The Heffernan/Lemme Interview: Creators of hit TV show "Tacoma FD" come to Thalia Hall this Wednesday

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What do you get when you cross a firefighter with a comedian? I watched the first six episodes of Tacoma FD and I have the answer: you get a first responder who can lift both your body and your spirit.

Tacoma FD’s creators and co-stars Kevin Heffernan and Steve Lemme have an impressive track record. They are founding members of the comedy team Broken Lizard, formed with Jay Chandrasekhar, Paul Soter and Eric Stolhanske thirty years ago when they were students at Colgate University. Broken Lizard is best known for the cult comedy classic Super Troopers and its sequel which smashed box office expectations last year.

With Tacoma FD, Kevin and Steve bring their mustaches and iconic blend of silly, clever, and inventive comedy to firefighting. As Chief Terry McConky and Captain Eddie Penisi, they lead a crew in a rain-drenched city which means fewer fires and plenty of down time with energy to burn. Naturally, mad pranks, competitions and other shenanigans ensue. Out on (often bizarre) calls, they’re (mostly) serious and compassionate. Back at the station, anything can happen and it does. The combination makes for an extremely funny, entertaining, memorable and rewarding half hour and a welcome respite from our own real mad world.

But wait! How much does Tacoma FD reflect the actual world of firefighting? Turns out, many of the zaniest plots sprung from Kevin and Steve’s conversations with firefighters around the country. Also reflecting an evolving reality is the character of Lucy, the station’s sole female firefighter whose strength and smarts make her one of the crew’s most formidable first responders … and pranksters.

It’s easy to see why Tacoma FD is igniting the ratings. It is the number one new cable comedy of the season in the 18-34 age range and will appeal to audiences across every demographic. The show airs on Thursday nights on truTV at 9:30 p.m. CST. Hopefully, there will be good news soon about future seasons. For now, there are ten episodes to enjoy this spring.

For Chicagoans, there is an additional happy announcement. Kevin and Steve will be at Thalia Hall this Wednesday, May 8 at 7:00 p.m. with more fresh comedy, personal stories, behind-the-scenes secrets and a meet-and-greet after the show.

Kevin and Steve kindly took time off from busy writing, acting and filming schedules to talk with me about the real life pranks and people who inspire Tacoma FD and what firefighters really think of the show. (Hint: Steve and Kevin are uplifting firefighters and firefighters are literally lifting up Steve and Kevin.)

THE SPARK

Teme: How did you decide to make Tacoma FD?

Kevin Heffernan as Chief Terry McConky/Photo by Beth Dubber/truTV

Kevin Heffernan as Chief Terry McConky/Photo by Beth Dubber/truTV

Kevin: We were well-known for a movie called Super Troopers where we played cops and had mustaches and uniforms. When we decided to make a TV show, we were like “how do we stay in our mustaches and uniforms?” So we transferred it over to firefighters.

Teme: Why Tacoma?

Steve: In Super Troopers, the angle was troopers on the most deserted stretch of highway in the country struggling with ways to entertain themselves. We were trying to figure out the equivalent for a firefighter. We thought if these guys are in the rainiest city in the country, there's extra down time. That's how we settled on Tacoma.

Teme: How did you prepare?

Kevin: We talked to a lot of firefighters. I have a bunch of family members who are firefighters and have a cousin who is our technical advisor. We collected a lot of stories. Our show is more about the fun that the guys have at the station and the pranks they pull.

The reason we decided to do this show is that firefighters are super respectful guys, but they're also adrenaline junkies who at times sit around a station without much to do. So they have fun pranking each other. Every firefighter has at least ten to fifteen awesome funny stories, and we just knew it was great material.

Steve: The final bit of preparation was growing the mustaches.

Teme: Did a lot of the firefighters’ stories end up in the show?

Steve Lemme as Captain Eddie Penisi/Photo by Beth Dubber/truTV

Steve Lemme as Captain Eddie Penisi/Photo by Beth Dubber/truTV

Steve: Yes. Kevin's cousin Bill Heffernan, our technical consultant, is a firefighter in Connecticut. Before we officially hired him, we picked his brain for a while. There's a story in Episode 3 about resuscitating a cat. It actually happened to him. During a call, they thought one of their fellow firefighters was down getting resuscitated in the parking lot and it turned out it was a firefighter giving CPR to a cat.

