May Cover Story: Steve Byrne Gets Personal on ‘Sullivan & Son’

Byrne, Baby, Byrne

For years, Steve Byrne has lit up the stage at comedy clubs, bars and late-night talks shows, earning a reputation as one of the hardest-working stand-up comedians in the biz. Now he’s getting the chance to enjoy the fruits of that intense labor as the star and co-writer of his own sitcom, Sullivan & Son, to premiere on TBS this summer.

story by Oliver Saria
photographs by Yann Bean

The premiere of comedian Steve Byrne’s sitcom Sullivan & Son on TBS is only about three months away when I interview him, and he’s still settling into his production office at the Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, Calif. The place looks like a teenage boy had decorated it. The walls are plastered with NHL and movie posters—the Chicago Blackhawks and the Pittsburgh Penguins (his two favorite teams) and all things Marvel Comics. Other framed memorabilia is stacked against the wall, still in bubble wrap, and a tabletop hockey game sits in the middle of the room, waiting to be assembled.

It’s the quiet before the storm. Full-on production mode for the 10-episode season begins in earnest by early May, right after his wife of one year, Jessica, is due to give birth to their first child, a girl. Byrne has every reason to be frantic, but the relaxed vibe of his office décor extends to his demeanor. It’s a good thing I caught him before he is completely stressed out and sleepless.

For a guy with a reputation of being obsessed with work, he doesn’t come off as blindly ambitious or self-obsessed—driven instead by the love of his craft, which he first developed after stumbling upon a job answering phones at Caroline’s Comedy Club in New York City in the late ’90s. For the theater major from Kent State, the original plan was to move to California, but after catching the stand-up bug, Byrne spent the next 15 years tirelessly plying his trade. During that span, he has made the rounds of the late-night talk shows; won the MySpace Standup or Sitdown Comedy Challenge; toured nationally with The Jameson Comedy Tour, The Kims of Comedy and Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Tour; headlined numerous USO tours (his brother is in the Army, and he is a huge supporter of U.S. troops); appeared in the films The DilemmaCouples Retreat and Four Christmases; and aired two well-received hour-long specials on Comedy Central,Steve Byrne: Happy Hour and The Byrne Identity.

Loosely based on his stand-up routine, his new series, Sullivan & Son, revolves around Steve Sullivan, a corporate lawyer in New York City who returns to his working-class hometown of Pittsburgh to take over his family’s neighborhood bar. Byrne and Cheers veteran Rob Long, who also serves as executive producer and showrunner, are writing the series, which is being executive-produced by Vince Vaughn (The Break-up) and Peter Billingsley (Iron Man). The series also stars Korean American actress Vivian Bang, playing his sister; Jodi Long, who plays his Korean American mother, and Dan Lauria, of Wonder Years fame, who plays his Irish American father, in addition to a diverse cast of characters who fill the barstools at Sullivan’s bar.

In between hamming it up, Byrne talked to KoreAm about the forthcoming show, a forthcoming baby and the burden of responsibility of portraying Korean American characters on TV.

OS: How did you develop the show?

SB: This show doesn’t happen without Vince Vaughn. He’s always been so supportive of my career. I can never express how much I appreciate his friendship. He put his name on the line by producing this show, and I want to make sure we do right by him and make a show that we are really, really proud of.

OS: He challenged you to write material for your last Comedy Central special that was a bit more personal, right?

SB: A lot of my material was just kind of observational B.S., and Vince was pushing me, just asking a lot of questions, and I scraped together a half-hour of material. I started from scratch, and I wrote a new hour that became The Byrne Identity.

And for me it was pretty important to do that because I felt like that [comedy] special kind of was my identity. This is who I am; this is what I’m about. Being Korean and Irish, I never wanted to be an Asian comic. I didn’t want to make fun of my mom for 30 minutes and sit there and do kung fu moves and do karaoke jokes. I wanted to be inclusive and not exclusive to one set of the country. So I just looked at it as a show about being an American. What it means to be an American. And afterwards, Vince was like, you should write something for yourself. And some of Byrne Identity permeated into some of this show here…

[Steve reaches for a remote control.]

Check this out. This is one of the most pompous bullsh-t things I’ve ever seen in my life. I thought it was a garage clicker. [Steve gets a Warner Bros. PR rep to sit at his desk as Steve pretends to be a lowly assistant. With the click of a button, the door slowly closes in Steve’s face. He pops back into the room.] You can’t be pissed at someone either. You can’t slam the door like, “F-ck you, motherf-cker. Now get the f-ck out of my office!”

OS: I’ve heard rumors of this automatic office door closer. I’m happy I got a chance to see it in action. Now, there has recently been some controversy with certain representations of Asian Americans in film and television. Your stand-up definitely doesn’t shy away from racial stereotypes. Do ever worry about potential backlash?

SB: Do you know of something coming?

OS: Not that I’m aware of.

SB: I’ve heard a few things about my mom on the show, people like, “Oh, she’s got an accent on the show.” Well, my mom’s got an accent. So that’s going in the show. I mean, that’s my upbringing. That’s my mom. She came over here from Korea with my father who met her in the service, and that’s my story. And I’m not going to make it seem like, you know, something that it’s not. But there is a line I won’t cross. I don’t want to offend anybody; I don’t want to piss anyone off. If you do want to talk about a stereotype, then talk about it, but really peel the skin back on it and get to the bottom of it.

OS: Your show is the first since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl to be based on a Korean American comedian. Do you ever feel any pressure from that?

