Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan chats with Ted Lasso co-creator Bill Lawrence about Apple TV+’s surprise, upbeat hit of the season.
Over the last year, it has been a challenge to feel optimistic. Between the pandemic, violence, and a brutal U.S. election, it’s pretty hard to look at a half-full glass. . . and it not be filled with vodka (you know, just to take the edge off).
And yet, TV has been pretty hopeful. First with feel-good Schitt’s Creek’s historic Emmy win, and now with Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso, an underdog story about terminally positive football coach who’s plucked from the Midwest to coach soccer in the UK (or football—whatever!). The show is based on those NBC Premier League ads that probably gave you a chuckle, except Jason Sudeikis and co-creator Bill Lawrence have taken that character, built a universe around him, and created one of the best ensemble comedies of the year. It’s easy to think that Ted Lasso might be dominated by one standout star, especially with a comedic talent like Sudeikis in the lead, but like any team player, Ted Lasso knows when to pass to a teammate or two.
It’s no surprise that Bill Lawrence would be a name behind a hit comedy series, as he created Scrubs, one of the biggest comedies of the last 20 years. But what is surprising about Bill Lawrence’s connection to Ted Lasso is that he’s not a fan of soccer (even if he won a state championship as a kid) and that the show has changed his outlook on life.
Awards Daily: I think Ted Lasso is my favorite TV show you’ve ever done, and that’s saying a lot, since you’ve done some amazing TV shows. Have you been surprised by the reception of the show? I’ve only seen positive reactions.
Bill Lawrence: This show has been an interesting adventure. And by the way, I always have to start out saying, people are so nice to call it my show—this is Jason Sudeikis’s show, as much or if not more than mine. That’s the dude that came up with the character and is legitimately the head writer of the show. Not a lot of people know he was a writer at SNL before he was an actor there. Man, it’s such a gift when someone turns out to be that talented on both sides.
When Jason and I started this, I don’t think Apple had even released any shows yet, so we didn’t know what that streaming site would be and how people would respond to it. So at the beginning, part of the fun was that we were making this for a TV network that didn’t exist as a streaming site; it was just a concept. And then when it came out, we all knew to expect initial reaction would be people going, ‘They’re turning a commercial into a TV show,’ which is an easy way to say something. I never thought that was true. I thought it was a character that Jason, Joe Kelly and Brendan Hunt came up with and built a show around it. We were shooting to make something that we were all proud of, that would be fun and worth relocating our wives to London, but it’s a huge surprise. I think everybody has been lucky enough to have been involved with shows that worked before, but what the biggest surprise has been is to see how very kind people like yourself are emotionally affected by the show, including those who worked on it.
AD: There’s such a sweet-spiritedness to this series, not just because of Ted, but because of a lot of the other relationships on the show. What do you think it is about warm-hug-of-a-shows like Ted Lasso and Schitt’s Creek that have become so popular right now? Do you think maybe this show is coming around at the right time?
BL: Is timing a big thing in television? Without a doubt. I will tell you that even though when we started the show, the world was not in an awful quarantine place, but we had reached a time that we all were talking amongst ourselves about how inherently cynical we all were. We had reached a point whether it was politics, social media, or public discourse—if I met someone like Ted Lasso a couple of years ago, I would assume he was probably a jerk or asshole, and after a couple of weeks, he would reveal his true nature. And if after a couple of weeks he turned to be that high-quality character and just a good, kind human being, then I would have to look at myself and feel like a jerk for having assumed that.
I think maybe we’ve reached a time when it’s nice to have some hopefulness and optimism and people who simply still believe that good character and quickness to forgive and believe in each other and be kind actually has merit and worth? Yeah, I think we’ve reached the time where that’s a good thing. I’m a comedy writer. I could watch Veep until the end of time. I thought it was so funny, and each character on that show was more reprehensible than the other. But I think it is nice to see people truly care about each other as adults on every single front. It’s put me into a more optimistic and hopeful place, even working on it.
AD: As you mentioned before, the character of Ted Lasso is an NBC property. Why isn’t it on NBC?