Firefighters also talk about how when there's a full moon out they get a lot of weird calls. Unfortunately, a lot of times, it's people getting their head stuck in something, or their arm stuck in something, or …

Teme: Or worse!

Steve: … a guy getting his junk caught in something, or something stuck inside of him. They get these wacky calls during full moons. We've amassed a lot of stories and our plan is to use them all from the smallest prank to some of the biggest calls they get.

Teme:  I saw those episodes of Tacoma FD and had no idea those stories were true! How did you come up with your characters’ names, McConky and Penisi?

Kevin: We love to have names that are inside jokes. McConky is because I was a fan of the New York Giants and there was a player that we liked years ago named McConky. But Steve's name, Penisi, I'll let Steve tell that story. That was a more specific name.

Steve: My sister dated a guy whose last name was Penisi when we were in high school. My friends gave me a hard time about it because his last name was literally “penis” with an “i”. Super nice guy. I actually got along really well with him. He and I were on the wrestling team together.

I've always wanted to use that name. When we were pitching this show at the different networks, I actually had to bring my high school yearbook just to prove that we weren't being cheeky and that this actually was a real person's name.

Teme: Has he been in touch since the show started?

Steve: I have not heard from him yet, but I'm expecting it any day now.  Last weekend at our show, a firefighter told us that they actually have a Captain Penisi, but he really gets mad if you make fun of him.

 

LUCY

Lucy (Hassie Harrison)/Photo by Beth Dubber/truTV

Lucy (Hassie Harrison)/Photo by Beth Dubber/truTV

Teme: How did you decide to add Lucy to the crew?

Kevin: About 97% of firefighters are men. It made it a super interesting kind of old school world where women are still cracking in to it. We thought, why not explore that? Let's have a female character come into our world and see how that affects us. On top of it, we decided to add that her character is my daughter. Even if I am a guy who's old school, I can't turn my back on her and so I’m in a conflict. The idea was to explore the funny elements of gender that are in a fire station.

Steve: There are generations of firefighter families in stations and we thought that was a really cool element; turning that on its ear a little bit with a female as opposed to brothers, and fathers and sons.

SECRETS OF PRANKOLOGY

Teme: I loved Lucy pranking the guys about words they’re not allowed to say. All your pranks are hilarious. Which prank is your favorite so far?

Steve: The one that we're talking about a lot is the shrimp in the chair in Episode 1. That was something I did to a teacher that I did not see eye to eye with back in high school. At lunchtime, I unscrewed his chair and poured frozen shrimp down the tube of the chair and screwed the seat back on. After a day or two, the office reeked of dead fish. He moved his furniture out in the hallway, and they fumigated his office and then moved the furniture right back in, and of course the smell returned. And then he changed offices, moved down the hall, but he brought all the furniture with him, and that office reeked of dead fish. And now he starts just going crazy. Eventually he changed offices, changed furniture, and that was a victory for me. So now the cat's out of the bag after all these years.

Teme: That is an ingenious prank.

Steve: Everywhere we go now, people are talking about how they're going to start playing that prank on their superiors. There are a lot of nervous bosses out there.

Teme: What is your favorite real-life prank story? Would that be the one?

Steve: We heard a great one from the firefighters. These firefighters were expecting a rookie in their station, so they all got a really stupid-looking temporary tattoo. Then the rookie arrived, and they told him that that was their station tattoo, so he went and got that tattoo for real. Then these firefighters all rubbed off their fake ones and were like "Ha ha ha!" We were like, Jesus, that's harsh.

Teme: What are the elements of a good prank?

Steve: Originality is always good. And hopefully, nobody gets hurt and everybody is still friends at the end of it. I think one great element is when the person realizes what’s happening in the middle of it, like in a Tom & Jerry cartoon where they realize what’s happening, look in the mirror and their reflection is actually a donkey and it says "jackass" on it.

