open to it," Scheer said. "I think the idea is, what's the idea? And for us to do a movie or a special, it would be incredibly fun, but you need somebody to pay for it." While Aselton joked that they should return as a musical, inspired by the Transparent finale, Scheer also threw out the idea of doing a live episode on stage, a concept that seems tailor-made for an improv-heavy show like The League. But until a network or streaming service shows interest in bank-rolling a revival, the possibility will likely remain on the back-burner for now.
"No one's ever asked [us to make a revival] so there's never really been a reason to," Rannazzisi said. "I know things happen in football, in pop culture, that we will text each other about once in a while, maybe a couple lines of what would be sort of dialogue back and forth. How Andre would handle a certain situation or how Kevin would handle a certain situation. Things like that that come up that make you go, 'Oh, I missed doing the show because we would have had a great time discussing this or dealing with that' or whatever. ... You never know. You don't. The good thing is we're all here and we still like each other a lot."
The cast and creators also have plenty of ideas for where their characters would be if a revival were to check in on them today. While the 2012 series finale featured a flash-forward to 18 years in the future, showing Andre discovering his son is biologically Pete's, Jeff shared that leading up to that point Andre would be "very busy" looking at Goop Men. As for the rest of the gang, per Jeff, Ruxin would have found himself caught up in the college admissions scandal trying to get Baby Geoffrey into a good boarding school, Taco would be in "parts unknown — last seen in Nepal," Pete would be an actual NFL referee, and Rafi would have "finally become the large animal euthanizer that he always wanted to be."
As for Kevin and Jenny: "Kevin would still be with Jenny, no more kids," Rannazzisi mused. "If Jenny leaves Kevin, that's not something I would love to imagine. ... It'd be like The Bachelor gone bad. It would be terrible. ... She's the wind and he's the lost boat out in the sea. So yeah, he would need Jenny in his life. Whatever Jenny's up to, Kevin would be standing right behind her."
While all of these sound like realistic assumptions as to where our favorite characters would be today, Aselton summed it up best.
"My guess is that we'd be at Tony's Bar [the real bar that doubled as Gibsons] and we'd probably be drinking beers and probably working over some way to screw someone over."
The League is available to stream on Hulu.