As the creator of Scrubs, Spin City, and Cougar Town, TV writer/producer Bill Lawrence is no stranger to “happy place” sitcoms. Yet Ted Lasso, his latest creation alongside Jason Sudeikis, sets a new bar for relentless optimism in TV comedy.
Ted Lasso is a fish-out-of-water story in which a fish decides he can do just fine on land too, thank you very much. Sudeikis stars as the titular American college football coach who takes on the challenge of managing a mid-tier English Premier League soccer team. The concept is based on a series of commercials that Sudeikis produced for NBC Sports to promote its EPL coverage. In the shorts, Ted Lasso is an overmatched football coach trying out his hand at a different kind of football where nobody uses their hands.
Now an Apple TV+ series, Ted Lasso has gone from a one-off joke on American ignorance to a 10-episode sports-movie-style series featuring a fully realized version of the titular coach. And the new Ted Lasso is a master motivator somewhere between Mr. Rogers and Gandhi.
We spoke to Lawrence about developing the show, his love of sports movies, and why television could use an optimistic and curious American abroad.
When you and Jason went about adapting this short into a bigger concept, what was your mindset? How did you think about turning him from more of a one-off joke into such a relentlessly optimistic full character?
All right, look, I have to give props to Jason. It’s annoying to be self-aggrandizing. But I was just chasing Jason Sudeikis because I think he’s an affable leading man and can be a romantic lead. He can be the kind of actor to build a streaming show around. I was just doing anything I can to get in business with him, and he pitched the idea of doing this character as a series. I knew the character from before and I initially had some hesitance, because I’m like, “Oh, it was really funny, but that’s a SNL sketch.” I love the show Police Squad, but they were only able to do 13 episodes of that Naked Gun police TV series because it’s the same sketch over and over. And Jason was like, “No man, I want to round this guy out and make him three-dimensional.”
We both connected over loving sports movies: Hoosiers, Rudy, Rocky, Major League, Bull Durham, Cutting Edge, whatever. Everybody’s got a sports movie that they dig on. And he said, “We can make ours. And how nice would it be, much like those classic underdog stories, to do a show right now that was kind of relentlessly optimistic and hopeful?” We still put in enough twists, I think, that even if people know the genre, know the tropes, it will surprise them a little bit and have more layers. But yeah, you do know that Ted Lasso is not going to end up dead in an alley at the end of season three.
Did Jason always see the character that way? Was there an element of wanting to subvert expectations of the grizzled, always yelling, American football coach?
I will tell you that he had a very clear picture of who this guy was. Every writer sits around coming up with ways to procrastinate. So we had tons of time-wasting talks about subtext and stuff that are never specifically in the show. (Jason) said he was very aware of what he was doing in those promotional videos. Though they’re really funny, he was ultimately selling the Premier League. But he also knew there was an opportunity for more because he’ll tell anybody that listens that he got recognized more as Ted Lasso when he went overseas than for any movie, SNL, or anything else he ever did.
And for the subtext I was talking about – here’s a way too deep metaphor. I worked in Europe on a show called Whiskey Cavalier. We worked in London and Prague, and the perception and joke about what Americans are right now is not that flattering and not that surprising. We wanted to kind of subvert that image a little bit. Right now, in public discourse, whether it be in politics or on social media, the ignorance with the quintessential American abroad is always coupled with arrogance. So Jason said you could do Ted Lasso if his ignorance was coupled with curiosity instead of arrogance. He’s self-deprecating and quick to learn. When you do that, he can still be a little bit of a goof once in awhile. The show works because he’s also, we like to say, “dumb, like a fox.” He’s very crafty about human nature and about getting the best out of people.
You’ve mentioned your appreciation for sports movies a couple times now. Given how it’s such well-trodden territory at this point, how hard is it to come up with novel storylines or game action in sports stories?
Well, I’ll tell you, there are two things you have to do. One is, if you start from a place of “we’re going to tell a sports movie story that hasn’t been told before,” then you’re doomed. Because there’s no way anybody’s seen them all. I’m not afraid of tropes, especially if you get to do the trick that people think they know what’s going to happen because they know the genre and then you get to surprise them. That’s part one of what we did, I think, in some cases.
Then part two is, when you’re talking about a sports movie, they’re limited by what is ultimately 90-minute running time, give or take. When you do a streaming show, you get to round out those characters. So even if you have what seems like a quintessential villain in Major League-style in the opening of a pilot, it’s understandable that in a movie, that’s all that character really has time for. In a series, especially one that Jason allowed to be an ensemble, you can show other levels to that character, maybe even make them sympathetic, maybe even given the type of crossroads where they decide which way they’re going to go, and tweak the convention a little bit in ways that you’re only able to because you have 10 episodes to tell the story.
