Jason Sudeikis was taking out the trash last fall when he first learned “Ted Lasso” had found an audience.
“Or recycling,” he amended in a recent interview. “It’s probably better for my brand if I say recycling instead.”
Whichever it was, that was the first time a person stopped him to say how much he liked the show. Perhaps you had a similar experience — maybe during your own quarantine, some random interaction or a social media post — when somebody said, “You know what? That show based on the old soccer commercials is actually pretty good. Especially right now.”
“It’s the kind of show we need right now” became a defining theme in the emergence of “Ted Lasso” as one of TV’s surprise hits of 2020. An openhearted crowd-pleaser, it stars Sudeikis as a sunny, wondrously mustachioed American football coach hired, via a sports movie gimmick, to manage an also-ran Premier League club in England. Through a program of dogged positivity and folksy aphorisms — “When it comes to locker rooms, I like ’em just like my mother’s bathing suits: I only wanna see ’em in one piece” — the soccer neophyte turns a ragtag bunch of jaded pros into, if not exactly winners, a cohesive family of self-believers.
The character originated in 2013 in NBC Sports promos that Sudeikis created with his old improv buddies Brendan Hunt and Joe Kelly, executive producers on the series. (Hunt also stars as Coach Beard, Lasso’s sidekick.) The spots were clever and the character amusing. But when he arrived in series form on Apple TV+ in August 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic, a bitterly divisive presidential election and a summer of police violence and racial justice protests, the deeply decent, endlessly upbeat Ted Lasso was like a cultural balm.
“It’s as if Sudeikis et al. foresaw the chaos and terror of the summer of 2020 and wanted to prove that America could do something right,” New York Times TV critic Mike Hale wrote in his review. Similar sentiments were widely and repeatedly shared as the show traced the same trajectory as its protagonist, winning over people with the surprising emotional depth and charm beneath the goofy exterior.
This year has delivered the rewards that come with being the right show at the right time. Sudeikis won a Golden Globe for acting, and the show earned a Peabody. On Tuesday, it received 20 Emmy nominations, the most of any comedy series this year, including nods for best comedy and for best actor in a comedy (Sudeikis).
“Ted Lasso” returns July 23 for a 12-episode second season. (It has already been renewed for a third.) The new episodes find Lasso and friends (played by newly minted Emmy nominees Hannah Waddingham, Brett Goldstein, Nick Mohammed, Jeremy Swift and Juno Temple, among others) picking up the pieces of the team’s relegation last season and dealing with the arrival of a sports therapist played by Sarah Niles.
But the times are different now. Unlike one-off pandemic hits like “The Queen’s Gambit,” “Ted Lasso” is about to learn to what extent its acclaim is owed to its audience being mostly captive and in need of consolation. Will viewers still crave uplift if they’re no longer feeling quite so down?
In a group video call earlier this month, Sudeikis, Hunt and another creator, sitcom veteran Bill Lawrence (“Scrubs,” “Spin City”), discussed this and other topics, including how long they think “Ted Lasso” will last and the “Batman-villain” public figure who gave the series added relevance. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: The show premiered last summer, but it took most viewers awhile to find it. When did you all notice it starting to get traction?
SUDEIKIS: In London we were in lockdown. It’s only been since being back in Brooklyn and going to a Nets game with my son, and people being like, “Yo, love the show!” — they put me on the Jumbotron and showed a clip of Ted slapping the “Believe” poster — that it was like, oh, OK, people have seen this show.
LAWRENCE: My favorite thing about the start of the show was searching for “Ted Lasso” on social media and finding all of these posts where people had said, “I can’t believe this show is actually good,” or, “This show actually doesn’t suck.”
HUNT: Welcome to the Bill Lawrence Museum of Low Expectations!
Q: Expectations were low everywhere, thanks to earlier shows based on ads like Geico’s “Cavemen.” How did the NBC spots lead to a series?
SUDEIKIS: The second commercial really unlocked this key element of the character: his enthusiasm and optimism. He fell in love with soccer; he fell in love with London. And it was just fun to play and a fun double act for Brendan and I as Ted and his assistant coach, which we then very cleverly named Coach Beard.
So Brendan, Joe and I thought if we were to do a third thing, is it a commercial? Is it a movie? We kept spilling out stories; we used the British “Office” as a model and came up with a pilot outline and ideas for episodes for the first season, second season. Then it just sat dormant for three years. Then the universe brought Bill Lawrence into the mix, and he actually made the son of a gun happen.
Q: What was it about the character and the concept that felt as if it could support a longer story?
