By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
“Sullivan & Son” has closed its doors.
After three seasons, TBS on Nov. 20 canceled the sitcom co-created by Korean/Irish American comic Steve Byrne, who starred as a corporate lawyer who gives up his job in New York to take over his parents’ working-class bar in Pittsburgh.
The cast included Jodi Long as Steve Sullivan’s mother, Ok Cha; Dan Lauria as Steve’s father, Jack; Vivian Bang as Steve’s sister, Susan; and Owen Benjamin, Brian Doyle-Murray, Christine Ebersole, Valerie Azlynn, Roy Wood Jr. and Ahmed Ahmed as Steve’s friends, all regulars at the bar. Executive producers were Byrne, actor Vince Vaughn, Peter Billingsley and long-time “Cheers” producer Rob Long.
Jodi Long recalled getting news of the cancellation. “My agent called me. Twenty seconds later while I’m talking to him, Dan Lauria called me. Hung up with them and then Peter Billingsley called me. At the same time Rob Long was emailing me. I think we were all stunned.”
In his reflections on the show, posted on Facebook, Byrne commented that “Sullivan & Son” didn’t get the attention it deserved: “We were never the darlings of the talk show circuit or major media publications.”
Long agreed, saying that more press “could have helped us make a bigger impact culturally, the way I thought we might.”
She explained, “Besides being a very funny show with four comedians and phenomenal seasoned comic actors, one would think that in the age of Obama with all this talk about diversity, and the broad range of race, age and gender that our show encompassed, we would have been touted more for putting forth what everyone pays lip service to these days.
“Vince Vaughn was very intent on that very aspect of representing America as it is, and it was a shame that none of the media really caught on to that fact … given how we made fun of race and people’s prejudices in a truly funny way.”
Through social media, especially Twitter, Long learned that the show had loyal fans. “I never tweeted before this show, but the boys taught me and the cast live-tweeted every episode. Viewers would tweet me my lines and it became a frenzy of chatter during our show airings. I could barely watch the program — there was so much engagement! …
“I think our fans liked that it represented a real slice of American life, especially the fans in Pittsburgh, where our show took place.”
Known for playing Korean immigrant mothers — although she is American-born and of Chinese, Japanese and Scottish descent — Long will miss playing Ok Cha, “a character that the writers developed and wrote for in so many unexpected ways. As an Asian American actor, we are normally relegated to just pushing the plot along. But as Ok Cha, even though things might have been extreme at times — which was the comedy— I got to play all aspects of this very complex mother.”
She will also miss “going to work and laughing ’til your belly hurt with this amazingly talented and awesome group of people — actors, producers, writers, crew and background actors that made our set and show so special. It is rare when there is this kind of supportive environment and teamwork, and going forward it has set a very high bar, but I will be forever grateful for this experience.”
Asked if Ok Cha changed over the course of 33 episodes, Long responded, “Well, she is based on Steve Byrne’s real mom … and although I have been pretty tough from the beginning, I think this last season I was on the cutting edge of comedy violence! I wielded a tai chi sword, a billy club, a baseball bat, a broken bottle and was even the ringleader of the Korean Mafia. Steve’s mom does none of that — she’s just a typical Asian tiger mom.”
Long also played Margaret Cho’s mother 20 years ago in the ABC sitcom “All-American Girl,” and one of the highlights of “Sullivan & Son’s” last season was a reunion with her TV daughter, this time playing her niece.
“Steve had been trying from Season 1 to get that to happen, but scheduling never allowed,” Long recalled. “I had seen Margaret over the years but we hadn’t worked together since ‘All-American Girl.’ She and Steve and Vivian Bang are all my children and it was really wonderful to work with her again, a pleasure to see how much she has grown as an actor and performer, and to put her in with the rest of the ‘family.’
“On that episode the writers pitted us against each other, which made it doubly fun … Margaret and I spar over a monkey plate heirloom.”
That was Long’s favorite Season 3 episode. Her favorite from Season 2 was the one where “the boys get me drunk on spiked kim chee and I end up singing ‘I Will Survive’ at Karaoke Night.” And from Season 1, the one where “I put Steve on a Korean matchmaking site and his good Korean girlfriend throws beer in my face.”
The show also gave her the opportunity to work for the first time with Ken Jeong (“The Hangover,” “Community”), who had a recurring role as Ok Cha’s son-in-law. “He is a real sweetheart. He is old friends with Steve from when they did standup together. So, again, it was all in the family. His episode this season was about his wife, my daughter, not being able to have an orgasm. Hence, Mom teaches her daughter what to do: how to FAKE an orgasm.”
Ok Cha was known for being blunt and politically incorrect. One of Long’s favorite lines was in an episode where the women decide to bond and have a spa day together. “We are in the steam room when Melanie (Azlynn) wants to play the game of each of us telling a secret about ourselves. Ok Cha is not thrilled with the prospect, and when Melanie reveals that she kissed a girl in camp, Ok Cha responds with … ‘You white people always want to put your sh-t on the street.’”
Long sometimes get recognized on the street, even though she looks very different from her character in real life. “A few months ago I was crossing a street in my neighborhood in New York City. I was jaywalking, actually, at a busy intersection. Everyone does it there and it’s not an issue like in California. There was a traffic cop standing on the corner of the intersection.
“I was on the phone and as I passed him, he started to walk behind me. I thought it was odd and wondered if he was going to give me a jaywalking ticket. I speeded up and turned the corner. It was a beautiful day and I decided to take a selfie against the blue skies highlighting the orange hat with a feather I had on. I turned around and saw the same cop turn the corner, walking straight towards me. I was convinced I was in trouble.”
Instead, they had the following exchange:
“Excuse me, but you’re on ‘Sullivan & Son,’ aren’t you? I love your show!”
“How did you recognize me?”
“Your voice as you walked by me.”
“But I wasn’t speaking with an accent.”
“Well, It was your voice. Would you mind taking a picture with me? My girlfriend will never believe I saw you.”
She added, “And recently getting off a plane, the captain stopped me. ‘We love your show.’ And I wasn’t talking.”
Long, who also has extensive stage credits, recently finished the run of a new play, “The World of Extreme Happiness” by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, at the Goodman Theater in Chicago.
“Now that ‘Sullivan & Son’ has been canceled, I have declined from continuing on with the show as it goes to New York,” she said. “I’ve been working very hard for the past year and I’m regrouping with some things in the pipeline, most particularly getting a reworked version of my one-woman show, ‘Surfing DNA,’ to New York.”
Her experience of growing up as the daughter of Larry and Trudie Kimiye Long, who were vaudeville performers in the 1940s and ’50s and appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” is addressed in both her stage show and her documentary, “Long Story Short.”
Trudie Long, a Nisei from Portland, Ore. who was interned in Minidoka, Idaho, passed away a few months ago.
“She was 91 and in good health up until the last few weeks of her life,” Long said. “I just finished cleaning out her apartment of 42 years in New York City — much harder and more emotional than I ever imagined …
“After so much laughter there is bound to be some tears, and I’m taking some much needed time for myself. I think I deserve it.”