As an actor, writer, and father of an infant, it’s safe to say that Illinois State University alum Brendan Hunt has a lot on his plate. However, no matter how much has changed between his graduation from Illinois State in 1996 and today, he still remembers a key lesson he learned in the School of Theatre and Dance: “Never be thinking of yourself too much in any project—always serve the piece.”
This is the mentality he maintains as a co-creator of the Apple TV+ sports sitcom Ted Lasso, which is based on characters from 2013 NBC Sports commercials featuring Hunt and former Saturday Night Live (SNL) cast member Jason Sudeikis. Hunt and Sudeikis developed the show, which debuted in August 2020, with Bill Lawrence and Joe Kelly. Ted Lasso follows American college football coach Ted Lasso, who is recruited to lead a fictional English Premier League team, AFC Richmond.
“The original idea is it’s a rootin’ tootin’ American college football coach becomes coach of an English Premier soccer team, despite the fact that he knows nothing about soccer, and even less about England,” said Hunt. “Because it’s such a ridiculous premise, we tried to make everything around it as legitimate as possible, so real characters having real issues, but we keep coming back to this silly concept, so we like to think that it keeps the comedy a little richer.”
Sudeikis portrays Ted Lasso, and Hunt plays Lasso’s best friend, confidante, and AFC Richmond’s assistant coach, Coach Beard. Hunt’s character’s personality could not be more different than his own, which makes playing the role all the funnier for him.
“My character doesn’t talk much, he stays in the background, and waits to speak when needed because he’s just trying to serve the piece,” said Hunt. “I’m very different from my character in that my character hardly speaks, and I’m a loquacious blabbermouth.”
The cast of Ted Lasso never expected the show to gain the popularity and fanbase it did when the series premiered last summer. The show was a hit and was renewed for a second season within 10 days of season one being released. With season two coming out July 23 and plans for a third season in the making, the writers were able to create a second season with season three in mind.
“We always pictured the show as a trilogy of seasons, and since our favorite trilogy is Star Wars, people can think of season two as our Empire Strikes Back season, and they will find out what exactly that entails as we go along,” said Hunt. “I can tell you that no one loses a hand, but it perhaps is not going to be as ‘rah-rah’ as the first season occasionally was.”
Before Ted Lasso, Hunt performed with the improv comedy group Boom Chicago, which took him to Amsterdam in 1999. This is where he met Ted Lasso co-creators Sudeikis and Kelly. Europe is also where Hunt’s love for soccer was born.
“In 1999 you couldn’t stream things—I couldn’t just turn on my computer anytime and see what the Cubs and Sox and Bears and Bulls were doing that day,” said Hunt. “Being slightly too much of a sports fan, there was a hole to fill, and when you’re in Europe, soccer is ready to pounce on you. So, I became a bit of a zealot and tried to learn everything I could about it.”
Hunt now lives in Los Angeles, but he grew up on Chicago’s North Side near Wrigley Field. Since the seventh grade, Hunt has been drawn to the performing arts.
“There was really never any indication that I would ever do anything else,” said Hunt.
Hunt’s junior high school and high school program at Kenwood Academy did a production of The King and I, so Hunt auditioned and secured his first role. He liked the experience, along with the new friendships he gained, and decided to stick with theatre. However, Hunt wasn’t always confident in front of a crowd like he is now.
“I had horrible stage fright,” said Hunt. “I biffed my song, ‘Whistle a Happy Tune’ I think it was, but still, here we are.”
Hunt and Illinois State
Hunt was drawn to Illinois State for its stellar theatre program. He has fond memories of attending the Illinois High School Theatre Festival held at Illinois State, which helped seal the deal for his college decision.
“I went to the Illinois High School Theatre Festival at ISU and had such a blast that I felt an emotional attachment to the room that I had an improv workshop in, Room 116,” said Hunt.
While pursuing degrees in acting and lighting design, Hunt left his mark on Illinois State over his years as a Redbird, during which he took a year and a half off. He founded the Theatre of Ted, a registered student organization (RSO) that offers students a space to perform anything from slam poetry to stand-up comedy every Saturday at midnight, free of the scrutiny of their professors.
Professor of Acting and Voice Connie DeVeer and Hunt were both in their rookie years at Illinois State in 1989—DeVeer as a faculty member, and Hunt as a student. DeVeer taught one of Hunt’s first college courses, Basic Acting.
“Brendan did a lot when he was here. He was very busy—just hungry to learn and get as much out of things as he could,” said DeVeer. “Brendan seizes the irony of life, he seizes the contradictions in people, and he has this incredible ability to put it in a context that’s very understandable, quite moving and hilarious.”
Hunt was also involved with the Illinois Shakespeare Festival (ISF), first as a carpenter, crew member, and associate lighting director, and then as an actor. These were experiences that proved to be extremely fun and valuable for Hunt, except for when he sprained his ankle playing basketball right before the summer 1996 ISF season opened.
“Three days later we opened the festival, and I was wearing an air cast under my Shakespearean tights,” said Hunt.
Current ISF Artistic Director and Professor of Design John Stark remembers Hunt well from his Introduction to Scenic Graphic Techniques class and is a fan of Ted Lasso, too.
“I still have an orange drafting triangle with Brendan’s name on it that he left behind all those years ago, and I brought it out to show the class I was teaching online this spring, the same class that I had Brendan in,” said Stark. “Not everyone had watched Ted Lasso by that time because they didn’t have a subscription to Apple TV, but I watched it and I think it’s an amazing series, just impeccably optimistic through all the travails and things that go wrong and take a tragic turn, it’s always turned around to celebrate the human spirit and also laugh at life.”
It is clear that Hunt made long-lasting impacts at Illinois State, but the University left an impression on him as well. Hunt is also a playwright and wrote a show called The Art Couple that was set to move to a large theatre in Los Angeles last March but got shut down due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Hunt is hopeful the project will be continued at some point in the future.
“The Art Couple drew a lot from my ISU experiences in a way that I can’t comment on because it would be a spoiler, but that play is kind of about theatre and a love for theatre that I got from my time at Illinois State,” said Hunt.
Hunt looks back on his times at the University as some of his best.
“I miss those days, knowing full well you can’t go back, but they were really incredible days spent with really incredible people, and none of us would be whoever we are without them.”
He also has a message for current Illinois State students: “Just appreciate it while you’re there, appreciate the good and the bad, and every once in a while stop and take stock and inventory of everything that’s happened to you and all the people that it’s happened with, because for better or for worse it’s a time that never will be duplicated in your life, and you will always look back on it with fondness and awe.”