Schitt’s Creek emerged as a quiet juggernaut, one of those rare, ultra-bingeable shows that also packs a ton of heart. How exactly did creator and star Dan Levy do it? Well, we’ll let him explain.
To say that Dan Levy sweats the small stuff is like saying the Kardashians dabble in money-making. On the set of Schitt’s Creek, he over-considers everything, from the magnets on the refrigerator to the way the motel beds are made to the degree the fibers on the carpets appear over-vacuumed.
“In my head it’s like, ‘We should all know that they don’t vacuum their carpets all the time,’ ” Levy tells me. “These are lived-in carpets. We’re in a motel. If we’re going to vacuum the carpets, which I know has to be done, we also need to scuff them up a bit after.”
And you do the scuffing yourself?
“Oh, absolutely,” he says. “That’s the prison cell that is my brain.”
We’re in the middle of lunch in Tribeca on a cloudy January day at the end of a week-long press trip for Schitt’s Creek, which airs on cable network Pop in the U.S. and is currently in its fifth season. (His reward upon completion? A visit to Las Vegas to see Lady Gaga’s Enigma residency.) Levy, 35, is the co-creator and star of the show, which follows a delusionally wealthy family that loses everything, relocates to its last remaining asset—a backwoods town it bought as a gag gift years ago—and starts life anew in a run-down motel. Levy, who plays the sarcastic, fashion-minded man-child David, created it with his father, Eugene Levy, who also plays his dad on the show. But the younger Levy wears many other hats, including showrunner, writer, occasional director, and master question-answerer. And truthfully, it can be a little overwhelming sometimes.
“It’s in the details for me, and when the details aren’t executed perfectly, I get a bit…ornery,” Levy says, which is one of the handful of things he has in common with David. (Along with a love of Mariah Carey and a fondness for karaoke. “I do a pretty mean Lorde impression,” he says.) And though David’s fashion sense is more extreme than Levy’s—most notably he sports an infinite rotation of drop-crotch sweats to create a vampire–Rick Owens hybrid—he’d probably approve of what Levy’s wearing today: a leather jacket over a cream-colored sweater with black pants that seem to have a completely different silhouette depending on what angle you look at them. His bangs are pushed up straight, like his hair just woke up from a nap with a yawn and a stretch. And then there’s those famous Levy eyebrows, which are half-obscured by thick black frames, not unlike the kind his father wears sometimes.
Yet when you ask his coworkers about whether they’ve ever seen him stressed, their answers paint a picture of…startlingly effortless competence from someone who, prior to Schitt’s Creek, had barely any acting credits to his name and was best known for recapping The Hills on air as an MTV Canada VJ. “It’s almost like he’s been doing this for years and years before we started the show, but that’s not true—this is the first time he’s ever had this kind of responsibility,” says Eugene Levy. Catherine O’Hara, who plays Rose family matriarch Moira, a former soap actress with a zany wardrobe and even zanier wig collection, says, “It’s crazy how comfortable he is doing this, how calm and confident he is running the show.”
It’s not that he doesn’t ever have his moments, Levy explains. It’s just that he tries to hide them from his coworkers to avoid being a bother. “Actors are really susceptible people—they’re spongey,” he says. “So I try my best not to bring any of my fears or anxieties onto set. I’ll leave that for behind a closed door.” His colleagues are none the wiser: “I’ve always seen him take everything in stride with a classic Dan Levy smirk,” says Noah Reid, who plays David’s teddy bear of a boyfriend, Patrick. (Fans of the show will know the one: the brow-raising, eye-squinting, teeth-baring one immortalized in many GIFS.)
Levy’s prescription of loving care and general punctiliousness has earned Schitt’s Creek immense critical acclaim and a loyal fan base, who have watched the show grow from its Grinch-comes-to-Whoville premise to something sweeter and bigger-hearted as the Roses have put down roots. But it’s also contributed to this sense among people who talk about the show that it all came out of nowhere: that Schitt’s Creek was just this little Canadian sitcom that could until it arrived on Netflix in 2017 and suddenly everyone was talking about it. That Levy just naturally followed in his father’s footsteps, the way families with parents who are doctors and lawyers beget more doctors and lawyers, without so much as a hitch. But according to Levy, that version of events skips over a lot of failure, self-doubt, and periods of total bewilderment about what he was supposed to do with his life that make him and the show what they are today. To really understand why you love Schitt’s Creek, you have to take a tour inside the prison cell that is his brain.
