After a year shooting and editing at a frantic pace, Steve Lemme and Kevin Heffernan – the co-creators of truTV’s hit comedy series “Tacoma FD” – are now home, as mandated by the current global health crisis. They’re editing season two of their series remotely, which poses a challenge because both are self-described hands-on guys. Despite the technical inconveniences, their future looks bright. “Super Troopers 3” is in the works, and the second season of “Tacoma FD” premieres Thursday, March 26th. As Kevin says, “It’s time for people to get some laughs.”
Before “Tacoma FD,” before “Super Troopers,” did either of you view comedy as a viable career path?
Kevin Heffernan: I don’t think so. I went to law school. Being a lawyer is a viable career path. There was nobody in my family who was in the entertainment business. I don’t think it became a thought until we made “Super Troopers.” I think it took [the success of the film] for us to quit our jobs and that stuff.
Steve Lemme: Comedy, no way. I always wanted to be a rock star even though I had no discernible musical talent. I acted in a tv commercial that paid four-hundred dollars and then wanted to be an actor. I had a girlfriend in college who was like, “Oh, you want to be an actor? There’s a bunch of auditions being held today for shows.” And it turned out one of the shows was Kevin and Jay [Chandrasekhar] starting a sketch comedy group. I was like, “Alright, sure. I’ll try out for that.” At the time, I was drunk tailgating at a football game.
Kevin didn’t like me and didn’t want me to be in the group. But I had such a nice audition that he had no choice and had to take me.
Was it creative differences or your personalities that clashed?
Steve Lemme: [Laughs] Kevin thought I was a thief.
Kevin Hefferan: I thought he was an unsavory fellow when we first met.
Steve Lemme: I had unknowingly “borrowed” his coat. And I say “borrowed” in quotes because I stole it. It was very cold at Colgate and there was a blizzard outside so I took the coat. A couple weeks later, I was at the fraternity house where Kevin was a brother, which is where I’d lifted the coat to begin with. Kevin confronted me on the dance floor because I like to dance, and he said, “You’re the guy. You’re the guy who stole my coat.” I was like, “No I didn’t.” He removed a student ID from the coat and the ID said “Steve Lemme.” I said, “Oh, the same guy who stole your coat must have been the same guy who stole my ID.” So in that way, Kevin hated me.
Kevin Heffernan: He had the appearance of this slick New York City kid. He had longer hair, he had some run-ins with the law at school. He was a surly guy. He was the guy you wouldn’t want your daughter to date.
When did the tables turn?
Kevin Heffernan: In that original sketch-comedy group at Colgate, we started writing together. [Steve] wrote a series of sketches about Socrates and Plato and two regular guys bantering about mundane things in life. It forced us to work together, and I think from that point, we had a newfound appreciation for each other.
Steve Lemme: We had a lot of laughs writing those sketches and they were also – I don’t mind saying this – the best sketches in the show. Always. We went through a few different versions [of Broken Lizard] in college and then New York City, and I think Kevin and I enjoyed being superstars of the Broken Lizard comedy group sketch show.
Was there a moment early on with the sketch group that you realized you had something special?
Kevin Heffernan: It was kind of a long, incremental thing. Little things would happen that you’d get excited about and think maybe this is something you could continue to do [as a career]. When we graduated from college, we started doing these live shows at a little club in The Village in New York City and got reviewed in Backstage Magazine. The guys tell a funny story of how Paul [Soter] and Erik [Stolhanske] bought 50 copies and jumped up and down saying, “We made it!” We made our first film “Puddle Cruiser” for about $250,000 and we were able to get into film festivals like Sundance and South By Southwest. That got us a little bit of notoriety. And then, even when “Super Troopers” was in the movie theater, it wasn’t until it was on home video that it even made a ripple. After, when people started recognizing us, then I think we knew. But up until then, it was all little carrots.
Steve Lemme: I think we knew we had something special after the very first show we did in college. We had four shows planned. The first one had 35 or 40 people in the audience. The next night, it was almost sold out. Then it was sold out, standing room only for the third show, and the fourth show, we were turning people away. We knew there was something we were doing that really resonated on the campus. Same thing in New York City. We kind of caught fire over there. People really responded to what we did and the chemistry of the group.
Is that what people were responding to, your collective chemistry?
Steve Lemme: People really liked the way we complimented each other on stage. I think that’s something that certainly translated to “Puddle Cruiser” and then to “Super Troopers.” People liked our dynamic. We were all different from each other and we had different personalities. And it just worked.
What role did cannabis play in your process then and now?
Kevin Heffernan: [Laughs] We were a bunch of dudes writing comedy together.
Steve Lemme: I always liked the Rastafarian philosophy on cannabis, that it takes you to a plane of higher understanding. It makes you really appreciate and laugh at all the different things in life. You can come up with some pretty kooky stuff. I think every artist will tell you, the next day, you look back at what you wrote down and you’re like, “That’s actually not very good.” But a lot of times you’re like, “Oh that’s fantastic.”
With “Super Troopers,” every studio in town turned it down because of the “meow” scene. They didn’t understand it. They were like, “It’s over two pages of guys saying ‘meow,’ what is this?” We were like, whatever, we know it’s funny. And sure enough, it turns out to be one of the scenes people remember most about the movie.
