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Showrunner Mike O'Brien's local upbringing inspired 'A.P. Bio'

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    Mike O’Brien, a 1995 graduate of St. John’s Jesuit High School and a writer and executive producer of A.P. Bio, left, speaks with director Payman Benz, right, while filming a scene for A.P. Bio during a Walleye hockey game at The Huntington Center on November 16, 2017.

    The Blade/Amy E. Voigt
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  • CTY-TVshow-6

    Mike O’Brien, a 1995 graduate of St. John’s Jesuit High School and a writer and executive producer of A.P. Bio, left, speaks with director Payman Benz, right, while filming a scene for A.P. Bio during a Walleye hockey game at The Huntington Center on November 16, 2017.

    The Blade/Amy E. Voigt
    Buy This Image

As the creator of A.P. Bio, it was Mike O’Brien who set the new NBC sitcom in Toledo.

It was also O’Brien who successfully resisted those gentle suggestions from the show’s producers and network executives to consider another city for the show’s setting.

RELATED: Humor, but not Toledo, shines in new sitcom

So please don't confuse O’Brien with A.P. Bio’s main character, Jack Griffin.

O’Brien is a 1995 graduate of St. John’s High School who, at 41, remains proud of growing up in the Toledo area and has family who still live in the city, while the brainy and bitter Griffin, a disgraced Harvard philosophy professor now starting his life over, derisively refers to his hometown of Toledo as a “garbage pile" upon his return to teach biology at local — and fictional — Whitlock High School.

"The character overlaps with me, but not in that way at all," O’Brien said in a recent phone interview shortly after wrapping the final episode of A.P. Bio's first season.

"I had a wonderful time [in Toledo] and loved it. I didn't know it wasn’t the coolest place on Earth. I had a great time at St. John's and hanging out with everybody. I was extremely involved at school, and then we’d go to the dollar theater afterwards, and as I say, go to Franklin Park Mall. This was all just the coolest thing in the world to me. When I moved away I only grew in warmth towards it."

Not so for Griffin, played by It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Glenn Howerton. In the show’s subversive premise, Griffin is furious over losing out on his dream job at Stanford to a hated rival, and he is using his new job as Whitlock’s A.P. Biology instructor — a subject he is utterly unqualified and refuses to teach to the students — in his quest for revenge.

Unlike many goofy and silly sitcom protagonists, Griffin is a difficult lead character to like, particularly for those in Toledo, who are apt to cringe at his hatred of our fair city.

“We all know that Jack is wrong in his opinion,” O’Brien explained, “but he's a Toledoan at heart who’s going through a bad year, being immature, and that I hope they can see the show loves that town in the end, even if the character claims not to right now.”

In fact, that animus directed toward Toledo by the show's wayward son will change — eventually. “Here’s the deal: if he ever fully comes around to that, then we’re done,” O’Brien said.

Instead, Griffin is going to come around to it a little bit more every episode or every season. “[But] I won’t have him say, ‘I fully love and appreciate everything about Toledo’ until I know it’s the series finale,” which O’Brien optimistically suggests could be 2038.

A.P. Bio's “20-year run,” as he put it, began earlier this month with a sneak preview of the pilot, which was then made available for streaming through NBC's app and Hulu Live, along with a few more episodes available for streaming.

But the show’s official premiere is at 10:30 p.m. Sunday, immediately following the Winter Olympics closing ceremony, with another episode at 8:30 p.m. Thursday. The show will then settle into its regular 9:30 p.m. Thursday slot for the remainder of its 13-episode first season. A.P. Bio can be seen locally on WNWO-TV, Channel 24.

With all the promotion, clearly the network has high expectations for the series, which was born of two separate O’Brien notions that he joined to form a single narrative that eschews many long-held sitcom practices.

His first idea came from “the extreme dichotomy” of O'Brien living in Manhattan and visiting Toledo — more specifically, Blissfield, Mich. — and how that could serve as the basis for a shallow main character obsessed with East Coast prestige who slowly comes to re-appreciate his hometown in the Midwest.

The second involved a “fun” monologue O’Brien had written but wasn’t sure what to do with as a teacher, addressing a classroom of students, makes them aware of every movie trope that has ever happened with teaching and that he’s determined to not overlap with any of them. That monologue, in fact, appears in A.P. Bio's cold open of the first episode, which O’Brien wrote himself.

Comedy writing has been O'Brien's entry into the industry.

A graduate of the University of Michigan and an alumnus of the Second City Mainstage in Chicago, O’Brien worked as a writer on Saturday Night Live from 2009 to 2014. (A.P. Bio is executive produced by Lorne Michaels and former SNL head writer and now late Late Night host, Seth Meyers, among others). 

It was also while on Saturday Night Live that O'Brien created and starred in the funny-odd web series 7 Minutes in Heaven with Mike O’Brien, in which he asked celebrities a series of goofy questions followed by an awkward kiss — at least, an attempt at a kiss. He also was a writer and producer on the FX comedy series Man Seeking Woman and has made appearances in Portlandia, Documentary Now!, Man Seeking Woman, Comedy Bang Bang, and Idiotsitter. He had a starring role in the film Staten Island Summer with former and current SNL cast members Fred Armisen, Cecily Strong, and Bobby Monynihan.

Since A.P. Bio is mostly O'Brien’s project, the show also represents the biggest step forward in his career since SNL.

Not only is he the sitcom’s creator and one of its writers, but he is also a producer and, more importantly, showrunner, which affords him oversight and often the final say in almost everything creative, particularly in the writers' room, where he and a group of a dozen writers brainstorm story ideas and jokes for an episode outline, take turns turning that outline into a script, and then polish the script as a collective.

And, as showrunner, O’Brien also helped get the show to shoot on location in Toledo in mid-November at a late-morning Toledo Walleye game and at the Toledo Museum of Art, International Park, and the Maumee Indoor Theatre. Look for those local spots to appear during episode 12.

Showing off Toledo and even having a series set in the city “does mean something to people there,” O’Brien said, “like it meant when you heard about even [Toledoan] Jimmy Jackson,” a Macomber High School graduate and former NBA all-star.

And hopefully there’s more, much more to come. But that’s to be determined — and not by O’Brien.

At this point, having just approved the final sound mix of the final episode of the season at the time of the phone interview, all he can do now is wait and see how audiences and the network react. That will determine if there is a season two and more Toledo references in prime time.

And if there is, O’Brien promises to not let that famous Midwest work ethic slip.

“If we get picked up for another season, it’s going to be me just pouring everything into it again,” he said. “It's just every waking and most sleeping minutes [that] I think about A.P. Bio. I would just gear up and go as hard as I could at it again, because if you don’t, the writers, actors, and crew can smell it. ‘Our boss doesn’t really care.’ ”

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.

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