TBS sitcom 'Sullivan & Son' created with plenty of ties to region
July 15, 2012 12:00 PM
A Penguins jersey on the set of "Sullivan & Son."
Dan Lauria, left, and Steve Byrne play father and son in TBS's new comedy series "Sullivan & Son." Mr. Byrne, a 1992 graduate of Hampton High School, plays a New York corporate lawyer who returns to Pittsburgh to buy his parents' bar.
By Rob Owen Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
BURBANK, Calif. -- Production of TBS's new sitcom "Sullivan & Son" takes place on the Warner Bros. lot, 2,400 miles west of East Carson Street on the South Side, but wandering through this bar set that's supposed to be in Pittsburgh feels pretty authentic.
Two glass-framed Penguins jerseys hang on the wall alongside photos of Penguins players; a sticker for radio station WDVE is adhered to the jukebox; and a newspaper box containing a Nov. 1, 2011, edition of the Post-Gazette sits outside the bar's front door.
It doesn't hurt that the show's production designer, John Shaffner, is a 1976 graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and "Sullivan" art director Jerry Dunn grew up in Greensburg and Irwin.
Pittsburgh-set sitcom 'Sullivan & Son'
PG TV critic Rob Owen visits Burbank, Calif., to take a tour of the set of Pittsburgh-set sitcom "Sullivan & Son" at Warner Bros. The visit includes a visit with the show's star, former Pittsburgher Steve Byrne. (Video by Rob Owen: 7/15/2012)
'Sullivan & Son'
When: 10 p.m. Thursday, TBS.
Starring: Steve Byrne, Dan Lauria.
"I drove for Budweiser when I lived there so I've been in a few thousand of these," Mr. Dunn said, nodding toward the bar set on Stage 10 at Warner Bros. "I delivered beer for them for four years in college so I know every bar in Western Pennsylvania [or at least] in Westmoreland County."
Steve Byrne, the former Pittsburgher who stars in "Sullivan & Son" (10 p.m. Thursday, TBS), said the bar on the show is a South Side neighborhood bar, but it's not on East Carson Street.
"It's more off the beaten path," he said. "It attracts people from a certain radius within the neighborhood; people who wear name tags and go to work and want to get through life with friends and family."
Mr. Byrne, a stand-up comedian who next brings his act to the Improv at the Waterfront in Homestead Aug. 23-26, stars in "Sullivan & Son" as Steve Sullivan, a New York corporate lawyer who decides to move home to Pittsburgh and buy the bar from his parents, played by Dan Lauria ("The Wonder Years") and Jodi Long ("All-American Girl").
"Growing up in Pittsburgh, going to school in Ohio and now living in Chicago, I appreciate my roots in the Midwest and having blue collar values. I wanted that to be very reflective in this show," said Mr. Byrne, who was wearing a Pirates hat as he chatted while taking a break from rehearsing an upcoming episode. "Steve gives up the rat race, because in the corporate world you could achieve benchmarks with work and get a sales trophy, but if you don't have anyone to appreciate that with, what's the point of that?"
Mr. Byrne was born in New Jersey and moved to Pittsburgh when his salesman father was transferred to town for a job with the Yellow Pages. The family lived in Hampton, and Mr. Byrne is a 1992 graduate of Hampton High School.
"The great thing about that school is they let me get away with a lot," he said. "I wasn't a troubled kid -- I wasn't sniffing glue out in the woods -- but I was one of those kids who if I thought it, I just said it, and I was always cracking my classmates up."
He entertained fellow students at Hampton pep rallies but never considered stand-up comedy as a career until he ended up doing it after studying theater at Kent State University. By that time, Mr. Byrne's father had been transferred to New York. Steve Byrne moved there and walked up and down Broadway looking for a job.
