Schitt's Creek lessons: What the hit series has taught Canadian comedy creators
CBC sitcom, created by Dan and Eugene Levy, begins its final season Jan. 7
On a rare break during the filming of the upcoming episodes of Schitt's Creek, the star and co-creator Dan Levy was philosophical about the approach he and his writers took in crafting the final season.
"For us, it's always: tell the stories we want to tell, and hope the fans get on-board. And so far, we've been quite lucky," says Levy, seated next to his father and show co-creator Eugene Levy.
To say the fans got on-board is an understatement. YouTube clips featuring interviews with the Levys or Schitt's Creek co-stars Catherine O'Hara and Annie Murphy can rack up over a million views. The cast's live North American tour earlier this fall sold out instantly, even in places as saturated with top entertainment events as Los Angeles or Las Vegas.
But Dan Levy maintains the fans came because the show stayed true to its characters and the story it wanted to tell, not in spite of it.
"A lot of shows have really, really successful first seasons, and huge fandemonium about their first seasons and then suddenly there's this strange expectation, where the second season has to give the fans everything they want and more," he says.
"I think our show started out quite the opposite. We're a small show that's slowly been building season after season."
That's just one of the lessons comedy insiders can draw from the sitcom's unusual slow burn story of international success that's evaded most Canadian-made comedies, and there are others.
Fresh take on the familiar formula
Schitt's Creek premiered on CBC in January 2015, and on the smaller cable channel Pop TV in the United States the following month. While the show had a strong Canadian following pretty much from the get-go, the word-of-mouth built more gradually south of the border, and received a significant boost when Netflix picked it up in 2017.
By early 2019, the most influential American publications, from Vanity Fair to Rolling Stone, were raving about the show — many critics zeroing in on its warmth, kindness and as the New York Times put it "love, Canadian style."
Andrew Clark, director of the Humber College program, Comedy Writing and Performance, and author of Stand and Deliver: Inside Canadian Comedy, agrees.
The majority of successful sitcoms "have some warmth to them, have some warm core," says Clark, who is also brother-in-law of Sally Catto, CBC general manager of programming. "And I think that that's something that Schitt's Creek was aware of. You can show people who are flawed, doing flawed things. But at the end of the day, they're actually trying."
Comedy writer and actor Nelu Handa, who has written for CBC's Baroness von Sketch Show and CTV's Jann, says the Levys read the desire of the audience for what is, essentially, a family show, albeit one with larger-than-life characters.
"Family show is a desired take right now because a lot of things tend to be too vulgar, if you will," says Handa.
She says the show also excelled at the nuts-and-bolts of any comedy.
There are excellent joke structures on that show. They do great sharp one-liners. They connect everything to the past, so you really figure out who these characters are.- Comedy writer and actor Nelu Handa
"There are excellent joke structures on that show. They do great sharp one-liners. They connect everything to the past, so you really figure out who these characters are. They are very consistent in the way they connect with each other."
Still, Schitt's Creek managed to put some of its unique twists on those comedy essentials. Clark calls it "some wrinkles in terms of how it dealt with family, gender, sexuality."
For example, the show received praise for how it handled both David Rose's sexual and gender identity (he identifies as pansexual — something his family accepts without fuss), and David and Patrick's burgeoning relationship, handled with the same equanimity by various residents of Schitt's Creek.
Letting talent shine
And then, there's the matter of letting performers spread their wings. While it sounds obvious, comedy insiders know that letting actors fully inhabit their comedic roles is not something that happens on every sitcom.
"Catherine O'Hara, a lot of her signature characters have an edge to them. If you look at Eugene Levy, there's a cluelessness that's happening with some of his most famous characters," says Clark, on how the two veteran actors infused Moira and Johnny Rose with their comedic sensibilities.
Clark and Handa say that the international star power of Levy and O'Hara may have helped Schitt's Creek get initial traction in the U.S. It's something few other Canadian-produced sitcoms can hope to replicate.
But if those big names made networks take a chance on the show, its writing and emerging stars, including Dan Levy (who has just penned a three-year deal to develop content for ABC Studios) made the audience stick around.
In other words, even with Moira Rose's outlandish fashion choices and David's instantly meme-able, pretentious quips, there was something about the family and the place the Levys envisioned that felt real.
"I think we've gotten very smart as an audience to suss out what feels honest," says Handa. "Not that everything has to be super grounded, but if something lacks a certain depth or credibility, we're quick to point it out."
Clark, who teaches aspiring comedy performers and writers, finds the success of Schitt's Creek heartening. He remembers interviewing Eugene Levy for his book almost 25 years ago.
"He was living in Toronto, saying 'I want to stay in Canada. I want to stay in Canada, but I can't get things going.' Because I think there was a feeling in Canada of, 'If you're that good, why are you here?' I like to think that that thinking has gone away."