These days, when Terry Sweeney walks the streets of the Lowcountry, he’s more likely to get compliments about “The Happy Winos” — his local wine column — than the Nancy Reagan impression he did on “Saturday Night Live” three decades ago.
Sweeney’s wine writing and local address are part of a different reality than the one he and partner and fellow comedy writer Lanier Laney lived for several decades in New York and Los Angeles. In the 1980s, Sweeney wrote for and appeared on “Saturday Night Live,” lampooning the likes of Reagan, Joan Collins and Diana Ross. As the first openly gay performer on broadcast television, he also cleared the way for legions of other gay performers and characters on TV — even if it meant its share of aftershocks.
“It was hard to get acting jobs after it, especially in the comedic field,” he said. “But I think it was more important that I stood up for myself, and Lanier and I stood up to be counted for who we are. It’s more important than a guest spot in a sitcom.”
Since “SNL,” he and Laney have co-authored a number of film scripts, including “Shag,” the 1989 comedy about four South Carolina girlfriends who head to Myrtle Beach for a rowdy weekend before one of them is married away. The movie re-introduced much of the country to the beach music dance style popular in South Carolina.
“In L.A., they thought it was a carpet or a haircut,” Sweeney says. “The movie had a profound effect on a lot of people here. It was a rite of passage for a lot of girls.”
And while the two still write together, they’ve adjusted to a different geography and pace.
“People say, ‘Do you miss L.A.? Do you think about L.A.?’ Never,” Sweeney says. “When you live in the South, you’re so busy. When you’re in L.A., you’re waiting for an audition, you’re waiting for a call. You’re in the waiting room of life. Here, you’re in life.”
Sweeney and Laney, a Spartanburg native, have lived in downtown Beaufort for about eight years. They bought a home here while they were still living in Los Angeles and writing for shows such as “MADtv” and “Hype.” They would shuttle back and forth between Beaufort and Los Angeles, writing and acting to raise money to work on their home. Sweeney, who was raised on Long Island, says he warmed quickly to Southern culture, including its food, natural idiosyncrasies and inclusive social scene.
“Our life is so enriched here. Lanier’s done a tremendous job giving the town a sense of itself,” he says. “L.A. is more of an industry town. What you do is the icebreaker there. They want to know where you are in the food chain. ‘Should I waste my time with you?’ That is not the South.”
Nonetheless, the pair still has plans for the future. Sweeney says they’ve written three scripts circulating in Hollywood, including a comedy called “Southern Bride.” But, no matter what, they plan to stay in Beaufort.
“It would be easier if we were in Los Angeles, running around. Here I have a quality of life,” he says. “I had a living in L.A. but not a life.”
Sweeney’s blog, The Happy Winos — “Livin’ the Low-Priced High Life,” as the tagline goes — is online at thehappywinos.blogspot.com.