Kevin Heffernan and Steve Lemme — two members of Broken Lizard, the comedy troupe behind the cult film Super Troopers — were performing at the Tacoma Comedy Club when they were figuring out the premise of their newest project, a TV show set in a fire station.
“We had Super Troopers and kind of the premise of that was cops who have downtime; they have fun,” Heffernan said before a screening of the new show at the Tacoma Museum of Glass last Friday. “What gives them downtime is that they’re on a remote stretch of highway. So we thought the equivalent with firefighters would be being in a rainy city. Being in Tacoma at the time we were like, ‘Tacoma’s great! Why don’t we set it here?’ And that’s what we did.”
The duo’s show — which they also star in — is aptly named Tacoma FD and follows the lives of Tacoma firefighters.
The duo announced the show during a performance in Seattle, and the audience was aghast that they hadn’t set the show in the Emerald City, Heffernan said. But the way they see it, there are already enough shows set in Seattle.
“Seattle’s got Shonda Rhimes,” Lemme said, referring to the creator of the ABC show Grey’s Anatomy. “Tacoma’s got Broken Lizard. We’re grittier down here.”
Heffernan said it would have been great to film the show’s exterior shots in Tacoma, but budgetary constraints precluded them from doing so. The show was filmed in LA instead, although Heffernan notes that if the show gets a second season, they’d like to get some shots of the show’s namesake city. There are hints of the setting in the fire station — photographs of the twin Tacoma Narrows bridges and the East 21st Street Bridge adorn the walls — but otherwise, it took some postproduction magic to erase telltale signs of LA from the final footage.
“It’s funny trying to shoot LA for Tacoma, because there’s a different brightness to it there, you know?” Heffernan said. “There’s palm trees on the horizon that you have to erase and things like that.”
“It’s funny,” Lemme added, “because we weren’t able to erase them in time for the trailers and previews and things like that. So any time there’s a preview that has a palm tree in it, we hear from the people of Tacoma. They’re like, ‘Hey, there’s a palm tree! There’s no palm trees in Tacoma!’”
Arguably more important than getting the look of the city right, was accurately representing the feel of a fire department.
“One of the things we tried to capture was that these guys are actually good firefighters,” Lemme said. “The way Super Troopers would be reviewed was bumbling highway patrolmen. We didn’t want to disrespect any first responders that way, so we made sure in the first episode that these guys are shown as being really good at their jobs. They’re prepared, they’re clean, they check everything three times over, and then when there’s downtime, that’s when they start their shenanigans.”
They’ve held special screenings for firefighters, and much of the feedback they’ve received so far is that the pranks played by the characters on the show are an authentic representation of life in a fire station.
“Every firefighter we’ve talked to is like, yeah, we do have downtime where we’re in the same station for 24 hours at a time and we prank each other and we give each other a hard time,” Lemme said. “Most of the time when we go out on calls it isn’t a fire, it’s something ridiculous. It’s somebody who’s gotten their head stuck in something, or they’ve gotten something stuck inside them. They’re like, those are the great things about the job, and I think firefighters are surprised that it’s taken this long for a comedy about them to be made.”
The show isn’t all downtime. Although budget constraints limited the number of actual fires they could depict on the show, Lemme said they’re committed to fighting at least one fire per season. The first season’s finale features the characters battling a blaze at a marijuana dispensary.
“This is Washington state, right?” Heffernan asked with a laugh. “It’s the local flavor.”
In many ways, the depiction of firefighters fighting fewer fires isn’t far-fetched, Heffernan said. In talking with firefighters, it turns out improved fire safety standards have reduced the number of blazes firefighters are called upon to put out.
“Really, everyone fights fewer fires these days,” he said. “Seventy or 80 percent of the calls they go on are medical-related calls … One of the firefighters we work with, his favorite saying is, ‘stupid people keep us in business.’ They just find themselves in these funny situations a lot. That’s part of what we wanted to do. A lot of the firefighter shows you see, there’s not really a lot of comedy.”
Before Friday’s screening, Heffernan said he and Lemme were psyched to see real Tacoma residents’ reactions to the show.
“In any of the movies that we do or the shows that we do, the whole point is to create a world where people want to hang out, where they think it’s a fun group of people, a good natured group of people, and that they want to join in for the fun,” he said. “That was sort of what the intention was for this. So I think the people of Tacoma will appreciate that [the show’s characters] are good people, and they work hard and they have fun. That’s the vibe we’re going for and I think people will appreciate that.”
Later on, the pair held a special screening for real Tacoma firefighters, and even met with Tacoma Fire Department Chief James P. Duggan.
— truTV (@truTV) March 29, 2019
— truTV (@truTV) March 29, 2019
Although the duo have had great success in the world of film through Broken Lizard, with films like Super Troopers, Club Dread, and Beerfest, it seemed like the right time for them to branch into television.
“We’ve always wanted to do a TV program, especially now,” Lemme said. “It’s such a great time for television. You can really do almost anything. From a storytelling standpoint it’s refreshing, because you’re writing 10 different episodes, and each one has like three different storylines in it. Every week you start filming it’s a different story and it’s fun.”
At the same time, Heffernan said the pace can be daunting. “It’s really the equivalent of like three movies that you’re making in the same time period,” he said. “So the pace is different. It’s a little more of a breakneck pace … It was kind of a different animal for us. Once you get into the rhythm of it, it’s pretty fun.”