Bill Lawrence Talks Ted Lasso: Hopeful and Optomistic Escapist Entertainment

Television

For years, Bill Lawrence has brought great television to the US and the world.

He’s responsible for Scrubs, Cougar Town, and the recent fan-favorite, Whiskey Cavalier. Needless to say, when he’s involved with a new show, we’re interested.

He joined forces with Jason Sudeikis for Ted Lasso, and he was kind enough to join us on press day to chat about the series that will premiere on Apple TV+ on August 14.

Bill Lawrence Horizontal

How did you get involved with Ted Lasso?

You know what? I wanted to do a show with Jason Sudeikis. He hadn’t really dipped his toes into TV, and we were having some meetings about stuff, and I had seen these promotional videos he had made long ago for Premier League football here in America. And I thought they were so funny, but just like a sketch.

And Jason on his own said, ‘You know what’s weird, is every time I go overseas, I’m recognized more as Ted Lasso than as SNL, We’re the Millers, Horrible Bosses, any of that stuff.’ And he said, ‘I think it’d be a funny show,’ because he likes it when you tweak people’s expectations.

And he’s like, ‘People that know the videos will think they’re just going to see a goofy, dumb American doing sketches. But if we make him a three-dimensional character and have some pathos and emotional depth of his own, it could be a really cool, hopeful, and optimistic show.’ And so he hooked me in, and the challenge of it felt fun.

How did you guys decide what other characters to use to round out the cast?

Jason, in his head, knew he wanted to do our version of a sports movie. Everybody loves movies here, especially young dumb guys. When Jason and I were kids that grew up playing high school sports, they go, ‘Oh, Rudy or Hoosiers or Major League or Bull Durham. What’s your sports movie?’

So he started with knowing he wanted to do our own version of that and tweak it a little bit. And just by that genre, you know you have the team owner, you have the coaches, you have the players, you have the significant others of some players, and that created the world.

But Jason had a very specific idea of at least prototypes that he wanted for the world of those characters. And then beyond that, once we got to know the Premier League, one of the things that was exciting was those teams over there are international melting pots. People from everywhere, from every religion, from every ethnicity.

It was fascinating and fun to have not only a reason to do a show like that but almost an obligation to do it.

Bill Lawrence and Christa Miller

Given all the movies that you just mentioned, is that why there’s so much heart in Ted Lasso? The backbone of it is certainly football, but the characters and their layers in their heart are whtat makes the series special.

Oh, lovely of you… My wife said I’m horrible at accepting compliments. So I’m supposed to look people in the eyes and say, ‘thanks for saying that.’ It’s very nice to you.

Look, I think one of the reasons that Jason and I became partners is that that is something that he wanted to do in this is have the heart of one of those movies in the show.

And he knew that right or wrong, a lot of my shows, whether it’s Scrubs or Spin City or Cougar Town, have an undercurrent of emotional heart and people caring about each other and loving each other. And so that’s what forged a good partnership. It’s definitely what he wanted to do.

He used to talk about Ted Lasso as one of those people that we all have in our lives that when you first meet them, your initial reaction is, ‘Aw, this can’t be real,’ because we’re all such cynics now.

But no one’s this nice or this kind or this truly optimistic. And the goal was doing a show that still managed to be funny. But yeah, the guy turns out to be, even though he’s screwed up in his own way, that pure of spirit.

Bill Lawrence Scrubs Reunion

And you mentioned some of your shows, which have a rather signature style. How did you infuse the Bill Lawrence method into Ted Lasso?

You know what? Because the first tenant of my method is to surround yourself with talented people and take credit for their work, I had already checked off one box. It’s a really good writing staff, a really good crew.

And getting the chance to work in the UK, out of my comfort zone, with actors and actresses that I had known from things but never worked with before, such good comedians and comediennes, Juno Temple and Nick Mohammed, so good.

But with my most successful shows, the actors and actresses take ownership of the characters very early and make them their own, not only in performance but in the ability to say, ‘I’m not sure this character would say that,’ or ‘could this character try saying something else?’

And Jason is very protective, not only of that, but I knew my style of doing things would work because typically, this would be a show that was a star vehicle, a Jason Sudeikis show. And he fought hard for it going, ‘No, the opening scene is going to be a very long scene with a female lead and showing her world and starting with her.’

And I think the studios and powers that be, when we were going through it all, were surprised by that and eventually embraced it. But it’s why it made it an ensemble show.

There isn’t a bad character in the bunch. So what’s your favorite character from the show? Have you chosen one?

No. You know what? Shows like this are super fun to write for because it’s male, female, player, old, young. It’s fun. I’m a comedy writer. My only two jobs in my life were painting the houses and writing jokes.

I will tell you; oddly, I was asked which character do you think is like you? And I had a weird answer because, in the sixth episode, we bring a new player on the football team named Dani Rojas.

He’s a Latino guy; football is life. And his attitude for what it’s like to get paid to play soccer as a job, I feel is lifted directly, in a corny way, from how much it cracks me up that I’m paid to sit around and write jokes.

