For the past 20 years television has been the domain of antiheroes. “Difficult men,” Brett Martin called them in his book of the same name, referring not only to the characters such as Tony Soprano, Don Draper or Omar Little, who bestrode The Sopranos, Mad Men and The Wire, but to the men — David Chase, Matthew Weiner, David Simon — who created them.
The book doesn’t deal with comedy, but for at least the first decade of the new century it was antiheroes such as The Office’s David Brent, written from an essentially cynical point of view with the aim of making the viewer cringe first and ask questions later, who held sway. Curb Your Enthusiasm has served up ten series solely on the subject of a very, very difficult man.
Throughout that period Jason Sudeikis has been quietly, often brilliantly, plying his trade as first a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live, and latterly an always watchable, but never easily pigeonholed presence in Hollywood movies such as Hall Pass, Horrible Bosses and We’re the Millers.
So when it came to writing and starring in his first television series, Sudeikis wanted to buck the trend. Ted Lasso, his show about an upbeat American football coach from Kansas parachuted in to manage an ailing Premier League football team, positively brims with faith in the human spirit.
“We had seen a lot of characters,” he says, “especially straight white dudes and antiheroes derived from or inspired by that David Brent type of character. Of course it existed in drama as well with Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Sopranos. I really liked at that point the notion of Ted being someone that’s optimistic, someone that’s hopeful. Someone that’s willing to take people at face value, to not judge anything, to not judge themselves.”
The notion of a comedy “with a heart” is nothing new. It’s a term that’s bandied around to describe the type of sentimental dreck that made David Brent and company so refreshing when they first emerged. However, the fact that “warm-hearted” often means “unfunny” shows how difficult enthusiasm and optimism are to get right on screen. Given that Ted Lasso is basically a one-trick premise, and not a particularly original one at that — an American comes to Britain and gets football/soccer/cups of tea all wrong — it’s remarkable how funny it is. In particular it feels right for the times.
Jason Sudeikis has been quietly, often brilliantly, plying his trade as first a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live, and latterly an always watchable, but never easily pigeonholed presence in Hollywood movies.
“We wrote the pilot in 2015 and back then the big pill you had to swallow was, like, ‘How can someone that has no idea what they’re doing be in charge of something as important as a professional soccer team?’ Now that premise is metaphorically being acted out on a daily basis on television and Twitter,” he says, referring to Donald Trump.
Throw in some carefully managed pathos — the end of episode one reveals that there’s a lot more to Ted than a goonish smile and a glass-half-full attitude — and a well-rounded supporting cast including Nick Mohammed and Juno Temple, and you have a comedy that is never saccharine, but nonetheless has a hero at its ample heart.
Much of this is down to Sudeikis. He dials in on Zoom from his home in Los Angeles and is relaxed, self-deprecating and, yes, enthusiastic. He went to college on a basketball scholarship and describes his comedy career as similar to the role he played in basketball teams.
“I come from a team sports background and as a former point guard I’m used to passing the ball.” (To flip the Ted Lasso joke and explain basketball to Brits, a point guard is a conduit: they get the ball to the right player at the right time.) Sudeikis, through his SNL contacts, has made a career of passing the comedy ball to the right player at the right time. “If that gets to be Kristen Wiig or Bill Hader or Jennifer Aniston or Charlie Day or Jason Bateman, well, that’s just good fortune.”
It’s not just good fortune, though. It takes a smart actor to make a character like Ted Lasso more than just a pill, and Sudeikis makes a potentially cartoonish character believable. In part, he says, that’s because there is a bit of Ted in him.
“I’m not a good enough actor to pretend that much! He’s the best version of me. Ted’s the way I feel coming down off of mushrooms from my time in Amsterdam [Sudeikis worked there in the early Noughties for Boom Chicago, an English-speaking improv theater], or for those that don’t dabble in psychedelics, it’s like having a pint and a half before you’ve had breakfast. Ted has that verve in him. I would say I have that … 20 percent of the time.”
He emphasizes again and again that Ted Lasso is a collaboration, even though his face is on the poster. His best-known recent performance couldn’t have been lower profile: he was cast in the best scene of the series one finale of The Mandalorian, directed by Taika Waititi, but he played a Scout Trooper wearing a helmet throughout.
“Me being covered up? Who gives a shit? I don’t anticipate anybody recognizing me anyway from any of the stuff I’ve done. I was raised in the Seventies and Eighties. I got to dress up as a Scout Trooper — not a Storm Trooper, a Scout Trooper. And Jon [Favreau, the series creator] and Taika were cool with us bringing our little boy to set. Yes, Otis got to meet Baby Yoda before anybody. Again, I’ve just been really fortunate.”
Spoken, you might say, like a true hero.
Ted Lasso is available on Apple TV+