Critic’s Notebook: Q&A: Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara on comedy, Canada, ‘Creek’

"SCTV" costars Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara reunite in the new Pop sitcom "Schitt's Creek."
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

A funny new sitcom from Canada, the inauspiciously titled “Schitt’s Creek,” auspiciously reunites Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, formerly cast mates on the Second City-sprung sketch comedy “SCTV” and in a host of Christopher Guest comedies — all co-written by Levy and including “Best in Show” and “A Mighty Wind.” Here Levy has as co-writer and costar his son Daniel Levy, who came to him with the idea for a sitcom about a rich family suddenly made poor and living uncomfortably, and uncomfortably close, in two adjoining motel rooms in their sole remaining asset, a worthless small town they happen to own. Levy and O’Hara are parents Johnny and Moira Rose, Daniel Levy plays son David, and Annie Murphy is daughter Alexis. Chris Elliott plays the discomfiting town mayor, Roland Schitt.

I wrote about the series and interviewed its stars on the occasion of its premiere last Wednesday on Pop, formerly the TV Guide Network. (There are repeat viewings throughout the week; tonight’s episode, in which Moira, a former soap star, gives a lesson in drama to a frightened high school class and David becomes a bag boy, is an especially good one.) Here is some more of that talk.

Eugene Levy: It’s such a strong cast. Everybody has come through in a way that gives the show the tone that we wanted it to have — real people that the audience can be emotionally involved with and want to watch again the next week; it’s not about jokes, the humor comes from character. Annie [Murphy] is great. She was at the Canadian film center drama course last year; she’s had very little experience, and she was almost ready to give up acting because she couldn’t nail an audition for some reason. She was going out for a lot of dramatic work, she said. She’s so charismatic, she’s so beautiful and she’s so funny; like Catherine in a way, there’s a million things going on on her face and it’s all natural.

Catherine O’Hara: Great sense of humor. Great sense of humor about herself. Doesn’t take herself seriously. She’s a young, beautiful actress, and she’s just so cool. Her dad said, “I told you those eyebrows would come in handy one day.”


Levy: When I first saw the videotape of her audition, I thought, “Oh, my God, this is uncanny casting,” because she’s the perfect combination of me and Catherine.

O’Hara: I’m flattered by that!

Levy: She’s got the brows, and yet she’s got the Irish background.

O’Hara: Murphy!

Levy: She looks exactly like David’s sister. And Daniel has just blown me away with his performance. I didn’t know what would happen until we started working, whether he would have what it takes. In a situation working with very experienced people, you want to be able to hold your own. Acting on a weekly character-driven show with kind of a real backdrop and yet it’s got to be funny — it’s a very tricky business. You’ve got to know when to go and when to pull back. And, boy, he just nailed it.

O’Hara: His way of moving seems to come naturally from him. He moves in a unique way.

What did you think of Moira when you first read the script?

O’Hara: It’s generalizing but seemed more like their idea of Moira was more like the soap opera character that she played, like a snooty kind of rich lady thing. That’s probably not the way they saw it, but that’s the way I saw it when I read it. And I thought, “No, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do snooty rich lady. I’d rather do someone who thinks that she’s of this world and hip and avant-garde and has been everywhere and is cultured. And who knows about her past? We haven’t gotten too much into that, but I like to think she’s really threatened by this small-town life -- because she’s been there, you know? That just makes it more threatening in my mind now. And I like to think of her as more vulnerable than just snobby or superior. I think it’s way more insecure. It’s more fun to play, I think.


Had you worked with Chris Elliott before?

Levy: No, I never worked with Chris, but we had him in mind from the beginning. It’s hard to describe what it is about Chris, the insanity in his humor that I took to when I first saw him on the Letterman show back in 1982. He does have a kind of a smarminess to his on-camera persona that just seemed like, “It’s there, that’s what it is, that’s what we want.”

There’s an element of danger to his performance, the way he stands so close in your scenes together. It’s like something out of a horror movie.

