A few months ago, writer Joe Mande and his friend were walking into an NBA game in Los Angeles when Mande caught a glimpse of a nearby television.
The Jacksonville Jaguars, of all NFL teams, weren’t just leading the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game. The Jaguars’ oft-ridiculed quarterback, Blake Bortles, was dealing: 18-for-23 passing for 232 yards and a touchdown after three quarters, and at that moment Jacksonville held a 20-10 lead and was 15 minutes from reaching its first Super Bowl.
But the strangest part, at least to Mande, was that every time the Jaguars’ quarterback dropped back to unleash a pass — an act that, during his 51-interception first three NFL seasons, was best experienced with fingers covering the eyes — fans surrounding the Staples Center shouted the same thing.
On and on it went, pass after unpredictable pass.
Mande couldn’t help but watch and wonder.
“I’m like: Did I conjure this?” he would say much later, and indeed he was as responsible for this — the battle cry, not Bortles’ performance or the team’s eventual collapse in a 24-20 Patriots win — as anyone.
Mande is a writer and producer on the NBC comedy “The Good Place,” and two years ago, when he was penning the first season’s fourth episode, inspiration struck. A complicated and flawed character, Jason Mendoza, would have a moment of self-reflection before releasing a molotov cocktail toward a rival’s speedboat. As the character leans back to make the throw, flames and destruction to follow, he yells out — yep — “Bortles!”
The joke stuck, although not at first, and has since become a recurring theme on the show, which begins its third season Thursday. Mendoza, portrayed by actor Manny Jacinto, often wears Bortles’s No. 5 jersey. Sometimes he goes by the alias “Jake Jortles.” He defends the quarterback’s alliterative and bouncy name as another character mispronounces it before suggesting Jaguars games are broadcast only in the “bad place” — or what the show refers to as hell.
It has, through two full seasons, been a reliable — if random — bit. But now there’s a problem, and Mande knows it: The Jaguars are good, maybe even a Super Bowl contender, winning games for the first time not despite their quarterback but — at times — because of him. Which means Blake Bortles, who threw for 376 touchdowns and four touchdowns in a Week 2 triumph over the Patriots and future Hall of Famer Tom Brady, just isn’t funny anymore
Well, not as funny: He still ranks 25th in the NFL in completion percentage, and his indecisive play on a drive late in the fourth quarter last Sunday led to a deflating three-and-out and a 9-6 loss to the Tennessee Titans.
“So much of the show is about self-improvement,” Mande, who has never met Bortles, said in a recent telephone interview. “And I feel like no matter — I don’t know about analytics or whatever, but he got them to the AFC championship. He was a literal punchline the first season of the show, but I do think there’s something there that he represents a form of self-improvement. We’ve had to figure that out.”
The first step, Mande said, was figuring out why Bortles and Jacksonville were funny to begin with. The Mendoza character had previously passed himself off as a Buddhist monk, and Mande said he wanted something to represent a monk’s opposite.
“He has to be from Florida,” the writer said he concluded, eventually thinking about a recent comedy appearance in the northeast part of the state, which Mande would remember as “the weirdest place I’ve ever been to.”
So Jacksonville it was, and along came the hapless Jaguars — from 2011 to 2016, the best record the team produced was 5-11 — into the show’s dialogue. That first Bortles reference, inspired by southern California pickup basketball players who yell “Kobe!” when chucking up the type of impossible shot only the former Lakers star might attempt, was initially cut. Mande said he complained to creator Michael Schur, unable to explain now why he fought so hard for a joke about an underachieving former first-round pick, but Schur relented and here we are.
Mande, a Minnesota native, didn’t actually follow the NFL when he wrote Bortles into the show. He preferred the NBA’s Timberwolves — Ricky Rubio was his own personal Bortles, he said — but began following the Vikings last season. The playoffs began, Minnesota made the NFC championship game and Jacksonville, fresh off a 10-win season and division title, met New England in the AFC final. Mande decided he’d go to the Super Bowl if either team made it, so when both teams lost in heartbreaking fashion, he blamed himself.
“The kiss of death,” is how he believes teams respond to his fandom, although Jacksonville’s loss did spare the writing staff of “The Good Place” some tricky maneuvering.
“Will they ever win the Super Bowl?” Mendoza asked the all-knowing guide, Michael, during the show’s second season.
“Jason, I can’t predict the future. But no,” Michael, played by Ted Danson, replies with a dismissive chuckle. “They won’t.”
Mande suggested there was a contingency plan in place if the Jaguars did, or ever do, win the Super Bowl. A comedy show about the afterlife has some built-in latitude when it comes to altering timelines. While Mande wouldn’t reveal specifics about how the show will deal with the sudden legitimacy of Jacksonville and its quarterback, he did say Bortles and “Bortles!” will remain part of it.
“I will say we do address it,” Mande said. “I think it’s funny, and I will say it was difficult.”
Not that he was relieved Jacksonville lost to the Patriots. Mande wanted to go to the Super Bowl, and maybe Jacinto would have joined him like he did at Jacksonville’s playoff opener last January against Buffalo. The writer and actor found their way to the sideline before the game, and Mande said he pointed a camera at Jacinto and directed the actor to “do stuff” in case the show ever needed it. Jacinto asked a cheerleader to marry him, Mande said. He stole a pylon near the end zone.
After players streamed onto the field for warm-ups, they spotted the quarterback with the spotty reputation and the funny-sounding name, tossing balls toward Jacksonville’s wide receivers. They walked the sideline toward him, getting as close as either of them ever has, and when he reached back and his arm started forward, the two men from Hollywood knew just what to say.