Ted Lasso Misquotes Walt Whitman in True Ted Lasso Fashion

He's Not the Only One Who Gets the Famous Transcendentalist Poet Wrong

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Ted Lasso is the kind of guy who brings his hookup a coffee and secures her a late check-out at the hotel after their tryst. Ted Lasso is the kind of guy who brings his boss cookies not just for their first meeting, and not just for their first and second meetings, but every single time they meet. The kind of guy whose marriage is falling apart, whose players think he’s a joke, who just might have a little trouble sleeping at night.

Season 2 of Ted Lasso hits Apple TV+ today, July 23. If you haven’t caved to the platform in order to watch this Jason Sudeikis-led dramedy, you might want to give in now. Sudeikis has been in the news a lot in the interim between seasons due to his personal life, and art has started to imitate life: since splitting with fiancée Olivia Wilde after seven years, he was rumored to be dating Ted Lasso co-star Keeley Hazell, though the gossip mags say that this romance has now cooled.

In the nuttiest of nutshells, Ted Lasso is a college football coach from the US of A who winds up coaching a struggling British football club in a classic fish-out-of-water tale. Ted Lasso the character is based on a character Sudeikis portrayed in promos for NBC Sports coverage of Premier League football. But as ho-hum as the premise itself sounds, Sudeikis’s acting coupled with the biting wit and contemporary pacing of the show keep Ted Lasso fresh, even for all its dumb American tropes.

And what’s more American than a guy who gets freaked out by sparkling water? Walt No-Middle-Name Whitman. Ted Lasso quotes the transcendentalist poet in one episode in particular. The problem is, Whitman never said the quote that Ted mentions.

I’ve Never Liked a Misquote So Much

In Season 1 Episode 8, “Diamond Dogs,” Ted Lasso misquotes (misattributes?) the grandfather of American poetry so convincingly that you’re certain it’s a legitimate reference. In the scene below, Ted is playing darts with his boss’s ex-husband Rupert Manning (Anthony Head), who is the club’s former owner and her enemy. Ted and his boss, Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham) have just learned that Rupert’s much-younger new fiancée, Bex (Keeley Hazell), has gained an ownership stake in the football club with Rupert’s help. Rupert has threatened to menace the owner’s box any chance he gets, and Ted has stepped in. If Ted wins the game, Rupert has agreed to abstain from attending any matches in the box. If Ted loses, Rupert gets to pick the starting lineup for several key matches.

Ted is, as he fully acknowledges, “white knighting,” here, but as the scene wears on, it’s clear that Ted is doing what he’s doing because he believes it’s the right thing to do, not just because he cares about his boss, Rebecca. You want to hate this goody-two-shoes dude, but you just can’t. You really can’t.

This is a lovely scene, and a lovely sermon on the freeing power of de-personalization (in the psychological sense). It’s subtle: being in a bar every Saturday from ages 10 to 16 likely means no small share of pain for Ted. You feel for him. But in true hero form, that pain has made him stong, and a shark at the dartboard.

The provenance of the quote has a strange credence to it because Ted says he saw it painted on a wall somewhere, though anyone can ostensibly paint any (mis)quote anywhere.

A whole universe of Lasso merchandise featuring the quote already exists online. You can have a pre-made desktop wallpaper, framed art print, or avatar of the quote in seconds. But as much as I love it, the widely attributed quote actually can’t be attributed to Whitman.

Whitman’s Curiosity

Be curious, not judgmental is excellent advice. It sounds like Whitman, and it contains a certain democratic, Whitmanic generosity of spirit. But the only nod to curiosity in Whitman’s well-known Leaves of Grass is the phrase “Be not curious about God.”

Recently I took Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry to the beach (you know, for some light reading, as I do) and was struck by his discussion of Whitman’s frequent classification as a poet who was able to “speak for all” despite the fact that such a thing is impossible and reflects the failure of America to be a truly democratic institution.

Lerner writes:

Walt Whitman is himself a place for the genuine, an open space or textual commons where American readers of the future can forge and renew their sense of possibility and interconnectedness. No doubt part of why Whitman addressed himself relentlessly to the future was so his actual historical person—the Walt Whitman of the title page—would be dead and gone, freeing him to function as a kind of messianic figure within the poems.

But the Whitmanic program has never been realized in history, and I don’t think it can be: Whitman comes to stand for the contradictions of a democratic personhood that cannot become actual without becoming exclusive.

And though he might try to unite the very different members of AFC Richmond, Ted is only able to heal the team’s wounds by treating the players as individuals, not, as Lerner says of Whitman, by “uniting in a single extended syntactic unit all the differences that threaten the coherence of ‘the people’” or “[democratizing] pronouns in order to attempt to make room for any reader in his ‘I’ and ‘you.’”

In other words, trying to “speak for all people” ends up excluding most people, and raises the question of who should be doing that speaking.

Ted learns this lesson in his own way. Like Whitman, in his desire to speak generally and democratically, Coach Lasso fails in some important ways. Sometimes his optimism and big-heartedness just aren’t enough, or are, in fact, too much. His relationship with his wife Michelle (Andrea Anders) is a testament to that.

Ted Lasso is just the kind of guy who would blithely misquote someone or simply trust that a quote written on a wall somewhere was true. But he’s also the kind of guy who would take a positive, benign sentiment like be curious, not judgmental and run with it, allowing it to transform his life and his relationship to himself and to the world around him. And that guy isn’t so bad. He might even be a good guy.

P.S.

  • Gil Scott-Heron’s searing 1970 poem “Whitey on the Moon” has been circulating again in the wake of recent eyeroll-inducing spaceflights by kajillionaires Bezos and Branson. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  • Wayfinder is a new video game that allows players to create poems by finding pieces of scattered language.

  • Portland’s Fonograf Editions is pressing poetry on vinyl in a bid to breathe new life into poetry as an aural experience.

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