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The main character of Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso might be someone you’d root for, but he’s not exactly a shoo-in to win, well, anything. That’s not the case for the series itself, which made history this year with its 20 Emmy nominations — the most ever for a freshman comedy. With star and co-creator Jason Sudeikis leading a cast that now boasts seven Emmy nominees, the show about an American football coach leading an English football (as in soccer) team is the favorite to win outstanding comedy series.
For co-creator Brendan Hunt, who also appears on the series as Lasso’s American colleague Coach Beard, the crop of Emmy noms is icing on the cake — the cake being a comic collaboration with longtime friends Sudeikis and co-creator Joe Kelly that has spanned decades (and continents). Hunt tells THR about Ted Lasso‘s humble beginnings as a digital commercial campaign and what improv comedy, which initially brought him and his collaborators together, has in common with soccer.
How did you get involved with the project when it was originally a commercial for NBC Sports?
In 2013, I got a phone call out of the blue from Jason Sudeikis. He said there was an NBC commercial that they wanted him to do, and if we did it, we’d get to go to London for three days. I thought, “Wow, three days in London. Unbelievable!” We went and [made the commercial], and it was a one-off. Then it came out; it was online mostly, and it did fine. Everyone was totally happy. A year later, NBC, having quite enjoyed that campaign, asked if we’d do it again. But this time, they weren’t paying for us to go to London. But that was fine — we just like hanging out with each other, you know? Jason, Joe Kelly and I enjoyed doing it, and Jason clearly enjoyed playing that character. So we wanted to find a way to keep doing it.
We spent a week trying to figure out what else was there — was it another commercial or a TV movie? We settled on trying to make it a series, and at the time we were going off the U.K. Office model — six episodes and then a special. We wrote out a pilot, we mapped out the rest, and then it basically sat on digital shelves collecting digital dust for several years until we hooked up with [co-creator and showrunner] Bill Lawrence. And once Bill Lawrence became the fourth Musketeer, it’s then that things moved very, very quickly.
You’ve known Jason for a long time, as you both came up in the Chicago comedy scene, right?
I’m from Chicago originally, and Jason’s from Kansas City, but his mom is from Chicago — we didn’t know this until two years ago, but his mom and my mom grew up on the same street, maybe two or three miles apart. We’re both the children of Southside Irish, so maybe that’s why we’ve always felt comfortable with each other — we’re nearly related. But we didn’t meet until 1997 or 1998. I was performing at ComedySportz in Chicago, and he and a friend drove up from ComedySportz Kansas City one night and did an improv show with us. We were like, “What the fuck is happening? No one told us these guys were coming.” As it turned out, they were hilarious. And afterward I was like, “I know this guy Jason now.” It wasn’t until I was performing with [improv troupe] Boom Chicago in Amsterdam that we got some formative friendship time. I was becoming friends with Joe Kelly, who was at Boom Chicago for years. Jason would come for a week at a time to be with his then-fiancée, Kay Cannon, and once he came for three months. He basically declared himself a castmember.
Do you think there’s something about that comedy community in particular that helped establish such a long-lasting friendship and creative partnership?
I think there’s an element of game-respect-game to it. You do always notice particularly talented people; you don’t always necessarily think you’re as good as that person, but you certainly want to be, and those people stay in your memory. I think, also, there’s something about improv itself that lends itself to togetherness because you need each other, and you need each other quickly when you’re in front of that audience — who are still confused as to what they’re about to watch. Having to depend on each other and listen to each other and rise and fall together — it’s a real expressway to kinship. Jason and Joe are the two I’m seeing the most from my improv days, but I’m still in touch with scores of people I did improv with. We’re all family still.
Not to make ComedySportz a bigger metaphor here, but do you think the team-based nature of improv played a role in your writing process on Ted Lasso, which is about a team coming together to achieve greatness?
It’s definitely influenced the writing process. I mean, that’s a shorter jump, analogy-wise: There are some showrunners who run their room like dictators, from what I hear. I don’t have all that much experience with that. Coming from the improv/sketch background, we have a very just automatic sense of wanting to listen. As the sports analogy goes, Jason wants to share the ball. Soccer is the most improvisational sport. There are no set plays. And in soccer, as in improv, you are trying to find the flow. You’re trying to find a sense of flow that raises you to a higher plane to do the best possible job you have ever done. In soccer, maybe it’s Brazil in the 1970 World Cup — perhaps the best soccer game that’s ever been played because they found their flow. With improv, maybe it was a second-year team in the basement at UCB Chelsea in 2002; there might have been only 10 people at that show, but by God, it was the best improv show that ever happened because they found their flow that night.
There’s a lot of humor rooted in the American-English culture clash. How much of that do you experience while writing and filming the show?
The thing that comes to mind is the crossing-the-street thing. For whatever reason, people did not like the trailer of this show. It was a very unpopular trailer. I remember [people commenting], “Oh, look, he doesn’t know where to look to cross the street, ugh.” All I could think of was how that’s the truest thing in the entire show! I have now spent a year of the last two years of my life in London, and I still approach every crosswalk like I’m in The Hurt Locker — I’m very careful every time. I nearly die 10 times a day, and it will be the dumbest way to die. That’s very, very real. And you know, I’m not a big tea guy, and I never will be.
Since Ted Lasso premiered last year, many people have commended its style of humor. It’s not snarky or mean, and it feels like the right comedy for our world right now. Is that something you wanted to explore from the onset?
It wasn’t so much a response to what was going on in comedy as it was responsive to what was going on in the world. Even before 2020, things weren’t great. As Bill Lawrence likes to put it, there was a toxicity in the discourse. We certainly wanted to be at least a little bit of an antidote to that because the face of America that was being given the world was not the face of America that we know at all. That’s not what any of us grew up with. Even if all we grew up with was a bit of a miss, it’s still better than what has been happening lately. Because our show is in England, it’s a different pace. We wanted to try to emphasize the things that are not America. America is still the hyperactive puppy dog of Western culture, and we wanted to go where the old dog lives and walk at that pace. And that led us to what Jason calls “finding the grace notes.” We spend time on some digressions and emotional moments while, hopefully, being funny enough to earn that sense of pace.
Where does the particularly non-toxic masculinity of Ted Lasso come from?
Jason is a big devotee of [former UCLA basketball coach] John Wooden. I’m looking at one of his books right now: Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court. It’s Jason’s go-to gift for people, and it’s just full of wisdom. He was a cool leader with a great philosophy that is very wide-sweeping. And here’s a weird thing about me, Jason Sudeikis, Joe Kelly and Bill Lawrence, the co-creators of the show: None of us have brothers. Bill’s an only child, and the rest of us only had sisters. There might be some healing power in getting your ass kicked by women as much as possible before the age of 15.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
And the Odds Are…
Ted Lasso was the de facto Emmy favorite across all categories going into this year’s race. A year’s worth of steady word-of-mouth, a well-timed second season (now streaming) an infusion of earnestness into a category that often awards sarcasm, the Apple TV+ breakout from Jason Sudeikis is a worthy heir to Schitt’s Creek‘s reigning Emmy gold. And with the most nominations for a freshman comedy of all time, it seems poised to follow in the footsteps of a more caustic predecessor — 30 Rock, which began its own Emmy reign in its first season. — Mikey O’Connell
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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