‘The Reluctant Traveler’: Eugene Levy Talks Embracing Adventure in His New Travel Show
Eugene Levy dons a lavender suit for a photoshoot in Toronto's Neighborhood Studios. His daughter, Sarah Levy, tells Zoomer the outfit choice (encouraged by his son Daniel Levy) was about as surprising as his decision to host a new travel show. Photos: Saty + Pratha
In a new TV series, The Reluctant Traveler, the notoriously private Canadian comedian gets out of character – and his comfort zone – only to realize he likes it there.
It took Eugene Levy a few years to figure out his hair. Like, 70 years. It also took him that long to open himself up to the world. But first, the hair.
In the early 1970s, doing improv on stage at The Second City in Toronto, he sported a Roman look, combed forward. Then he grew it out into a frizz ball. Doing SCTV in the early ’80s, his look hewed dangerously close to his recurring character Bobby Bittman, the flop-sweaty nightclub singer with the bouffant hair turban. As Jim’s dad in the American Pie franchise, he wore it close cut, a hair shower cap. For A Mighty Wind’s Mitch Cohen, a depressed folk singer (Levy’s most daring character of the four showbiz sendups he co-wrote with Christopher Guest), he went beatnik-Beethoven: grey, centre-parted and chin length, plus an absurd strip goatee. And then came Schitt’s Creek.
Playing Johnny Rose, the dapper video-store magnate fallen on hard times – the steadfast husband of flamboyant Moira (Catherine O’Hara), and patriarch to clothes-horse children Alexis and David (Annie Murphy and Daniel Levy, Eugene’s real-life son) – Levy suddenly found himself the straight man on a CBC smash that grew on Netflix into a global, multi-Emmy-winning phenomenon. And … he liked it. Those well-tailored suits. A costumer, Peter Webster, who, before each take, ran a clothes brush over his shoulders and whispered, “Posture!” in his ear. And, most crucially, a hairdresser, Ana (pronounced Anya) Sorys, who finally figured out The Levy: an elegant salt-and-pepper swoop, very high-end Scotch ad.
She’s been his sole stylist ever since. As host of the new AppleTV+ series, The Reluctant Traveler, Levy trotted around the globe, from the Maldives to Finland, Venice to Tokyo, and Sorys was with him every step. “Once he found out how good he can look, there was no turning back,” O’Hara, who’s been Levy’s friend and colleague for 50 years, tells me. “They’re a great team, Ana and Eugene’s head.”
When I meet Levy, 76, over Zoom in late February, his hair is perfect. He wears a dark jacket, shirt and tie; his trademark round Leon glasses, which he bought in bulk; and his Order of Canada pin (he’s a Companion, the highest level). Rectangle eyebrows fill his forehead. The name on his Zoom window reads “Liam Neeson,” which I assume is a subtle gag, but after a few minutes an invisible someone changes it to “Eugene Levy.”
The conceit of The Reluctant Traveler is this: Levy goes to the most fascinating places in the world, where he stays in jaw-dropping hotels, yet he’d rather be home in Pacific Palisades, Calif., with his wife of 45 years, Deb Divine, comfortably ensconced in his routine – playing golf every Wednesday and Friday; visiting Daniel or their daughter Sarah (who played Twyla on Schitt’s) and her eight-month-old son, James, who already has an impish twinkle in his eye; and eating frequent dinners with Martin Short, his best friend for 50 years, who lives five minutes away.
The series works because he means it. “If someone had asked me, ‘Will your dad say yes or no to hosting a travel show?’ I would have answered, ‘One thousand per cent no,’” Sarah Levy says. “Then again, Daniel got him to wear a lavender suit. No one saw that coming, either.”
Sarah Levy told Zoomer her father saying yes to a travel show was about as surprising as Daniel Levy convincing
Producer David Brindley and AppleTV+ programming exec Alison Kirkham, rabid Schitt’s fans, originally pitched Levy to host a show about fabulous hotels. He reeled off a list of reasons he was wrong for it: “I’m not an explorer,” he tells me. “I’m not a curious person by nature. I have a very low sense of adventure. I have a natural phobia of heights. I don’t like the creepy crawly things you find in jungle-type situations. Am I scared for my life? No. Do I enjoy it? No.”
But with every reason he’d give, “I was getting laughs on the phone,” Levy continues. Brindley and Kirkham hung up, called each other back and said, “That’s the show.” (Only Levy could talk himself out of a luxury gig and into a less comfortable one.)
