'Sirens': Chicago-made humor

It's the first TV comedy in years to actually shoot in a town known for its Chicago talent

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'Sirens'

Scene from the new television show "Sirens." (Chuck Hodes/USA Network / January 22, 2012)

Of the six Chicago-filmed TV series airing this season, only one is a comedy.

That seems strange, doesn't it?

There hasn't been a sitcom that shot in Chicago since Joan Cusack's short-lived "What About Joan" for ABC more than a decade ago. Dramas, there are plenty, and they keep coming (including the Fox pilot "Empire" from Lee Daniels, which is set in the world of a hip-hop mogul and shoots here this spring). But comedies? It's been quiet. Very, very quiet.

For now, we have "Sirens" (premiering 9 p.m. Thursday on USA), which doesn't so much leverage Chicago's comedy bona fides as put itself in close proximity. It's a start.

The series comes from executive producers Denis Leary ("Rescue Me") and Bob Fisher (whose writing credits include "Wedding Crashers"). Adapted from a British workplace comedy of the same name, it centers on the banter-heavy exploits of three paramedics played by Michael Mosley, Kevin Daniels and former Chicago theater actor Kevin Bigley.

Bigley's a DePaul alum. He stuck around after graduation, logging a seven-month run with "Killer Joe" at Profiles Theater before he moved to LA.

Behind the camera there is some Chicago talent as well, including writers Paul O'Toole (a veteran of iO) and Andy St. Clair (a longtime presence at Second City). Like Bigley, they also moved to LA a couple years ago. Nothing wrong with that. It's just ironic. They all relocated to LA, only to get hired on a Chicago show.

"Because I'm a better writer than a performer, for me there were no opportunities in Chicago," O'Toole said by phone. "So I had to move to LA. Andy came out a year later."

O'Toole and St. Clair are writing partners, which isn't uncommon in TV. (Chicago natives Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen are writing partners on "The Mindy Project"; the same is true for Second City alums Brad Morris and Emily Wilson, who work as a team on "Cougar Town.")

I asked O'Toole what it was like to watch screeners for a show and see the actors say lines that he wrote.

"That just happened the other day. I was watching an episode with my girlfriend, and she laughed out loud at one of the jokes I pitched, which I forgot was even in there. She had no idea it was mine, so it was good to get an honest reaction like that."

For my money, St. Clair is one of the funniest performers to come out of Second City in the past decade. He's still actively pursuing acting jobs — the auditions for pilot season have begun in earnest — but writing for "Sirens" wasn't a consolation prize. "I just liked being there, and being a writer who eats a bunch of crappy food and drinks a bunch of Coke, I gained 10 pounds off that show."

Plus, "I tried to get a couple inside jokes in," he told me. "I used to do a show in Chicago (with an improv team) called 3033, and I tried to use that as a street address in a script, but, of course, it didn't go through."

The writers had a Chicago EMT on speed dial. Per St. Clair: "He was very Chicago, which was great." That old-school Chicago accent is one St. Clair used to pull out in his Second City days. It surfaced in the writers room as well, O'Toole said: "Did you ever see that scene (on Second City's main stage) he would do with Brad Morris called 'Bike Cops'? He basically did that character all day at work."

The cast, to its credit, sought out Chicago's comedy scene during their off hours. At a set visit in the fall, the three leads mentioned a night out when, after a few drinks, they jumped into an improv set (when in Rome-style) at Links Hall in Wrigleyville.

And St. Clair remembers getting a call in LA before production even began: "Someone wanted to get a drink his first night in town, and I was like, 'Well, this place is kind of a dump, but it's charming and you'll love it and it's one of my favorite places: The Old Town Ale House'" — long a favorite of John Belushi, Chris Farley and whoever else is currently onstage at Second City. "I told them, 'Go have a drink, and bring cash, because they don't take anything else.' And then it became the local bar for those guys."

"Sirens" premieres 9 p.m. Thursday, March 6 on USA. Go to usanetwork.com/sirens.

nmetz@tribune.com

@NinaMetzNews

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