In the pantheon of male and female comedy duos, one can feasibly rank SCTV alums Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara up there with such greats as George and Gracie Burns and Gilda Radner and Gene Wilder. Broadcasting out of the Great White North, the two established a reputation for respectively playing nerdy and brassy alter-egos, quite often together. Yet underneath their characters’ quirks was a humanity, emphasized during their pairing in the Christopher Guest mockumentaries, and even more so in the Pop series Schitt’s Creek created by Levy and son Dan. O’Hara and Levy play former soap opera star and bankrupt video store king Moira and Johnny Rose who take refuge in a small town they bought. Together the former metropolitans along with their kids Alexis (Annie Murphy) and David (Dan Levy) look to rebound, and season 4 marks a turning point where they learn to shed their superficial exteriors and connect with those around them.
There’s an endearing element to Schitt’s Creek where it doesn’t treat the locals like punching bags, which can be the case for a comedy series of this kind.
Eugene Levy: The Rose family are kind of the freaks and the town is a civil place with relatively normal people. It’s an all-inclusive town where people deal with people based on who they are, not what they are. The first three seasons we were dealing with this fish-out-of-water element, but once we settled down we see how the Rose family was evolving and integrating themselves in the town. The Roses’ daughter Alexis [Annie Murphy] has come a long way. She can now rule out her former life. When her old friend comes to visit, Alexis sees the shallowness. Her friend says, “It’s been too long. We can’t let this happen again,” and Alexis responds “It won’t.” That’s a big step for her.
What’s one of your takeaway moments from Season 4?
Levy: When Patrick [Noah Reid] is at an open mic and he decides to sing to David [Dan Levy], who is quite embarrassed that his boyfriend is singing in public. But when he realizes the song is about him, it gets emotional. David realizes that the love between them is coming through the song. Moira then touches David’s arm and that’s a bring-out-the-Kleenex moment.
O’Hara: For someone who’s proud to say in public that they really cared for David, that’s killer. I love doing the family scenes with the four of them. Those are the most fun.
While your show is scripted, does improvisation ever take over?
Levy: No not really. Occasionally while we’re writing for Johnny [Levy’s character] we’ll get into a situation at the writer’s table and improvise. You occasionally get some nuggets from that, but mostly, the writers lay down their ideas and lay everything out with a situation, premise and a good chunk of dialogue.
Catherine, how did the role of Moira speak to you?
O’Hara: They had this story about an ex-soap star and there was some great dialogue. We really developed the character together. There was always a lot to play with.
Levy: Her role was written in a much different way, a different perception of who this soap star could be. When we started the series, Dan and I had these magical ideas and Catherine brought in fantastic touches with Moira, making her funnier than what was conceived. We know that comes with the territory when you’re involved in a project; it’s more than learning your lines, you really make everything three-dimensional.
O’Hara: I love doing the role because she’s so silly, and tries to pretend. There’s a moment where she goes to buy a car at a used car lot and Moira gets to use her immense acting skills. I think it was the end of Season 2 where they’re at a fancy restaurant with old rich friends. Johnny treats me out to dinner, but we run into friends from our past lives and have to keep up a face that we’re still like them. Moira wants to feel like she’s back in that world. She relishes that moment. But slowly they reveal to their old friends who they are with Johnny being completely honest.
What can you tell us about season 5?
Levy: Well, I can’t really get into specifics but we do have some fun with Moira, theatrically speaking. Both her and Johnny put on a show in the town were the cast members do things that they haven’t normally done. We’re kind of pushing the envelope a little bit. Shooting is halfway through. We finished the studio shoot and Monday we start location work.
During your days at SCTV, was there a Beatles-Beach Boys type of comedy rivalry with Saturday Night Live?
Levy: If there wasn’t SNL, there wouldn’t be SCTV. Bernie Sahlins who owned the Second City Theater felt as though he was losing people to SNL because they were comprised of half Second City and half National Lampoon players. He wanted to create a vehicle where Second City people could go and have their own show. Both shows were two completely different types of animals: One is a live show, in which there’s a kind of pressure. We didn’t have that. We were a post-production show writing at least two months in advance. We’d get up to look at the monitors, see what we could do better and then go back and do it again. Also we performed to camera and not to an audience, and the latter effects how you perform: If you get laughs you play into that more and if you’re not getting laughs you have to goose your performance. SCTV was a satirical show that gradually turned into a character-driven show. It was the characters who drove the storylines in that station. No one stepped out of character to get laughs, which is the same approach on the Christopher Guest films.
If your characters are working the way they should, then you can take the audience on some pretty funny and emotional trips which we did occasionally. When Chris and I created A Mighty Wind we gambled with a serious storyline with my character Mitch and Catherine’s Mickey where pretty much the movie depended on whether those two kissed at the end of the rainbow. We weren’t afraid to do that but you have to know that your characters are indelible, which is the same approach we take on Schitt’s Creek.
How is the new Martin Scorsese-directed Netflix SCTV comedy special-documentary coming together?
Levy: There are no plans for fresh sketches, but nothing is being ruled out. We don’t really know what the final shape of this is. It’s really in the hands of Mr. Scorsese. He wants to get as much footage as he can and figure out what it will be. When we (SCTV alums) first discussed this documentary, we wondered if we could get a name director. Catherine did After Hours with Martin Scorsese and recalled how he was a huge fan of SCTV, which blew her away: He knew all the material and kept quoting lines. Martin Short suggested we reach out and we had a meeting in New York and spoke with him for hours. On the show, we had four or five pieces where we said they were directed by Martin Scorsese. He loved those bits because he’d get a call from his mother thinking that they were actually directed by him. But I think what he’s looking at is what makes some comedy last, and some comedy not. There’s something there that’s intriguing to him.
Did the two of you know each other before SCTV? What’s your earliest memory of your shorthand as performers?
LEVY: I met Catherine when I was in Godspell in 1972. Her brother Marcus was going out with Gilda Radner in our company, and on occasion I would bump into Marcus’ kid sister Catherine. Then she started working at the Second City Theater (in Toronto) and she auditioned for the show and took Gilda’s place after she left to join the National Lampoon touring company. In the early days we mostly worked in a group, but I was amazed at how someone who was considerably younger than the other cast members on SCTV, how quickly she picked up on things.
O’HARA: [On SCTV] there were these Vegas characters Bobby Bittman and Lola Heatherton on ‘The Sammy Maudlin Show’. They were the first ones we did that were in sync. I think of (the quiz show parody) ‘High Q’ with my ridiculous Margaret Meehan and you as host Alex Trebel. You really kept making the scene happen, kept it paced and moved it along with me interrupting you. (Following SCTV) we didn’t do team work until the Guest movies.
LEVY: In recent years for a couple of charity events, we’ll play Bobby and Lola. But it was one of those moments on the show where you can say, ‘Boy, we sure do that again,’ one of those electric moments. (In sketches) Catherine and I have the same ground rules. We don’t consider ourselves comedians. I don’t know stand-up or jokes. I don’t look at life through a comedic prism. Catherine is the same way. We get our laughs by the comedy in a situation through the characters we create.
Is there an end point to Schitt’s Creek where the Roses finally move out of town?
LEVY: No, end point right now. They’re having problems getting out of Schitt’s Creek. What use to be ‘We’ll get out of here as quick as we can’ is now ‘No one is interested in buying this town.’ Their lives are in Schitt’s Creek for the time being.
O’HARA: I think Moira thinks they’re getting out. She believes Johnny has a plan.
O’Hara: I think Moira thinks they’re getting out. She believes Johnny has a plan.