Second City alum creates ‘A.P. Bio,’ about a scholar slumming by teaching teens

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Mike O’Brien (right) poses with the “A.P. Bio” cast (from left): Glenn Howerton, Mary Sohn, Patton Oswalt, Lyric Lewis and Jean Villepique. | NBCUniversal

Mike O’Brien cut his comedic teeth at iO and Second City in Chicago before heading off to New York at a writer on “Saturday Night Live” — all good training for becoming the big boss of the new NBC sitcom, “A.P. Bio.”

“That’s what I refer to myself as all day, I feel like,” O’Brien said in a recent phone interview. “Sometimes [cast and crew] say ‘boss’ and they forget the ‘big.’ I’m like, ‘Remember, I’m the big boss.’

“I just hate that I can see in their eyes they don’t believe it, and that’s really hard.”

O’Brien is joking, but after watching the first episode of “A.P. Bio” viewers might wonder. The show’s main character, Jack Griffin (Glenn Howerton), has a similar view of himself. After losing out on his dream job, the disgraced Harvard philosophy scholar is reduced to teaching Advanced Placement biology at Whitlock High School in Toledo, Ohio.

Jack believes he is absolutely above the rules governing the rest of the faculty. Instead of teaching his class of honor roll students, Jack decides to use them to get revenge on his nemesis, another professor who got the job he wanted at Stanford.

O’Brien created the series, which has a sneak preview Thursday on NBC. While the show has “Midwest sensibilities,” he said his Chicago days inform more of his style of comedy and how he works behind the scenes than any plots on screen.

“With all the brainstorming, the writers’ room felt a lot like the Chicago improv world,” he said. “My nine years of studying and working in that environment led to how I ran the writers’ room every second.”

The show has a few other Chicago connections.

O’Brien executive produces the show along with Seth Meyers, whom he met in Chicago through mutual friends before becoming a writer on “Saturday Night Live.” “SNL” boss Lorne Michaels is another executive producer along with Mike Shoemaker and Andrew Singer.

Glenn Howerton as Jack on “A.P. Bio.” | NBC

Glenn Howerton as Jack on “A.P. Bio.” | NBC

Second City and iO alumni (and O’Brien’s former castmates in Chicago) Mary Sohn and Jean Villepique star as two of three teachers who keep Griffin from getting too full of himself at school.

Lyric Lewis plays the third teacher, and Patton Oswalt stars as Principal Durbin, who struggles to keep Griffin on task and out of trouble.

O’Brien loosely based the three teachers on his two older sisters and their friends, who always put him in his place when he was younger. “They were just able to humble you really quickly,” he said.

O’Brien grew up in Blissfield, Michigan, not far from Toledo. He studied film at the University of Michigan with plans to move to Los Angeles and become a filmmaker. But his roommate at the time decided to do a fifth year of college, so O’Brien headed to Chicago for a year to “sleep on my sister’s couch and just do a couple improv classes.”

“Killing one year turned into nine,” he said, recalling how, because he lived near the Wieners Circle on North Clark Street, he would “get a hot dog a night.”

His other regular haunts included Guthrie’s Tavern on West Addison and the former Billy Goat Tavern (now Merkle’s Bar & Grill) on North Clark, both near the former iO theater, and the Old Town Ale House on North Avenue across from Second City.

“We’d always go there and play pinball — even in between two Second City shows,” he said. “We’d run over for 45 minutes during the break.”

Because both his parents came from the South Side, O’Brien grew up watching the White Sox over the Cubs. One of his favorite memories of his time in Chicago was seeing his aunts and uncles and a ballgame.

“Comiskey. U.S. Cellular, or or whatever it is,” he said. “I would go as often as I could down on the Red Line to see the White Sox.”

Wherever the White Sox played — it’s now called Guaranteed RateField, by the way — O’Brien remembers the city fondly.

“It was definitely nine of the best years of my life,” he said. “I loved it and it formed my whole comedic sensibility and who I like to work with and how I work.”

“A.P. Bio” debuts at 8:30 p.m. Thursday. The following day, two additional episodes will be available on digital platforms, including the NBC app and Hulu. A new episode will air at 9:30 p.m. Feb. 25, immediately following the Winter Olympics closing ceremony. The series then moves to its regular time at 8:30 p.m. March 1.

Read more from Curt Wagner at

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