There’s a scene in Ted Lasso, where the title character–Jason Sudeikis’s American football coach who abruptly turns into a Premier League manager–sprints to the assistant referee in the middle of a crucial match after raising his flag for an offside call.
“Come on, now! What do you mean? How’s that offside?” complains Lasso, with his characteristic Kansan drawl as the linesman looks at him with confusion.
“What?” asks the official.
Lasso gets closer. “No, I’m serious. How’s that offside...I don’t understand it yet.”
This lack of complete understanding and across-the-pond confusion is one way to describe the essence of Apple TV+’s latest sitcom, which originated from a 2013 NBC Sports promo. That's where Sudeikis introduced his character as part of the network’s acquisition of the Premier League broadcast rights.
The idea was simple. Lasso, an intense, wide-eyed college football coach from Kansas City arrives in London and enters the alien world of the Premier League. In the promos, he takes over Tottenham (the following season, he returns as head coach of youth girls' team St. Catherine Fighting Owls), questioning why players don’t wear more pads and teaching the art of flopping. He has no knowledge of the game or its cultural and historical significance. It was a satiric outlook at two different worlds seen through the eyes of a naïve American, and for NBC, it was a way to both attract a loyal, knowledgeable soccer fan as well as appeal to a new audience.
In the end, it worked, as both promos (2013 and 2014) went viral and gained a tremendous amount of attention. Combined, the videos have generated more than 20 million views on YouTube and helped the network build a strong foundation for its Premier League audience.
It’s been six years since those promos aired, and soccer in the U.S.–without Ted Lasso–has grown tremendously in popularity. So how was the character revived?
“I guess it’s a dozen little things that go right that you’re willing and ready to receive,” Sudeikis told Sports Illustrated. “After doing the second video (in 2014), it really unlocked elements of the character that we found very, very fun to write and portray and view the world through. So, one day in 2015, my partner Olivia (the actress and filmmaker Olivia Wilde) came up to me one day and said, ‘You know, you should do Ted Lasso as a show,’ and I said, ‘I don’t know,’ but then after marinating on it, I thought maybe this could happen.”
In spring of the same year, Sudeikis got together with his creative partners and writers, Joe Kelly and Brendan Hunt–the three of them started together with Chicago’s well-known improv group The Second City and Amsterdam’s Boom Chicago; Hunt also plays Lasso’s assistant coach and confidante Coach Beard–and powered through for a week to see if they could create a show out of it.
“When you have a germ of an idea, you don’t know if it’s something you say out loud or if it’s a tweet or a letter or a screenplay, who knows," Sudeikis said. "So, we sat down, and we were able to bang out a pilot pretty quick in that week. As well as outlining six to 10 episodes of the first season. And that let us know, ‘O.K., there’s something here.’”
Despite the excitement for the idea, that’s all it was at that moment–an idea without a home. So, life continued, and the three friends left Ted Lasso alone for a few years and diverted their focus to their respective careers.
“But that allowed us to get a little space from it, and low and behold, the showbiz gods looked and smiled down on us and brought Bill to our doorstep,” Sudeikis said.
"Bill" is Bill Lawrence, the experienced television writer, producer and creative force behind award-winning shows such as Scrubs, Cougar Town and Spin City. Lawrence entered the frame in 2017 when he and Sudeikis played pickup basketball a couple of nights a week and one night, the idea of Ted Lasso came up. After a few more chats, he read the script and the concept and was immediately interested.
“I wanted to work with Jason Sudeikis, he just cracks me up. I thought he was awesome on SNL, whenever he shows up in a movie, I’m immediately into it and he seems like that dude you want to hang with,” Lawrence said. “I’d also seen those sketches, the promotional videos for the Premier League back when he did them and I thought they were so funny, and he said, 'What if we made that character three-dimensional and really rounded him out?' Ted Lasso can still be goofy and funny, but we could also have our version.”
And this was critical for Sudeikis. In the commercials, Lasso’s unawareness is funny and often endearing, but for a show, there had be more to him for the audience to not just laugh, but also root for him.
“I think Scrubs is a fantastic show. You can put the 10 best episodes of it up against any show,” Sudeikis said. “Bill writes male characters and relationships so beautifully, his use of music and dealing with heavy duty issues of life and death. And now, two years later, here we are talking about it. It’s actually really gonna happen and I can’t kind of believe it.”