Kevin’s cousin Bill was telling me how firefighters are great pranksters. Then we started talking about station life. I asked him about maintaining your mustache. How do they keep it fresh during 24-hour shifts? He said, "What we do is we put toothpaste on a toothbrush and we brush our mustaches with toothpaste and that keeps it nice and minty fresh." I go, “That's pretty cool.”

That night, I put it to the test. There I was brushing my mustache with Aquafresh and it was foaming up.  I'm halfway through and I was like, son of a bitch! He got me! I'm brushing my mustache with toothpaste! That's a great prank if as it's happening you're like, “Those bastards!”

Teme: Whenever firefighters have shown up at our house, they're pretty serious. I never realized the prank aspect back at the firehouse!

Steve: It was really important to us to convey that the pranks don't start until all the work is done. Firefighters keep their stations immaculate. They spend a huge part of their day making sure the hoses are clean and the truck is ready to go so that they can move and waste no time.

That’s why in Episode 1, Kevin’s character, Chief Terry McConky, goes through a list to make sure things are done, and my character responds saying we've done all those things three times. That way we're not making it seem like these guys are bad at their jobs, or unprepared, or even bumbling the way that our super troopers were often reviewed. We want to show that these guys are experts at their jobs, but they are under one roof 24-hours at a time and they do get slap-happy.

WHAT DO FIREFIGHTERS SAY ABOUT TACOMA FD?

The firefighters of Tacoma FD/photo by Beth Dubber/tru TV

The firefighters of Tacoma FD/photo by Beth Dubber/tru TV

Teme: What are firefighters' reactions to Tacoma FD?

Kevin: The firefighters who come to our show say it's the most authentic depiction of what happens in the station and of the goofy stuff they do. They're loving it. They're like "we have a guy like that," and “that's our world.” I think they're appreciating seeing a show that reflects the behind-the-scenes of their lives.

THE BROKEN LIZARD EFFECT

Teme: How would you describe the Broken Lizard ethos? How does it show up in Tacoma FD?

Kevin: Our philosophy was always to create a world where people would watch and want to hang out with the people in that world. It's a good-natured world. We're not mean. It's the kind of world that you want to be a part of.  We're trying to take that and put it into this show. Then, also bring our sense of humor which we describe as smart jokes for dumb people and dumb jokes for smart people. There's a little bit of something for everyone.

Teme: How did you each develop the ability to look at the world through a funny lens?

Steve: It comes down to our families. Kevin's got a huge Irish family. If you don't have thick skin, if you can't give it and take it in that big Irish family, you're going to be the butt of the jokes. My family is Latin American, and Latin Americans tease incredibly hard. My dad was a very funny guy and my mom is pretty funny, too.

With our friends in high school and then in college it was also kill or be killed. In college, we called our friends “the house of pain” because we were always trying to zing each other. It was all good-natured. We were never trying to hurt anybody's feelings. We enjoy each other's company and the Broken Lizard guys' company. We love to laugh and we love to make each other laugh. You really need that, especially right now in this political climate. It's just good to have laughter.

Teme: I really felt that watching Tacoma FD.  Your work is always goodhearted, it's never mean-spirited, and it's such a relief to be in that world. It’s an opportunity to laugh and have a wonderful mental vacation.

Kevin: The nice thing is we get contacted by a lot of people who feel that way. We have a big following with the military. We have a big following with first responders and just people in general who contact us and say, "I was going through a hard time, and the best time I had was watching your movies. You made me laugh. Thank you for that." It always puts it in perspective when someone brings that around to you, that you're bringing pleasure to these folks. I think that's important.

CHICAGO

Teme: What will happen at your show in Chicago?

Steve: Our fans are pretty rowdy people who like to have a good time. We don't get hecklers, but we have people shouting out lines from our movies. We don't discourage that at all, so a lot of time there is a direct back and forth between us and the audience. Sometimes we'll bring people up on stage and we'll fuck with them, or we'll bring volunteers up from the audience. But structurally, we each do a traditional stand-up set, and then we also come out and tell a behind-the-scenes story from the making of one of our movies or something that happened to us.

We always have a great time in Chicago and have a great relationship with the comedy fans of Chicago. We're always up for those shows and the fans that come to those shows are always up for them. We're really excited to come to Thalia Hall.

