For three seasons on network TV, an Irish-Korean American comedian has been writing and starring in his own show, to little fanfare. Now, Steve Byrne of TBS’ Sullivan & Son shares how he nabbed a sitcom deal, what it’s like being mixed race in Hollywood, and writing his reality.
Byrne got his start in the comedy club scene in the Big Apple. If there is one date that Byrne remembers, it’s the date of his first stand-up gig. After finishing school in Ohio, he moved to New York City and crashed on his parents’ couch. While looking for a job, he stumbled upon the popular comedy club, Carolines. He would watch stand-up comedians on stage and thought it looked like fun. Four months later, on September 30, 1997, he tried it out and said he just knew right away that that’s what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
Catch an upcoming episode of Sullivan & Son Tuesday, August 19th on TBS with special guest star Margaret Cho. I had a chance to sit down with Byrne for an extensive chat about his show and about race in Hollywood.
Where did the idea of Sullivan & Son come from?
Vince (Vaughn) and I used to hike all the time. He said, “You should write some for yourself because your opportunities are limited given your background.” In Hollywood, I went for Asian roles but I wasn’t Asian enough and I’d go for white roles and wasn’t white enough.
I bought a bunch of books, I studied. About eight months later, I turned the script to Vince. He took a look at it and said it’s pretty good. We went to meet with some showrunners. I met with Rob Long and Peter Billingsley who work with Vince Vaughn. All of us have been pals for a long time. We finessed the script. Turned it from a diner into a bar, made it a thousand times funnier, and I think within a few months, we were making it.
Is this loosely based on your family life?
The foundation is loosely based on what I was going through at the time as a stand-up professionally. I was working 50 weeks a year, I was touring a lot, I was headlining, it was great, but hotels were my home. I was never around my friends. I was never around my family so the foundation of Steve Sullivan in Sullivan and Son is about a corporate attorney that wants to give up the professional career to have a more personally fulfilling life—which is being with his friends, family and being at home. And home to him was this bar.
I have a little brother—I made him a little sister on the show. The relationship of my parents and myself is very true. My father is very much the easy-going bartender, always smiling. Just a good guy. My mom is very stern. She’s an immigrant. She came home from Korea dirt poor. She didn’t have any money so she appreciates the value of the dollar. She appreciates the American dream. She loves this country more than anything. Those elements combine to create the family dynamic. My brother was always kind of the kid that never got the attention. (laughs).
You mentioned your Korean and Irish background. There always seems to be a discussion among the Asian American community about their presence or lack thereof in Hollywood. Do you think this conversation will ever fade away?
Well, I kind of address this in my second hour special. When you look at the dynamic of it all, it really comes down to the population and what percentage of that population is going to be able to support or sustain. But you also have to have something that resonates within that subset of the population that everybody can relate to. If you’re going to go out and make a kung fu movie, there’s probably going to be eight percent of the population that is really into that kung fu movie. You got find something in that kung fu movie that is an appealing message where everybody can relate to it.
It seems like a lot of Asian American actors and writers like yourself are taking matters into their own hands with creating projects for Asian Americans by Asian Americans. Do you think this is changes the conversation at all?
It’s like everybody wants to beat their chest and say, “Where’s our opportunity?” but the minute there’s an opportunity, where’s the support for it? At the end of the day, I think it comes down to support within the community. I think it also comes down to something relatable that anybody can see—whether you’re Latino, Asian, black, white, or whatever your background is. It’s a tough question for me to answer because I’m kind of in the middle of it all. Every year we’ve been on the air, there’s an uphill battle to try to get people to know about it. I mean it’s been tough. I’ve been asked more about Fresh Off the Boat than my own show. I’m like, “Why are you asking me about the show?” (laughs). It seems like we’ve become an asterisk to that show, but we have proven ourselves as a show. I’m not affiliated with that show, but I’ll support it. I’m excited to see it.
Even with that show, Asians seem to be criticizing it.
With the backlash against Fresh Off the Boat, some people don’t like the title. But nobody had a problem when it was in New York Times bestseller. Now they have a problem with the TV show? It’s just never ends. You can never appease everybody so the thing is to just go off and do your best.
With both shows it’s good to see a lot of Asian actors getting roles on TV and movies because of roles created by Asians. It shows different experiences.
When our show first came out, I never wanted to brand it as an “Asian American sitcom” because I wanted it to appeal to everybody. That was the great thing about The Cosby Show. It was never a “black sitcom.” It was a sitcom. It’s always been an uphill battle for especially me because in my stand-up, I was always caught in this weird zone where if I just talk about being Asian, I’m lying, because I’m not just Asian, I’m also Irish. My thing is, I’ve always been American. I want to share some things I’ve noticed about my upbringing and maybe I could parlay that into something humorous—but I always walk that line between being able to talk about it but also being an outsider as well.
There are some Asian characters on TV that some see as offensive. For instance, there’s Matthew Moy on 2 Broke Girls. He speaks broken English and for some, it’s a bad stereotype. Others are just happy to see an Asian American working on TV.
He’s working, but guys like that on TV exist because there’s guys like that in real life. I mean, I remember when reviews first came out about our show. Some were very nice and some were very negative and saying here’s a stereotypical Asian mother on television. I was like, “No.” There haven’t been any other stereotypical Asian mothers on TV since 20 years ago on Margaret Cho’s show. I wrote a show about my mom. My mom is that woman. I’m not going to lie, I’m not going to make her some progressive woman or an all knowing doctor. My mom doesn’t give a f*ck about anybody except for her kids, her husband and her pocketbook. People can say that’s not a fair representation, but to me, it’s my life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. This article is cross posted at XFinity.
Main image: Margaret Cho, Steve Byrne, Jodi Long and Vivian Bang star in the season finale of TBS’ Sullivan & Son. Photo by Danny Feld, courtesy of TBS.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this post stated that the season finale of Sullivan & Son airs August 19. There are additional episodes this season after 8/19.