“Schitt’s Creek” creator Dan Levy on how far his queer self has come, making memories with his dad, and (obviously) Mariah
By Chris Azzopardi
Oh, sure, Dan Levy gets excited. Really, he does! The sparkle may not be written on his face – cherubic, distinguished, writerly; one with features much like his actor-dad, Eugene Levy – but inside you can bet he’s screaming. It’s a Canadian thing.
Our conversation takes place on a day in mid December, the day after Pop TV’s “Schitt’s Creek”, his farcical and heartfelt sitcom about a family stripped of their riches that is lovingly created as a gift to this godforsaken world with his father, has picked up a Critics’ Choice nod for Best Comedy Series and Levy “is” screaming. Really!
“We have a limit to how excited we can be about ourselves,” he says, snickering. He continues, Canadian-modesty fully intact: “But it’s a thrill.”
The thrill humbly extended to a tweet written by the out 35-year-old conveying gratitude for the show’s recent wins when GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics awarded “Schitt’s Creek” with two honors, TV Comedy of the Year and Unsung TV Show of the Year, during their annual Dorian Awards. (Full, proud disclosure: I’m a member, and I voted for “Schitt’s Creek” in both categories.)
Get Levy talking about Mariah Carey – the diva inspiration for one of season 4’s sweetest and gayest lines, pertaining to his onscreen boyfriend, Patrick (Noah Reid) – and he won’t stop screaming. We spoke about the Elusive Chanteuse’s prominent place on “Schitt’s Creek” and about what’s in store for his lovably dramatic character, David Rose, mom Moira (Catherine O’Hara), dad Johnny (Eugene Levy) and sister Alexis (Annie Murphy) in season 5. Plus, this season’s coming out story that Levy says was an emotional shoot and “my proudest episode.”
I was feeling such disappointment when the Golden Globes and the Emmys didn’t acknowledge “Schitt’s Creek” yet again this year. So, this Critics’ Choice nod must feel like, “Finally, awards committees are catching up to the rest of the world.”
Slowly but surely we’re cracking into that illustrious group of shows that get nominated for things and it’s a wonderful feeling. We’re a very small show, and I think for very small shows that don’t necessarily have huge resources to promote themselves for award consideration, a nomination from the critics at this point is fantastic. It means it’s been word-of-mouth, and I think the fact that we are also streaming on Netflix has cracked us open to an entirely new and different audience as well.
And listen, our team, first and foremost, just wants to tell really interesting stories and wants to have fun when we go to work every day, and that has always been the goal for me as someone who’s running the show. The minute you start to look outside and think, “Oh, we’re being recognized for this; people are putting us on lists,” it’s wonderful but it can really change the experience of making your show. Suddenly you’re more concerned about, “Are things living up to the standards that the media have kindly set for us?” And that can be really intimidating.
So I try not to pay attention as much as I possibly can; especially when we’re making our show, I try to disengage from all of that so we can really focus on what’s ultimately going to serve our characters. But I’m not gonna lie: It’s been a joy over the past couple of years to see our show up there in the ranks of other shows that I have long admired myself. So I’m just ultimately bursting with pride for our team.
How are the Roses coping with each other during season 5?
Season 4 was a really emotional chapter in this family’s trajectory and we were able to really peel back some layers and show a lot of growth. Season 5 is really about having fun. The guards are down a little bit, which means we can have more fun with our characters, we can put them in stranger situations.
We tried our best to pair characters this season with characters that have never been paired before and really take stories outside of the box and expand our world a little bit, so this season was always intended to be the shiniest and brightest and boldest we’ve ever done. But I’m just really excited because there’s so much in store in season 5. It’s bursting with life and joy and I can’t wait for, particularly, a few episodes.
David does a lot of things this season that, for me, as a gay kid growing up, were horrifying: tree-climbing, baseball. What was your favorite David adventure to shoot this season?