SUDEIKIS: The theme and tone of it was just something that was bouncing around in my head. I didn’t want to do the arc of son of a bitch to saint; it had already been crushed by Ricky Gervais as David Brent. So it was like, what about just playing a good guy?
The thing Bill and I talked about in the pitch was this antithesis of the cocktail of a human man who is both ignorant and arrogant, which lo and behold, a Batman-villain version of it became president of the United States right around the same time. What if you played an ignorant guy who was actually curious? When someone used a big word like “vernacular,” he didn’t act like he knew it but just stops the meeting like, “Question, what does that mean?”
And also the idea of just saying please and thank you — I remember holding doors for people when I first got hired at “Saturday Night Live,” and they would stop, thinking I’m going to hit them in the butt or something. It was always really funny to me, and so it was based on those observations about what was going on with society and discourse, and lack of manners, all rolled into one.
Q: But you also get into darker things Ted’s dealing with, like panic attacks. Why was that important to you?
SUDEIKIS: We had to work backward, because if you’re going to play this nice guy at a certain age who’s married, then why does he take this job? Well, things must not be great at home. It was always about revealing. I’m going to butcher the Mark Twain quote, but every person’s life is a comedy, a drama and a tragedy. So we had to honor those other two elements, because the comedy part was baked into the premise of the fish-out-of-water, bungling idiot who doesn’t know what he’s doing. And the mustache, obviously.
Q: There’s more to Ted than meets the eye, and that also applies to the other characters. The bitter ex-wife who hires him to ruin her ex-husband’s favorite team, the vapid influencer, the prima donna athlete — nearly everybody embodies a stereotype that eventually gets subverted.
LAWRENCE: It would be easy to go, “This female lead is just the classic villain. She’s trying to destroy the team. She’s a shrew.” But we’re going to show what got her there, how she was emotionally abused. We’re going to take her to crossroads herself and make people hope she takes the right path. The amazing thing about this show for me, as someone who has done a lot of TV, is, every writer could tell you every character’s complete journey before we even started writing the second season.
Q: If the story is already mapped out, how many seasons will it last?
LAWRENCE: Now we get to fight. The easy answer’s eight.
HUNT: It’s in The New York Times! It’s fact now!
SUDEIKIS: It was conceived as a three-act structure. We’re lucky enough that the first act hit. And through the good graces and the deep pockets of Apple, who evidently do more than television, we’ll be able to tell that story to its conclusion.
LAWRENCE: Even though I joke about it, this particular journey of Ted Lasso and the people around him will be done after the third season. Then if there’s another story to tell, there’s another story to tell.
HUNT: The element of the formula we could never have calculated is the degree to which people dig the show. We’ve all been hit in the face by that. So we’ll see.
Q: One of the themes surrounding the first season was a version of “This is the show we need now.” Nearly a year later, things have improved in many ways; do you think that will change how the new season is received?
LAWRENCE: This is a response to the toxic and cynical culture out there, especially social media, the political discourse, how people speak to each other. I don’t think that’s been fixed, unless someone got to it over the weekend when I wasn’t paying attention. That’s why I think “Ted Lasso” is hitting a chord.
SUDEIKIS: If anything, the quarantine removed the noise of other options people had in their lives. “I can only watch ‘Queen’s Gambit’ so many times; I guess I’ll watch this stupid soccer show.”
HUNT: That was the slogan for a little while: “Ted Lasso”: Because “Queen’s Gambit” eventually ends.
Q: How vigilant are you about avoiding a kind of sentimentality that feels, if not cheap, perhaps unearned?
LAWRENCE: It was curious that “Ted Lasso” was labeled, like, “It’s a sunshine enema through your television set!” It’s about a dude whose wife isn’t into him, who’s suffering from massive panic attacks. And a diva player with an abusive father. And a woman who is emotionally abused by her husband and left to rot. Then the narrative became, “It’s the cheeriest show you’ll ever see!” So it’s not that difficult to avoid slipping into hugs and treacle.
SUDEIKIS: One of the themes is that evil exists — bullies, toxic masculinity, malignant narcissists — and we can’t just destroy them. It’s about how you deal with those things. That’s where the positivity and some of the lessons come in; it’s about what we have control over.
We made the first season in a bubble, and we wrote the stories for the second season in the same bubble before the show had come out. The story hasn’t changed at all based on its success. But I think the third season’s going to be an absolute nightmare; it’s just going to be Hallmark card after Hallmark card. I bet the whole damn thing rhymes.
HUNT: It’s really cool that the show is found to be inspirational, but our only intention was to make a comedy. And we still have to do that. If we get out there trying to be inspirational, then we probably won’t be.