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“Boston Public meets Cheers”

Tony V shows off his magic hand.
Michael Rhys
Tony V shows off his magic hand.

“We need a log line, link it to something successful, and spin it a little-Cheers meets …”

“Cheers meets Love Boat, different situations each week.”

“Cheers meets Faulty Towers.”

Lance Norris, one of a team of comedy writers and actors, was priming the class. Their task: in three weeks, write a sit-com, rehearse and edit the script, then finally videotape the entire show.

“Who’s our target, geared at early 20’s who hate their jobs?” Norris continues to urge the students to brainstorm, “What else can we add?”

“Bad relationships,” one student shouts.

“Night life.”

“Sex.”

A team of three taught “Television Comedy Writing and Acting,” offered by the Division of Communication and Theater Arts during the winter intersession.

The six-credit program ran for about three weeks in January and was divided into two courses; “Writing for a TV Situation-Comedy,” 9:30am-12:30pm, and “Performing in a TV Situation-Comedy,” 1:00-4:00pm.

Steve Sweeney, a local celebrity, supervised the comedy team teaching the two courses.

Sweeney is a morning DJ for 100.7-WZLX, and often appears as a comedian at local clubs. Additionally, Sweeney has appeared on shows including Late Night with David Letterman, and HBO’s Evening at the Improv. Also, Sweeney has acted in films including Something about Mary and Me, Myself and Irene.

The two other team members, Lance Norris, who concentrated on the writing aspect, and Tony V, who directed the acting and taping of the sit-com, both are also DJ’s for 100.7-WZLX.

Norris has written for Saturday Night Live and Dennis Miller, been nominated for a Golden Globe for his work on

Politically Incorrect, and has acted in various comedy films. Tony V acts professionally, including an appearance on Seinfeld and numerous other sit-coms, as well as appearing in recent films such as State and Main. Tony V often performs at Boston area comedy clubs.

By the end of the first morning, Norris and the class had hammered out a general concept. Norris recaps: “What do we have so far? A restaurant/club, family-run, always having flights of fancy that fail, the owner, he always fails.”

Tony V comes into the class and Norris introduces him. Before the class heads from the classroom to the McCormack Theatre for the afternoon, Norris tosses out last minute instructions; “Don’t worry about your performance. Tomorrow we’ll make a master list of characters.”

In the McCormack Theatre the afternoon is spent getting acquainted and working out the specifics of the class. Tony V, another local celeb, dishes out tips and tells a few tales between student chatter.

“This won’t be about acting, no one will be judged on acting experience, this is largely experimental, it’s about being here.” Tony V stresses this again, “I’m talking about being prepared, that’s learning your lines and showing up.”

Tony sprinkles commentary among his acting tips, “Sit-com acting doesn’t take a lot of brights-I know sit-com actors and believe me, they’re not the brightest.” He returns to his expectations before he continues with the fundamentals, “This is a real team thing here, that’s why attendance is so important. … Sit-coms are specific, you need to work on timing, where the jokes are,…”

The students each step on stage and tell their vitals and one revealing thing about themselves. Some are dragged or pushed onto stage, others willingly divulge that they once put their genitals on a grill, or spit in their sister’s Strawberry Quick.

After a week the basic screenplay is starting to take shape-the episode is called “Nobel Prize Night” and takes place in a bar called Sweeney’s. The locals have started a betting pool on who might win the Nobel Prize, while Mo Sweeney decides that Sweeney’s Irish Pub should become an upscale Sweeney’s French Bistro.

In a morning writing session one day in mid-January, Norris notes there’s still “a couple of holes here which you need to work out in rehearsal.” Norris ads a comment, “As we learned before, don’t write as a group, it’s probably safer for each character to work on their own lines.”

Kit Irwin, on of the students, explains, “At first we tried writing it together, we would improvise scenes, but that didn’t work very well. Then we would break up into small groups and each write a scene. Later we would pass them around and edit them.”

The sit-com had developed an extensive cast, including the family dominated staff, Boston drunks, blue-collar workers and semi-celebrities as regulars.

The cast:

Kit Irwin as Mo Sweeney, the mother;

Joe West as Shamus Sweeney, the father and bar owner;

Latoya Rivers as Erin Stacey Sweeney, daughter and waitress;

Amy Calvanese as Katie Sweeney, daughter and waitress;

Chris Schaeffer as Patrick Sweeney, a son;

Lara Jardullo as Phiona Sweeney, a daughter;

Jeremy Walsh as Danny, the chef;

Mike Tannian as Joe, the bartender;

Karina Zaygermakher as Oxana Barishnikov, a celebrity;

Dinora Walcott as Taja, a celebrity;

Anthony Somers as Tom Lynch, a stockbroker;

Michelle Gmitter as Magnolia, a librarian;

Ben Carroll as Carl Igor, a mailman;

Cathy Brown as Lindsey, an office worker.

For almost three weeks the comedy team and the students had worked on rehearsed and revised the script. In the final day of rehearsal Tony V issues last minute encouragements and threats:

“This is more than six-credits, this is your self-esteem.”

“The pacing is nice, I just want to see it a little bigger this time.”

“OK, that’s a little too much.”

“Remember, this scene’s all about Taja’s ass.”

“Anyone who’s not off book [the script] by tomorrow loses half a grade. It’s all fun and games ’till someone loses a grade.”

For the final two days the class met at the Emerald Isle, a bar and lounge on Dorchester Ave. that puts on comedy shows about twice a month. Tony V had performed in a comedy show the previous Friday at the Emerald Isle and had gained permission to tape the sit-com on location.

The first day at the Emerald Isle the cast rehearsed the entire show multiple times. On the final day the entire show was rehearsed again, and then taped.

While one scene was being taped others would rehearse the next scene. People went on coffee runs, smoked, and paced. The pressure was on. As Tony V is setting up the camera tripod and working to get the camera going, he comments over his shoulder, “Maybe next year they should teach a technical course at the same time as this one.”

The students and instructors had become a team. Tony V worked with the camera while students worried about their actions, how far they could go before they were off-camera. Tony V barked out criticism and encouragement.

And then it was on tape, writing transformed into acting and occasionally transformed into some laughs.

Mo Sweeney is pushing the new French menu.

The bartender has a comment on the French: “If you want to do French, you pour a bit of whiskey over the food, light a match, and poof! That’s how we do French in Belfast.”

“Light a match and poof is how you do everything in Belfast,” Erin Sweeney retorts.

By the time it is all over, the class has an actual half-hour sit-com. The atmosphere had grown as intense as any actual TV production; the class had worked as a team. At the end of the final day the cast even hit a few bars to blow off steam in an impromptu wrap party.

As the beer flowed the jaws loosened and the students all cheered the class. “Its not every class you spend six hours a day for three weeks with each other,” Anthony Summers pointed out.

“I’ve been in school since ’95,” Michelle Gmitter said, “and it took me seven years to get a real college experience.”

Kit Irwin nodded, “We’re like a family now.”

About the Contributor
Michael Rhys served as The Mass Media's editor-in-chief for the following semesters/years: 2001-2002; 2002-2003 Disclaimer: Years served is based on online database and may not detail entire service.