In some respects, Brendan Hunt pulled off the most difficult job of all on Ted Lasso. He’s the guy who made you fall in love with the annoying lead character.
Sure, the Apple TV+ comedy series—which just broke an Emmy nominations record for season 1 and premiered season 2 last week to rave reviews—is celebrated now. It’s a show about an underdog British football team, yes. But it was also so profound in depicting the power of a positive outlook in hard times that audiences discovering it at the harshest moments of the pandemic championed its now-legendary “niceness” as healing.
People would get so excited when talking about it, almost as if they were spontaneously breaking into a soft-shoe dance of joy—something that Ted Lasso himself inexplicably does several times in the show’s early episodes.
That is to say that the series’ central character, an American football coach dressed like a L.L. Bean catalog model who espouses Hallmark-card maxims with the enthusiasm and accent of Foghorn Leghorn, arrives in London like a cannon-blast of crazy. He’s not shooting off solar flares of optimism and empathy so much as he is a walking supernova. He explodes with such violent excitement that everyone who encounters him in Britain, from the players he’s supposed to coach to the fans of the club he’s tasked with turning around, recoil in disgust and duck for cover.
But then there’s Brendan Hunt’s Coach Beard, Ted Lasso’s right-hand man. He’s a man of few words and, in contrast to Lasso’s car-lot inflatable man of wiggling gusto, little physicality. In that quiet stillness, however, there is certitude and loyalty. No one else might understand what this Ted Lasso guy’s deal is, at least not at first. But here we see a person who, while enigmatic, is seemingly rational and, also in contrast to Lasso, knows the ins and outs of British sports. If this guy’s on board, maybe we should all be, too.
Every great comedy lead needs its foil, and Ted Lasso—and Ted Lasso—have that in Coach Beard, and in Brendan Hunt.
Hunt is not just a secret to the series’ success because of the funny-bone unusualness he brings to Coach Beard. He also co-created and is a writer on the show, after developing the 2013 NBC Sports Premier League advertising campaign it’s spun off from with star and co-creator Jason Sudeikis.
When we connect over Zoom, Hunt is at home in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, where his needy cat, Lucy, and six-month-old newborn are making it hard for him to process the four Emmy nominations he earned this month—Best Supporting Actor, two for Best Writing, and as part of the Best Comedy Series creator and producing team—let alone the attention on season 2 while he’s still working on finishing up post-production.
“It’s a funny thing to have these heavy little chats once in a while,” he says. “But it’s also a good reason to take a breath and remind yourself that this is a sign that”—he contorts his face almost in disbelief about what he’s about to say, raising his voice about an octave—“things are going terribly well???”
Since the series first premiered in August 2020, Hunt has been asked “how,” with the wonder of a kid demanding that a magician reveal his secrets. How is it possible that a show could be so perfectly timed to the mood of an audience in need of its exact kind of warmth and loveliness? How did they know we would crave such niceness? And the big kahuna: What is the secret to getting everyone in the world to love your little show, with barely any detractors?
Hunt has fielded those questions near-constantly and has deflected them with the nimble footwork of Jamie Tartt. But even after being asked so often and having time to reflect, he’s no closer to being able to articulate an answer.
“We certainly couldn’t foresee the world it’d be releasing into,” he says. “We knew the world was toxic long before 2020 really, really decided to kick things up. But the reaction to it, that’s all something that is in a separate petri dish of this giant lab called...LIFE.” (Emphasis his.) “So we’re both in it but it feels separate from us, at least in its genesis and its momentum.”
Helpfully, countless critics have gone long attempting to nail down what it is about this show at this time that set off the kind of fireworks the zeitgeist rarely admires anymore. (Ahem, the call is coming from inside the house.)
It mattered that the show was funny, of course. When Hannah Waddingham’s club owner Rebecca asks Ted in the pilot if he believes in ghosts, Ted replies, “I do. But more importantly, I think they need to believe in themselves.” In the second season, at a difficult time for the team, Lasso insists, “There’s only two buttons I never like to hit, and that’s panic and snooze.” It can be difficult to make earnestness clever and sharp, hence the long shadow of cynicism and snark cast over so much comedy in the last 20 years.
But Ted’s world view isn’t a delusion, it’s a choice. What rattles everyone—the show’s characters and us watching at home—is the realization that we have that choice, too. What would happen if we let ourselves believe? If we chose the path without anger? If we approached hardship and conflict with curiosity instead of judgment?
Everything that seemed radical about Ted Lasso and its titular character actually said more about us than him or the show. Those “eureka” moments experienced while watching did actually seem like they were healing: We could make the choice to approach the world like he does.
All that talk of healing and the show’s transformative nature would seem hokey if it weren’t true. It does make you wonder if the people behind the show have felt it, too. Hunt first giggles when asked. “I might be in a better mood because now I have a job,” he says. “You know, I do not have the CV of a man who has been working really regularly. So, this is great. I’m in a great mood now.”
But then, as if Ted Lasso is in the locker room goading him, “C’mon, buddy, you know there’s more to it than that,” he gets a little more introspective. Ted Lasso has changed all of us. It’s changed Brendan Hunt, too.
No one ever set out to make the “nice” show. At least not consciously.
Hunt, Sudeikis, and Joe Kelly, one of the show’s co-creators, spent years on and off living in Amsterdam doing comedy with Boom Chicago in the early 2000s, giving them a perspective on how America is viewed by the rest of the world through several presidencies—not just the four-year daily cat-o’-nine-tails of news we’re all still nursing our wounds from.
“It’s not the view we have of ourselves,” Hunt says. “The view that we have of ourselves, I think, is a view of our sort of best selves, which is derived from some older material. And that older material was make believe! And it was very much through a white male cisgendered prism, even more than today still is.”
