By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Eighteen years ago, television audiences saw Jodi Long as comedian Margaret Cho’s mother, Katherine Kim, on the short-lived ABC sitcom “All-American Girl.” Long can now be seen as comedian Steve Byrne’s mom on the new TBS sitcom “Sullivan and Son.”
But if you think Long was a shoo-in for the role of Ok Cha Sullivan, think again.
The show, which premiered July 19 and airs Thursdays at 10 p.m., stars Byrne, who is of Korean and Irish parentage in real life, as Steve Sullivan, a Korean-Irish American lawyer who gives up a corporate job in New York and takes over Sullivan and Son, a Pittsburgh bar run by his parents. The cast includes Dan Lauria (“The Wonder Years”) as Steve’s father, Jack, and Vivian Bang (“Yes Man”) as Steve’s sister, Susan.
“They didn’t want to see me, according to my agent, because I wasn’t Korean, which is so funny because I think I’ve played more Korean mothers than probably anyone,” recalled Long, a New York native who is of Chinese and Japanese descent. However, she continued, “At a certain age, there’s just not a whole lot of us running around – seasoned actors. I guess they went through that and sort of at the last minute they saw me.”
It turned out that the decision-makers weren’t familiar with her work on “All-American Girl,” one of the few network TV shows ever made about an Asian American family. (The cast also included Clyde Kusatsu as Cho’s father, B.D. Wong as her brother, and Amy Hill as her grandma.)
Long also did not know Byrne’s edgy standup routines — he toured with Ken Jeong (“The Hangover,” “Community”) and Bobby Lee (“MAD TV” and the upcoming “Animal Practice”) as “The Kims of Comedy” — and had to catch up by watching him online. Her reaction when she saw him: “Oh my God, he’s got the same-shaped face as me. Of course he could be my son.”
Although Byrne could be her son, biologically speaking, “I’m too young to be Steve’s mother as my regular self,” she said. “That’s acting … It doesn’t matter if I’m the right age or not. I play what I think is correct.”
She was definitely too young to be Cho’s mother — the two are only 14 years apart.
Long has met Cho’s and Byrne’s mothers but did not model herself after them. What Katherine Kim and Ok Cha Sullivan have in common is that they are “that sort of immigrant mother who really wants the best for their child,” she said. One difference is that Cho’s TV family was “a little more upscale” while Byrne’s TV mom is “incredibly frugal, being an immigrant and coming from no money.”
In the first episode, Ok Cha objects when Jack announces that drinks are “on the house” during his birthday celebration. They compromise by limiting the offer to one hour.
The show gradually reveals how Steve’s parents, like Byrne’s real parents, met when Jack was stationed as a Marine in South Korea. Steve learns that Ok Cha didn’t really fall in love with Jack until years after they were married — and hears more than he wants to know about how his sister came to be conceived.
When she took the job, Long was mindful of the perception of Asian mothers as domineering “tiger moms.” She sees Ok Cha as being tough on her kids — she tells Steve that he’s gotten fat and Susan that her hairdo shows “too much face” — because she is “trying to set the standard” for success.
“My mother was born here, so I wasn’t raised by an immigrant, but my mother went through the internment camps and it was tough,” she said. “She was being as tough on me as it had been on her.”
That kind of upbringing was good preparation for her career, Long said. “No matter what profession you’re in, as an Asian American, I do believe we have to work harder than the average Caucasian person.”
Long made her debut on Broadway at the age of 7, but her TV and film career began when she was an adult in the early 1980s. Her early roles include a reporter in “Splash,” “New York Stories,” and “Born on the Fourth of July,” and an actual person, Wendy Yoshimura, in “Patty Hearst.”
On TV, she was a regular as Madame Ybarra on “Café Americain” with Valerie Bertinelli and as Claire on “Miss Match” with Alicia Silverstone; had recurring roles on “The Cosby Show” and “Michael Hayes”; played a doctor in an episode of “Desperate Housewives”; and famously played Patty the “power lesbian” in an episode of “Sex and the City.”
Have TV roles for Asian Americans improved? Long’s answer: “Yes and no.” On the plus side, she cited Sandra Oh as a doctor in “Grey’s Anatomy” and John Cho as an FBI agent in “Flash Forward.” She also sees more willingness “to cast younger Asian people in non-ethnic-specific roles.”
On the other hand, she was a bit troubled by the Korean-speaking characters on “Lost” and the Japanese-speaking characters on “Heroes.” “Not to put the actors down at all, but … why can’t they be American? … Why is everybody else (on those shows) American but they’re not? … Is that the only way they’re going to accept us? … You take two steps forward and one step back.”
