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.”
It was a happy upbringing Byrne says, for the most part free happily free of any major racial harassment or any of the other teenage pitfalls that can haunt you afterwards.
“For me it (being Irish and Korean) was always fun and it was always a plus. I never looked at it as a hindrance or a negative,” Byrne says.
“I mean, when kids are young they’re mean and they’ll say things, but I was always really proud of my mom and my dad. I enjoyed my upbringing.”
Being funny was Byrne’s passport to the adult world, including finding friends and romance.
“When I moved from New Jersey to Pittsburgh I attended Hampton High School and that’s when my sense of humor developed because I wasn’t good looking, I was really skinny, I was awkward, I had zits,” he recalls.
“But I learned that I could make people laugh, and that’s what I did when I was in junior high school. I had a good sense of humor. That was my passport to meet people.”
In Sullivan & Son Byrne is clear about his mission. He just wants to make people laugh. That’s why his mom and dad in the show are broadly drawn caricatures of his actual parents, he says.
“My Irish American father is that laid back, easy going unofficial town mayor, and in any situation he’s always there to help people out and just loves kicking back and having a beer. He’s happiest telling stories and making people laugh.”
In contrast his mom is one of the tiger moms you read about in the news, Byrne says.
“My mom really is a hardened kind of woman from Korea. She came over here and was very poor, she understands the value of even a quarter. She’s penny pinching and she’s a little rough around the edges,” he says.
“She instilled in me the need to set goals and strive for achievement, and all these things that you would stereotypically association with a tiger mom or an Asian mom, but it’s true. Those stereotypes exist for a reason. That was my mom.”
Those stereotypes are also funny as hell to play on television and Sullivan & Son excels at it.
“We’re not trying to be clever, we’re just trying to make people laugh. There is a real warmth to these characters that is very attractive,” says Byrne.
“The whole basis of the show is this is a guy who wants to come back to his old haunts and find a more meaningful life, one that matters.”
Sullivan & Son broadcasts Thursdays at 10 p.m. on TBS.