Nick Mohammed is refreshingly upfront about the way Ted Lasso has transformed his career. “Don’t get me wrong, I was perfectly happy before – working in TV and live comedy and popping up in the odd film,” he says, not wishing to disregard his previous appearances in a string of British sitcoms including Fresh Meat, Stath Lets Flats and Cuckoo. “But I mean, you can’t knock the effect of Ted Lasso, because it’s just so rare for a show to do that well.”
Mohammed says the big-hearted comedy-drama about an American football coach (Jason Sudeikis) hired to lead fictional English soccer team AFC Richmond first exploded across the pond. “It wasn’t a sleeper hit like it was here [in the UK]. Season one hit in America like that,” he explains from across the table in a smart cafe-bar attached to the local cinema near his south London home. Until recently, Mohammed and his family actually lived in Richmond, but they’ve since moved up the road to an equally leafy neighbourhood. At the end of our interview, his wife and three young children will swing by to join him for a hot chocolate, a sweet reflection of Mohammed’s relaxed attitude to his growing public profile.
“But because of the pandemic,” the 42-year-old actor, comedian and writer continues as he pours his can of Coke into a glass, “the British lot [in the cast] were a bit sheltered from how big the show had become. For season one, we couldn’t do in-person press [there] or attend any of their award shows.” That’s a real shame, but Mohammed did get to jet to LA last year when he picked up a second consecutive Emmy nomination for his performance as underdog-gone-rogue Nate Shelley.
In 2021, Netflix boss Ted Sarandos damned Lasso with faint praise by calling it “an awards-y show”. He was presumably trying to imply that Apple TV+’s flagship comedy was more popular with critics than regular viewers. While there’s no denying the show is an awards magnet – that year, it snatched 20 Emmy nominations, the most ever achieved by a comedy in its first season – Sarandos was surely rattled by the way it had also captured the cultural zeitgeist. Netflix, which has since failed to hit its subscriber targets, has yet to produce a comedy series with anywhere near as much buzz. With life changed irrevocably by a pandemic that showed no sign of abating, at least at the time, Lasso’s mix of wit, warmth and well-drawn characters was a real tonic.
“Something’s brewing for Nate”
Mohammed attributes the show’s success, in part, to its ability to make us “laugh and then cry” in the same scene. He also points out that it treats supporting characters like Nate very differently from a typical sitcom. “If you’re a supporting player in a British sitcom, your role is to remain constant,” he says. “You don’t change – the lead players bounce off you so they learn and change.” By contrast, Ted Lasso has a large cast of characters who are constantly evolving. In the third and current season, which will conclude in late May, Hannah Waddingham’s club owner Rebecca Welton is contemplating parenthood and Juno Temple’s ex-model Keeley Jones is building her own PR firm. They’re both people you really root for.
However, no one has gone on more of a journey than Nate “The Wonder Kid” Shelley. He begins season one as a diffident kit man who flourishes under Ted’s wing, but ends season two as a villain who betrayed his mentor to the press, then signed up to coach rival London team West Ham United. In the season three episodes that have aired so far, we’ve seen hints that Nate could get a redemption arc, but Mohammed carefully suggests that things aren’t quite this simple. “I mean, they’ve definitely planted the seed of doubt,” he says. “In episode four where West Ham play Richmond, you can see Nate sort of thinking things through when he has that moment in the lift with Ted, so it feels like something’s brewing.”
At this point, Mohammed takes a timely swig of Coke to avoid slipping down the spoiler cliff. “But it’s less about Nate being redeemed or not redeemed, and more about everyone’s capacity for forgiveness,” he continues. “It’s more nuanced than ‘Nate’s got his redemption arc and that’s it completed.’ I mean, there are some nice moments along the way, but… it’s so difficult to talk about!”
Mohammed is on more solid ground talking about The Very Best and Worst of Mr. Swallow, his ongoing UK comedy tour, which began in late-March. Mohammed has previously portrayed his “frenetic” alter ego on stage in London and at the Edinburgh Fringe, but this is the first time he’s embarked on a full-scale tour. That’s partly because the pandemic thwarted plans in 2020, and partly because Mohammed’s profile has grown so much since then. Intelligence, the Sky sitcom that Mohammed created and stars in opposite Friends legend David Schwimmer, has also gained a loyal audience since it debuted three years ago. Following two full seasons, the likeable odd-couple comedy set in GCHQ’s cyber crimes unit returned for a one-off special earlier this month.
“I’ve known magic tricks since I was four years old”
Mohammed has also benefited from several opportunities to showcase Mr. Swallow, a chaotic teacher with a surprising array of skills, on Channel 4’s comedy panel show 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown. “At first, I thought I may as well do a greatest hits set, because I figured lots of people will never have seen Mr. Swallow live before,” he says. “But then, when I was putting it together, I increasingly realised that I wanted to write some new material. So it’s ended up being about half and half.”
