By the time Brian Gallivan moved to Chicago from Boston in 2003, he had a few years of acting and improvising under his belt courtesy of a three-year stint at Boston’s Improv Asylum. That experience, plus talent and good timing, landed him on Second City’s mainstage in 2004 — even though he’d logged less than a year in one of its touring companies and as an understudy.
“I felt pretty lucky,” says Gallivan, whose sitcom “The McCarthys” premieres Oct. 30 on CBS. “I didn’t experience anyone saying to my face, ‘You don’t deserve this.’”
After writing and starring in four mainstage shows, including the critical and commercial blockbuster “Between Barack and a Hard Place,” Gallivan moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 2007, lived in “a sad studio apartment” and booked some minor acting gigs. Mostly, though, he spent a lot of time waiting around for opportunities to audition. That’s when, on the advice of industry folks, he began writing more for himself, much as he’d done at Second City. Come 2012, he scored a staff writing position on Chelsea Handler’s short-lived NBC show “Are You There, Chelsea?” and followed it with a stint on ABC’s Chicago-set sitcom “Happy Endings.”
That road ultimately led to “The McCarthys.” Created by Gallivan (who is also one of five executive producers) and “loosely” based on his family (Steppenwolf Theatre member Laurie Metcalf plays his mom), “The McCarthys” centers on a loving, sports-crazy, chop-busting Boston clan that includes an openly gay son played by Tyler Ritter (son of John) — a fictional depiction of Gallivan. It’s subject matter he has broached in the past.
“I remember doing a scene when I was in the [Second City] touring company that was a very blue collar Boston father who had a gay son and his politically incorrect attempts to be supportive of him,” Gallivan recalls from his car en route to work. “And in ‘Barack,’ Brad Morris and I did a scene as two Boston brothers. I was gay and he was not, and he was trying to understand me.”
In real life, Gallivan has recalled, a brother of his once asked, “You’re still gay? We didn’t know if you were still pursuing it.”
One of Gallivan’s fellow executive producers, Arlington Heights native Richard Schwartz, says the two of them bonded over their love of Chicago. Schwartz took classes during high school at Second City’s long-defunct Northwest branch, where one of his instructors was Stephen Colbert. When he began working on “The McCarthys” with Gallivan, its concept and characters were already fleshed out to a great degree.
Even though Gallivan is busy producing rather than acting, Schwartz says, “he’s wildly funny. He’s still performing in a way, even though he’s behind the camera. We’d have a casting session at the network and he would always host it in a way and really lighten the mood and remind people of the comedy sensibility of the show. Because he knows both sides of it, he’s just so good at talking to the actors, too.”
“I’m more sensitive to, ‘Oh, one of the actors doesn’t have any lines in this scene,’” Gallivan says. “I’m more sensitive to the insecurities that actors have. Or, ‘That joke is not working. We can’t let them say that again. They will drown in shame.’”
No matter what he has written since exiting Second City, Gallivan says, it’s always informed by his tenure there, which “prepared me for all of these jobs just by giving me lots of chances to fail.”
“The way you write a Second City show, you fail a lot as you try stuff out. So [it’s] not being afraid to pitch jokes in the writer’s room, because you know it’s not your only chance to pitch a joke. There are some that will work, some that won’t. So that definitely informs the way I work and the way I write. Also, doing a multi-cam sitcom is very much like Second City. The writing process takes a while, but then the table read through the taping is five days. You’re just rewriting it every day and changing stuff and adding jokes, and it definitely reminds me of my time at Second City.”
Only now there are millions of dollars at stake.
Gallivan laughs. “I think because I’m not the one putting up the millions of dollars, it’s more just my own personal pride. I want it to be good and I want it to be a show that people enjoy and laugh at. And so I don’t think so much about the money. And because I spent a few years out here in L.A., where not a lot was happening… I ended up creating things during that time that helped me to keep moving forward.”
So far “The McCarthys” has eight episodes in the can, with five more to make. CBS will likely decide in a few weeks whether to order more of them. If it doesn’t, Gallivan knows, at least he has the creative tools and artistic fortitude to pick himself up and try again.
“That’s another thing Second City taught me: You always have more stuff you can create and produce, and then you’ll get another chance to do something. It may take a while, but you’re never going to run out of ideas.”