The last time I was in the audience for a sitcom was the summer of 1994 for “All American Girl,” one of the first series focusing on an Asian American family. Last week, I, along with 22 others supporting MANAA (we got paid to be in the audience with 11 seeing the run-through and 12 later sitting for the actual taping) were on the Warner Brothers lot watching another sitcom starring an Asian American — Steve Byrne — who’s half Korean and half Irish. He’s the “son” in “Sullivan and Son,” which will be premiering on TBS on Thursday, July 19.
True to life, Byrne plays someone with an Irish father (Dan Lauria, the dad on “The Wonder Years”) and Korean mom Ok Cha (Jodi Long, sounding exactly as she did as Margaret Cho’s mom on “AAG”). Before seeing the latest episode, we saw the pilot — already in the can since November — written by creators Byrne and Rob Long. Steve, a New York corporate lawyer, along with his status-minded white girlfriend of eight months, Ashley, return to his hometown of Pittsburgh for his dad’s birthday. There, the elder Sullivan announces that after 50 years, he’s going to sell the family bar.
Realizing how much sentimental value the place has to its customers and to himself, Steve decides to buy it… from his mother.
Steve’s three closest friends are played by white, black, and Egyptian American actors (Owen Benjamin, Roy Wood Jr., Ahmed Ahmed). His sister Susan (Vivian Bang), jealous of the attention the favored son always gets, is hilarious and a perfect foil.
Some of the racial humor:
Bar regular Hank (Brian Doyle-Murray, Bill Murray’s fatter brother, known for curmudgeon roles) talks about the good old days when Pittsburgh was all white… until the Italians moved in. But what the hell, they realized Italians were still white. But then in came “the coloreds,” then people of “Oriental distraction.” Nevertheless, he got used to living with them along with the “normal whites.” At this point, he thought they should “all work together to keep the Mexicans out.”
Assessing his own identity after arguing with his mom, who feels he shouldn’t become a bar owner: “All my life, I’ve been the perfect Korean kid. What if all this time I was really Irish?!”
Despite her cold nature, Mrs. Sullivan quips, “Back in Korea, I’m the touchy-feely one!”
Of course, Steve’s change in career choice doesn’t sit well with the superficial Ashley (Brooke Lyons), who can’t stand smaller towns like Pittsburgh and longs to return to the more sophisticated New York City, where she can be around “people who eat Ethiopian food, but who are not Ethiopian.”
Also vying for Steve’s attention is his childhood friend Melanie (Valerie Azlynn), now a paramedic.
For Episode 109, presumably the ninth of the season (10 will air), Steve’s mom tries to play matchmaker for her son, pretending to be him on Seoulmates.com. It’s for Koreans. Get it? She pretends to be Harvard-educated, and an expert horseman. Ok Cha’s insistent that Steve marry a Korean woman “like all Americans should.”
This was similar to the episode of “All American Girl” I saw back in 1994 — Jodi Long was trying to set up dates for Margaret Cho. Here, she’s trying to do the same for Steve Byrne. At first, he resists, until he meets Grace Kim (Catherine Kim), who turns out to be attractive and sweet. After talking to Grace and realizing she’s not as status-conscious as she is, Ok Cha realizes, “Oh no!” She’s the “other kind of Korean woman!” She then goes to a Jewish dating site and sets up a date for Steve there, assuming “there’s only one kind of Jewish girl.”
In this episode, unfortunately, Steve’s bratty, competitive sister is nowhere to be found (thankfully, this must’ve been an anomaly as she’s listed as a regular on the network’s website). And strangely, more attention seemed to be focused on his three friends who want to meet an online lothario (Chris D’Elia, who co-stars as Whitney Cummings’ boyfriend in NBC’s “Whitney”) and learn his secrets to snaring women. Murray doesn’t display his redneck attitude as he did in the pilot, instead hinting at a more open-minded gay one!
Overall, most of those in my group I spoke to agreed that “Sullivan and Son” was funny, even funnier than the average multi-camera sitcom, and we’re hoping it does well after airing on TBS (though I heard some of the white college students didn’t get some of the Asian-oriented humor). The network (and Byrne) could’ve created a vehicle where the star’s biracial ethnicity wasn’t acknowledged, so I appreciate them not backing away from making the show “ethnic.” Although the racial humor may cross the line to some people’s tastes, at least there’s opportunity to discuss race instead of ignore it. Tune in Thursday nights at 10 p.m. for back-to-back episodes, which repeat later at midnight, and see what you think.
Big Scare Department: For the past two weeks, Christine Ha, the blind contestant on Fox’s “Master Chef,” wasn’t impressing the three judges as much as she had in the past. She slipped by, neither landing in the Top Three nor Bottom Three. But this past Monday, it looked scary. Felix Tang, the other Asian American in the cooking competition, created the best dish in the “Mystery Box” competition where everyone had to work with a live sea urchin (yuck!).
For the “Elimination Test,” Tang got to decide which kind of fish the Top 9 had to cook. She gave the harder fishes (rockfish, catfish) to those she felt were her toughest competitors and the easiest (salmon) to Christine. When Gordon Ramsay pointed out how easy she was making it for Christine, Felix admitted with a laugh, “I love her!”
It was nice to see some Asian American camaraderie. But everything Felix (who has Minnie Mouse-looking hair) tried backfired: The two she gave the toughest fishes to work with came up with some of the best dishes. Her own concoction was deemed mediocre. And Christine’s was rated the worst she ever made on the show. Judge Joe Bastianich said it had no technique and that, unlike before, she didn’t seem to be trying. For the first time, she wound up in the Bottom Three.
Monti, the most quotable contestant (and with a good heart), told the camera, “I’ve never seen Christine do anything that isn’t perfect. I’m freakin’ out right now because I really have mad respect for that lady.”
Crying, Christine told an interviewer, “If I go home today, I should still be really proud of myself. And I totally am. But I’m not here just to be an inspiration, you know? I want to be taken seriously!” Luckily, Tali, the 29-year-old with the biggest ego (he told the cameras Ramsay interrupting his cooking to question his approach was like interrupting Picasso!) and most hostility toward his colleagues, was finally sent home.
“Master Chef” airs Monday and Tuesday at 9 p.m. on Fox.
Bachi ga Ataru! Department: The day after Ann Curry’s tearful and heartbreaking farewell on the “Today Show” on June 28, you’d expect the show’s ratings to spike as viewers tuned in to watch Savannah Guthrie make her debut as her replacement co-host to Matt Lauer. Actually, the ratings dropped and ABC’s “Good Morning America” beat it both in overall viewers and those in the 25-54 demographic.
This past Monday, a week after Guthrie officially being named the co-host, “Good Morning America” scored its first Monday win against “Today” since February 2006! According to early ratings, ABC’s morning show beat the NBC talker in both overall viewers and those between the ages of 25 and 54.
In other words, when upset viewers sympathetic to Curry swore, “I’ll never watch ‘The Today Show’ again!” they may’ve meant it. Hang in there, Ann. You make us proud.
Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.