When you ask Brian Gallivan’s family when they realized he was funny, all seven of them — mom and dad and five siblings — say, nearly in unison, “1976.”
That was the year that the family from Dedham took a trip to Ireland, shortly after Brian had finished the first grade. The trip would prove prophetic. The family recalls that Brian kept a journal of their daily adventures. They’re not sure if he was being intentionally funny but, says eldest sister Maryann, “We would read it every night after he fell asleep, and it was hysterical.”
The kid who cracked up his family has made a career out of making people laugh, most recently as a writer on the network sitcoms “Are You There, Chelsea?” and “Happy Endings.” This Thursday at 9:30 p.m. on CBS, Gallivan unveils “The McCarthys” both to the public and to the people on which it is loosely based — a phrase that Gallivan has stressed to his family. Sisters Maryann and Tricia, brothers Jimmy, John, and Paul, and parents Maureen and Charlie haven’t gotten a sneak peek, however, because, Gallivan jokes, “I want to keep the relationship going until then.”
The 45-year-old writer-performer would be wise to keep them happy since “The McCarthys” is his first show as creator and executive producer. Like that vacation journal, it mines the stories of his big, working-class, Irish-Catholic family for comedy, this time on purpose.
The series is told through the eyes of Ronny McCarthy (Tyler Ritter of “Modern Family” and son of the late John Ritter), whose family of fervent Boston sports fans includes parents Marjorie (Laurie Metcalf, “Roseanne”) and Arthur (Jack McGee, “Rescue Me”), fraternal twins Gerard (Joey McIntyre of New Kids on the Block) and Sean (veteran Boston comic Jimmy Dunn), and younger sister Jackie (Kelen Coleman, “The Newsroom”). Like Gallivan, Ronny is gay, and while his sexuality is one wellspring of the show’s comedy, it isn’t the source of friction with his family — it’s that he doesn’t like sports.
Gallivan, in an interview in Los Angeles, says he imagines the McCarthys living someplace like Hyde Park, where his father, Charlie, coached basketball for more than 30 years. All five of his siblings played basketball and many now coach at schools around Greater Boston, where all but Paul are teachers.
While the rest of the kids were learning to pick and roll, Gallivan was corralling friends, family, and neighborhood kids into original theatrical productions during summer vacations on the Cape. “I was Mac in ‘Mac and Rosie,’ ” says Jimmy with pride. “It was over-the-Bourne-Bridge Broadway.”
Gallivan was also excelling as captain of the Dedham High School track team, a fact that his family says the self-deprecating Brian fails to tell people. “I was running from my sexuality,” he deadpans.
After attending Holy Cross and receiving master’s degrees from the University of New Hampshire in literature and Emmanuel College in secondary education, Gallivan went into teaching too. But that early theater bug persisted, and after school he found himself looking for laughs at Improv Asylum. Living with his brother at the time, John says Brian would “play Hungry Hungry Hippos with my kids and the next week work that into his act.” Success performing in the North End comedy club led to a leap of faith: He went to Chicago to join the famed Second City troupe and gave birth to his Web series, “Sassy Gay Friend.”
That series — starring Gallivan in the title role, dispensing advice to famous literary characters, from Cyrano de Bergerac to Romeo and Juliet — and a spec script brought him to the attention of the producers of the short-lived NBC sitcom “Are You There, Chelsea?,” which led to work on ABC’s “Happy Endings.” On the day that the latter series came to its not so cheerful conclusion, canceled after three seasons, “The McCarthys” was picked up by CBS.
There are no direct parallels to Gallivan’s own siblings on “The McCarthys,” and there are fewer of them. “There’s bits of everybody scattered about so they can’t sue me,” he says.
Gallivan has gotten no shortage of notes from his family. “My brother saw stuff online from [a “McCarthys” press conference] today and already called me and said, ‘When one of my stories comes up at a huge press conference you don’t say ‘my brother,’ you say ‘my brother John,’ ” says Gallivan with a laugh. (Back home in Dedham, all of the Gallivans seem eager to offer their consulting services.)
The series picks up two years after Ronny has come out and the family has more or less acclimated to that aspect of his life — although his actual family members would never utter some of the un-PC lines on the show — but they still struggle with his lack of sports enthusiasm.
It’s clear that humor runs in the Gallivan family. When discussing Brian’s own coming out, this exchange happens in quick succession: “What?” says Jimmy, feigning surprise. “Spoiler alert!” quips John. “So that’s why he didn’t want us to see it!” says Tricia, finishing off the joke.
Although the show began life as a single-camera comedy over a year ago, what will air on Thursday is a revamped multi-camera version, like the successful CBS shows “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory,” both of which will precede “The McCarthys” premiere.
Having the live audience that the multi-camera format provides was key, as was, apparently, having McIntyre’s fans in some of those seats.
“I think I was like ‘Oh we’ll see,’ ” says Gallivan of the format change. “I’m a Boston pessimist, so I thought well, we’ll [mess] it up somehow. So I was kind of shocked on tape night sitting with Mike Sikowitz, the showrunner, and thinking, ‘This is going well!’ A lot of it, I’ve got to give credit to Joey because I’d say a third of it was New Kids on the Block fans, and they brought an energy.
“I thought, oh there are certainly things we need to fix and tweak but overall this feels like a show. And for me to feel even a hint of that means I’m pretty happy with it.”
The show is filmed in LA, but if it hits, Gallivan hopes to return to the Hub to capture some local flavor for future episodes. He’s also hoping the decision to have the characters forgo Boston accents — save McIntyre and Dunn’s natural ones — will help earn the show some goodwill at home, “because it’s a really hard accent to do, and my family would not watch.”
Back in Maryann’s living room, however, they promise they will watch, and support him, no matter what. And if it doesn’t work out, sister Tricia says, “We’re going to fix up the garage for him.”
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