Long still finds herself playing some parts with accents, but “as an actor, I do what is required of me.” Since Byrne’s real-life mom has a Korean accent, the role of Ok Cha “is fine with me. It’s a different dynamic in someone who comes from another country and tries to make it.”
A character’s accent did become an issue when Long appeared on stage in Stephen Sondheim’s comedy “Getting Away with Murder” (1996). “I had auditioned without an accent. He wanted me to do an accent — he thought it was funnier,” said Long, who felt that her character — a professor who “was upset that she was losing out in terms of promotions to the men” — worked better as American-born rather than immigrant and did not need to have an accent. “Thank God the director sided with me.”
Having done Shakespeare and such plays as “Born Yesterday” and “Bus Stop” on stage, as well as her own one-woman show, “Surfing DNA,” Long finds it funny that “my career (on screen) has boiled down to Korean mothers and judges. That’s how Hollywood sees me. I’m smart, I have a certain toughness that translates to judges, I suppose … I’m not knocking it.”
After appearing as a judge on “House” in 2006, she had recurring roles as Judge Phelps on “Eli Stone” (2008-2009) and Judge Cruz on “Law and Order: L.A.” (2010-2011), and most recently played a judge on “Franklin and Bash” this year.
Long is one of 10 principal cast members of “Sullivan and Son,” all from different backgrounds. “I love what this show’s about — not just an interracial family, but our whole bar is kind diverse and multicultural,” she commented, noting that Hank (Brian Doyle-Murray), a regular customer, is an Archie Bunker type who always makes politically incorrect comments.
“I think as Americans, everyone’s got a prejudice. Let’s face it, everyone thinks bad about someone once in a while … I think we have to put that out in the open and talk about it. Then we can laugh about it, look how ridiculous that is,” Long explained.
Both ethnic and gender stereotypes come up in an episode where Ok Cha impersonates Steve online to find him a perfect wife through Korean and then Jewish dating websites. Things don’t go exactly as planned.
Speaking shortly before the show’s premiere, Long said that the studio audiences have been enthusiastic and she is hopeful that the rest of America will enjoy this kind of humor and be able to “laugh at ourselves.”
The cast is also an interesting combination of what Long describes as “old theater actors” — including herself and Christine Ebersole, a Tony Award winner who appeared with Long in “Getting Away with Murder”; up-and-coming actress Valerie Azlynn (“Tropic Thunder”), who plays a potential love interest for Steve; and the standup comics who play Steve’s friends — Owen Benjamin, Roy Wood Jr. and Ahmed Ahmed. They are Byrne’s friends in real life, and the four are on a national comedy tour to promote the show.
Long also has high praise for the crew, which includes executive producer Rob Long from “Cheers” and actor Vince Vaughn (“The Watch”), an old friend of Byrne’s. “These guys are so smart and the way they run this ship … I’ve just been in awe. I don’t say that lightly.”
“The chemistry that we have within the cast, I think that translates into this show,” she continued. “Everybody really likes each other and we all make each other laugh … You can’t buy that and you can’t make it up. I think we have something unique.”
For those who haven’t been able to catch the show, episodes can be viewed online at www.tbs.com.
The few prime-time network TV shows that focused on Asian American families are largely forgotten because they were short-lived.
The CBS drama “Khan!” (1975) starred Khigh Dhiegh, best known as Wo Fat on the original “Hawaii Five-0,” as a private detective in San Francisco who solved crimes with the help of his children, Anna (Irene Yah-Ling Sun) and Kim (Evan C. Kim). Only four episodes aired.
ABC’s “Mr. T and Tina” (1976), starring Pat Morita, lasted only five episodes. The cast also included Pat Suzuki and Jerry Fujikawa, but the stories were mainly about inventor Mr. Takahashi’s interaction with his housekeeper Tina (Susan Blanchard) and handyman Harvard (Ted Lange). After his success with “The Karate Kid,” Morita starred as a police detective in “Ohara” (1987-88), also on ABC, which continued for 30 episodes. Rosalind Chao played his daughter in the unaired pilot, but in the actual series Ohara had no family.
ABC’s “Gung Ho” (1986), based on the movie of the same name, was about an American auto plant taken over by a Japanese company. It doesn’t really belong in this category as the star of the show was Scott Bakula (in the role played by Michael Keaton in the movie), but it did feature Gedde Watanabe and Patti Yasutake reprising their movie roles as Kaz and Umeki Kazuhiro. Sab Shimono and Rodney Kageyama also appeared in both the movie and the TV show. Nine episodes were broadcast.
The 19 episodes of “All-American Girl” (1994-95) were released as a DVD set in 2006 with commentary by Margaret Cho and Amy Hill. In the final episode, Margaret Kim and her grandma were sharing an apartment with three white male roommates, and the other family members did not appear. If the show had continued, this would have been the new format.