Matthias Clamer, FX Networks
Matthias Clamer, FX Networks

10 Winning Facts About The League

Matthias Clamer, FX Networks
Matthias Clamer, FX Networks

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.


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.


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.”


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.”


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.”


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.”


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.”


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.”


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.”


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.


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.”

Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.


In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.


The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
West Side Story Is Returning to Theaters This Weekend
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM

As Chris Pratt and a gang of prehistoric creatures get ready to face off against some animated superheroes for this weekend’s box office dominance, an old rivalry is brewing once again on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. West Side Story—Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s classic big-screen rendering of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical—is returning to cinemas for the first time in nearly 30 years.

As part of TCM’s Big Screen Classics Series, West Side Story will have special screening engagements at more than 600 theaters across the country on Sunday, June 24 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. If you can’t make it this weekend, encores will screen at the same time on Wednesday, June 27. The film—which is being re-released courtesy of TCM, Fathom Events, Park Circus, and Metro Goldwyn Mayer—will be presented in its original widescreen format, and include its original mid-film intermission. (Though its 2.5-hour runtime is practically standard nowadays, that wasn’t the case a half-century ago.) The screening will include an introduction and some post-credit commentary by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz.

West Side Story, which was named Best Picture of 1961, is a musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet that sees star-crossed lovers Maria (Natalie Wood) and Tony (Richard Beymer) navigate the challenges of immigration, racial tension, and inner-city life in mid-century Manhattan—but with lots of singing and dancing. In addition to being named Best Picture, the beloved film took home another nine Oscars, including Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Actress (for George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, respectively), and Best Music—obviously.

To find out if West Side Story is screening near you, and to purchase tickets, visit Fathom Events’s website.


More from mental floss studios