"The last place I walked into was Caroline's Comedy Club," Mr. Byrne said. He started out answering phones, sweeping the floor and observing as comedy stars Dave Chappelle, Colin Quinn and others performed. "I found another comedy club up the street and worked up the nerve to try it. I tried it and said, this is what I'll do for the rest of my life. I pursued it with blinders, and within six months I was on the road making $50 a show."
Mr. Byrne, 37, has worked to build his profile over the years, including stand-up specials on Comedy Central and appearances on late-night talk shows, including "The Tonight Show."
He met fellow Pittsburgh comic Billy Gardell ("Mike & Molly") when the two appeared on the Jameson Comedy Tour six years ago. Now he looks to Mr. Gardell for advice on how to be a leader on the set of a sitcom. Mr. Gardell has filmed a guest appearance in a "Sullivan" episode set to air Aug. 16, too.
"If you have a good attitude, you're grateful, and Steve is that way anyway," Mr. Gardell said. "So it was an easy transition for him."
"Sullivan & Son" came about after Mr. Byrne's friend, actor/producer Vince Vaughn ("Wedding Crashers"), invited him to pitch ideas to Mr. Vaughn's production company. Mr. Byrne's original concept had the show set at a Pittsburgh diner, but when he was paired with veteran sitcom scribe Rob Long ("Cheers") the decision was made to change the location to a bar because it would be more fun and more transient.
"If the guy who wrote on 'Cheers' is telling me to make it a bar and he's comfortable with that, then, yeah, we'll make it a bar," Mr. Byrne said.
Some of the show's relationships ring true to real life. Mr. Byrne's father is Irish-American and his mother is Korean, the same as the fictional Steve Sullivan's parents on "Sullivan & Son," although Ms. Long is actually of Chinese and Japanese descent, Mr. Byrne said.
"My mom is hard-nosed. I wouldn't say she's a Tiger Mom, but she is a typical Asian mother, and she grew up extremely poor and she came over here and appreciates the value of hard work and achieving the American dream," Mr. Byrne said. "And so on set, you always see [Jodi Long] by the cash register, and that's what my mom would do. This is a caricature of my mom -- we've got crazy lines for her -- but it is a good example of her."
Viewers may be most surprised by the dialogue given to gruff barfly Hank (Brian Doyle-Murray), who fires off politically incorrect lines in the pilot episode about assorted ethnicities.
"He's old-school, almost like a 'Grand Torino' Clint Eastwood character," Mr. Byrne said. "He'll say things that are off-color and not appropriate in this day and age. ... It's really walking the line, but hopefully people understand that the basis of the show is about friendships and guys coming together and us appreciating somebody who's so blunt. You know where somebody stands instead of the people that grandstand about being so PC when they are the ones who are truly harboring some racist attitudes."
For Mr. Byrne, playing a sitcom leading man is a new experience, especially compared to his veteran co-stars.
"I'm trying my best to keep up with them," he said. "As we've gone on I've felt more confident."
But it has been an adjustment from his life as a stand-up comic because on "Sullivan" he's essentially the straight man to the rest of the cast.
"You're either the sane man in an insane world or the insane man in a sane world so I'm the sane voice, much like Billy Gardell on 'Mike & Molly,' " Mr. Byrne said. "We're kind of the Dean Martin and the rest of the cast is Jerry Lewis. We're there to set everybody else up."
Pittsburgh viewers should not expect to hear many Pittsburgh accents on the show, aside from Mr. Gardell's guest appearance, of course.
"If you really think about Pittsburgh, there are people who have those accents and people who don't," Mr. Byrne said. "You want it to play so everybody understands and appreciates it. I think at the end of the day the authenticity of Pittsburgh is that this is a bar that may not have that yinzer-dahntahn kind of accent but what it does reflect is there are people who reside at this bar who aren't pretentious, they don't think they're better than anybody else, who don't put up with BS, and there's a good core of Midwestern values and blue collar mentality. I think that is what will resonate with Pittsburgh more than some guy on a bar stool saying, 'Give me a chipped ham.' "