SB: I understand, at the end of the day, there is a burden of responsibility because I will have a Korean sister and my mother is being portrayed as Korean. I understand that there is a responsibility for that, and you do want to come off in a positive way. But, at the same time, I am still going to selfishly do what I think is funny for me or what guides the story along. If Koreans are excited because they’ll get tosee more Koreans on TV, I do hope we do them justice. I’m glad if they’re excited. But I want everyone to get behind the show. I want everyone to watch. I’m not one of those guys—I don’t say things for shock value. Even in the show, there’s going to be things that kind of walk the line. But at the end of the day, it’s just these characters; they’re meant to really bring the community closer in that neighborhood and the people in that world closer.

OS: You’ve assembled a pretty diverse cast. Was that ever a selling point to the network?

SB: No, God, no. You can’t go in and go, “We formed this rainbow coalition of a great sitcom. Do you want to sign on the dotted line, because if you don’t, you’re racist?” It was never like that. It just turned out that way. It was pretty amazing. I never realized it until I took a step back how multiethnic and diverse the cast is. You’re like—goddamn, there’s a black guy, there’s an Egyptian, I’m half-Korean, we got a Korean, we got a Chinese woman playing my mom, we got an Italian (Dan Lauria) playing my Irish father—it’s all across the board. But I think that is very much putting a mirror up to America, saying this is ultimately where we’re heading or where we’re at. But it’s certainly not the overriding platform.

OS: So what would you say the show is about?

SB: The base of the show is a guy in the corporate world that sacrificed his personal life for a professional life. When he comes back home, he sees all the people that mean something to him. He realizes that your personal life is more important than your professional life. I wrote the show during a time in my life when, being a stand-up comedian, I worked 50 weeks a year for seven years, seven days a week, five or six shows a night. Christmas—it didn’t matter.

OS: Who’s watching a comedy show on Christmas?

SB: Jews!

OS: Ah, makes sense.

SB: I never had a personal life. My personal life was onstage with those hundreds of strangers every night. And so I said I’m gonna take my foot off the gas pedal and just enjoy my life a little more. That’s where I was when I wrote the show and that’s where I am now, where I’m starting to enjoy things more.

OS: Speaking of which, your wife is due at the end of April. What’s freaking you out more, the show or fatherhood?

SB: It’s so crazy how two different things converged. It took me two years to have a television show; it took me two minutes to make a baby. Everything is happening at once, but that’s not a bad thing. I wouldn’t say I’m freaked out by either of them. I’m excited about both of them.

OS: I’m sure your parents are excited about the baby as well, but how do they feel about seeing representations of themselves on a television show?

SB: They were here for the taping of the pilot, and they were just on cloud nine. My parents have been very supportive of my stand-up career. When I first started in New York City, to perform on the weekends, you needed to have two paying customers to allot you five minutes of stage time. I didn’t know anyone in New York City, so my parents would come every Friday or Saturday for two to three months. Every weekend they’d come with me and be my two paying customers, so it’s kind of cool to see it all unfold to this moment where my mom’s name is in the TV show.

OS: So the character’s name is actually your mom’s real name?

SB: When we were writing it, [writer/executive producer] Rob [Long] was like, what’s your mom’s name? Ok Cha. All right, we’ll just put that down for now. And we never changed it.

OS: Whom did you get your sense of humor from—your mom or your dad?

SB: Not my mom at all. You can put that in bold—not at all. When you picture an Irish guy, that’s my father. He’s just an easygoing, laid-back guy, loves everybody, could have a beer with you in a heartbeat. He’s got a bartender’s ear. He’s just a great guy.

My mom is very loving, very affectionate. In the show, she’s a bit of a caricature. Very money-conscious because she grew up very poor in Korea, so that’s something that’s always been drilled in our head: hard work, achievement, attain goals.

I’ve had a great upbringing. They’re both fantastic.

OS: Why do you think you gravitated toward comedy?

SB: I moved from New Jersey to Pittsburgh in junior high school, and that’s a tough time for any kid to move because it’s like right around puberty. You’re awkward, you don’t fit in anywhere. And my sense of humor started to develop because I looked like a girl when I was younger. I was rail thin. This one girl in college once told me, she goes, “Steve, you have a great body.” I go, “Thanks!” “For a girl.” What the f-ck? Who says that? It’s like saying, “You don’t sweat much for a fat girl.” So I think when I moved to Pittsburgh, I developed my sense of humor there to try to make friends.

OS: Comedy seems to have worked out pretty well for you. But do you think you’ll continue to do stand-up now that you have a show?

SB: I plan on going to Vegas and buying a condo there and keep my wife here and slowly drift away from her and just do cocaine and hang out with strippers and ruin my marriage and eventually my career. That’s ultimately where I see this going in about six months. No, I love stand-up. I’ve done stand-up for so many years that it’s such a huge part of me that, at the end of the day, all of this stuff, for me, goes back to stand-up. I’ve got a third hour [special] that kind of got put on the back burner because of the show. But as soon as the show is done, we’ll do a little tour afterwards, and I’ll film this special.

OS: So you’ll be more like Jerry Seinfeld, always a stand-up comedian.

SB: I’ll be Seinfeld minus the 40 Porsches and private garage. I’ll upgrade to a Subaru Outback hopefully.

OS: It sounds like you’re able to stay pretty grounded despite some of the trappings of Hollywood.

SB: I think I’ve always been pretty grounded. I think being in stand-up for 13 years will keep you grounded. You can do The Tonight Show one night and then the next night, you’re literally right back at the Comedy Store in front of 10 people just eating it. It’s the most humbling profession. You deal with rejection on a nightly basis, and I’ve always had sh-t jobs since I was like 10, so I know what it’s like to be that person that is servicing someone that’s highfalutin. So I always try to be respectful of people—now get the f-ck out! (Laughs.)

Sullivan & Son premieres July 19 on TBS at 10 p.m. (ET/PT).

This article was published in the May 2012 issue of KoreAmSubscribe today!

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