The Light from the TV Shows: Even executive producer Vince Vaughn can’t liven up “Sullivan & Son”

When the DVD screener arrived for TBS’s new sitcom “Sullivan & Son,” I couldn’t help but notice that the packaging for the disc featured five words placed prominently above the title: “From Executive Producer Vince Vaughn.” For some, this wouldn’t necessarily be that big a selling point. Hell, it’s not even that big a selling point for me, and I consider “Swingers” to be one of my favorite films from the ’90s. It’s not that I don’t think Vince Vaughn’s funny. It’s just that, in addition to the fact that his comedy track record is far from 100%, the simple fact of the matter is that you absolutely cannot tell how funny a sitcom is going to be by its executive producers…and, boy, is “Sullivan & Son” proof of that.

“Sullivan & Son” starts Steve Byrne as Steve Sullivan, an NYC attorney who returns home to Pittsburgh with his new girlfriend, Ashley (Brooke Lyons), in tow in order to help celebrate the 60th birthday of his Irish-American father, Jack (Dan Lauria). The birthday celebration takes place in the bar owned by Jack and his wife / Steve’s mother, Ok Cha (Jodi Long)…and in case the name didn’t give it away, yes, Steve’s mom is Korean. During the evening’s celebration, Steve’s parents reveal that they’ve decided to sell the bar, a newsflash which sends Steve into a tizzy of reflection as he tries to decide if his current path in life is more important than keeping the bar in the family. Unsurprisingly, he decides on the matter, talking his parents into selling the place to him, and although this utterly infuriates Ashley, who’d already worked out a 12-step program to have the perfect married life with Steve, it’s a decision which nicely sets up the premise of the series.

There are, of course, a number of regulars at the bar, including the possibly senile Hank (Brian Doyle-Murray), libidinous cougar Carol (Christine Ebersole), Steve’s best friend, Owen (Owen Benjamin), and, inevitably, Steve’s former sweetie, Melanie (Valerie Azlynn), who’s ostensibly off the market but will almost certainly end up sleeping with Steve, then regret it, then go back and forth about whether or not there’s a relationship to be had between them. It’s just that kind of sitcom.

You’d expect “Sullivan & Sons” to be much funnier than it is, since Vaughn and his regular co-conspirator Peter Billingsley are joined in their executive-producer stead by Rob Long, a longtime “Cheers” writer with a resume that includes a regular column for National Review. Sadly, if Long’s added anything to the mix, it’s either his expertise in how to film a sitcom set in a bar or the donation of leftover jokes that weren’t funny or clever enough for “Cheers,” because for all the funny people involved in this production, there’s precious little sign of creativity anywhere to be found.

It’s great to see Dan Lauria playing a dad again, as he so memorably did in “The Wonder Years” (I dare you to come up with a role he’s played that wasn’t a dad, a general, or a police officer), and he and Byrne seem to be having fun together, even if you’d never buy in a million years that they’re father and son. Jodi Long, however, tends to fall back on Korean stereotypes when playing Steve’s mom, Ebersole is playing the role of the sex-crazed cougar to the hilt, but not in a funny way, and Doyle-Murray is almost certainly just doing this for the cash (as is his right), because he’s given some of the laziest material on the show. Maybe it’s because they know he can wring laughs out of just about anything…? If so, the producers of “Sullivan & Son” should be reminded that even the best comedians have their limitations.

Once upon a time, there were actually semi-subtle comedies on TBS…or, at least, there was the one (“My Boys”)…but despite the fact that the network is home to reruns of such modern-day classics as “The Big Bang Theory” and “The Office,” it seems incapable of coming up with anything of its own that’s even remotely on par with those series. I’ve seen the first three episodes of “Sullivan & Son,” and although I wouldn’t necessarily that it gets worse as it goes along, it certainly doesn’t seem to have any interest in getting better. I’ve often felt that TBS is an acronym for “Totally Broad Schtick,” and the material in “Sullivan & Son” serves to cement the viability of that theory.