Levy: When we were doing the pilot presentation, because it was such a cheap, low-budget thing, I was actually directing because we could save some money. We were doing a scene we were doing in the Schitt house, and we didn’t have time to cover the scene [shoot multiple angles], so I said, “OK, we’ll do it in one shot.” I said, “Chris, do me a favor -- just get a little close to me when you talk to me. And as he came in close to me, my head would kind of go back, because it’s that uncomfortable thing when somebody’s too close to you. And he started laughing and I started laughing. I remembered that this would be a good thing for Roland -- that he sometimes just gets a little too in your face, which is a not a totally likable characteristic.


O’Hara: It’s his town, it’s his family, yet this guy thinks he owns it -- which he does. And it’s like the only power he has is to make Johnny uncomfortable. I love that.

Levy: He’s also the mayor and he knows he has power. It’s very kind of Barney Fife.

You think Barney Fife had power?

Levy: Yeah, he had a badge, and he walked around with that [spot-on Don Knotts imitation], “Yeah, yeah” sensibility. Because he was a cop. He had power over anybody.


Did you grow up on American sitcoms?

O’Hara: Oh, yeah. When I was growing up there were only a couple of local stations. Hamilton, where Eugene’s from, and Toronto, where I’m from, and the three big networks from the U.S., from Buffalo.

Levy: That’s what entertainment was, all the great shows, Benny and Gleason and Ernie Kovacs and Burns and Allen. It was fun. It was real show business.

The CBC had its own comedies, didn’t it?


Levy: Never watched it.

O’Hara: Yes, there was comedy. [To Levy.] Didn’t you ever watch “Nightcap”? That was great, sketch comedy.

Levy: “Nightcap” came later, in the late ‘60s. I’m talking about growing up as a kid in the ‘50s. I never watched CBC, because there was nothing.

O’Hara: You didn’t watch “The Friendly Giant”?


Levy: No, I didn’t. I know hundreds of people did, but I wasn’t one of them.

O’Hara: Oh, it was a great show. I knew every show that was on every night of the week.

Did that mean that as young performers you had your sights set on the U.S.?

Levy: I never in my life thought I would end up performing, so it wasn’t like, as a performer I want to make sure I head down to the States. I never actually considered doing this professionally until I had to get a job and got into it, behind the scenes. Oddly enough, it never occurred to me that you could actually do this for living, even though I did a lot of stuff in high school and college.


What about you, Catherine?

O’Hara: I met Gilda Radner, God bless her, when I was in grade 13, which doesn’t exist anymore. The high school I went to went from 9 to 13.

Levy: They all did in Canada until about 1965.

How old were you?


O’Hara: Seventeen, 18? I was probably 18 by the end of the year. I met Gilda because my brother Marcus was dating her, and she was in “Godspell” -- that’s where I first saw Eugene and Marty [Short]. And it was really watching Gilda when I realized, ‘cause I’d always liked acting in school, that it was actually a local possibility. And then she got into Second City theater, and I was a waitress there -- it’s like I stalked her -- and then she did the show for a while and then took on a job for the National Lampoon. So I got to understudy or take her place -- I got to join the cast, and Eugene was in it. It was really just the luck of having a professional actor suddenly in my life.

The cast of “SCTV” all came from the stage show?

Levy: Yeah, with the exception of Harold Ramis, who came out of Chicago. They brought Harold up to spearhead the writing, and everybody else we had worked with onstage. Joe Flaherty, John Candy, Dave Thomas.

O’Hara: Oh, and Rick [Moranis].


Levy: Rick came later; he didn’t come out of Second City. The reason the show started was that Bernie Sahlins, who owned Second City, when “Saturday Night Live” started -- “Saturday Night Live” basically comprised two groups, Second City and National Lampoon -- and saw all these Second City people going to kind of a major television show, he said, “We should have our own show.” And then we came on locally in Toronto one year later.

What is it about Canadian comics that America loves so much?

O’Hara: I would say the country’s a good straight man. Other than that I don’t know. I don’t know!