“Wouldn’t everyone want to be Eugene when they’re 70?” Brindley says. “He’s effortlessly cool. Urbane, suave, witty. He’s got an incredibly good heart. People gravitate toward him. He’s a Canadian national treasure.”
Annie Murphy agrees. “He’s one of my favourite people on this Earth,” she says. “He’s a great actor, but you can’t fake that level of kindness.” Their first meeting demonstrated this – and his mild obsessive-compulsive disorder. Murphy arrived for a Schitt’s callback audition “all bundled up, purse, coat, scarf,” she says. “I was so nervous, because I wanted this job with all my heart.” As she unbuttoned her coat, she got tangled in her scarf, then her scarf got wound around her purse. She threw the whole lump on the ground, then locked eyes with Levy, whose mouth was open in slight panic. “A coat isn’t supposed to be on a floor,” Murphy explains in Levy’s rawr-rawr voice. “He came around the table, shook my hand and said, ‘Let me hang up your coat.’ I said, ‘Please don’t bother!’ And he said, ‘No, I’m going to hang up your coat.’” He dusted it off and walked it to a corner rack. “It set the tone for our whole relationship,” Murphy says. “Plus, if my coat stayed on the floor, there would have been no paying attention to my audition.”
For his new series, Levy was reluctant about more than the travelling part. “I have to be myself on camera, which I haven’t been before,” he says. “Nor have I ever wanted to be. I’ve only done character work. The further removed the character was from who I am, the more comfortable I was. The closer it got to being me, like in Schitt’s Creek, the more nerve-wracking it was.”
Levy won’t even call himself a comedian. “I don’t look at life the way a stand-up comedian does,” he says. “I don’t look for the funny angle to try to get a laugh. I hang around with funny people, but I take a backseat to them. I’m a true ensemble player. When I’m in character, I’m comfortable looking for where the laughs are, and how to make something interesting. But I’m not the person in the front of the room entertaining the crowd. I’d much rather be the person in the back of the crowd, watching the person entertaining the crowd.”
For most of his 50-year career, Levy hid behind his characters’ moustaches, buck teeth, oversized glasses, and, in Best in Show, two left feet (literally). He perfected cringe humour before cringe was a thing. But here’s his secret weapon: “His characters were awkward,” Murphy says, “but they were also deeply good-natured and endearing.” That’s rare on screen, where we’ve been conditioned to see the awkward guy as the butt of the joke, the one to make fun of. Levy’s unique awkwardness-plus-goodness makes him the guy we root for.
His modesty is part of the reason many people don’t know that he co-wrote the Guest movies, and co-developed Schitt’s Creek with Daniel. “Eugene is a great collaborator,” O’Hara says. “He listens, he really thinks about what he puts to paper. When you suggest ideas, he will never just say yes or no. Even if you make him laugh, he’ll think, ‘Did I laugh for some other reason, or will it really work within the material?’ On SCTV, he wrote more group scenes than anyone else, like the ridiculous soap operas we did. He was very good at writing for everyone, not just himself.”
He’s also a generous friend. Both O’Hara and Divine were waitresses at Second City when Levy, Short and Andrea Martin were in the cast. “Eugene is the one who encouraged Marty not to leave town,” O’Hara says. “Marty was saying, ‘If I don’t get a job by X point, I’m giving up and doing something else with my life.’ And Eugene forced him to audition for Godspell,” the legendary Toronto production that launched the careers of, among others, Gilda Radner, Victor Garber and Paul Shaffer. “Same with Andrea,” O’Hara continues. “When Eugene found out someone had dropped out of Godspell, he told Andrea, ‘Come to this party this weekend, the producers will be there, be your hilarious self.’ And she got the job. He hired me for the Chris Guest movies, and for Schitt’s Creek.”
One of Murphy’s favourite pastimes on the Schitt’s Creek set was watching Eugene “absorb so much joy from watching his children be incredibly talented actors,” Murphy says. “He would get a little bucket of snacks, stand behind the monitors, and watch Dan and Sarah work, with this proud, fatherly smile on his face. He would mouth their lines along with them. It was very ‘dance mom’ of him.”
So how does a guy who peppers our interview with self-deprecating lines – “I feel there are people much more interesting to listen to than me,” and, “People think that for some reason I’m funny. They think I’m funnier than I think I am,” and, “Oh, I can’t compare myself to Daniel when I was his age. He’s way ahead of where I was. He’s a much more gifted writer, producer and director” – choose to spend his life as an entertainer? How does he square that in his head?