BL: No, no, they didn’t pass on it or anything. I don’t even know if NBC knew anything about this. When we dealt with them, it was their sports department. This is IP created for NBC Sports to help watch the Premier League in the U.S. I can’t look at the timing in my head, but I’m not even sure that the Peacock as a streaming site existed when we started. We pitched it to a lot of places that passed, but we didn’t pitch it to NBC.
AD: I have to ask you: Are you a fan of soccer or football? I found myself being reluctant to watch because I wasn’t a fan, but I’m so glad people talked me into it.
BL: Jason nor I are remotely fans of soccer or what they call football. Brendan Hunt who plays Coach Beard is a huge fan, and we had to hire a couple of British writers. One is Brett Goldstein who plays Roy and one is Phoebe Walsh, who not only could help us as writers with cultural stuff living over there, but also both of their families are psychotic soccer fans. Brett’s whole family is Tottenham Hotspur; Phoebe’s whole family is Crystal Palace. The only thing similar in the United States is the very regional, psychotic fandom of college football here, where you have the entire towns that revolve around football.
Jason and I both take equal amounts of pride in not knowing. I have more experience than most of the writing staff. I won a state championship in Connecticut in soccer when I was 11. I was a goalie, and I still didn’t know any of the rules. I thought I was allowed to go grab the ball and tackle people. The way Jason and I rationalize it is what bonded us is that we both grew up loving sports movies. This is just a TV series version of a sports movie.
AD: I love the character of Ted so much, and I was thinking about him in a cynical way, like you guys. Do people like this exist? But he’s a flawed character, too. But I’m not quite sure what his flaw is? Is it being too nice? What would you say Ted Lasso’s biggest flaw is?
BL: I think Ted’s greatest asset is his character and his inherent kindness and belief in others. And I also want to say something that Jason always said. It would be very easy for Ted to come off as a rube or a dummy. We always said that he was dumb like a fox, which meant he’s very emotionally savvy. Ignorance but curious. Lately, all of our discourse is about ignorance with arrogance. When you go, ‘Oh, I never learned about that, but I know more about that than anyone else in the world.’ Maybe a political metaphor, but whatever. Those are his positives.
I would say it’s hard for me to tell you Ted’s greatest flaws, because that’s one of the stories we started telling. Every character in this show has their journey mapped out. Jason knew what Rebecca’s was gonna be, what Roy’s was gonna be. And we knew what Ted’s was gonna be, but Ted’s is moving a little slower than other people’s. But I would say that someone doesn’t show up with a failing marriage and having panic attacks unless they still have a journey.
AD: You did such a good job writing this character. You’re right. Other characters written like this can be rubes, but he’s so funny and sharp.
BL: Jason wrote the speech when he was playing darts, saying, “People have been underestimating me my whole life.” And that’s what Ted Lasso’s secret weapon is. He knows people underestimate him because he’s kind and might seem simple, but he’s sharper than you think.
AD: I love that. Ted Lasso just got renewed for two more seasons. Television has changed so much in the last 20 years. Is 20-plus episodes spread out over two seasons just as daunting as a 22-episode season? Is it more daunting? How have you adjusted as a TV creator?
BL: The first show I created, I co-created Spin City with Gary Goldberg and we did 100 episodes in the first four years: 24, 26, 25, and 25. It was bananas. And there’s something about that insane slog. It’s all a blur, it’s so much work. I would say the pressure we haven’t dealt with before with a streaming show, the first season is 10 episodes and the next two seasons are 12 episodes each. The difference with a streaming show, especially when you’re pitching it, the shows I used to do that were 24-25 episodes a year, you’d keep them going and even if the characters changed, they would change slowly, like Scrubs where we did close to 200 episodes of TV. Then when it’s time to end it, you see where the characters are, and you try to make a satisfactory ending that half of your fan base doesn’t hate for ever.
What’s so much harder now is that you gotta have a beginning, middle, and end done before you go. So part of the battle is figuring out the whole story you’re telling, even if you haven’t written the scripts for the second and third years yet. That’s why it was such an advantage to have Jason as an answer key, because he knew the big journey he wanted to take and where he saw the story beginning and ending.
Season 1 of Ted Lasso is streaming on Apple+.