When the world first met Ted Lasso, he was half the man he is today…maybe even a quarter (incidentally, what the fish-out-of-water American football coach thought UK ‘soccer’ matches were played in instead of halves). The character originated in a 2013 TV ad commissioned to mark NBC Sports’ acquisition of the US broadcast rights to English Premier League games. Titled ‘An American Coach in London’, it was a five-minute comedy sketch created as a showcase for the peculiarities of the English sport for US fans, and as a riff on the clumsy yank abroad stereotype.
The premise saw Lasso imported to coach Premier League team Tottenham Hotspurs – or, as he calls them, ‘The Spurs’ – despite having no grasp of the game’s rules or context. He gets the lingo wrong, the rules wrong, the training wrong, and is totally unaware that everybody thinks he’s a complete tit.
In a 2013 behind-the-scenes interview with Spurs TV, Jason Sudeikis explained:
“I’m playing an American football coach who’s come over to Tottenham to implement American football things, styles and ways into soccer, into European football… unsuccessfully, I would say. Comedically, hopefully, but definitely unsuccessfully.”
Created by Sudeikis with fellow Saturday Night Live writer Joe Kelly and actor Brendan Hunt, this version of Ted Lasso was a dolt with zero self-awareness. In the 2014 follow-up ad, he’s a buffoon whose naive idiocy and childlike excitement wrecks live TV broadcasts. The comedy comes from the combination of unshakeable self-belief, ineptitude, and certain failure.
Not that Ted let failure get him down. Despite having lasted only six hours at “The Spurs”, he cherished his time in England and decorated his US apartment with an English theme (including an Easter Egg appearance of an LP by renowned English punk band Ian Rubbish and the Bizzaros, whose lead singer bears a striking resemblance to SNL’s Fred Armisen.)
While the NBC Sports ads laid out the basic premise of what would become Apple TV+ series Ted Lasso, major changes were made. The series dropped its Christopher Guest/The Office mockumentary format, and Ted’s character was remoulded from sure-to-fail cretin to might-just-work optimist. In the ads, Ted’s ignorance and Homer Simpson-ish larking about irritated the people around him. In the show, his ray-of-sunshine kindness lifts them up. The ads asked viewers to laugh at a yokel getting it wrong without knowing how hopeless he is. The show asks viewers to root for a kinder way of doing things.
The idea to work Ted Lasso up from skit character to sitcom lead was suggested in 2015 by Jason Sudeikis’ then-partner, actor-director Olivia Wilde. Sudeikis, Kelly, and Hunt wrote a pilot and series outline, before bringing on producer Bill Lawrence (Scrubs, Cougar Town), who emphasised the need to give the character vulnerability.
Though played for laughs, there was a glimpse of vulnerability in the 2013 NBC Sports ad. Lasso’s upbeat definition of his new club nickname – ‘wanker’ – plays over a montage of him training with the team. “I think it just means ‘great’ like, nice guy, kind heart, someone that listens, someone that’ll push ya!” he says. A clip of him standing solo on the pitch, clearly not popular, plays as he continues. “A wanker is someone that doesn’t mind being alone, likes to sit with his thoughts.” It’s a briefly poignant hint of things to come.
In the TV series, Ted’s vulnerability comes from the breakdown of his marriage. At the start of the show, it’s revealed that he took the job thousands of miles from home to give his wife the space she asked for. Watching him cope with his pain while devoting every effort to supporting the players of fictional team AFC Richmond and their various woes, makes Ted a sympathetic, inspirational lead. It’s not only the players Ted nurtures, but also team owner Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham), who’s recently out of a controlling marriage to a man who takes pleasure in undermining and humiliating her.
Ted’s transformation from unsophisticated oaf to an engine of hope and decency is a comedy character triumph. Swapping his idiocy for quiet wisdom and sage principles (he’s led by the Walt Whitman quote “Be curious, not judgmental”) inverted the original incarnation’s cliché about Americans abroad and created one of the US’ finest exports.
Ted Lasso season 2 arrives on Apple TV+ on Friday the 23rd of July.