You’re never too old to chase a dream, and for Mike Farragher, that means creating a new Irish American comedy series called McLean Avenue about the adventures of an Irish mammy and her fully grown son who live together with hilarious results
There are times in a writer’s life that leave you at a loss for words.
Opening up the Irish Voice and seeing your name and picture on a newspaper byline for the first time. Wiping palm sweat onto your pants as you await that backstage interview with the likes of Boy George and Bob Geldof. Taking a box cutter to the cardboard that holds the inaugural printing of your debut novel.
Staring into the mouth of a large truck as workers haul lights and cameras onto the set of your film? Well, that takes speechlessness to another level!
That happened not long ago as we prepared to shoot the pilot episode of McLean Avenue, a comedy series set in and inspired by the legendary Bronx Irish immigrant enclave.
McLean Avenue tells the story of disgraced singer Sean McCabe, whose randy behavior on the road in this #MeToo era costs him his gig in the beloved Paddy Tenors pop group. Broke and broken, he’s forced to move in with his Irish mammy, Peg, who divebombs him with weapons-grade guilt over his transgressions.
Peg is recently widowed and becomes overwhelmed by the attention of young male suitors once she dips her toe into the online dating pool on the insistence of her friends and parish priest. Comedy and awkwardness ensue as mother and son bump into one another on the same McLean Avenue singles bar scene, and everyone wonders how they’re going to put this Pandora Peg back in the box!
If you’re covering music for the Irish Voice long enough, you’ll find yourself parked at the bar in a place like Rory Dolan’s or Keane’s on Katonah covering some fundraising concert. While there, you’ll hear plenty of thick brogues dissecting their day with surgical wit about the laziness on the construction site or the spoiled brats that were pushed up and down Park Avenue.
The “sure ’tis grand” façade cracks a wee bit at night’s end, as drinks disappear and the jukebox plays a mournful ballad that causes a fresh ache for the mammy left back home. These are the bricks in the foundation of your McLean Avenue series.
The Irish matriarch
Nenagh, Co. Tipperary native Ger Glennon knows that immigrant ache well, and she bakes that into her brilliant portrayal of the Irish matriarch Peg.
“Peg is a throwback to the Irish mammies of yesterday with these modern flourishes,” explains Glennon. “She’s a bit like me: you can take this girl out of Ireland, but you can’t take Ireland out of this girl, a sentiment I think many people who live on McLean Avenue will identify with.”
The connection was first made with Glennon when she auditioned for a series of short plays based on my This Is Your Brain on Shamrocks books. Watching her craft what would eventually become Peg was thrilling to behold, and she’ll be the first to say it energized her as an actress, discouraged by the lack of variety in roles available to Irish women in Manhattan theater.
“I’d strike out at auditions because I didn’t look the characteristic part, with the freckles and the red hair,” she explains. “I’d walk in with my spiky blonde haircut, saying, ‘Yup, I’m Irish,’ but got nowhere.
“Bringing Peg from the stage to the screen allowed me to claim her as mine and build so many layers along the way. She’s a mother first and foremost, which means she spent her life putting everyone else first. She’s the voice of reason, old fashioned in a modern day.
“Yet it’s also a refreshing take on a woman of a certain age, to not lay down and die after many lonely years, who believes there is love out there for her. To have her feel like a schoolgirl in her sixties as she throws on a wig and heads down to the bar to find someone half her age in a rebirth that is just for her was both touching and hilarious. She is not just a one-dimensional mammy with a shawl, which is a gift.”
Peg is on the hunt to find a good reason to stay in bed on a Sunday morning, provided she makes it to the 5:30 Mass on the night before. Her cousin Father Frank, played by Dublin comedian Joe Rooney of Father Ted fame, will see to that. As a cousin to both, Father Frank counsels Sean to keep it in his pants in one breath while encouraging Peg to abandon her church lady ways with the other.
“Working with Joe Rooney was amazing like we were doing this forever,” gushes Glennon. “If you’re acting with someone that good who can throw you so much to work with, it is a dream!”
Tears of laughter
Either the residual sugar rush of filming your pilot episode or the threat of not knowing what to say when a perspective producer/buyer asks how the rest of the season goes has you write another nine episodes for season one. You dare tell no one about this for fear of being branded as too cocky, electing to only share the scribbling with your leading lady.
“I want viewers to be laughing, to get lost in the characters, and feel like they came into the kitchen and had a cup of tea with this friend Peg they’ve known for years,” Glennon says.
“Each script had me laughing harder than the last one in accomplishing that. Tears of laughter were rolling down my face and I just saw it in my mind’s eye, how I’d play it all out. I can’t wait to develop Peg further.”
If you’ve come this far in the article and are wondering what’s next and how you can see McLean Avenue, that’s anyone’s guess. The elders in your Galway or Limerick tribes have experience packaging livestock for sale at market, not packaging shows for consideration on a streaming service.
No sage advice or past family experience you can draw from here. You took the money you got for story rights, then reinvested that and much more to get the pilot episode to look like it is already on television.
Telling the Irish American story
To say you have bet the house on this is no exaggeration, which takes confidence not normally found in this Irish Catholic boy whose parents lectured him all his life about taking on sensible jobs while not running amok with credit card debt.
It also takes a belly fire sparked by being fed up by the one-dimensional screen portrayal of your Irish race as drunks or feckless laugh track fodder to see this show through. Yes, we’re dysfunctional, but the cartoonish exaggerations of some of these popular dark Irish comedies ring somewhat inauthentic.
Watching Celtic Cross and Shilelagh Law play from your backstage perch at the Empire Casino in Yonkers last March, you stare at the sea of broad, working-class faces crowding the stage and you see your own face staring back at you. Hollywood has yet to tell our story, rollicking tales of these fabulous and flawed All-Ireland winning musicians and the fans that follow them.
Though you’re from Jersey, these people have adopted you as their own, nonetheless. You wrote about them in columns for decades, grew up with them, and feel it is your honor and duty to get this one last story called McLean Avenue right for them.
You also have good people surrounding you, guiding your little show through the television pilot season and leveraging their high school era relationships with Hollywood showrunners and agents.
The characters encountered in this endeavor could fill up the pages of another book, like the agent drafted from central casting who said, “Having this great story under your arm makes you the surgically altered blonde babe at the bar: you sit there and let ‘em all come to you to buy your drinks!”
So now you find yourself in the bar, nearing your 53rd birthday, hoping Hollywood notices you. Your Irish parents have cautioned you against the foolishness of filling your head with Tinseltown dreams at your age but you’ve come too far just to come this far.
There are no words to describe the feeling of having your show picked up for a three-season deal, but you expect to write them soon enough. Stay tuned to see how this story ends!
(A sold-out screening premiere of McLean Avenue takes place at the Irish Arts Center on April 30. You can follow series developments by liking “McLean Avenue: the Series” on Facebook)
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