And so for me, I love that character. I probably love him too much, his inherent optimism, and his vibe. And everybody makes fun of me because they know I’m… It’s played by Cristo Fernandez, and know they know I’m a Dani Rojas fan. But I’d write for any of these folks.

What actors came in and managed to put their spin on the material that surprised you based on what had been on the page versus what wound up in the series?

Sure. The two that really… Well, I could talk about any. I feel I’m going to slight people. Brett Goldstein plays Roy, and he’s one of the writers of the show too.

And he’s good at seeming intimidating and like an old-school jerk, but he has sincerity and heart, and vulnerability underneath the guy has in real life, I thought was really impressive.

Nick Mohammed, who plays Nate, the clubhouse boy that becomes a coach, is a comedic genius out there, and we lift from him all the time.

I think he’s the only one in the cast that simultaneously has his own show that he’s created and stars in premiering on the Peacock as our show goes. And he took what could be easily a minor character and made him a lead, and he is somebody that reporters are talking to today.

And then Juno Temple, I knew. She plays Keeley. I knew her as a dramatic actress. And to watch, she created a character as quirky as that, and as interesting and inherently watchable, I don’t know what she’s going to do as a performer.

And she consistently never does things the way I imagine them in my head, but I always find what she’s doing to be better.

And then the last one I’ll give you is Hannah Waddingham, who plays Rebecca; she is this huge presence. And for her to go, ‘Look, I’ll play the villainess, but I’m going to start very early showing people that it’s not just the cut and dried, strong, powerful ice queen woman. That she’s vulnerable and human and humane and just got really mistreated.’

That’s a tough role to play because it’s very easy to fall into tropes and stuff.

I thought everybody killed it. I’m gushing too much. And I’m happy to take credit for all their hard work, believe me.

Well, I think that the gushing is worth it because I’ve been gushing about it since I watched it. It is that good. It was one of my favorite shows of the year.

And I’m wondering, the series has made Ted far more relatable to audiences. Both males and females are going to enjoy this show, which is the nature of sporting movies anyway, so I’m not surprised.

But why do you think that this story appeals to such a wide audience, beginning with the commercials? What was it that captured the zeitgeist?

I think there’s two things, or three. One is Jason Sudeikis, I’ve got to say. That guy has a universal affability. I’ve found myself over the years saying I wanted to meet with him. I lean forward, and I light up a little when he comes on the screen, whether it be a small movie or a big movie.

He’s funny and likable and charming in a way that he does that thing that great comedic actors do; he tricks you into thinking he’s a pal of yours, even though you never met him before. So it has to start with him.

The other part of the universal appeal is that in the world of a sports movie, you’re in the world of an underdog. And I think we like an underdog. It was really important for Jason and me that the show feels hopeful and optimistic at a time that not…

And I think I said I love cynical, snarky TV. I could recite lines from every episode of Heat to you, and they are heartless, soulless characters just out crushing each other.

But to write a show that I think is inherently hopeful and optimistic at a time that maybe people could use some escapist entertainment that feels that way, felt like a cool thing to take a shot at. So much so, we found it playing into the writer’s room.

We all have those people you meet when you meet them you go, ‘Aw, this can’t be real. This dude or woman can’t sincerely be this kind or nice or optimistic.’ And one of the things we wrote on the wall is that Ted is. He’ll be flawed in his own, but he actually is that guy. The same way Rocky actually was just a simple, nice guy.

And the other thing, I think, that’s universal that has freaked me out is working with Apple. You’re not making a TV show just for the states, you’re making it for 100 international communities immediately.

And I was overwhelmed yesterday. My other shows in the past, you would find out after the fact of like, oh, Scrubs is big in Ireland, or people really like Spin City in Australia.

And this show, soccer’s so much bigger everywhere else than it is here, the amount of outlets and the distance from them that were overexcited about finally, someone’s doing a big American sports movie about football.

I think that’s one of the universal appeal things that I didn’t see coming.

What were the challenges that you had putting on the field a realistic-looking football game?

Well, that’s the biggest one, if you do a sports movie. And we can all make jokes about those moments that got it wrong, comedy writers and directors all have a favorite thing of scenes where you can see that somebody was playing a sport or doing something that they obviously didn’t know how to. Then we all have to cut around it.

The biggest obligation in this show was populating the team with actual players and making the football look good. And we got grilled on it internationally yesterday, and we were lucky enough that those people are such fans.

They were like, ‘Your stadium is actually Crystal Palace, the Premier League team stadium. Were you allowed to use that? Is that why they had to be the team that kicked your team’s ass?’ I’m like, ‘It’s not why, but it is one of the reasons that happened, yeah.’

And so the hardest thing for me was using British craftspeople and people that are good at their jobs to try and make the sports look real.

Because even though it’s not a sports-dominant show, if it didn’t seem authentic, if it didn’t have Scott Van Pelt from sports center in the pilot with my boys going, ‘No way, that’s the real guy,’ I think it could have easily seemed like a big, broad fake, a swing, and a miss.

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Ted Lasso premieres on Apple TV+ on Friday, August 14. We still have one more interview coming up with Jason Sudeikis, and we’ll be reviewing the series weekly, so stick around!

Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She’s a member of the Critic’s Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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