The king and queen of improv comedy reflect on 42 years of friendship and collaboration; why she owes her career to Gilda Radner; how he almost wound up with her in ‘Home Alone,’ and out of ‘American Pie’; what it was like performing a song in-character on the Oscars; what’s brought them to TV; and more.
“I always tended to gravitate to characters who are not necessarily the sharpest utensils in the drawer,” says Eugene Levy as we sit down with Catherine O’Hara, his comedic collaborator of 40-plus years — most recently on the TV comedy series Schitt’s Creek, which airs on Pop (née TV Guide Network) — to record an episode of the ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. O’Hara concurs, sharing that her mantra has long been, “When in doubt, play insane, because you don’t have to excuse anything you do or say.” Levy, 69, replies, “Yeah. People who just don’t quite get it, to me, were the funniest people.” And O’Hara, 62, adds, “If you’re funny to begin with, you can’t lose playing stupid and cocky.”
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These two Canadians, who couldn’t be more understated in real life, are, in fact, the reigning king and queen of improv comedy, leaving even the likes of Stephen Colbert starstruck in their presence. Their paths first crossed in 1972, when Levy was part of the now-legendary Toronto company of the musical Godspell alongside Gilda Radner, who was dating O’Hara’s brother. In 1974, he joined The Second City improv and sketch comedy group in Toronto, and she followed, first as a waitress, then as Radner’s understudy (“The truth is I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Gilda Radner,” O’Hara says) and then as a full-fledged member of the company. As the two honed their chops, they briefly dated, but decided to remain just friends.
When NBC’s sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live came along in 1975, the prospect of losing talent to it prompted Second City to start one of its own, SCTV. “We happened to be the castmembers at the time,” says O’Hara. “It was kinda lucky.” Levy emphasizes, “It was just a local show when we started,” but with talent like the two of them and John Candy, Andrea Martin, Rick Moranis and Harold Ramis, it soon became big and ultimately catapulted them into other exciting opportunities, including hilarious blockbusters. Most memorably, O’Hara played the forgetful mom in 1990’s Home Alone (which reunited her with Candy and, she learns in this conversation, almost featured Levy, too), while Levy played the awkward dad in 1999’s American Pie (the “crassness” of which initially turned him off); they also starred in those films’ sequels.
Thankfully, they kept in touch over the years and reunited in four hilarious “mockumentaries” directed by Christopher Guest — 1996’s Waiting for Guffman, 2000’s Best in Show, 2003’s A Mighty Wind and 2006’s For Your Consideration — who had recruited Levy to co-write them with him. These tongue-in-cheek explorations of odd subcultures like dog shows and the folk music scene required acting of the sort they had prepared for at Second City: improvisation drawn from rough outlines, without any prior rehearsal or discussion. (Nobody could keep a straighter face about absurd situations better than these two, who even wound up performing an Oscar-nominated song from Mighty Wind in-character on the Oscars telecast in 2004.)
Most recently, the two reunited on Schitt’s Creek, a comedy series — the second season’s finale of which airs on June 1 at 8 p.m. ET — that Levy co-created with his son, Daniel Levy, and recruited O’Hara to star opposite them in. (Sarah Levy, Eugene’s daughter, also is part of the cast.) Each 22-minute episode hilariously chronicles the misadventures of a rich couple (elder Levy and O’Hara) with two spoiled adult children (younger Levy and Annie Murphy) who suddenly lose their fortune, save for the eponymous dump of a town that the patriarch once bought as a joke. (“The name ‘Schitt’ is a legitimate name,” Levy insists.) For Levy and O’Hara, any opportunity to work together is one they treasure — but for him, this one is extra special. “Watching [my kids] hold their own in a scene with Catherine — it’s pretty gratifying, pretty amazing.”