I’m glad you brought up the ensemble as well because, for starters, it’s an excellent cast. But I think the show must have faced a sort of storytelling and casting challenge, in that it’s set in a professional soccer league, which is obviously a male-dominated environment. How did you go about finding ways to introduce women characters into this world and develop them?
We had two things that we were really keen on, and one is that the best sports movies seem to transcend not only gender, but whether or not you love the sport. I don’t think I’ve ever gone out of my way to watch a professional boxing match. And yet, I can tell you the ups and downs of every Rocky movie. We wanted to do the same thing with soccer (or what they call football).
Beyond that, we knew we had to have two female leads on the show who didn’t exist only as ciphers, villains, or people that pay lip service to the player leads or whatever. We have a great writing staff, and one of the things I really dig is not only exploring Hannah Waddingham and Juno Temple’s characters, but kind of developing a real female friendship in a place doesn’t exist at the start of the series. It’s one of the best things about this, and it’s one of those things on the show that I wish I could take credit for, but I cannot, because it was written by the group.
How much did you know about the European soccer scene going in? What did you have to learn and ultimately take away from the experience?
I knew less than Ted Lasso. One of the jokes in the writers room was that when I was 11, I was on the state championship soccer team in Ridgefield, Connecticut. We won the state championship, but I was a goalie. And I was still not really clear on all the rules, so I was knocked off. In the writing staff, we hired Brits and soccer aficionados on the staff, not only for the fish-out-of-water stuff, but to actually know the sport.
We went out to a bunch of games (in England), and we got to use a real Premier League team’s (Crystal Palace F.C.) facilities for the games and stuff. And the passion level for their local team, I’ve only seen it rivaled here in some of the really psychotic college football programs that people live and die for. I’m used to being a huge sports fan, but even the craziest sports fan here pales next to some of these communities that live and die with their team, not only in sports, but socially at the pubs. The ups and downs of an entire community ride around their team. It was really cool to see, and it felt both like an opportunity and an obligation to service it on our show.
Why did you choose Wichita State’s defunct football program as Ted Lasso’s launching point? Was it just kind of to honor Jason’s Kansas ties? Did you have to clear that with the university at all?
Yep. 100%. I know Jason is basing the accent on a former coach of his, and I know that he’s got giant ties back to Kansas City. He still does a charity called The Big Slick, that all runs through there. He wanted this dude to be a small college football coach, and we needed to find one that didn’t have a football program so that we could do it and not be in any kind of weird legal issues with representing players or actual coaches. Wichita State was cool and let us clear it and let us use their jerseys, but Jason was a driving force.
And when I say he’s a driving force for all these connections to his home, the amount of times on set that I would realize he was wearing a BBQ shirt or a specific shirt in reference to that part of the country that we hadn’t cleared… We had to go, “Oh, that’s a real place, dude. We’re going to need to hold on for a second and make sure they’re cool with you essentially promoting that.” And they always were, but yes, he was the driving force behind it.
To that end as well, how did you guys come up with AFC Richmond and all of its colors, iconography, and uniforms? Because if I could choose one job in the world to do, there’s nothing I would rather do more than create the style guide for a whole new sporting franchise.
We really geeked out, and I’ll tell you how. We knew we were going to invent a team, because even though the promotional stuff was done with Tottenham Hotspur, the second you’re dealing with a real team, you have issues of license and how you’re representing actual players. So we had to make one up. We fell in love with the area of Richmond as a place to shoot. That green you see in the town – all that is a beautiful suburban area. It’s just a great neighborhood-y place. Right now, that area was known mostly as kind of a rugby town and didn’t have their own football clubs. So we knew we could put one there without getting caught up in the, “Oh, B.S. There’s already a team there!”
Then we delved way too deeply into research to find out that greyhounds are big in the community of Richmond and their historical background. Then we nerded out trying different outfits, different color patterns, and then Jason even came up with pitching the fake sponsors on the jerseys. The other thing was partially knowing that the danger of doing any type of a sports movie type of thing is if you blow it and it looks really fake, whether it’s the sport, or the action scenes, or the gear, or where they work or anything, that’s the second you lose that kind of authenticity and the show doesn’t work.
If Apple makes any AFC Richmond scarves available online, I’ll absolutely buy some.
Oh, dude. I’m going to gear up.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The first three episodes of Ted Lasso are available to stream on Apple TV+ now.