Not only is the show happening (it premieres this Friday), but it also succeeds in its mission. Ted Lasso is warm, it’s funny and–like the main character–it has heart. Unlike the commercials, where Ted’s biggest trait is his buffoonery, the show celebrates his relentless thirst for hope. He is a man with passion, dignity and someone for whom you cheer. Lasso is the eternal optimist, whose naivety is both a strength and a weakness, and just like J.D from Scrubs, Lasso is vulnerable (in the show, he actually leaves the U.S. to escape from a troubled marriage) and aches for comfort. That’s what he offers his new team in return–an arrogant, underachieving Premier League side controlled by a scorned owner. It’s not Tottenham this time around, but the fictional AFC Richmond.
Lawrence sees Lasso as the perfect example of the inspiring teacher. A sports version of Robin Williams's John Keating from Dead Poets Society, where his personality is a weapon against cynical reporters and resentful fans who naturally express their disgust at the thought of an American with no knowledge of the game taking over their beloved club.
“We all grew up with a favorite teacher or a favorite coach. They put us on a path. These people never force you into doing anything. It’s just good folks,” Lawrence said. “Me and Jason overlap cause we also like doing shows with heart and because it’s such a dumpster-fire time in the world, Jason really wanted to do a show that was hopeful and optimistic, and most sports movies have that. That’s what's at their core. It’s the underdog. We were trying to capture that optimism and hopefulness that comes with those iconic figures from your life, whether it’s a coach, a teacher or a parent.”
If there's a coach in the real Premier League that emits optimism and hopefulness, it's Liverpool's Jurgen Klopp, and Sudeikis admits that Lasso's character in the show is partly inspired by him.
“Man. When I heard about him taking his squad to go do karaoke, I was like, ‘hellooooo, story idea…’” said Sudeikis, who also admires Pep Guardiola. “I really love those coaches. I really like the way they handle themselves as leaders of an organization. They are guys who I would follow into a fist fight.”
Sudeikis loves the game but fully admits he still needs to do more before calling himself a hardcore, scholarly fan.
"I love the sport. My joke has been that I have a deep appreciation for it but a shallow understanding. But that’s why I keep company with Brendan and Joe, who know their stuff,” Sudeikis said. “But it’s still all new to me. Every time I go to see a match, I buy a kit for me at the gift shop and a kit for my little boy. I’m ready to be a fair-weather fan for whoever needs it [laughs]. I know people hate for me that, but that’s the truth.”
The showrunners put together a cast with colorful characters who add depth to the multiple plots. There’s the tough-as-nails veteran midfielder Roy Kent (surely inspired by Roy Keane and played by Brett Goldstein), the narcissistic Man City loanee Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster), the charismatic duo of Dani Rojas (Mexican star played by Cristo Fernandez) and Nigerian forward Sam Obisanya (Toheeb Jimoh). Nick Mohammed (who can be seen in Sky TV/Peacock’s Intelligence) also shines as the quiet kitman. It’s also refreshing to hear NBC’s Arlo White serving as the show’s commentator throughout AFC Richmond’s season.
But if there’s someone aside from Sudeikis's Lasso who steals the show, it’s Keeley Jones, the confident and no-nonsense TV celebrity/model/PR guru played by Juno Temple. She was the only actor who didn’t audition, as Sudeikis, who knew her work, wanted her in the show from the get-go.
“I met Juno with Olivia when they were on Vinyl (Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese’s 2016 HBO show), so I’ve done karaoke with her. I’ve been in a room with her. I knew her,” Sudeikis said. “She’s so fun and dynamic and just pro-female. She’s just a kick-ass that lives with an excitement that’s fun to be around, and that’s a little bit of what the character had.”
In the end, Ted Lasso is exactly what an audience needs right now. It’s a story that makes you laugh and reminds you to smile at adversity. It’s a lesson that’s less about football management and more about unity, and the script works because it takes a hold of our differences and embraces them as one. And it echoes Lasso’s favorite Walt Whitman quote, “Be curious, not judgmental.”
Lasso is heroic, not because he commands respect but because he earns it. He is kind, because he doesn’t know any other way. But like us, he is also vulnerable, and that’s why we can relate to his journey.
“He’s more white rabbit than white knight, but he’s actually becoming the change he wants to see in the world, without any agenda,” Sudeikis said. “And these days, that’s unusual, both in real life and on television.”