Ted Lasso: Is Your Screenplay Idea Good Enough?
What’s interesting about Ted Lasso is that on the surface it is not exactly the newest, freshest, most original idea at all. On the surface, Ted Lasso is actually just Major League.
Sure, it takes place in soccer rather than in baseball, but you essentially have the exact same setup. You have the nasty owner who has inherited her husband’s team and is now trying to drive it into the ground. You have the unsuspecting coach who’s trying to win with the Bad News Bears of soccer, who ends up turning his team around against the odds. It’s the same story. It’s just Major League.
Yet, Ted Lasso is able to hit a place of transcendence that we rarely see in a 30-minute comedy. Ted Lasso is actually able to do things that Major League—as funny as it may have been—doesn’t manage to achieve.
As screenwriters, we all have this desire to write something “really good.” We have this fear that maybe our ideas aren’t good enough.
Of course, this fear gets exacerbated by the screenwriting industry which says, “What’s your logline? What’s your outline? What’s your treatment? Show us the plan. Show us how you know this is going to be good. What differentiates your work? Why is this different? Why today? Why now?” We have all of these voices chattering in our heads telling us what our script is supposed to be.
We’re starting out with a little baby script and it’s still kind of drooling on itself. It doesn’t walk right yet. The truth is, at this early stage, it is just a reboot of whatever your equivalent of Major League is, or inspired by something else you’ve seen on TV or in the movies, sometimes consciously and sometimes not consciously. It’s probably riddled with clichés, not that you put in on purpose, but that you just kind of inherited.
Sure, sometimes the brilliant idea for a script or a TV show just comes to you, but so often our initial ideas are just not that good.
It’s easy to feel “Well, what am I supposed to do? I don’t want to start writing some crappy idea that’s not going to take me anywhere. I have to keep figuring out the idea. I need the better idea. I don’t have the right idea.”
If the screenwriting gods are kind, and they come down and they give you the perfect idea, please take it! say, “Thank you. Thank you, screenwriting gods. I will take this and run with it. I will turn it into something beautiful.”
But sometimes the screenwriting gods are not kind. Sometimes they only give you a piece of an idea, or a thought that’s maybe even been seen before but that for some reason you want to write. Don’t run away from that! Don’t allow the most insecure part of you to cut you off from the direction you need to take.
Having worked with thousands of writers, from little baby writers to Academy and Tony Award-winning writers, it is my sincere belief that you can make anything good.
Even some of the best writers in the industry hit that place where they don’t know how to make it work. It doesn’t feel like a good enough idea anymore.
If that happens to you, what I want you to remember is that you can make anything good if you are willing to push on it hard enough.
If you take the movie Mannequin and you push on it hard enough, it turns into Lars and the Real Girl.
If you take the movie Major League and you push on it hard enough, it turns into Ted Lasso.
Don’t try to find the idea that’s good enough. Even if you think you’ve got a brand new idea for a screenplay or a show, the chances are, early in its development, that someone’s seen something like it or someone’s thought of it before.
Darwin came up with the idea of evolution, but a lot of people don’t know that some other dude actually beat him to it, the dude whose name you’ll never know (unless you listen to my podcast about “what happens if someone steals your idea”). He actually sent him a one-page paper saying “Yo, Darwin. I know you’re working on something similar. Would you check this out? I think I figured out this thing called evolution.”
That wasn’t because anyone cheated. The idea was just in the zeitgeist.
Your idea is out there, but the execution of it is not.
Your idea probably isn’t good enough when you start, but the execution of it will be, if you’re willing to push on it hard enough. You will make it worthy. You will make it beautiful. You will make it good.
The most important thing to run towards is not the great idea. The most important thing to run towards is the passion.
If you don’t know what to write, then make a list of the ideas you have and run towards whichever one is most exciting.
Know that somewhere along the line, you’re going to think it’s the worst idea ever.
Then you’re going to come out the other side and you’re going to realize that it’s the best idea ever.
Then you’re going to lose it again. You’re going to be bored with it. You’re going to think it’s the worst idea ever all over again.
Then you’re going to realize that something else like it has been made and you’re going to have to change it so that it feels different.
Run towards your passion—not towards the idea—because it’s your passion that’s actually going to pull you through that idea to the place where you can transform it into something that we actually have not seen before.
