A funny thing happens when actors create — and sometimes also run — their own series: They are able to use their individual comedic sensibilities to inform the conflicted characters they place into difficult, silly or extreme situations in order to tell a deeper story.
“I’m proud of the stories I get to tell about my character and the queerness in the show,” says Dan Levy, who co-created “Schitt’s Creek” with his father, Eugene Levy, and also plays David on the show. “When we started, I never thought we would be part of a social conversation when it came to representation on TV. We’re putting something joyful out into the world and showing a projection of life of how it should be — where people are loved and accepted for who they are.”
CBC and Pop TV’s “Schitt’s Creek” is one of four comedy series nominated for Emmys this year that star the show’s creators or co-creators. HBO’s “Barry,” Amazon Prime Video’s “Fleabag” and Netflix’s “Russian Doll,” are the others, although on HBO’s “Veep,” star Julia Louis-Dreyfus also executive produces and has a heavy influence on the story. (Rounding out the category are NBC’s “The Good Place” and Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” which are run by visionary writer-producers.)
“The joy of writing it is that by the time you get to set, you’re able to make choices that are backed by a world of subtext that you self-architected,” says “Russian Doll” co-creator and star Natasha Lyonne.
Lyonne wrote, produced and directed the “Groundhog Day”-esque first season of the streaming comedy, but she did not run the writers’ room or set. That fell to co-creator Leslye Headland, who admits that having someone with such authority and understanding over the characters and show as Lyonne on set every day and in virtually every scene made her life a little easier.
“There’s no loss of translation between what had been hatched by a room of really talented women and what she has to execute,” Headland says. “I don’t think it could have been done any other way just because the show is so intricate and convoluted in terms of timeline tracking and telling that particular character’s time warp, multi-dimensional story.”
David Mandel, who has been the showrunner on “Veep” since 2015, has had similar experiences as Headland — and not just with this show. He notes that “a lot of the shows” he’s worked on have seen the leading actors also have executive producer titles. This was true of “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” with Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, respectively. While having an actor be heavily involved in the creative decisions and directions of a show “is not a change” for him, Mandel says, he does tresss the importance of being firm as a leader so that the rest of the cast and crew don’t spin out with too many possibilities or opinions.
“You have to go, ‘This is the one.’ You may not be right, but you have to make that decision,” he says. And “when you screw up, it’s your own fault — there’s something comforting in that. You may dig your own grave, but you’re going to make it to the precise measurement you wanted.”
For Levy, who does have to flit between wearing the actor and showrunner hats on set, looking at the work as a whole “incorporates all of my slightly obsessive-compulsive tendencies,” he says, but it also still keeps him from being too neurotic about any one choice.
“Six years ago, if I hadn’t been doing all those other jobs, I would have been way more nervous sitting down in front of my dad and Catherine O’Hara and shooting that first scene. So it was a blessing in disguise, being completely distracted by the weight of the responsibility off the top,” he says.
Levy attributes the freedom to wear both hats at once to the openness of new platforms such as his Pop, which are supporting “writers and creators who are coming to them with these visions — instead of changing the ideas to accommodate something they want.
“When you let people have the reins on their own creative content, you’re going to get the texture and specificity rather than having a boardroom decide what Middle America wants,” he says.
Carita Rizzo contributed to this story.