Eugene Levy Reveals the Rules of Comedy That Brought Him, Finally, to ‘Schitt’s Creek’

After 50 years onscreen, the consummate comedy actor is still taking “big steps” to learn what he’s made of

When his son, Dan Levy, approached him 10 years ago about co-creating and starring on their own comedy series, Eugene Levy was scared, well, “Schitt’s”-less. He knew his son, by then a popular host for MTV Canada, had the chutzpah to chart his own path in the business—“I would always go up to him and ask if he needed any help, and he always said, ‘No, I’ve pretty much got it,’ ” Levy recalls—but the endeavor still made his heart “pitter-patter.”

“I put a little pressure on myself to make sure that I tried to come through for him on this, that this project that we [were] working on would actually come to fruition,” he says. On a recent Zoom call from his Los Angeles home, the beloved actor and writer looks back on his years as co-creator, executive producer, and star on “Schitt’s Creek” as a series of firsts. And it wasn’t just his work becoming a family affair (both Dan and his daughter, Sarah, acted on the Emmy-nominated Pop TV series); it was also his first time playing a straight man to the heightened characters around him, magnified by his first time navigating a sitcom writers’ room. “I’ve never done that,” he says, “and that was scary to me.” You’d think that, nearing his 50th year on camera, the sketch and comedy icon would have seen it all by now. But to hear him tell it, “Schitt’s Creek” was a welcome exercise in continued learning and in exploring parts of himself that he hadn’t allowed with the characters of his past.

“I would say it’s less of a performance—it’s probably closer to me than anything I have done,” Levy says of bringing patriarch Johnny Rose to the screen. “I’ve spent my career, certainly, having no confidence in myself, so I would try anything I could to not be myself. Changing my appearance was important to me in terms of being a character and trying to get laughs through that character.

“If you can hook the audience and have them care about your character, then you have the option of going a lot of different ways with how you want to tell a story or how funny or not funny you want to be.”

“Every time I looked too much like myself,” he continues, “I’d get an uneasy feeling, like, ‘I need something—give me a mustache!’ So, Johnny Rose, it was a big step for me, but a very exciting step.”

Growing up in Hamilton, Ontario, Levy had an early penchant for performance, acting his way through small roles in high school stagings of Shakespeare and more. He also formed a musical folk trio that was eventually absorbed into larger sketch performance pieces for an audience. “I can’t say I would’ve turned on any casting directors who may have been out there watching,” he admits. “[But] I absolutely loved it.” He kept it up, so much so that during his first year at McMaster University, he started cutting class to spend all his time with the drama club and the McMaster Film Board, a student group led by peer and future collaborator Ivan Reitman. 

“Come the end of the year, I wasn’t going to make my year because I hadn’t been to class,” Levy remembers. “I had to go back to all of my professors and say, ‘Look, I’ve got to be honest with you: I’ve been doing a lot of acting. I haven’t gone to class. Tell me what books I need to read and what I don’t need to read. If you can tell me that, I might be able to get through my finals.’ Half the professors said, ‘OK, don’t read this, don’t do this, only focus on this.’ And the other half, with delight, said, ‘You are in trouble, my friend.’ ”

Needless to say, he didn’t accumulate the passing grades he needed. But he returned in the fall with a new head on his shoulders: “I went back and said, ‘No, I’ve got to do this right for my family. I’ve got to make my year.’ The idea of quitting school, dropping out, or failing was just not an option. So I went back to do it right and got involved in the same stuff: I started doing plays again, I started making movies, I cut classes again. And that was that.”

Still, the idea of professionally pursuing what had been, until then, a distraction wasn’t taking hold. “With all the stuff I was doing at university, not one time did I ever think, ‘Boy, this would be great, to make a living at this!’ ” he says. “Nobody from Hamilton then became an actor. It just wasn’t on the radar.” But after dropping out during his second year at McMaster, Levy was scooped up by Reitman to P.A. his first feature, “Foxy Lady.” For his second feature, “a little gem called ‘Cannibal Girls,’ ” Reitman promoted Levy to leading man opposite soon-to-be-regular collaborator Andrea Martin, knowing his acting and sketch work in college would serve the improvised horror-comedy well. 

“Then, that was it,” Levy concludes. The year was 1972. He and Martin reunited soon thereafter in a “Godspell” residency at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, which also boasted the talents of friend and McMaster classmate Martin Short, plus Victor Garber and Gilda Radner. When Chicago’s famed Second City comedy troupe set up shop in Toronto, Levy was firmly set on the path of a career entertainer. 

“Fortunately for me, these two major productions, ‘Godspell’ coming in from New York and Second City coming in from Chicago, were great things to get into—especially Second City,” he says. “In the world of comedy, that was the best schooling you could’ve had. If you thought you were funny before, forget it. Learning how to do it and learning the rules and seeing this kind of brilliant comedy on its feet in such an intimate setting as these Second City revue theaters, that was an amazing experience.” To this day, Levy carries the lessons gleaned during that time into his work. 

