It is astonishing to contemplate, for someone who’s followed them since they co-starred on the Canadian-import sketch comedy “SCTV” well back in the 20th century, that there may be fans of “Schitt’s Creek” only now becoming familiar with stars Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, nominated for matched-set lead actor and lead actress Emmys this year.
They have not just been waiting around for you to find them. Each has starred in at least one cultural blockbuster — Levy in the “American Pie” films, in which he played the father of Jason Biggs, O’Hara as Macaulay Culkin’s mother in the “Home Alone” films. Some may recall Levy from “Splash,” “Father of the Bride,” “Dumb and Dumberer” or “Madea’s Witness Protection.” He played Max Yasgur in Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock.” O’Hara was in “Beetlejuice” — another careless mother — Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours,” four episodes of “Six Feet Under” and as many of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” (whose production designer was her husband, Bo Welch), and she appeared alongside Drew Barrymore in “Home Fries” and Jack Black in “Orange County.”
Still, their work together — “SCTV,” four films directed by Christopher Guest (all co-written by Guest and Levy), and five seasons of “Schitt’s Creek,” as Johnny and Moira Rose, parents of David (Dan Levy) and Alexis (Annie Murphy), a formerly rich family coping with small-town life — feels like a real partnership, a product of overlapping sensibilities and shared history. Four decades after they first worked together, they have undeniably become a team.
Levy and O’Hara met in the 1970s as castmates at the Toronto branch of the improv theater Second City — the SC in “SCTV,” conceived as a Canadian cousin to the recently debuted “Saturday Night Live.” (O’Hara joined Second City when Gilda Radner left to become a Not Ready for Prime Time Player). Framed as a broadcast from a television station in the fictional metropolis of Melonville, it snuck onto American TV at odd hours, at first in syndication, then late-night NBC, and finally on Cinemax. It was strange and scrappy and felt like a sort of secret — the Velvet Underground to “SNL’s” Rolling Stones.
In addition to Levy and O’Hara, its cast included at various times Harold Ramis, who would go on to co-write and star in “Ghosbusters” and co-write and direct “Groundhog Day”; John Candy, later a movie star; Andrea Martin, winner of Tony awards and currently on “The Good Fight”; Joe Flaherty, who was Sam and Lindsay’s dad on “Freaks and Geeks”; Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, who built the movie “Strange Brew” around their SCTV characters Bob and Doug Mackenzie; and Martin Short, who would become all that Martin Short has become.
“The characters on ‘SCTV’ were definitely on the broader side of things,” Levy said when I interviewed him and O’Hara in 2015, just before “Schitt’s Creek’s” American debut, “but our approach to those characters was totally real.”
Levy’s characters included disco-era comedian Bobby Bitman (“If I may, as a comic, in all seriousness…"), all gold chains and rings; actor Woody Tobias Jr., who plays henchman Bruno to Candy’s Doctor Tongue on “Monster Chiller Horror Theater”; and news-of-little-import anchor Earl Camembert. O’Hara brought impersonations of Brooke Shields (singing Devo’s “Whip It”) and Katharine Hepburn, but her best-known recurring creation was the super-sensational Lola Heatherton: “I love you! I want to bear your children!” was one catch phrase, “It’s scary!” another. Lola and Bobby would be seen together on “The Sammy Maudlin Show,” an orgy of ostentatious emotionalism and extreme mutual puffery. In one memorable sketch within a sketch — layers were the show’s stock in trade — the two bring a clip of their remake of “On the Waterfront,” “On the Waterfront Again.” (“I think I added some twists in the part that Brando missed, to be quite frank,” says Bobby.)
“SCTV” could be loud and broad, or quiet and subtle — watch O’Hara’s Margaret Meehan as a high school student in a quiz show (hosted by Levy as “Alex Trebel”) slowly crumbling to pieces as she’s unable to stop herself answering questions before they’re asked — and sometimes all those things at once. (See Moira Rose for lessons in quiet loudness and broad subtlety.)
DVD sets of the series are still in print.
The Christopher Guest films
O’Hara and Levy appear together in the first four films directed by Christopher Guest, each improvised by the actors to an outline written by Guest and Levy. Although the films are satirical and absurd, and at times emphasize the mock in “mockumentary,” they are all also genuinely compelling, emotionally true investigations into the creative impulse.
