Bill Lawrence On ‘Ted Lasso,’ ‘Fletch,’ And Why The Best Shows/Movies About Sports Should Never Really Be About Sports

Bill Lawrence likes to joke that he’s ancient, but he’s not. He’s just been working at the highest levels of comedy craft since he was in his mid-20s, co-creating Spin City before going on to create Scrubs, the cult favorite Clone High, and Cougartown. There have for sure been misses mixed in, but that resume is a difference-maker, alluding to an ability to not just find laughs but also that magical ingredient that causes people to connect with and care about the characters on their screen for years and years. Does Ted Lasso (which is now available to stream on Apple TV) have that? It seems like it, and as Lawrence explained when we spoke with him recently, it’s that ability (and concept co-creator and star Jason Sudeikis’ vision and ambition) that elevates an over-his-head fish-out-of-water football coach from some NBC Sports commercials. Now, Ted Lasso is a real boy. They Pinochio’d it.

In addition to speaking about the heart and soul of Ted Lasso, Lawrence also discusses the welcome challenge of trying to appeal to an international audience, aiming to emulate the best sports movies, the lack of Spin City on streaming, and his experience with the seemingly cursed attempts to reboot Fletch.

I really enjoyed the show. And then, obviously, everything you’ve been doing for a long time.

Thank you very much, man. I’m bad at accepting compliments. My wife told me not to interrupt and say thank you. I hate when people do that. I really appreciate it.

Yeah. I’m the worst at accepting compliments too.

I come off as standoffish. I stare at my feet, and then I just look like an asshole.

“Yeah, I know, I’m pretty good.” You can’t say that. It’s not polite.

That’s correct.

So I guess my first question is, is it weird or challenging to come into something that is sort of pre-established? Or is that part of the fun?

Look, man, I’m a bazillion years old. I’ve been doing this for a long time. So the challenge is part of the fun. Even some of my own friends were like, “Dude, what are you going to do? The Geico caveman?”

I was going to say, there’s a not great track record of this kind of thing.

Yeah, because there are already videos, but to me, I have really enjoyed over the years turning some… Whether it’s even back during the Fletch movie, or now I’m working with Carl Hiaasen who’s a favorite author, taking IP in books, and it’s the same risk. You can have something that you don’t realize nearly as well as its potential. So the fun and the challenge… Let’s get Jason (Sudeikis) with his buddies to talk about this character. It’s not really a commercial as much as a kind of little promotional videos for Premier League Soccer. I was initially skeptical, just because even though I thought those things were very funny, it’s the same way that I always loved Police Squad, which is the Naked Gun TV series. But it had only six episodes or something when it was all said and done. They couldn’t do many more than that. It was just relentless jokes and the same sketch over and over.

And so the challenge and Jason going, “Hey, I want to take this character and make him three dimensional and invent an ensemble in a world around him that doesn’t exist…” It was definitely a challenge because there are passionate fans of it. I don’t want them to be let down, but by the same token, we couldn’t make the show that was those commercials.

There’s a long tradition of great sports movies, not so much great sports TV, but sports movies. This definitely feels like it’s walking in that same space. How do you deal with maybe a barrier to entry that is people looking at this and saying, “Oh, it’s a soccer show”?

Yeah. There are two ways. One is what you just nailed, which is cool, because there are two dimensions to it. One way Jason hooked me into this is he said, “How fun would it be to make our own version of a sports movie?” Being able to pad it out so that… in Major League, the boss was just a villain and you didn’t get to find out in 90 minutes all the other levels and how they got there and what screwed them up in the first place. All that stuff.

And when we extended that metaphor, sports movies don’t work because of the sport. My wife loves Bull Durham. I’m not judging anybody that does, but I’ve never done a pay-per-view to see a boxing match, a fight, and I watched every Rocky movie the night they came out. And it doesn’t matter if it’s The Cutting Edge and figure skating, or The Longest Yard or Bull Durham or Tin Cup or whatever. If sports movies are about the sport, you’re screwed.

And so, on the one hand, we said, we’re going to make sure people know it’s an ensemble show. It has great friendships, male and female characters. And hopefully, in a cool way, football/soccer is not a barrier. And then the second thing that made us not worry… Apple jumping on this is a really new, cool experience. They’re a true international company and they are releasing this simultaneously into a hundred different territories where football/soccer is huge. And it’s been a fascinating experience for me because in the past on my shows, I find out if they do well overseas long after the fact. It’s like, “Hey, they like Spin City in Scotland.” Oh, cool. Whatever. And for us, the amount of international press that we’ve done and how we were pushed to have an international cast and shoot in Europe and have European press on top of the show was really eye-opening in terms of the very thing that you might go superficially could be a barrier to the entrance here. It’s a massive kind of positive to get people to take a look there. And in fact, kinda comes with a stack of burdens and obligations to make the football look real, and not to dramatize the Premier League in a way that seems fake or fraudulent to those guys because they turn on that stuff immediately.

The emotions that Jason’s character is dealing with, with the family while abroad and that situation, obviously that’s universal and relatable.

It’s a good point, because Jason and I definitely connected initially because… I know as a performer, he had many suitors. I think that he knew that I liked instilling a level of emotional depth and heart into my shows, and that’s what he was looking to do in this. So that kind of connected us in the first place.