Kevin Heffernan: It’s also kind of funny the way it changes your audience. “Super Troopers” won the Stony Award for Best Stoner Movie of the year [in 2003]. At the same time, it’s a movie about cops. We had this very eclectic and broad fanbase for that movie, which ended up being fans for us. There’s a shit load of stoners and people who relate to [the weed] element of the movie, but at the same time, there’s cops who really liked the movie.
At our live shows, you look into the audience and see half stoners, half cops. And they’re all coming together and they’re laughing at the same jokes. It’s kind of a cool feeling. It’s like a red-state blue-state thing, bringing opposite elements together. Weed and the stoner elements of our stuff open up that opportunity for us.
We did a show in Denver literally right when cannabis was legalized. You’d have guys walking up handing you bags of weed and joints after the show, with a bunch of cops standing there just rolling their eyes like, “Whatever.”
What was the inspiration for Tacoma FD?
Steve Lemme: Kevin and I were on the road together doing live stand-up shows and had a lot of time to write with each other. We’d sold over a dozen tv projects and written a ton of very good scripts together, and had come up with an idea for us as firefighters. But we needed to figure out the comedy hook. So we thought of firefighters in the rainiest city in the country. We thought Seattle was kind of obvious. But we happened to be in Tacoma for live shows, and were like, “How about Tacoma?” And “Tacoma FD” was born.
Coming from the film world, what was different about working in tv?
Kevin Heffernan: We’d always wanted to work in tv and it was kind of eye opening when we got “Tacoma FD” up and running. The amount of material is greater, the amount of time to shoot is longer. Everything about [the process] is longer, there’s more stuff. With a movie, every minute becomes very precious, every line becomes very precious. Every joke you agonize probably too much over. I think with tv, it gives you a chance to try a lot of different things. That’s a lot of fun. The amount of material allowed us to do all kinds of jokes that maybe we wouldn’t have tried if we were trying to squeeze them into a movie.
What was different about “Tacoma FD” from the other tv projects you’d sold but hadn’t had made?
Steve Lemme: I think the difference was a lot of the times, we were selling shows to networks. We sold to NBC, we sold to FOX. Nothing ever seemed like the right fit. Then we had “Super Troopers 2” coming out, and suddenly we had a lot of juice. We were probably eight months from the movie coming out, and it was the perfect time for us to go out with a tv show. And it was similar in tone [to “Super Troopers”]. We were pitching an R-rated tv show. Us in uniforms was something comfortable to buyers and the pitching approach was different.
For a lot of the execs and higher-ups, they didn’t know who we were. If the decision maker of what goes on air doesn’t know who you are, they’re just looking at data. [Because of “Super Trooper 2”] doing really well, a case could be made to put us on the air.
You were able to seize momentum from “Super Troopers 2” and parlay it to “Tacoma FD.”
Kevin Heffernan: You end up having windows of momentum in your career, and it’s good if you can try and capitalize on those. They don’t come very often, and when they do, you have to be ready.
What was different about season two of “Tacoma FD” from a production standpoint?
Steve Lemme: Season two we were able to explore the characters more than we were able to in season one. We had a lot more stories from real firefighters that we could use to make the show seem even more realistic.
Are the anecdotes from firefighters real stories that you’re then embellishing?
Kevin Heffernan: Usually you’ll take the nugget of the story and blow it out into something. I have a cousin – Cousin Bill – he’s our advisor and a firefighter of 25 years. He’ll come to set and tell us what’s authentic and what’s not. Guys like Cousin Bill will tell us a story and we’ll figure out the funny version. Like, he has a story about how he went to take care of a person who was freaking out on drugs, and the guy had a doll, and he would only calm down if they gave medical assistance to his doll. So these firefighters had to give medical assistance to this guy’s doll. We thought that was an amazing story, threw it around the writer’s room, and the next thing you know, now it’s a ventriloquist dummy and Jeff Dunham is the guy with the dummy. And that’s the opening to episode three this season.
Steve Lemme: It’s funny because the story I was going to tell was from season one. It was actually our pilot. Cousin Bill told us a bunch of times how they had to give mouth-to-mouth to pets, because animals can inhale smoke too. One time, he had to give mouth-to-mouth to a cat and we wrote that into the pilot episode. But here’s my takeaway– both stories [mine and Kevin’s] are firefighters giving mouth-to-mouth to things. That’s the source of comedy; firefighters giving mouth-to-mouth to different things.
Firefighters do have a lot of down time. They live with each other for 24 hours in a firehouse, so there’s a lot of shenanigans and pranking of each other. But then, the guys and girls go out and fight fires, and save lives, and get into some serious shit. They see things that would turn most people’s hair gray. That’s one reason our show has resonated with firefighters, because we’re not just showing the dark side, we’re also showing the fun side of firefighting.
Do you find that you’re having the same resonance with the firefighting community that you did with cops?
Kevin Heffernan: I think there’s no question about it. The firefighters have been reaching out to us, they’re embracing the show. It’s the same thing as when we played cops. They like it because we show them as real people with senses of humor, having a good time. In a lot of these hour long shows out there [firefighters] cry a lot and have fake soot on their faces. [Those shows] don’t really capture the hijinx that goes on in the station where a lot of these folks spend their time. Firefighters watching the show have said, “Wow, you’ve captured the way we fuck around with each other and prank each other.” [We’re showing] who they are and I think they’re really appreciating that.