Levy: When that question would come up over the years, I would always say it doesn’t have anything to do with being from Canada. I always thought it’s just the way you’re born, you’re born funny, but the older I get I can’t really tell whether there’s something in the water. I think it may have something to do with being Canadian, being the little brother that lives on the other side of the fence where you’re always kind of looking over at what’s going on with your big brother south of the border.


O’Hara: And you can’t take yourself that seriously.

Levy: Maybe there’s a slight inferiority complex. Is that possibly a reason? I still in my heart believe that it’s not.

O’Hara: Did you ever have an inferiority complex growing up about the U.S.? ‘Cause I didn’t.

Levy: No, I didn’t have an inferiority complex growing up. But I think somehow in the world of entertainment there always was one there, because when you make it in the States — I mean, you could just flounder around in Canada for years, but if you make it in the States, you have then made it in Canada. If you’re recognized in Hollywood or New York, you are then suddenly an entity in Canada. It seemed like the way things worked.


Canada likens itself more to England than to America. There are great actors in England working, and they do television and they do stage, and the thing is it’s all about the work. In Canada, there are great, very talented actors and funny people; it’s just that there doesn’t seem to be a star system the way it is in the States. The business is geared around the system down here, it seems to me, and in Canada it’s just more about the work.

O’Hara: When I’ve traveled to London and Ireland, people don’t seem to take themselves so seriously; and it’s not just having a sense of humor about what’s around you but having a sense of humor about yourself, and that’s the healthiest sense of humor. And that seems to be encouraged more in those kind of traditionally provincial places than in the U.S., where you’re raised to think you’re the greatest.

We seem quite willing to take Canadian comics and make them honorary Americans.

O’Hara: Oh, now. You own us.


Levy: But when you’re looking at the ratio, I mean, look at the talent that’s come out of the States. You talk about all these people coming out of Canada, which is true, you add them up it’s like ... 11. But we’ve kind of held our own comedically for a long time up there.

O’Hara: They let us into the comedy in the U.S. Because nobody’s threatened by comedians. We’re court jesters.

The idea of rich people having suddenly to survive without money is an old comedy trope. Recently it was the premise of “Arrested Development.” Your version feels a little warmer.

Levy: Right, but that’s been our whole thing; that’s what I love -- when you’re so immersed in the reality of what you’re watching that you can blur that line of is it funny or is it not funny. But the characters have to be genuine; they can’t just opt for a joke. There’s nothing tongue-in-cheek about anything anybody’s doing in this show. Once you step out of that reality box just one time, you’ve lost them. They’re saying, “Oh, I get it now -- it’s a funny show.”


“SCTV” had that too, I think. It was a sketch comedy, but you had characters with long relationships, all intertwined.

O’Hara: Bruno and Doctor Tongue.

Levy: Here again, the characters on “SCTV” were definitely on the broader side of things, but our approach to those characters was totally real. Woody Tobias Jr. and Tongue had a relationship that was incredibly real; Bittman and Lola had a relationship that was incredibly real. Floyd and Earl had a relationship that was incredibly real. Bob and Doug.

Levy: Bob and Doug. And it was all about just keep it grounded; if you keep it grounded you can take it as far as you want to take it, as long as you can justify everything coming out of the character’s mouth.


You’re writing the second season now.

Levy: Yes. And Daniel is really working the writers’room this year; taken a load off my lap, which is what I was hoping for. I read all the dailies, go in once a week. “Hi, how ya doin’? Want to have a coffee?”

The show has had high visibility in Canada.

Levy: Yeah, CBC, the big network up there, and we got beautiful big numbers on our premiere. And the whole Twitter thing -- I love the Twitter thing. I’m now getting into Twitter. I actually put out a couple of tweets the night of the show, ‘cause you’re supposed to do that.


O’Hara: Daniel was tweeting during the [Canadian premiere], and he was telling Eugene to do some tweets.

Levy: I said, “Why would I be tweeting during the show?” I would think you’d rather be watching during the show than tweeting during the show. But that’s how they live their lives now.

O’Hara: These kids today and their attention spans.

Robert Lloyd is into the whole Twitter thing @LATimesTVLloyd