I think it’s a vital element, honestly. And kind of sticking to what you were saying before, obviously it’s one-note without that. Can you tell me a little bit about the importance of the Nathan, Coach Beard, Ted friendship triad.

Nick Mohammed is so good as Nate, and he has an amazing arc not only in the first season, but if we’re lucky enough to continue doing the show [Update: season 2 has been given the green light], he’s a major character. He’s super talented. He’s working on another show on Peacock that’s premiering now with Schwimmer and stuff. He’s really good. And one of the things we talked about with the concept of the show and why Nate is so important to that group is, look: Ted and Beard are inseparable from the original videos, and they’re friends in real life and you see that rapport and that kind of unspoken language. What Nate represents for us is way too much subtext about who Ted… I don’t know if you’re as cynical as I am during these kind of dark times, man. But we could all use some optimism and some hopefulness. We’ve all met a man or woman where when you first meet them you’re like, “there’s no way this person is this sincere and this open-hearted and this kind. Eventually, five days from now, their mask will come off and they’ll be an asshole like everybody else.” And then if the mask doesn’t come off, then you have to look at yourself and go, “Man, what have I become? I’m inherently distrustful.” I had this moment with a friend of my daughter’s. He was in his twenties, so he wanted to go into politics. That’s immediately like, “oh, so that dude obviously has some kind of weird, narcissistic, horrible robber baron side to him.” No, he just wanted to be of service.

And that extends deeper into Ted. Jason and I both like to think that every person had a seminal kind of character in their life that was either a coach, a parent or a teacher that sees something and then believes in them, and kind of gives you the open gate to go for it. And having Ted do that for Nate was kind of a metaphor for what we wanted the whole show to be. Not white knighting him and not doing it for him, but certainly… and it’s, of course, intentional that he’s a young man of color, and somebody that might not otherwise even see the opportunity to rise through the ranks, whether it be coaching or any other thing. It’s cool. It was one of the things that Jason was really kind of driving through at the start.

Obviously there’s been a lot of nostalgic affection for Scrubs. I’m not surprised that that show gets that. I’m surprised that you don’t hear more about Spin City, because I love that show. Is that surprising to you that you don’t see more of that? And also, as I just did a little research before this, I see that it’s not streaming anywhere. Is that a frustration for you as a creator of something, that it’s not able to find that second, third, fourth wind?

I am lucky enough to get to keep grinding on and to have really narrowed my frustrations. I’m really proud of Spin City. It was a life-changer for me, and I was 26 when it started and getting to see Michael J. Fox say things that I wrote was insane. He was Back To The Future and Family Ties for me, so it was just fantastic.

I have always been very lucky that the worst shows that I’ve ever made have not been seen, for the most part. They’re made as pilots and then quickly buried in a vault somewhere, which is a joy for me. Or not made as pilots. When I started out, because I’m so old, you had time to catch your legs and get chemistry and figure out what the show was, and you had a little breathing room to survive. Nowadays, you’ll sometimes be involved in shows that as a writer-creator, you go, man, the show could be really good, but the business of it is you hit the ground running or you’re doomed now.

For me, the ones that I regret the most, I didn’t even create. I was involved in this one called Surviving Jack with Chris Meloni and these two writers, Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker. They’ve gone on create Harley Quinn, that cartoon. It was really good. That should have survived, and a show called Whiskey Cavalier that I thought was really fun and should have survived. Clone High, we’re getting to do again. We’re rebooting that. I always thought, Chris Miller and Phil Lord, not only are they geniuses as animators and creators, but they’re the top of my list of young dudes that’ll have to give me a job once I’m no longer hireable. So to me, I always regret the ones that I don’t think got the chance.

One of my favorite sagas to monitor is the Fletch thing. Obviously you’ve seen the news now that there’s another tribute to the fire to try and make this happen. Best of luck to them. But how conscious of the troubled development history were you when you were involved in that?

When I was involved, it felt like a sure thing. So I should have been well more aware that it was doomed. [Laughs].

Why do you think it’s been so hard to get it over the finish line?

I think it’s so hard because the original Fletch movie is so iconic, and for guys, especially kids of a certain age, like me, they can do every line. And because of that, it’s a big thing to bite off for a performer to go, “Oh, I’m going to be compared to Chevy Chase doing this.” Like, I got to know Greg Mcdonald before he passed away, the author of all the books, and the books are so much darker. They’re still banter-driven, but no one’s wearing fake teeth, do you know what I mean? And so there’s also this weird push and pull to going, “it’s a reboot, but it’s not.” It’s a reboot the same way that Riverdale is the Archies, and no one read the Archies and goes, “You know what this is going to become? Some weird noir murder mystery.” It’s because the Fletch novels are so different than what they turned that movie into, I think it just makes it… You often will find yourself knee-deep in a project where all the big players think you’re doing something different, and that’s why it’s been tough so far.

I’m very curious to see what happens with this. I mean, every time they [fresh rumors] come out, I get really excited.

I get a combination of hopefulness and intense jealousy.

‘Ted Lasso’ is streaming now on Apple TV.