The fun thing about David is he’s someone who has put on such a front for so long that he has really, over the course of his two years in this town, allowed himself to just get in better touch with himself and expose himself to vulnerability in ways that he never would have. So something like the first episode of season 5 (laughs) – constantly feeling the need to prove his relationship and how far he’s willing to go for it – was really fun. I mean, the day was grueling and I was stuck up there (in the trees) for, I think, seven hours…
So by the end of the shoot, your face was David’s. You weren’t even acting anymore.
(Laughs) The character and me as a person really came together in those moments. But yeah, I would say the excitement of our first episode back is really an indicator of what’s to come.
I can’t believe these characters are just now trying on Moira’s wigs. How did that not already happen?
The idea was, for us, that she needed to be on a totally different continent in order for David and Alexis to even dare touch that wall, because of all the things, all the buttons you can press with Moira, those wigs are everything (laughs). So we thought it could be a really fun, considering no one’s ever tried them on. And we never ever really touched it, but that was really out of respect for Moira, who was holding court in her home. Now that she’s away we can all sort of have some fun with it, and getting to select which wig we got was a really fun process too. I tried on that little blunt, blonde wig that I wear in the episode and thought, “Well, this could be good for my real life!”
I am loving the looks this season, and also, I am a full supporter of that whole nightgown hoodie you wear in the first episode. What’s the story behind that giant thing?
Oh, yeah. That I believe is (designer) Rick Owens and it is a contraption. It’s a full… almost like a cult robe. Or something (laughs). It’s very cult-y, yeah. And it wasn’t very breathable, if I’m being honest. I loved the clothes, but we shoot in the summertime and that was an intense garment to wear in the dead of summer.
The Christmas episode, which aired in December, was actually shot in the summer, and then a special effects team gave the episode its wintery effects. Have you considered setting more of “Schitt’s Creek” in the winter? I bet the season alone would give you a lot of comedy to mine.
Yeah – no. I’m from the East Coast, a Torontonian through and through. I don’t ever want to shoot in the wintertime. That’s me being selfish. I don’t ever want to be outside in the wintertime.
No, no. You shoot in the summer and you have that special effects team winterize it.
You might need to take a look at our budget. (Laughs) Those special effects were hard-earned.
I do hope that you’re already thinking about doing another “Schitt’s Creek” Christmas special.
(Laughs) That’s a time and resource question, but you know, I think when it comes to a holiday episode, we were so careful about when we did it. I always knew that if I was given the opportunity I would love to do one, but I also felt, for the sake of our show, for people to really care, you need a couple seasons for your audience to understand the characters and what they want and what they need before you put a holiday spin on the show. So after four seasons, we felt like it was time. We earned it in a way.
Sandra Bullock’s “Speed 2: Cruise Control” is a movie I haven’t heard referenced in a while – until this season. Did you write that line for Moira? It’s so perfect for her.
I can’t remember who wrote that. I don’t want to take credit in case it was someone in our room. The whole scene was a joint effort between myself and our amazing writers, and some of the rarest, most absurd references come out of this wonderful group of people who are total freaks and I love them all very much. So, it was a joint effort. Some of them are actually Catherine’s; that one, I think, was one of our writers.
If ever there’s a “Glitter” reference, I’ll know that’s you.
All the Mariah stuff is me.
Will there be more Mariah stuff? And also, how much Mariah is played on set?
A lot of Mariah is played just in my “life”, which seeps into my professional life. She tweeted about the show last year after the Mariah Carey reference in our season 4 finale.
You recently celebrated that tweet’s anniversary on your IG.
I’ll be celebrating that anniversary for years to come. I lost it. There’s been some amazing people who’ve said some wonderful things about the show, but the Mariah Carey tweet, to me, was like, I don’t even know how to process that. I think back to being a teenager, putting up Mariah Carey posters on my bedroom walls. It was a full-circle moment.
The last time we chatted you told me that one episode in particular this season made you cry. Why is it so meaningful to you?
It’s a layered thing. I find it sometimes quite emotional to be in the position that I am in, to be able to tell queer stories and show them on a mass scale, to write moments and stories, and in this particular case a love story, that seems to really affect people. It’s hard not to think back to a time in your life where you didn’t have that kind of freedom. For me, I think back to high school when I was still in the closet and wondering if I would ever be able to live out in the open. To now be in the position that I am, getting to write what I find to be a really lovely queer romance that millions of people get to watch, it’s quite profound.