Of all the things Schitt’s Creek has been praised for, its portrayal of queer relationships has garnered some of its most enthusiastic, passionate feedback. This has been true from the jump: Early on, viewers assume David is gay, until he hooks up with surly motel clerk Stevie (Emily Hampshire)—to the shock of many characters, not least of all Stevie—and tells her he’s pansexual via a surprisingly helpful wine analogy: “I do drink red wine, but I also drink white wine, and I’ve been known to sample the occasional rosé, and a couple summers back I tried a Merlot that used to be a Chardonnay,” he explains. “I like the wine and not the label.”
But the letters really started coming in the third and fourth season, when David meets the teddy-bearish Patrick, whose sexuality is ambiguous in his first few episodes. They start falling for each other with the help of some swoon-worthy Tina Turner sing-alongs. Fans DM Levy on Instagram, send messages to the show’s Facebook page, and sometimes even stop him in public to tell him about how much these characters mean to them, how these characters have explained their lives to their unsupportive parents better than they could. Levy, who is gay, hears from conservative Christians who tell him they disapproved of queer people until Schitt’s Creek showed them that following their faith and having empathy for the LGBTQ community weren’t mutually exclusive. Recently, a mother wrote Levy to say that she worried coming out would make her son’s life harder, until David and Patrick showed her that it could actually make it more fulfilling. When Levy first got the message, he says he broke down. “She’s been able to feel like he’s going to be okay,” he says, his voice wobbling slightly, “because these characters are okay.”
It’s a little ironic that Schitt’s Creek is teaching so many people, because one of Levy’s mandates when it came to developing the show’s queer storylines was to avoid teachable moments rooted in struggle. “ ‘We’ll let every straight character live their lives,’ ” he says, summarizing the thinking of many TV executives, “ ‘but the gay characters are here to teach us a lesson.’ The characters were being painted with a different brush ultimately, and that to me was really boring.” From the beginning, Levy decided that homophobia would be a non-issue in the universe of Schitt’s Creek. And though he teases a coming-out storyline happening in the fifth season, it’s no accident that the show’s queer characters more often just get to be queer rather than proclaim it. (“It’s not a cross that straight people have to bear,” he says.) Levy’s trying to capture the world accurately, but he’s also trying to will a kinder, gentler one into existence.
Still, he gives these characters the same obsessive care he gives everything else. Take, for instance, the season-three finale, when Patrick and David kiss for the first time. Patrick reveals that he’s never been with a man before, and in the lead-up to filming, something about the scene kept Levy up at night. So the evening before, Levy called up a friend to talk it out. They spoke for hours about their own first gay relationships—how they unfolded, what made them special—and Levy realized the problem: In the original version of the scene, Patrick kisses David.
That just seemed too easy for someone who was new to all of it. Levy thought about how his first sorta-boyfriend made the first move in their relationship, and how liberated and grateful he felt afterward, to have someone else lift that burden. So he wrote and rewrote the scene into the wee hours, deciding that in the end, David would be the one to kiss Patrick.
Levy’s own coming out wasn’t a horror story by any means, but he wouldn’t call it easy: When he was 18-ish, his mother politely asked him about it at lunch one day, but he wonders about how long it would have taken him if she hadn’t asked. It wasn’t easy after he came out, either—he tells me about how he almost felt more insecure, second-guessing how he was supposed to look and act and find dates, how he’d look around in gay bars and wonder if he’d ever feel at home there. And it wasn’t easy during his first few years at MTV, when he avoided being out publicly because it was the time of blogs and salacious celebrity outings, and he was afraid of what might happen if someone wrote about him that way.
Over the years, though, it’s often been the little stuff that’s bothered him most: In 2017, a critic for the Canadian newspaper The Globe & Mail wrote in a review of The Great Canadian Baking Show, which Levy co-hosts, that perhaps the show’s judges were stiff because “at any moment, they know they might be swarmed by the feyness of Levy.” Levy called out the veiled homophobia in no uncertain terms on social media: “To all the ‘fey’ kids/people out there who read that and were made to question whether their ‘feyness’ is deserving of criticism, it’s not. You are loved for who you are.”
The post sparked blog posts and think pieces and garnered support from journalists and celebrities alike, but that, too, wasn’t easy. “What people didn’t see,” he explains, sitting up straighter, the volume of his voice rising, “is it took me half a day of worrying about whether that tweet was the wrong thing to do. I was still struggling with ‘Do I have any right to say this?’ And that’s fucked up, but we’re programmed that way.” They didn’t see him reading the review over and over, wondering if he was being too sensitive. They didn’t see him sending the article to friends and family asking if he was misreading it.