“Waiting for Guffman” (1996). Guest plays director Corky St. Clair in a comedy about small-town community theater, once described by O’Hara as “a story about little people, little pathetic people who dare to want bigger lives.” A lock of hair teased into what she’s called a “mull-bang,” the actress is teamed with Fred Willard here, as travel agents Ron and Sheila Albertson, the Lunt and Fontaine of Blaine, Mo.; Levy is “newcomer” Allan Pearl, a dentist with a lazy eye. Their key scene together takes place on a double-date dinner in a Chinese restaurant scene, where a drunk Sheila has questions about circumcision.
“Best in Show” (2000). Levy and O’Hara play Gerry and Cookie Fleck, owners of a Norwich terrier entered in a Philadelphia dog show; Gerry was born with two left feet, literally, and Cookie has a lot of ex-boyfriends. “I like to think that Cookie and I work as a team, although I do nothing,” says Gerry, describing their method. The moment when Cookie, having sprained her knee just before competition, puts their fate in her husband’s hands — “Gerry, you’re going to show Winky” — carries much more of an emotional charge than those words should rightly convey.
“A Mighty Wind” (2003). A tribute concert reunites veterans of the 1960s folk revival; Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean, who were Spinal Tap, perform as the Kingston Trio-esque Folksmen. Levy and O’Hara play Mitch and Mickey, an estranged ’60s pop-folk duo, along the lines of Ian and Sylvia or Richard and Mimi Fariña. He’s damaged goods, for whom every spoken sentence is a hill to climb; she’s down-to-earth and ordinary. Their relationship is the emotional center of the film, which hangs finally on the question of whether they’ll finish their song “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” with an actual kiss. It’s remarkable how present they are singing together, and how much meaning flows between them. With “Kiss” nominated for best song, Levy and O’Hara performed as Mitch and Mickey on the 2004 Oscars. (It didn’t win.)
“For Your Consideration” (2006). O’Hara and Levy run on different tracks in a film about Hollywood comebacks and hopes. She’s Marilyn Hack, a long-struggling actress in the low-budget film “Home for Purim” (Guest plays a director again), a period piece about a Southern Jewish family. Levy is Morey Orfkin, who manages past-his-sell-by-date leading man Victor Allan Miller (Shearer).
Odds and ends
“The Last Polka” (1985) Cinemax gave “SCTV” polka heroes Yosh and Stan Shmenge (Candy and Levy) their own hour-long mockumentary. O’Hara plays one-third of the singing group the Lemon Twins — that is the correct math — who appear in the special’s concert sequences, in interviews and in photos suggesting romantic connections between the married Shmenges and the Lemons. The two other twins are played by Catherine’s real-life sister Mary Margaret O’Hara, a singer-songwriter of cultish renown, and late-period “SCTV” player Robin Duke, who recurs on “Schitt’s Creek” as Blouse Barn proprietor Wendy Kurtz. Candy and Levy, who wrote the special, also teamed in the theatrical features “Armed and Dangerous” and “Speed Zone” (a.k.a. “Cannonball Fever,” a.k.a. “Cannonball Run III”).
“Committed” (2001) This Canadian cartoon series, whose 13 episodes are currently available for purchase on Amazon Prime, is the great not-quite-lost, semi-known work in the O’Hara-Levy collaboration canon. (That’s to say, I never knew of it until researching this article.) A family comedy based on a comic strip by Michael Fry — also known for “Over the Hedge,” in whose film version O’Hara and Levy play a porcupine couple — it features the pair as Liz and Joe Larsen, challenged parents of three. It’s the sort of cartoon in which a mother, speaking with a school counselor about a troublesome daughter, asks, “Do ya think this is because I didn’t breast feed her long enough? Let me explain, I’m one of those people who really needs her sleep and this was before they had any decent breast milk pumps that weren’t steam-driven.” Fellow Canadian and Kid in the Hall Dave Foley plays the family dog, Bob; former “SCTV” castmate Martin plays grandma.
“From Cleveland” (1980). This pilot for a late-night series, which aired once on CBS before nothing came of it, features the great Bob (Elliott) and Ray (Goulding) as late-night DJs whose segments frame sketches performed by SCTV cast members on location in Cleveland. (I don’t know how one gets to see this, but I so want to: It’s the world’s funniest people all in one place.) Fun fact: Bob Elliott is the father of Chris Elliott, who plays mayor Roland Schitt on “Schitt’s Creek” — so Levy has worked with Chris Elliott’s father, and Elliott has worked with Levy’s son (and “Schitt’s Creek” co-creator and costar) Dan. It all comes around.