There’s a way to interpret it as a sneer against obtuse, self-centered Americans. But there’s also some beauty in that.
“I like Jimmy Stewart!” Hunt says. “There's good in Jimmy Stewart. And I guess it’s because it's fictional that it’s part of our mythos of the most positive version of what it can mean to be American.”
There are elements of Ted Lasso that adhere to that mythos. The monologue he gives at the dartboard near the end of season 1, the one that ripped fans’ hearts out and had them cheering in equal measure, quotes Walt Whitman: ”Be curious, not judgmental.” It’s become somewhat of a defining mission statement of the series and a summary of its impact. That quote, specifically, dovetails with that Jimmy Stewart persona that people can be swift to dismiss or ridicule about Ted.
One of the constructs of the show, Hunt says, is that Ted is an American in a non-American place where they’re judgmental about Americans. “If they're judgmental and we want them to be wrong, then he should be pretty great. And it should be a greatness that comes from something we know, as opposed to something like, he can fly or he can hear a child drowning 200 miles away.”
All the talk of greatness and niceness, however, sometimes can overshadow the nuance that’s integral to making the show score with such emotional precision.
The world as depicted in Ted Lasso is not some utopian one where fortress walls keep all the darkness out. In fact, that darkness is unignorably present. It’s why Ted is in London in the first place, after a painful separation from his wife and son, who need space from him. It’s in the threads of addiction, loneliness, abuse, self-doubt, and fear of the unknown that weave through every episode. No one is pretending the darkness isn’t there, because the darkness is inescapable. That’s the point.
“This sort of—I don’t know if I ever used this word in an interview before!—narrative that arose in the last few months about how it’s such a positive show and all, I’m glad that people are finding it that way. But I don’t want people to think they are finding it that way because nothing bad happens,” Hunt says. “They are finding it that way because of how people get through bad things and where they are at the end of it. And the choices people make about how to respond to it and how to carry it forward.”
Like Hunt self-effacingly said at the beginning of our conversation, it’s a “heavy little chat” we’ve stumbled into, which has come to be par for the course when it comes to Ted Lasso. And he has, once again, that time in Amsterdam to thank for that.
There is so much heart and soul in Ted Lasso that one could take their pick of any given character relationship, label it “the show’s heart and soul,” and be indisputably correct. That includes the relationship between Ted and Coach Beard, partners so fiercely loyal with such an easy shorthand, the bond can seem as marital as it resembles that of best friends or talented coworkers.
It’s a microcosm of the relationship Sudeikis and Hunt have in real life, particularly when it comes to soccer. When Sudeikis first arrived in Amsterdam to perform, Hunt had already been there for some time and became a devout fan of the sport. Sudeikis’ knowledge was, like Ted’s at the start of the series, rudimentary at best.
When the improv group pooled together to buy a PlayStation to play the new FIFA game in the greenroom of the theater, Sudeikis was lost in athletic translation. Any time a team came onscreen, Hunt gave him an analogy for whom that team might compare to in American sports. A scene inspired by those interactions appears between Ted and Coach Beard in the original Premier League commercials and was written for, but cut from the show’s pilot.
“I’ve been soccer-translating for Jason for a long-ass time,” Hunt says. “Because once I got into soccer, it was over. I was nuts. It was crazy and I became a missionary.”
To hone their dynamic for the show, Hunt knew that if Sudeikis’ Ted character was going to be so verbose, his take on Beard had to be quiet in contrast. But a key element was derived from one of the tenets of improv he learned: When you’re not in a scene, look at the scene and ask, what does the scene need? Beard is constantly trying to figure out what Ted needs at any given moment. That may be a 12-hour crash course in soccer rules on an overnight flight. Or it might be a reminder that winning doesn’t matter.
Then there’s the juicy backstory that we don’t see.
“Maybe Beard’s life went astray, possibly via meth,” Hunt says. “Perhaps the city of Topeka was involved. We don’t know. But Ted, an old friend, came back and saved Beard. In one way or another, Beard has been through the transformations, we’ll call them, of the ‘Lasso way’ and what it can do for you. So he’s representing Ted because he knows that what Ted is doing can work for you and can make your life better. That it’s not bullshit.”
So then we arrive back at the woo-woo, possibly silly, big existential question. The one that the omnipresent spirit of Ted Lasso on Hunt’s shoulder subconsciously presses him to go deeper on. Has he been transformed as a person by working on this show?
You know, he says, there’s no denying that the “be curious, not judgmental” quote is just “fantastic.” He feels comfortable saying that without ego because the show didn’t invent it. It’s Walt Whitman’s, or at least most associated with him. But, even if you remember it only in fleeting moments, it can change how you experience a day.
“Especially in L.A., when it’s not trying to chase after the asshole who cut you off on the 101,” he says. (He would never do that, he stresses.) “Just yesterday, some motherfucker did some stupid fucking thing on the road and I consciously took a breath and thought, ‘Maybe his mom is sick. Fine.’ And then I moved on.”
It goes beyond road rage, of course. “One thing that being curious and not judgmental does is it has an ancillary effect of reminding you that a lot of anger isn’t really worth it. Of course, there’s some that is. There’s some that’s been earned. But a lot of times it’s not. And a lot of times it’s just bad for you.”
“I think it’s not controversial to say there’s a lot of us who need to be reminded that we’re wasting our time and making things worse for ourselves if we’re carrying anger around with us all the time,” he continues. “And if we’re more curious and less judgmental about things that make us angry, then we might not be so easily triggered.”
In fact, if we lived that way, even in small moments, wouldn’t it be—and I’m almost embarrassed to use this word—nice?