In times of fear and turmoil, we all need somewhere to hide.
For many years, there was safety to be found in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a fictional place where bigotry and hate simply didn’t exist. While the respite Fred Rogers once offered is now a relic of the past, thankfully there’s a new land for folks in distress to flock to when the world starts to get too frightening.
Over the course of four seasons, Schitt’s Creek has explored the plight of the Roses, a once-wealthy family now forced to live in a small town that patriarch Johnny (Eugene Levy) had bought as a joke. In the charmingly Canadian backwoods landscape of this imaginary hamlet, no one cares about your sexual orientation or race. Instead, they’re busy worrying about plots to sell unpasteurized milk or the ramifications of a head-lice outbreak.
San Francisco fans will have the chance to see the actors behind the Rose family (as well as cast members Emily Hampshire and Noah Reid) when Sketchfest brings Schitt’s Creek: Up Close & Personal to the Masonic on Jan. 20.
Co-created by Levy and his real-life son, Daniel (who also plays his fictional son, David), the series reunites the elder Levy with his frequent on-screen collaborator, the peerless Catherine O’Hara. Together with Annie Murphy as daughter Alexis, Schitt’s Creek manages to play off the tropes of reality-show families like the Kardashian clan while making clear that however quiet or peculiar some townspeople may be, they’re simply decent folk searching for a little happiness.
According to Daniel Levy, that atmosphere of acceptance was always part of the plan.
“Our goal, comedically, was to never be cruel or mean or laugh at anyone’s expense,” he says. “I think so often, small towns are made the butt of the joke, particularly in like broader, comedic situations, and it just wasn’t really interesting to us. We thought we could do more with it.”
In less capable hands, such noble ambitions might only be achieved at the cost of comedic value, but when you have a cast that includes O’Hara, Levy, Murphy, and Letterman favorite Chris Elliott, laughs are not an issue. For O’Hara, who plays the impeccably dressed and often-deluded Moira, the concept of Schitt’s Creek is simply an extension of who Daniel Levy is.
“Daniel really does write from love,” she says. “I think it just comes naturally to him.”
Another area where the younger Levy excels is fashion. It was during Schitt’s Creek’s initial development that he hit on the idea that as long as the Rose clan continued to dress in the clothes they owned from their previous, affluent life, it wouldn’t be necessary to constantly remind viewers of the riches-to-rags narrative at the heart of the show.
The result: perfection. Any given episode may find Moira leaving the dilapidated motel where the Roses reside wearing Alexander McQueen or Balenciaga on her way to a town council meeting or a neighborhood barbecue. Then there’s the matter of her wigs, which are truly a supporting cast all their own—a notion bolstered by the fact that Moira apparently has names like Kristen and Robin for each one in her sizable collection.
According to O’Hara, Levy and costume designer Debra Hanson revel in the task of dressing Moira, which delights the actress beloved for roles in films like Beetlejuice and Home Alone to no end.
“At every wardrobe fitting, I don’t say anything,” she laughs. “I just stand there like a model, and Daniel and Debra will hold jewelry and different accessories up to me. Some of the clothes they get are not easy to decipher. Sometimes it takes 15 minutes for us to figure out what the sleeve is and where the head goes. I’m just really so grateful for how I get to look on this show.”
On Schitt’s Creek, the wardrobe is, in a sense, both external and internal.
While Moira has her stunning outfits and matching personality, Daniel Levy’s David wraps himself in acerbic one-liners like a snug Givenchy polo. Meanwhile, Eugene Levy’s Johnny always seems to have an immaculate suit to pair with his stalwart determination to free his family from their pitiful fate. The Roses may often come across as snobbish — Alexis’ frequent cries of “Eww, David!” have become a cherished catchphrase — but in truth, they’re simply seeking the same hope as everyone around them.
This aura of empathy has translated to viewers. When Schitt’s Creek first aired, Levy recalls people telling them it was a really funny show. As the series enters its fifth season, that tone has shifted. Now, fans tell Levy that they need the series and the comfort it provides.
“I think part of the reason people are responding to our show,” Levy says, “has to be tied with the fact that, politically speaking, many of us feel like there are dark clouds hanging over us at all times. Our show offers 21 minutes and 50 seconds of good intentions, kindness, and love. That can be a really nice respite for people who are looking to escape reality for a minute. I think we just sort of happened to be putting out some good vibes at the right time.”
“Schitt’s Creek: Up Close & Personal,” with Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Daniel Levy, Annie Murphy, Emily Hampshire, and Noah Reid, Sunday, Jan. 20, 8 p.m., The Masonic, 1111 California St. $48-$103; sfsketchfest.com.
Read more from SF Weekly‘s Sketchfest 2019 issue:
The Spirits of Sketchfest: Your Festival Guide
Order a drink and learn all about the best shows the 2019 Sketchfest has to offer.
The Delightfully Difficult Julie Klausner
The creator and star of Difficult People says it was so arrogant to accept a tribute from Sketchfest that she had to do it.
Protect Your Neck: Paul F. Tompkins and John Hodgman
Two comedians face their fears with an immersive comedy performance at The Speakeasy.
Special Guest: Janet Varney
Co-founder Janet Varney shares the highs (and lows) of Sketchfest’s first 17 years.