Ashley Nicole Black was in between seasons of HBO’s Emmy-nominated A Black Lady Sketch Show when her good friend Emily Heller suggested that Bill Lawrence take a meeting with her, as a potential addition to the Ted Lasso writers’ room.
“I’m not a sporty person,” Black tells TVLine with a laugh. “The last time I played soccer, I was 8 years old.”
Black ultimately took the meeting, which was with both Lawrence and star Jason Sudeikis — and she was glad she did. “They were so kind and so cool, and seemed like people I wanted to work with,” she remembers. But it wasn’t until she got eyes on the first episode that she was sold.
“A comedy pilot is so hard,” she stresses — especially one that introduces such a large ensemble. “The fact that the jokes were so funny, it was like, ‘My gosh, I will learn about soccer. I want to work on this show.'”
Black — a Second City alum who had already racked up an impressive six Emmy nominations (and one win) during her three-year stint as a writer and performer on TBS’ Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, followed by two 2021 nods for writing on Sketch Show and Amber Ruffin’s eponymous Peacock series — was the only new hire for Season 2 of the Apple TV+ charmer. She joined a writers’ room that consisted of 11 returning writers (including Lawrence, Sudeikis and fellow co-creators Brendan Hunt and Joe Kelly), as well as four women (including one other woman of color).
Reflecting on the hire, Hunt (who also plays Coach Beard), says, “The only addition we made was Ashley, which could have been challenging in terms of fitting in, especially during COVID when the writers’ room is over Zoom.” But with Black, it was “easy-peasy.”
“That is due to her fearlessness,” he adds. “She was not timid about anything [or afraid of] expressing her opinion… She acted like she had been there from the beginning, but not in a dick way. In a way that just felt right.”
Prior to convening the Season 2 writers’ room, Sudeikis knew that he wanted to do an episode focused on the character of Sam Obisanya, played by Toheeb Jimoh. More specifically, he wanted to do something that touched on Sam’s activism, as well as racism in sports.
“We had been talking about something like that for a while, wanting to reflect what’s going on primarily in American sports,” Hunt says, citing the Los Angeles Clippers’ 2014 revolt against bigoted former owner Donald Sterling as an early example. (He also points to another instance where then-Cleveland Cavaliers stars LeBron James and Kyrie Irving wore T-shirts to practice with the words “I Can’t Breathe” scrawled across the chest to speak out against the unjust death of Eric Garner at the hands of a New York City police officer, also in 2014.)
Out of those discussions — about how athletes use their power to influence the conversation — came the idea for an episode that would show how Sam gracefully fights against AFC Richmond’s chief sponsor, Dubai Air, after discovering its corrupt business dealings in his home country of Nigeria. “We talked a lot about what it is like to be a young person who has something to say, to have a platform at such a young age when you’re still figuring things out,” Black recalls. After a rough outline was worked on in the room, Black went and ran with it. The end result was the script for “Do the Right-est Thing.”
Heading into Season 2, Black was looking forward to learning more about Richmond’s deep roster — “I was really excited to explore the locker room and the dynamics between the guys more,” she says — and this episode presented her with a golden opportunity not only to learn more about Sam, but to help flesh out Jimoh’s character as his screen time was greatly expanding. It was a colossal undertaking, but an especially fulfilling one.
“It is my hope for all of the actors, but particularly the women and people of color, that they feel like the writers’ room supports them,” Black explains. “Being a performer myself, I know what it feels like to get a script and say, ‘I hope I can show up here. I hope this script is going to… show me as a full person.'” It was thus Black’s goal to hand Jimoh a script and have him go, “‘Oh yes, I recognize myself here.'”
She was also determined to add a layer of “specificity” to Sam’s character development. In a season that was going to explore many a tie between father and son, it was Black’s episode that would first establish Sam’s bond with his father — a loving, supportive relationship that stands in stark contrast to Jamie Tartt’s relationship with his alcoholic dirtbag of a dad.
“I think it’s important that Sam, who is a good guy — you can tell he has his feet under him, and even though he is this athlete who is making all of this money, you can tell he has a solid foundation — has a good dad,” Black says. “And personally, I come from a family where men are very affectionate, and my dad is a very affectionate guy. I don’t see that represented on TV all the time, but I want to. I love representing an affectionate Black dad, because that’s my reality.”
But Black also acknowledges that she couldn’t necessarily speak to Sam’s experience as a Nigerian expat — “As a Black American, that is not my specific experience,” she concedes — so, like any good writer, she did her research. That was especially meaningful to Jimoh, who told TVLine just how rare it is to feel fully seen in this industry.
“[Ashley and the writers] had done so much work to make sure that by the time [the script] got to me, it was already cooked,” the British-Nigerian says. “There have been other times in my career where you don’t have a person of color involved in the writing process, and by the time [the script] gets to the actor, you’re the first person of color that’s dealing with something that is so specific to that community, so you have to put your ‘writer’s hat’ on. If I’m being completely honest, that’s not my job.”
Though his contributions were welcomed, Jimoh was relieved they weren’t necessary. “By the time [the script] got to me, I could just be an actor,” he recalls. “I could attack this and invest in it emotionally.”
Sam wasn’t the only person of color at the forefront of Season 2. Black refers to the addition of Sarah Niles (Catastrophe) as team psychologist Dr. Sharon Fieldstone — who, upon introducing herself to Coach Lasso, suggests that she is “twice as good” at her job as he is at his.
“Her introduction is one of my favorite character introductions of all time,” Black says. “As a Black woman, I think that’s how you have to walk into every room, because everyone is ready for you not to be super good at [your job]. You’re the only one who is going to walk in and go, ‘I’m really good at this.'”
And it’s no question that Dr. Fieldstone proves herself time and time again — most notably when she gets through to Ted regarding his recurring anxiety attacks and his long-dormant feelings about his father’s suicide that creep back up on the afternoon of Rebecca’s father’s funeral.
When Sharon walks away from her position in Season 2’s penultimate episode, it is clear that she has made an indelible mark not only on the coach, but on the entire club. She came in, she made them better, then went on her way — not unlike Black, who is also walking away from Ted Lasso after one season to focus on other projects (including Lawrence’s upcoming Apple drama Bad Monkey, starring Vince Vaughn) as part of her new overall deal with Warner Bros. TV.
Asked if she feels like the real-life Dr. Fieldstone in that sense, Black perks up but remains humbled. She had never made the comparison herself, “but I am going to wear that with a badge of honor,” she exclaims. “I’m stealing it! That’s great!”
Asked what sorts of stories she’d like to tell in the future, Black says that she is excited to have the opportunity to develop shows of her own that focus on characters not unlike Sam and Dr. Fieldstone — characters who are not typically spotlighted in media.
“I hope to make more people feel seen,” she says. “For a long time, we saw the same kind of [Black] person over and over again. We got a lot of practice putting ourselves in the shoes of [a] white man and going on his journey with him, and I think everyone should have that experience. Everyone should be able to point to, hopefully multiple, but at least one piece of media and go, ‘That’s exactly like me… Oh my God, my mom is just like that… That’s just like my cousin….’ I just want to represent so many kinds of people that have not been represented before.
“One of the characters I play on A Black Lady Sketch Show is The Invisible Spy,” Black points out, a character whose “regular-looking face” makes her nearly invisible in the field. “My thing is just taking all of those people who have been invisible — the sassy best friend character or whatever — and turning the camera onto them, putting them at the center of the story.”