We also do meet-and-greets after the show. We come out and take pictures with everybody. It’s cool to meet people and I think the fans really appreciate it, too.

UPLIFTING COMEDY AND LIFTING UP COMEDIANS

Teme: Have you had an encounter with a fan that especially stands out?

Steve: Kevin and I were at a restaurant one time and a giant, muscular dude burst out of the restaurant and came sprinting towards us. We thought he was going to kick our asses or something like that, but he handed us a napkin he’d written on that said, "You guys got me through the war in Iraq." That was it, and then he just thanked us. I still have that napkin. I framed it. We've had a number of those things as Kevin said. Those are great interactions.

We're getting a lot of firefighters at our live shows now. One thing they really love is to display their prowess at picking people up. They pick me up as a joke to show how easy it is to pick me up. But then they look at Heffernan, you know he's the unicorn, he's the great white whale, so they really want to pick him up. And they do. And they always underestimate how dense his body is and how heavy he is and their legs start to shake, but they get him up there in the air.

Teme: Wow, that's one thing I wouldn't have expected. Were you guys surprised the first time that happened?

Kevin: Yeah, definitely. I always try to tell them not to do it, and then they just want to do it.

DON'T LET ANYONE EXTINGUISH YOUR FIRE

Teme: What is your advice for people in the Chicago comedy community?

Steve: You just have to keep making comedy and don't stop. People think we have people out there just cutting deals for us, but the truth is everything we've ever gotten, whether it's Broken Lizard or this show, was the result of us coming up with the idea, and pushing it through. There are a lot of people just looking for a reason to say no to you and you just have to make it happen. If people say no, make it yourself which is how we got our start. Never stop and don't take no for an answer.

Kevin: What he said!

WHAT'S NEXT?

Teme: I know you get asked this all the time, but what's next for Broken Lizard? A sequel to Beerfest or Super Troopers 3? What’s in store?

Kevin: We're actually currently writing Super Troopers 3. Super Troopers 2 performed pretty well, so the studio is excited. We're hoping we get to shoot that.

Teme: That's great news. Do you know when it will be out?

Steve: We've fleshed out a lot. We like to do about thirty drafts of our scripts. We’re also hoping to get renewed for season 2 of Tacoma FD, which we would start writing in about a month or so. I imagine what we would do is take the year to write the script, and then if we got a season 2 of Tacoma FD, we would write that, shoot that, and then when we finish post-production on Tacoma FD, we would go right into filming Super Troopers 3.

Teme: I look forward to all of that! Any hints about Super Troopers 3?

Steve: We try to keep it pretty tight lipped, but what I can say is that it's going to be different than the first two. How's that?

Teme: I loved the first two and I can't wait to see 3! What are you looking forward to most when you're in Chicago?

Kevin: Eating some food, right?! Some deep dish.

Steve: I'm doing some deep dish pizza, some brats. I enjoy taking the architectural tour of Chicago on the river. But we'll really be focused on the live show. We're going to be focused on making people laugh in Chicago.

Teme: Absolutely anything else you would like people to know?

Steve: Kevin is a lawyer in two states. He passed the Bar in New York and Connecticut.

Teme: That's awesome. New York is a really hard Bar!

Kevin: I know, I know, I'm a talented guy.

Teme: Do you ever miss being a lawyer?

Kevin: No. I think that ship has sailed. Lemme will tell you that I'm not good at reading contracts, so I guess I never had a future in it.

Teme: I hear you. I'm a former lawyer too, but I only passed the Bar in Illinois and there was like a 96% pass rate that year.

Kevin: Don't sell yourself short!

Teme: Thank you. Thank you guys for your time, your wonderful work, thank you for helping me laugh when I get too grim and serious. It truly is a gift and it’s appreciated.

Steve: Thank you so much.

Kevin: Thank you. Our pleasure!

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Heffernan/Lemme LIVE is at Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport, on Wednesday, May 8 at 7:00 p.m. Ticket information here

Tacoma FD is on truTV on Thursday nights at 9:30 p.m. CST and also available on demand and at the Tacoma FD site.

More about Broken Lizard here.

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