Being comfortable in his own skin, he says, is “a process that I think I’m still learning, and I think actually playing David has given me a sense of confidence that I never had before.”
Looking back on it now, Eugene Levy can see the signs his kids would go into showbiz: Dan and his sister, Sarah Levy, who also has a role on Schitt’s Creek as the overly friendly waitress Twyla, were always putting on shows as little kids when the Levys vacationed with Martin Short and his family. They acted in and wrote for high school productions. Dan went to film school, Sarah studied theater. It was all right there in front of him, despite what some might consider Eugene’s best efforts to prevent this: When he and his wife, Deborah Divine, decided to start a family, they moved from Los Angeles to Toronto to give their children normal childhoods—which included making them get regular jobs.
First came Gap Kids, which the then 15-year-old Levy chose so he wouldn’t have to run into anyone his own age. (“Not going to brag,” he says, “was the top sales associate of the summer.”) Then came the jobs at a bakery and a video store, which he says he draws on almost daily in the writer’s room when breaking storylines. In college, after leaving that first on-and-off relationship, which he describes as “tumultuous” and “not good for me,” he decided to take more drastic measures to get out of his shell and got an internship at a talent agency in London answering phones all day. “As someone who could barely talk to my friends, let alone a perfect stranger,” he says, “it was hell.”
But the thing about doing something that forces you out of your comfort zone is that, eventually, it stops being uncomfortable. So when he got back to Toronto and learned that MTV Canada was casting new on-air talent, he put himself up for that job, too, in the name of self-improvement. At the time, the network was considering a Wanna Be a VJ–style reality show, so they gave Levy and the other applicants $100 dollars each to spend as a test. Some people bought CDs to showcase their music taste, others bought yoga mats and prayer beads to demonstrate their spiritual side. Levy just paid his cable bill and came back with the receipt. He was eventually the first one hired.
He settled in as the co-host of an aftershow for The Hills, which he credits with helping inspire the idea of Schitt’s Creek, and enjoyed the perks—the free clothes, getting into any club or restaurant he wanted. (At least in Canada.) Still, he realized something was missing. He’d interview celebrities who’d talk about how singing or acting was what they were meant to do, how everything snapped into place when they discovered it. “I remember thinking, Well, that must be nice!” Levy says, laughing. He also knew that the longer he stayed at MTV, the more his next act would be governed by ego: What happens when the glamour disappears? What if nothing I do ever tops this?
So after almost eight years at the network, he quit and got to work on finding his next thing. At the time, creating something from scratch seemed like the only option: He tried out for acting gigs but kept bombing auditions because he was so anxious about the process, and he struggled to get representation as a writer because of his MTV background. “I was turned down by, like, every agency in the States,” he says. “They wouldn’t even take a meeting.”
He downloaded the screenwriting software Final Draft and just started typing. Mostly he just wrote dialogue, because he didn’t really know how to write scenes yet—this was before podcasts and MasterClass lessons proliferated, before he realized you could study scripts of famous TV shows online—and tried to find his voice.
“A lot of people have tremendous fear about What if it’s not good? or What if I realize I’m not talented? But knowing what you don’t want to do—what you’re bad at—is just as important. That’s a door you can close in the journey of your life. And I think closing doors is just as important as opening them.”
Six months into the process, he had the idea for Schitt’s Creek.
During his tenure at MTV, Levy avoided making references to his father out of concern that he’d be criticized for nepotism. “There was a time when you could’ve asked me if he was my dad, and I’d have been like, ‘Next question, please,’ ” he says. But after coming up with the premise for Schitt’s Creek, he realized two things: (1) He needed some help executing the idea. (2) He also wanted to avoid a broad, slapstick-y sitcom sensibility that would turn the town or its inhabitants into cartoon characters. So he turned to his dad, who just so happens to be really good at executing ideas with that quirky, observational-comedy sensibility after starring in and co-writing the outlines for Christopher Guest mockumentaries like Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman.
Eugene’s first reaction was elation: “I said, ‘Absolutely,’ and it really wouldn’t have mattered what the idea was.” Then fear: “The very first couple of days of of brainstorming, I would wake up at night in a cold sweat thinking, What if he doesn’t have it?” Then, at last, relief: “In the beginning I just felt that I had to mentor him,” he says, “but over the first season, I found myself going ‘Wait a minute, I don’t have to be here, he’s got a pretty strong handle on what he’s doing.’”