Because Mr. Swallow is a character who can “take a lot of gimmicks”, Mohammed has also made the brave and potentially rather dangerous decision to perform the entire show on roller skates. “I mean, I can skate, but there’s still an element of unpredictability to it,” he says, noting that the raked stage at Leeds’ City Varieties Music Hall is so steep that he has to “go round and round in circles” to stop himself from falling off. “Maybe it’s kind of terrifying for the audience,” he says, “but it sort of adds to the flavour of Mr. Swallow as this frenetic, easily distracted character who’s always going on different flights of fancy.”
Mr. Swallow is certainly a bracing comic creation. On YouTube, you can watch him prove he has memorised the entire Wagamama menu – impressively, Mohammed has learned the number and price of every dish – and singing his self-penned lyrics to John Williams’ Jurassic Park score: “Electric fence is no defence! For a dinosaur with teeth!” The character is supposed to be confounding: in the live show, Mr. Swallow introduces himself as “a cross between Bonnie Langford and the crab from The Little Mermaid,” a ridiculous image “designed to give nothing away”. However, he is actually based on a real teacher from Mohammed’s formative years at Abbey Grange High School in Leeds.
“She was utterly bonkers,” Mohammed says with an affectionate smile. “She had that [nasal] voice like Mr. Swallow and that sort of attitude, too. She was always on the defensive and thought everyone was against her when we really weren’t.” Though the teacher in question is no longer alive, Mohammed has resolved never to name her out of respect. “She’d come in and say, ‘Right, we’re going to have a debate on capital punishment.'” he adds. “And we’d be like, ‘Why? Can’t we just do something from the syllabus?'”
Though Mohammed made his mates laugh in the playground by doing impressions of his favourite teacher, he didn’t realise comedy was his calling until much later on. Inspired by the late TV magician Paul Daniels, he displayed a flair for performance as a teenager by pinging between tables at restaurants and offering to do tricks. He “earned a good wage” from magic and was talented enough to compere a show headlined by Daniels himself. “He was doing his famous chocolate trick – which I do as Mr. Swallow now – and I remember saying to him, sort of jokingly, ‘Oh, I’ll watch it from the wings,'” Mohammed recalls. “And he just said, ‘You still won’t be able to tell how it was done.’ He was brilliant.”
Mohammed’s passion for magic is still palpable now – “I’ve known it since I was literally four years old,” he says – but it took a backseat when he went to Durham University to study geophysics. He was turned down twice by the uni comedy troupe, but had better luck at Cambridge, where he auditioned for the famous Footlights Dramatic Club and got in. Soon his planned PhD was shortened to a nearly-as-impressive MPhil (Master of Philosophy) and Mohammed was moving to London to pursue a comedy career. For well over a year, he held down a pretty strenuous day job at investment bank Morgan Stanley while gigging in the evenings.
“I walked through security with bags full of wigs and rubber chickens”
“I was sort of between the trade floor, which is obviously pretty hardcore, and the IT support team,” he recalls. “I didn’t have a problem with [balancing the two], but it was pretty surreal I suppose. Like, I can remember walking through security with bags full of wigs and props like rubber chickens.” On one occasion, he accidentally deleted a batch of incredibly lucrative automatic trades, then had to sneak back into the office after hours to retrieve them from a back-up server based eight hours behind in Hong Kong. “I put that idea into an episode of Intelligence!” he adds proudly.
Though he got into comedy in his mid-twenties, “which is quite late”, Mohammed says his career took off “quite quickly”. He has been a familiar face on British TV for around 15 years, popping up in everything from Miranda to Murder In Successville, and has always had live work, too. Because he and his wife have a young family, Mohammed says he is “pretty choosy” when it comes to job offers, but he still “relishes the challenge” of auditioning for a new role.
With five episodes of season three still to come, Ted Lasso‘s future is unconfirmed. “Whether it will end, whether it’ll be a film [next], whether there’ll be a break and then season four, I don’t know,” Mohammed says. However, he doesn’t envisage any kind of Nate Shelley spin-off. “In general, I worry about spin-offs, especially for a really large show like Lasso,” he says. “I mean, if you get it wrong, it’s just a shame, isn’t it?”
In fact, his dream now is to devise and pitch a Mr. Swallow sitcom. “I don’t think it’ll be an easy sell by any means,” he admits, “because I can foresee questions like, ‘Is this a character that only works live?’ and ‘Does he have the emotional range to sustain a sitcom?’ They’re the right questions, so I’m getting in the right frame of mind to answer them.” Given his track record so far, it would be foolish to doubt Mohammed’s ability to find a clever solution. But for now, his family have arrived – and it’s time for hot chocolate.
Nick Mohammed’s ‘The Very Best and Worst of Mr. Swallow’ is currently on tour in the UK
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