“Going into work [on ‘Schitt’s Creek’] every day, you just loved it. Is that going to happen again? I don’t know. But I’m glad it did.”

So what about those “rules” of comedy? Asked to walk through his tricks to character-building, Levy says that comedy works best when you keep it real. It’s a process that has benefited a wide-ranging list of harried, neurotic, oddball men, including roles from any of his twice-Emmy-winning “SCTV” bits; the affably out-of-place dentist of “Waiting for Guffman,” his first of several genre-defining Christopher Guest collaborations; and the cringe-inducing father of “American Pie.”

“No matter how broad you want to take your character, you have to make him real,” he explains. “I was never a joke guy. My kind of work had to do with writing a real person and trying to make him funny through his behavior. There are people who are great at jokes, who look at life through a comic prism. Those are your standup comedians; those are people who have to find the humor in everything they do. That’s not me. I’m just more regular than that, I guess, and I really try to get that humor in through the character work that I do.”

Levy cites his work on “SCTV” and its offshoots through the early ’80s (on which he and his “Schitt’s Creek” wife, Catherine O’Hara, worked together onscreen for the first time), where even the broadest sketches were populated by men and women reacting as they naturally would in their given circumstances. 

“Nothing was ever done tongue-in-cheek; you never stepped outside your character to get a laugh,” Levy says. “Everything had to be organic within the character, and that’s just the kind of comedy I’ve always been attracted to. You have to have the audience emotionally involved, no matter what it is or how broad it is. If you can do that, if you can hook the audience and have them care about your character, then you have the option of going a lot of different ways with how you want to tell a story, or how funny or not funny you want to be. You can create the kind of comedy that has such an emotional underbelly to it that you make the audience feel things they never thought they would.”

For years, Levy has been able to tap into that “underbelly” as a consummate supporting and bit actor on cult-classic indies and studio comedy tentpoles alike. While honoring Tom Hanks in 2002 at the American Film Institute’s 30th Life Achievement honors, Levy wryly noted that he had learned a lot while working with the Oscar winner on Ron Howard’s “Splash” 18 years earlier. “I learned the importance of controlling your eyebrows,” he quipped, before adding, “I learned that I probably don’t have the physical attributes to be a Tom Hanks kind of leading man—unless the film industry flourished in Turkey.”

Speaking about his résumé today, Levy’s outlook remains the same: “Listen, my career—I’ve loved just about everything I was involved with,” he says. “My job usually was to come in for a few scenes in a movie, get your laughs, and get out, and that was great! I didn’t have to carry anything; I didn’t have to carry any exposition. My job was just to come in, bop, bop, bop—two, three, four scenes. That was it.” 

That is exactly, however, why his heart started pitter-pattering when his son proposed “Schitt’s Creek” and Johnny Rose came to fruition as a video store tycoon who takes a financial nosedive. Flanked by a family of disastrously ill-equipped one-percenters—his fussy fashionista son, David (Dan Levy), his globe-trotting “it girl” daughter, Alexis (Annie Murphy), and his wig-wearing soap diva wife, Moira (O’Hara)—it became clear that Johnny, while also in over his head after being forced to move to the titular town, would have to be their steady center. Levy, for his part, believes that every successful half-hour thrives on the strength of its straight man. 

“You had to have one character that makes sure the story moves forward,” he says, pointing to the likes of Jack Benny, Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, and Jerry Seinfeld. “So the idea of playing Johnny Rose as the straight guy I found very exciting because I’d never done it, and I liked the fact that I was this grounding force in the show [who] let everybody else do their thing.”

Of course, the success of “Schitt’s Creek” speaks for itself. After wrapping its sixth and final season last April, it’s been nominated for 15 Emmy Awards going into the 72nd annual ceremony on Sept. 20, including for comedy series and all four major acting categories. The cast has maintained that they finished the story as they wanted to, but that doesn’t mean a tear or two wasn’t shed; in the post-mortem behind-the-scenes documentary “Best Wishes, Warmest Regards: A ‘Schitt’s Creek’ Farewell,” Levy is shown getting misty in the shadows as an emotional scene wraps. To quote Murphy shortly thereafter: “A sad Eugene Levy—that’s a heartbreaker.” 

“It’s the most special—I love everything about ‘Schitt’s Creek,’ ” Levy says, looking back on the series and ahead to the future. “I’m proud of a lot of things in my career, but this, for so many reasons, I’m proud of. I’m glad I was able to be a part of a quality show at this point in my career. And more than that, I’m glad I had something to do with getting it off the ground.

“Going into work every day, you just loved it. Is that going to happen again? I don’t know. But I’m glad it did.”

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 27 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Photographed by Deborah Divine on 7/12 in Pacific Palisades, CA