Eugene Levy Looks Back on His Early Days With ‘Second City Television’

Actor Eugene Levy on His Early Days With 'Second City Television'
Michael Hoeweler; photo reference: Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Eugene Levy played the clueless dad in all eight “American Pie” movies and has been a staple of Christopher Guest films including “A Mighty Wind,” “Best in Show” and “Waiting for Guffman.” Still, he credits his acting education to the small screen, where he was a charter member of the original cast of Canadian sketch-comedy show “Second City Television,” aka “SCTV,”  working alongside John Candy, Martin Short, Harold Ramis, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara and Rick Moranis. He returned to TV in 2015 to create the Pop comedy “Schitt’s Creek” with his son, Dan. The sitcom, about a rich family that goes broke, is set to launch its fourth season, and Levy calls it the project he’s most proud of. His first gig in the business was in film alongside Martin in Ivan Reitman’s dark comedy “Cannibal Girls,” which led to his first mention in Variety on Aug. 11, 1971.

What do you remember about “Cannibal Girls”?

“Cannibal Girls” was the first time I had done anything professionally in an acting capacity. I was just out of school. I had no idea what we were doing, but the experience was so fun. The idea that they’re putting us up in a motel for 11 days? Wow, that was big time. I really didn’t put it together that one day what we’re doing is actually going to be on a screen.

Who are some of your comedic influences?

Jack Benny was the most fascinating person in comedy to me because he always seemed to be letting everyone else around him get the laughs and he had the longest takes in the world, which ended up getting bigger and bigger laughs than the people around him.

What are some takeaways from working on “SCTV”?

The ground rules we learned in Second City were the kind you carry with you throughout your career. Rules like, always work at the top of your intelligence level, which sounds like it would be a no-brainer, but it’s something you always had to think about. Am I writing this as smart as I can write it? Never think you’re smarter than your audience. There was no better education in the world when it came to that kind of comedy.

What was it like when cast mates like Gilda Radner, who worked with you in the Second City theater company, went on to success in TV?

It was very encouraging because we were all very close. I was really happy for Gilda and Danny [Aykroyd] when they moved on. I was still doing Second City when they were getting hired for “SNL.” That’s how “SCTV” happened, because Bernie Sahlins, who owned Second City at the time, thought, “We’re going to lose all our Second City people to this ‘Saturday Night Live’ show. We should have a show ourselves that our graduates could naturally go into.” That’s when we sat down and came up with the idea for “Second City Television” — a television network where we could parody television and create characters who worked at the network.

Is there advice you wish you had gotten back then?

Make sure you know what you’re doing before you step in front of a camera or an audience. Give it a little more thought. Case in point, “Cannibal Girls”: Thinking that what you were doing was really good at the time, and shortly after, you realize, “Wait a minute, this isn’t really what I would call fantastic improvising.” I just think if I had taken it a bit more seriously instead of thinking this is just fun, I might have done some better work.