Sullivan & Son: When east meets west


Sullivan & Son is the edgy new Irish American comedy garnering a growing audience on Thursday nights on the TBS channel. Cahir O'Doherty talks to Steve Byrne, the brilliant Korean Irish comedian behind it about his unique background, his acidly funny new show and the U.S. comedy tour he’s headlining to support it.

In Sullivan & Son, Irish Korean comedian Steve Byrne, 37, plays Steve Sullivan, a successful corporate attorney from New York who brings his girlfriend Ashley home for his father’s 60th birthday.

It turns out his timing is perfect as he learns that his Irish American father Jack Sullivan and his Korean mother Ok Cha are preparing to sell the family business, a bar known as Sullivan & Son. It’s the perfect opportunity for a man looking to make a major change his life.  It was also a major case of art imitating life.

“I was travelling on the road for so much of the time as a standup comedian,” Byrne confesses to the Irish Voice, after his gig at the Gotham Comedy Club on Sunday night.

“I was working 50 weeks a year for like seven years.  I was living out of a suitcase the whole time.”

That’s when actor and fellow comedian Vince Vaughn, who shares Irish roots, stepped in and insisted that Byrne takes his celebrity status to the next level via his own situation comedy.  

“Vince Vaughn and I have been friends for a long time and he kept telling me you should write something for yourself,” Byrne explains.

“I said I had never written anything like a major show before.  I said to him I do standup, I do jokes.”

But Vaughan insisted. “He just said you can do it, and I said I don’t know how. He said, you can do it. I said okay, I guess I’ll just try.”

Byrne went out and bought a bunch of screenplay books. He read them for months.

“I was like a kid in college. I just read every night after I did my shows. I had note books where I wrote down everything I thought of,” he said.

First Byrne asked himself, in an ideal world what he would like to do right at that moment? The answer was that he would like to go home and be with his friends and family. No more nomadic comedian’s life. It was a desire for stability.

That’s also why he made the character he plays in the show work at the most mundane job in the world -- he’s a corporate attorney.

“I just thought if I’m going to write a situation comedy about something, I’m going to write about something I know,” he explains.

So he spent months writing the pilot with help from two other major league Hollywood producers.

“When I turned in the pilot script to Vince he said it was pretty good and that we should meet with more writers. I met with Rob Long (a screenwriter and executive producer for the long-running television program Cheers) and we got along right off the bat,” said Byrne.

“Then I met with producer Peter Billingsley (another Hollywood heavyweight) and we went off to the races. Rob and I really worked on the pilot together and that’s how it all came about.”

Byrne’s whole career as a comedian has been marked by risk taking, as anyone who has seen his standup act can confirm. On stage he’s an edgy, fast thinking performer who leads his audiences into every kind of social danger zone and manages to stay very far ahead of their reactions at all times.

“I like taking chances,” he explains. “I like taking risks and seeing what happens. I like sticking with my act too.

“There are times when if I’m the fifth guy up and all the other comedians have talked about views and relationships, it’s nice for me to spice it up. I like to jump into the audience and kind of talk.”

Some of the things he gets into on stage are based on what he rehearsed, but there’s an edge to his show, and there’s a shocking level of honesty.

“Maybe it’s too honest sometimes, but that’s what makes it funny, as well as all the uncomfortableness that can spread around as you do it. I enjoy it though. I like doing anything against the fold,” he says.

One of the most original aspects of Sullivan & Son is the genuinely funny east meets west banter between Byrne’s onscreen mother (played by the note perfect Jodi Long) and her many victims in the bar. Long adds a whole new dimension to the melting pot by reminding us that not everyone really wants to melt.

“My original family is from Co. Wicklow,” Byrne explains. “My great grandfather came over from Ellis Island and switched his surname from O’Byrne to just Byrne. On my father’s side everyone was in the military except for me.

“My father was stationed in Korea during the Vietnam War where he met my mother and they got hitched. They lived in Minnesota for two years and then moved to New Jersey, and I was born the year they moved.”