And how about the episode’s impact on you?
It’s a particular moment that I had to write that is something that most queer people go through and articulating that, dramatizing that, is just a very meaningful episode for me and for a character in our show. It’s a coming out episode. So getting to write that and trying to find a way around that kind of story that’s been told several times in film and television and literature, finding a dynamic way into that story and out of that story, was probably the greatest joy and challenge I’ve had as a writer for TV. And now that we’ve cut and polished the episode it’s my proudest episode we’ve done as a show.
Given that you understand the weight of this show on your audience, I’m guessing David and Patrick will never break up.
(Laughs) Um, I don’t ever want them to, but you never know what happens. All I know is that we do understand what our fans are enjoying and we certainly wouldn’t want to do anything to jeopardize their loyalty.
It’s the first successful relationship I’ve had in a while and it’s not even mine.
Funnily enough, me too.
For the “Schitt’s Creek: Up Close & Personal” tour, you and some cast members are touring various U.S. cities. How did the idea for the tour start and are there any Tina Turner musical numbers?
(Laughs) The idea for the tour started mainly because I think so much of the success of our show is based on the enthusiasm and the word-of-mouth that has come from our fans. And the feedback that I’ve received from our fans has been so much more than, “We love your show”; it’s long letters about how this show has provided sort of a safe space, a happy space, a joyful space in dark times. We seem to have a relationship with the people who watch our show and love our show that is slightly deeper than I think the relationship that a lot of people have with the shows that they watch on TV.
Shooting the show in Canada, we don’t ever really have access to a lot of our fans. We shoot for three months out of the year and the rest of the time is me editing or writing the show, and a lot of the response and feedback we got from fans was a desire to interact with the cast, and so we started developing this idea. It’s a Q-and-A, it’s very casual. We show some things we’ve never shown before, we show some behind-the-scenes stuff, we show some bloopers, and there may or may not be a musical performance that may or may not involve a Tina Turner song sung by someone who may or may not play my boyfriend on a television show (laughs). But for us, it’s a great way for us to meet our fans and for the fans to come and say hi in person. We did our first in Los Angeles a little while ago and it was incredible. There was so much love in the room.
And there was a marriage.
There was a marriage! So you couldn’t get more joyful than that.
My friend tells me I innately mirror Mariah’s mannerisms in my everyday life. He’s not wrong. Considering your Mariah fandom, have you thought about how much of David might actually be Mariah-influenced?
You know what, I haven’t. But now that you’ve brought that up, there “is” a lot of gesticulation that happens. You’re drawing connections that, to me, are probably just subliminal at this point.
It’s all innate.
It’s all innate. It all goes back to Mariah.
As it should. Regarding the writing, do you think in terms of meme-able moments in the writers’ room?
No, no! In fact, there was some kind of Instagram sticker – you know the GIF stickers you can use? There’s one of Moira that apparently had like a billion views or something insane, and I’m always sort of amazed how people have taken moments from our show and turned them into these little internet memes, because when we’re writing we never really think about that. But it’s quite an expressive show (laughs), so I understand how it would be very easy to take some reactions from our cast and make some sort of universal reactions of disgust or confusion.
I used your face when I was disappointed by the Golden Globe nominations.
(Laughs) I’m so happy that I could be there for you in that time.
Writing queer characters with your dad: Has working on this show and doing that with him bonded you in ways you didn’t expect it to?
I honestly don’t know, actually. I do know that the show has quite physically forced us together; I don’t think we would be seeing each other every day if I was doing something else. The show has been sort of wonderful in the sense that we have been put in a position where we get to see each other every day. I think just going through the experience of making this show and seeing its success has been a wonderful thing for the two of us.
There are just times in your life when things happen that you’ll never forget and you know that you’re sort of in the middle of doing something quite special and lasting, so I know that whatever I do after this show, we’ll always have this time together, we’ll always have this sort of chapter of our lives that we got to immortalize on screen, which is quite lovely.