By Tim Parks
If the name Liam Sullivan rings a distant bell of familiarity in your mind, but leaves you wondering where you have heard it before, there’s no need to run down to your local vitamin store and purchase a bottle of Gingko biloba to jog your memory. You most likely know him as the character Kelly, the blonde haired, spectacles wearing, Valley Girl speaking character he has created and immortalized in the video, “Shoes.”
The video has been a bonafide Internet sensation, with upwards of fifteen million hits, and counting, on YouTube.com. Even though Kelly is on a quest for high heeled shoes that rule and don’t suck, her real-life counterpart’s talent at crafting four minutes of viewing pleasure is more on par with a pair of Nike’s – as this video has traction, gripping itself firmly into the collective consciousness of pop culture.
In January of this year, the video won a People’s Choice Award for “Favorite User Generated Video,” and has afforded Sullivan with a platform to create other crowd pleasing videos, such as “Muffins,” “Text Message Breakup” and “Let Me Borrow That Top.”
I spoke with Sullivan about his upcoming appearance as Margaret Cho’s featured guest on her “Beautiful” tour at Viejas Concerts in the Park on May 16th and 17th, his other non-video related work as an actor, his sketch comedy background, and of course, “Shoes.”
“The idea really took awhile to form in my head. Everyone knows that women love shoes and so what? It’s kind of a cliché I guess.” Sullivan said of his initial idea about this female phenomenon. “But I don’t know, for some reason it never struck me as funny until I started playing with this character, Kelly, in my head. I had her voice and I pictured myself with braces on, and I started talking like her.”
But Sullivan’s first attempt at getting Kelly out of his head, and onto the stage didn’t quite take.
“I tried her out in stand-up, and it just wasn’t that funny, because I was just being myself, but doing the voice,” he said.
Further inspiration came from a not so unlikely place, as Sullivan explained.
“And then I was walking one day, and my shoes just kept coming into my field of vision, looking down at the road,” Sullivan recanted. “And for some reason, I started saying shoes with her voice, and she has this obsession thing (for shoes). And, it just struck me as funny every time she said the word, like, ‘shoes, oh my God, shoes.’ So I went home and wrote the song in fifteen minutes.”
Sullivan not only wrote the song, he scored it, too, and decided that Kelly had now found her own voice, and further fleshed out the character with a wig, tights, glasses and appropriate footwear, naturally, and gave her another try in his routine, accompanied by a certain ditty.
“It was in this little club in Santa Monica, and I did and it killed, and I was like, “Ok, I’ve got something.’” he stated.
And that something became the video for “Shoes,” after a friend encouraged him to commit his idea to film.
“When it got popular, I was really surprised,” Sullivan said. “I remembered the first time I showed it to some friends, and they were like, ‘Wow! What the hell was that?’ They didn’t really get it. Then, it took off on YouTube, before I even knew what YouTube was, ’cause someone took it off my website and posted it there, some kid somewhere.”
Which isn’t too surprising, since a great deal of Sullivan’s fan base seem to be of the teenaged generation; but, what was surprising to Sullivan was the reaction the video garnered.
“I put it up myself, and was shocked at the whole YouTube phenomenon thing – that was all kind of new to me, too,” Sullivan said. “So when the ‘Shoes’ video started taking off, and ‘Muffins,’ also; I was like, ‘Oh Wow! Who needs distribution now?!’ I thought it would die out eventually, but it just keeps going.”
In a nutshell, the artistic freedom of the Internet has made Sullivan and “Shoes” synonymous, and he sees both sides of the pro and con coin of being widely associated with a particular character and project.
“The asset has been a career, before that I was just scrounging around for parts, acting here and there, trying to make a name for myself,” Sullivan explained. “So, the whole ‘you’re the Shoes guy,’ it’s awesome. But yeah, there is a liability, I’d like to break out of that someday and do something different.
“But that’s up to me, and if I make clunkers for the rest of my life; I know no matter what, I’ll always be the ‘Shoes’ guy, and that’s pretty o.k. with me, it’s a good video and I’m very proud of it. It’s really gratifying, because it’s a character I just created out of my head, it wasn’t like some studio hired me to do it, or it was somebody else’s idea.”
One of the ways that Sullivan can go about further carving out his creative niche is with the help of other characters in his comedic arsenal, which have also been formed in his cranium, and he did cite one particular favorite among the bunch.
“I really like performing as Mother Grandma, she’s Kelly’s grandmother. She’s really fun, I think, because she just says whatever and is so old fashioned, and out of touch with technology – it’s kind of like tapping into a part of myself. I’m a homebody and I can barely figure out my cell phone. She’s a really nice old lady, but she’s drunk as hell!” He professed with a laugh before continuing.
“Of course, she’s a perfect comic foil to Kelly’s mom, who represents the repressive side of the family – like, ‘Don’t say whatever you think. Don’t do whatever you want. Be responsible. And don’t be a whore!’” He recanted. “So every time Mother Grandma blurts something out, she (Kelly’s Mom) can’t stand her! People who have no internal editor in their head they really fascinate me, because I do, so it’s a joy to play someone like that.”
Sullivan’s knack for playing a variety of parts came from his days of doing sketch comedy and live theater performances with stints at comedy theaters in Boston and Los Angeles, helping to prep him for television work on “Gilmore Girls,” “8 Simple Rules…for Dating My Teenage Daughter,” “Alias” and “I Hate My 30’s,” with a notable exception.
“I think doing live shows is really good, ’cause you can get a sense of rhythm and timing with comedy – you know if the audience is laughing, you’re doing good work,” Sullivan explained. “You take that to a set, where’s there’s just crew guys and their focused on their work, and the director’s focused on the shot – so when you finally get your chance to do your bit, the rhythm of that scene; you don’t have an audience, but you have them in your head.”
One place he won’t have to worry about entertaining an imaginary audience is while on tour with Margaret Cho.
“Being on the tour is amazing,” he said. “Touring itself, it’s a little bit of a grind, because you’re always on a plane, or in the airport. But when I get in front of the crowd that’s when it’s awesome – we’re playing two or three thousand seat houses, and I’ve never done that before. And when people go crazy when I walk out there, it’s really gratifying.”
Sullivan and Cho seem to be perfect bedfellows, as he describes his material as “provocative” or “strange” while “aiming for hilarious,” and Sullivan told us the titillating moniker attached to his work has been unintentional.
“I’ve never really gone out of my way to be those things,” Sullivan explained. “I just think, ‘Well, what makes me laugh?’ And, it’s not necessarily safe stuff that makes me laugh.”
And, with that philosophy firmly intact, Sullivan will be exploring more of Kelly’s family dynamics down the road, and next he has further plans for his shoe fetished muse.
“I think I’m going to do more with Kelly’s Aunt Susan,” Sullivan revealed. “I’ve written some songs in her voice, and I want to make some sort of Aunt Susan music video. There’s another Kelly video on the way, the next video should be coming out at the end of May.”
For all Liam Sullivan info, log onto http://www.liamshow.com
This interview was first published in May 2008.