O’Hara, who’s worked alongside the elder Levy since their SCTV days in the ‘70s, says the family’s relationship during working hours is deceptively formal: “Except for looking at them,” she says, “I don’t know if a stranger [who] visited the set would know they were related.”
Levy splits his time between Toronto and Los Angeles, but he works and travels so much that turning either abode into his dream home is just a fantasy. At one point during our lunch, he pulls up his phone to show me Chairish, one of the handful of decor apps he’s gotten into recently, and scrolls through a list of his “aspirational stuff.” There’s some Rothko-esque wall art, a chair that costs about $5,000 and looks more like a sculpture than a comfortable place to sit, and what appears to be a life-size replica of a sheep that is either a bench or an ottoman. He’s not really sure. “Until I find a place to settle down,” he says, “it’s all living through the app.”
It was always the plan that, after learning the ropes, Levy would take over as sole showrunner for the second season. I ask him if this was another case of putting himself in an uncomfortable situation to better himself. Quite the opposite, really.
“At MTV, I was scared,” says Levy. “I was uncomfortable in a bad way. [But] as soon as I started this job, all my fears were based in excitement—in showing up at work the next day… I have an answer to everything on set. Whether it’s the right answer or not, I have the confidence to answer the question. That just comes when you’ve found your groove.”
Before Schitt’s Creek officially began production, Levy thought a lot about his own job history and the kind of culture he wanted to foster. “The common thread was that every time I felt seen and respected in the workplace, I felt the desire to impress,” he says. “Anytime I felt like what I was doing wasn’t a necessary part of the process, I thought, ‘Well, if you don’t care, then I don’t care.’” Of course, a lot can go wrong when you’re a first-time showrunner. Having some TV experience doesn’t necessarily prepare you to be in charge of hundreds of people; it’s why you hear about troubling working environments on other TV shows. But it’s also why hearing Levy describe a leadership philosophy based in love and care sounds so refreshing. Maybe even a little radical.
The thinking goes: If costume designers and production designers don’t feel inspired, you’ll see it on screen. If staffers in the writer’s room don’t feel comfortable sharing their experiences, you’re not going to get the best stories about the tumultuous no-good relationships and random jobs they’ve had. If actors don’t feel safe and supported, how can they possibly make themselves vulnerable enough to do their best work? (“Initially I had a lot of nerves,” Reid says of joining the show, “But Dan, after every day that we would shoot, would text me like, ‘Great stuff today, really excited about where this is going.’”) And while Levy credits Eugene and O’Hara with leading by example, O’Hara says the warm gooey center of Schitt’s Creek is Levy’s doing: “The tone on any set, or any workplace,” she says, “comes from the top.”
Levy acknowledges this process in his own way. “Whether it’s subliminal or not, you feel people’s passion, I have to believe that,” he says. “What has drawn people to this show is this intangible spirit that is loving, and I have to say it comes from more than just people’s work, it has to come from good vibes. You have to send them through the TV.”
Accepting what comes back the other way—the letters, the attention, the acclaim—is harder from him to accept sometimes. Some of the reviews of season five have brought him to tears, but part of him also worries about things going too well, of hitting some kind of Schitt’s Creek saturation point that will cause the the scales to tip out of his favor. It was so much easier to do his job, to labor over scripts and answer questions about magnets and rugs, when it felt like he was toiling in obscurity, and he jokes that perfect world is one in which everyone watches Schitt’s Creek but nobody talks about it.
He’s working on fighting that instinct, though, because to shrug off the good vibes coming back his way would downplay the work he put in to get here, the way he would hit dead ends and keep going, the way he took every bad idea and bad job and bad relationship and used it as a stepping stone toward the next thing, until he was finally where he thought he was supposed to be. He’s earned the right to post that tweet, to have that opinion, to have that confidence to answer whatever question comes up on set. “I do feel like the last thing I would want coming out of this experience is to turn around and say I never allowed to be proud of myself,” he says.
But if he doesn’t, at least there is Eugene Levy, who at the end of interview can’t help but slip out of his facade of collegial professionalism and slide right into dad mode, someone who is just “extremely proud” of how far his son has come.
“I’m really glad this article’s being done,” says Eugene with a slight stammer. “He deserves it.”