As screenwriters, sometimes we are not in the happiest of places. We look at all our ideas and we think, “None of them are good enough. I’m not passionate about any of them.”
Pick the one that you like a little bit. If you can’t even go that far, you can’t find the one you like a little bit, then ask yourself, “Which one scares me?” Run towards the one that you are most scared of and that will turn into something beautiful.
For a great example of this watch Swiss Army Man where these writers basically made a list of all the things that they hate in movies and then wrote a movie that did all of these things.
When we look at Ted Lasso, what we’re really looking at is an update of Major League that makes such beautifully different decisions.
What’s wonderful about Ted Lasso is that it’s just as silly as Major League. Ted Lasso is a silly show with tremendous joke density. Ted Lasso is a show designed to make us laugh, but at the center of it, there’s an idea.
There’s an idea at the center of Ted Lasso that doesn’t exist in Major League. (If it does exist, it exists only way under the surface).
That idea is: What happens when you bring a truly positive person into a really unhealthy world?
What happens when you bring one beautifully thinking individual, with a different point of view, who always operates from their values, into a world that operates with no values at all?
What happens when you bring a coach—whose main focus is not winning but actually supporting the players and the people around him and doing the right thing—into a professional sports franchise?
What happens when you bring a person who is primarily motivated by something other than ego into a world where everyone is motivated by ego?
What would happen if we just brought our best selves into our totally messed up world? How would that ripple through and change everyone around us?
That concept is actually what drives Ted Lasso and what makes it so transcendently wonderful.
Sure, the Ted Lasso pilot starts out with a formula: We’ve got the baddie bad team owner. We’ve got the coach who’s so clueless that he doesn’t even know the terminology of soccer. We’ve got the nasty, selfish player. We’ve got the angry old vet. We’ve got these cliches going on and we’ve got all the traditional layers of conflict.
What’s so interesting is that as the first season of Ted Lasso goes on, rather than building on that conflict in the traditional way– the way we’re always told that we need to build a script, Ted Lasso does the opposite. It actually diffuses the conflict.
(note, some spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen the first season)
By the time the first season is done, the owner of the team has not only decided that she wants to win, but she’s also actually become a better person and a real friend to both Ted and to Keeley. She’s become that person through Ted’s refusal to swerve from his beliefs about how we should be in the world.
By the time we get to the end of the first season, the selfish, nasty player, Jamie Tartt, is not only no longer on the team, but he’s also been humanized as a product of abuse, and Ted has a genuine desire to help him.
By the time we get to the end of the first season, the grizzly veteran, Roy Kent, who can’t accept that he can no longer play soccer, has come to terms with his anger, found the love of his life, achieved the heroism that he longs for and stepped away from the game.
By the time we get to the end of the first season, even the conflict with the wife that Ted is trying so hard to hold onto in the early episodes has been brought to a resolution. Ted has let her go free by granting her the divorce she wants.
In that act, Ted Lasso once again lives up to his own values, of people over winning, and doing the right thing over getting what you want, and transforms both himself and those around him in the process.
By the time we get to the end of the first season, rather than building a crescendo of conflict, Jason Sudeikis and his team of writers have built a crescendo of love.
I hope that this is inspiring to you because as screenwriters, we are all Ted Lasso.
We are all that voice crying out in the wilderness. We are all that voice saying “This is who I want to be. These are my values.”
From the things that we write, those values spill out and they affect the people around us. They affect our viewers and they actually change the mythology of our world. They inspire and shape and change us.
So often we are told that we’re supposed to play this formulaic role. You’re a soccer coach, so you’re supposed to win. The game is supposed to be everything.
You’re a screenwriter, so you’re supposed to play by these rules. You’re supposed to have this hook. It’s a sports show, so shouldn’t we be seeing a lot of soccer scenes?
Your job as a screenwriter is to say “No.”
In screenwriting, it’s not about the idea. It’s about what you want to say through that idea.
It’s not about the idea. It’s about what in this idea is moving to you.
It’s not about the idea and the rules and the formula and the tricks and the way that we package things to sell them. It’s about: What do I want to actually put out into the universe? What is the thing that I’m looking at that no one else is seeing? What is the question that I’m asking that I’m curious about? What is the wish that I wish could be fulfilled?
*Edited for length and clarity