I ask him that question every which way, but I get back a lot of this: “I … you know … I just never … Well, in real life.…” Finally, he says, “I don’t honestly know if there’s an answer deep enough for that question. I just love comedy. For me, the comedic soil is most fertile with characters who aren’t the sharpest pencils in the drawer. Characters who don’t quite have it, but think they do. So that’s what I do. I can’t say what I’m learning from that.”
On The Reluctant Traveler, Levy is more willing to stick his arm up an elephant’s bum to extract a dung sample than he is to engage in any kind of self-examination, whether it’s forest therapy in Costa Rica or stargazing in Utah. His head is practically stamped Private Property – Do Not Enter.
“I’ve had a shitload of therapy, and I’m still, ‘Who am I? What’s my purpose?’” Murphy says. “Watching Eugene’s new show I thought, ‘Goddammit, this man seems to know who he is.’ He’s the poster boy for Know Thyself.”
Levy’s comedy doesn’t stem from trauma or anger, O’Hara says: “He’s a good man who comes from a nice family, who made a lovely family with Deb, who’s outside of his own head and aware of others, and who gets great material from observing the world.”
He grew up in Hamilton, Ont., in a solid, middle-class Jewish family: homemaker mom, auto-plant foreman dad, sister and brother. He and Divine chose to raise their kids in Toronto, although many of their comedy pals decamped to L.A. “Ours wasn’t a comedic household, but it was a household full of humour,” Sarah says. “Both our parents are innately funny, and their friends would come over when they were in town. I’m sure Daniel and I were soaking things in. Timing, the way a word is said, when it’s said, the punchline of a joke, what makes something funny or funnier.”
In summers, the Levys rented a cottage with the Shorts, and Sarah would thrill to “Marty constantly picking on dad, with a huge smile on his face. Dad would come up with zingers, but Marty is so quick, it’s impossible to keep up.” She would always know when Short was phoning, because Eugene would burst out laughing at however he said hello.
As a father, Eugene was “doting and supportive,” Sarah says. “Even when he felt we weren’t making the right decisions, he wouldn’t come out and say it. He just waited, and let us experience it on our own. Our parents are very different – my dad has an innate sense of giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, and my mom trusts no one.” She laughs. “It’s a testament to his faith in people. And his loyalty, above anything.” As a grandfather, Levy is equally doting: He and Divine recently spent five weeks babysitting James in Newfoundland, where Sarah was working. They wrote a song for him, which they sang in two-part harmony.
Levy’s allergy to oversharing is a running gag on The Reluctant Traveler, but it required a little massaging. “After our first shoot, we had an honest download,” Brindley admits. “Eugene came to understand he’d have to give of himself a little bit.” Amazingly, the series ended up doing for its host what Brindley hoped it would do for its audience: broaden horizons. “As we went along, and Eugene realized he was getting something from each of these experiences, he was willing to try more and more,” Brindley says. “We watch as he realizes, ‘Maybe I’ve been doing it a bit wrong. Maybe I should give more new things a go.’ We all know – or are – people who fear certain things, who never quite commit. Eugene shows us that if you just edge outside your comfort zone a little, it might pay back in dividends.”
“He’s not an instant convert,” O’Hara says. “It wouldn’t be honest if he said, ‘Wow, I know my true self now, and why I exist in the world.’ He’s a private person. He’s not going to give it all away, and good for him. But he is honest when he says, ‘Okaaay, maybe I’ll look more into this.’ How great is that? At any age, but especially at his age, that’s a beautiful thing.”
What Levy will admit is this: “It’s been good for me to dust off some cobwebs, brush up on skills I haven’t focused on too much in my life. I do feel a whole lot better about myself at this age. I’m much more comfortable with who I am now than I ever have been. I spent years taking things a little too intensely, working too hard to get something done, trying too hard in front of the camera. Years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to tell a producer, ‘I don’t think I’m the right host.’ I’d have been too desperate.
“But I’m not wound quite so tight anymore,” he sums up. “Not too much rattles me now. I’ve learned to relax, let the lines drain out of my face, take everything in, and just be who I am.” Excellent hair is the cherry on top.
A version this article appeared in the April/May 2023 issue with the headline ‘Eugene Levy Packs His Bags’, p. 36.