Bill Lawrence on Ted Lasso: “You Can Be Ignorant Without Being a Rube”

How an ad for the Premiere League transformed into the best show on Apple TV+

TV Features Ted Lasso
Bill Lawrence on Ted Lasso: “You Can Be Ignorant Without Being a Rube”

There’s a point halfway into this first season of Apple TV’s new sports comedy Ted Lasso when the coach tells his spoiled star player Jamie Tartt that he needs to go set up the cones for the rest of the players. Jamie had been faking an injury to protest getting benched and the other players finally stand up to him. The kit man, Nathan, who’s borne the brunt of Jamie’s abuse all season can hardly contain his glee.

“I must see it’s quite nice seeing Jamie put in his place for once. Thrilling, even.”

“No, no, no,” replies Jason Sudeikis’ Ted Lasso. “This is a no-schadenfreude zone.”

That idea—that we’re here on earth to try to help people become their best selves, not celebrate when those who we don’t like are brought low—keeps coming back to my mind. There’s a warmth and an earnestness to Coach Lasso that on paper should come across as phony, saccharine, emotionally manipulative. Instead it’s a strange reminder of human dignity and human decency. Of seeing the good in people, even when they screw up or try to screw you over. This year, where divisiveness and catastrophe keep fighting for our attention, we needed Ted Lasso.

“I don’t want to do revisionist history and go, ‘We were aware there was going to be a constant onslaught of giant social upheaval and a pandemic,’” says the show’s co-creator Bill Lawrence (Scrubs, Cougar Town). “Nobody was. But by the same token, I think it is fair to say everybody here in the States especially knew we were living in a cynical time. In the writers’ room we spoke about not just politics but even normal human discourse here had gotten to a place—especially through social media and politics—that if someone like Ted Lasso came and you met them, immediately my first reaction would be, ‘Oh this person is full of shit. There’s no way they’re this sincere and kind-hearted, and in a week or so the mask will come off and I’ll see they’re truly horrible.’ What happens if in a week that mask doesn’t come off, and the person is that kind and generous spirit and intent? You have to look at yourself and you end up feeling like a piece of crap.”

But the mentor at the heart of Ted Lasso the TV series is a far cry from the bumpkin who starred in a series of hilarious sketches for NBC Sports, which had just secured the rights to air English Premiere League soccer for the 2013 season. The premise was the same—an American football coach inherits an EPL team despite not knowing the first thing about soccer. Neither understands the offsides rule, and both are quickly dubbed “wanker” by the local fans. But that Lasso could never have won over his team or the audience. A funny sketch stretched into a longer format can be painful, and no one should be more aware of that than an SNL alum.

When talking about the transformation of Ted Lasso, “You gotta start from Jason,” says Lawrence. “Most people know Jason as an actor, but he was a writer on SNL first.”

Sudeikis graduated from SNL, where he portrayed figures like Joe Biden, George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and the Devil, to a recurring spot on 30 Rock and lead film roles in The Angry Birds, Sleeping with Other People and Driven. But any time he traveled overseas, he’d most often get recognized as Coach Lasso, a role he reprised in 2014 and which became a viral hit with a collective 20 million views on YouTube.

He’d been kicking around the idea with his former Boom Chicago improv and writing partners Joe Kelly and Brendan Hunt, who played his assistant Coach Beard in the NBC spots, when he mentioned the idea to Lawrence, who’d developed Scrubs and Cougar Town, at a pick-up basketball game.

“I’d seen those sketches and I thought they were broad and funny, but they were sketch,” Lawrence says. “Like, I love that old series Police Squad, the old Naked Gun TV series, but there were only like 10 of them. I don’t think they could do three seasons of it. And Jason knows sports and athletics, and he hooked me into wanting to do Ted Lasso—but with more pathos and emotion and have him be a much more grounded character who’s the best version of an American abroad rather than the cartoon version of an American abroad. He’d really thought it out.”

In true coaching fashion, they put up a white board and wrote out the ways they wanted to change Ted. Things like “Ignorance with humility” and “Dumb like a fox.”

“Ignorance with arrogance is one of the worst characteristics you see day-to-day,” Lawrence says. “I don’t want to get politicized, but I couldn’t see any more of somebody go, ‘I don’t know anything about that but I’m the best at that.’ One of the best things about Ted is that you can be ignorant without being a rube. You can be ignorant if you’re curious. Ted’s a little bit in over his head, a little bit clueless, but when he finds out, he’s curious, he processes it, he puts it away. It only took a few episodes for people to see Ted is an excellent coach and crafty when it comes to knowing how to motivate people and what really matters.”

Both Lawrence and Sudeikis are fans of sports and sports movies and couldn’t wait to play with that format. “We said, ‘We’re going to make our version of a sports movie because how fun will it be to do all the tropes but to examine them?’ Yeah, you have the bad owner who just wants to destroy the team, but instead of just doing that trope you go, ‘Hey, how’d she get there?’ Maybe you empathize for a bit.”

Of course, a movie about a men’s sports team meant most of the characters were going to be male, but two of the biggest standouts in the cast are Hannah Waddingham as the owner who just wants to get back at her ex-husband by destroying the thing he loves most—the team she inherited in the divorce—and Juno Temple, who deserves an Emmy for the most three-dimensional portrayal of a soccer WAG on screen. Their budding friendship is one of the most enjoyable surprises in the show, thanks both to the performances and to having several women in the writers’ room.

There were also a few cast members in the writers’ room. In addition to Sudeikis and Hunt, Brett Goldstein, who was hired for his writing abilities, also auditioned for and got the part of the surly, aging midfielder Roy Hunt. Having British writers like Goldstein (whose family are huge Tottenham supporters) and Phoebe Walsh (whose family are big Crystal Palace supporters) on staff helped the show accurately capture “the psychotic regionalized fandoms for these Premiere League teams,” Lawrence says.

But the central tenets of Ted Lasso of kindness and optimism are universal. “Jason brought to this a desire to make this show that’s dedicated to that seminal teacher or coach or relative or friend figure that was a true mentor in every sense of the word, who didn’t look for credit, showed you the right way, inspired you. He said, ‘I’m going to try to embody my favorite version of that.’ I think it’s really hard for an actor to walk that line of being simple yet smart. A rube, yet emotionally intelligent. If you’re truly a mentor, truly a coach, truly a teacher, you can show people there’s a different way and cross your fingers that if you’re not being manipulative and you don’t want anything but the best for them, that they’ll take that direction.”

The finale of Ted Lasso is streaming today on Apple TV+. It’s already been renewed for a second season.

Josh Jackson is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @joshjackson.

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