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Eugene Levy Stays Smart, Even In The Cheapest Gag

In Madea's Witness Protection, George Needleman (Eugene Levy, center) is put in witness protection with Madea (Tyler Perry, right) after he discovers he's the fall man for a Ponzi scheme. (Lionsgate)

George Needleman is the chief bean counter of an investment bank who, in Madea's Witness Protection, is too consumed with family problems to realize he's being set up to take the fall for a Ponzi scheme. When he grasps what's going on, he's placed in witness protection — at Madea's house.

Tyler Perry, who wrote and directed the movie, plays Madea, as well as most other members of her family. Needleman, the latest fussy, funny, bushy-eyebrowed, precise and put-upon man, is portrayed by Eugene Levy.

Levy has been acclaimed for his wild improvisational work over the years at The Second City comedy theater and in films including A Mighty Wind, Best in Show and the American Pie movies. He talked to Weekend Edition's Scott Simon, who saw Levy perform in 1974 when Levy and other members of Second City's Canadian chapter — including Catherine O'Hara, Dan Aykroyd and John Candy — traveled for an improv show at the theater's original home in Chicago. It was, Simon says, "the greatest Second City cast I ever saw."

"We were used to doing a cheaper version of comedy up in Toronto than they were used to in Chicago," Levy tells Simon. "We kind of got the ABCs in how to move a scene along and make it work without getting cheap. We did that until we got back to Toronto — and then we got cheap again."

Cheap comedy, it is clear, is something that Levy still can't leave behind.


Interview Highlights

On working with Tyler Perry

"[Tyler Perry is] an amazing improviser, and he encourages improvising from all the cast in the movie. I didn't know that when I started shooting. I didn't want to change the lines, but I quickly learned that he wants you to open up in places and just go a little wild in an improvisational sense."

On discovering his comic talent

"In high school I took an old notebook and I had these weird little stories or poems. I would title something: 'Insect Asides.' And then I would write: 'Spider spider spin your web/clean your cleats and scratch your head/don't eat figs, tomatoes or spaghetti/just lie around and throw confetti.'

"So I would write these things in my little notebook, which I entitled 'Poetry Pros and Cons,' and at some point somebody in the cafeteria said, 'What are you writing in there?' He looked over to see it, and I got kind of defensive because I thought, 'Nobody is going to find this funny, this is just for me.' He said, 'No, let me see it,' and then he started laughing. And he said, 'I gotta show this to my friends over at the next table.' So he took the book and passed it around and people started laughing. And this became kind of infectious; it just got around.

"It got to the point where I ran for president of the student council. My poster would be like: 'It's a bird. It's a plane. It's Levy! No, it's a bird.' And that would [have] 'Vote for Levy' at the bottom. That would be a campaign poster. And I got elected!"

On appreciating cheap laughs

"I loved the [Three] Stooges growing up. I loved Laurel and Hardy. I loved all the cheap stuff — Abbott and Costello, I was a huge fan of Jerry Lewis, Martin and Lewis — when I was a kid. I don't think I really got into anything more sophisticated until much later in my life. I mean, as a kid, if I was reading Noel Coward I wouldn't turn to somebody and say, 'You've got to read this! It's hysterical!'"

On making cheap laughs smart

"Maybe it was the influence that Second City had on me that kind of honed my perception of comedy. You go into the theater and you're given these kind of golden rules of comedy that work for The Second City theater. Those are the rules that have kept this theater going in Chicago since 1959, and have kept it going in Toronto since 1973 doing eight shows a week, and [one rule] is: Always work at the top of your intelligence level. ... It doesn't matter how cheap a joke you're going for or how cheap a situation, if you're doing it smart, then it's quite valid and good.

"Believe me, I've done movies that are just the lowest of the low. I've done movies that are really done without a hell of a lot of intelligence going on. But for me, doing what I do in the movie, if I do it with as much intelligence as I can muster — I mean, cheap is cheap and funny is funny — but if I can make him credible in my own mind, then I'm making him credible to other people, and that's as good as I can do."

On what he's learned with age

"I don't really sit down and doodle funny things. I'm much more critical of myself now. I'll write something down and go, OK, what is that? That's garbage, put it away. Stop writing! Shut up!"

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. George Needleman is a chief bean counter of an investment bank, who's too consumed with family problems to realize he's being set up to take the fall for a Ponzi scheme. When he grasps what's going on, he's placed in a witness-protection program. But it's Madea's witness-protection program.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MADEA'S WITNESS PROTECTION")

TYLER PERRY: (as Madea) How you doing?

EUGENE LEVY: (as George) Very relaxed, she is now. I'm very relaxed.

SIMON: Tyler Perry wrote, directed and plays Madea - and most members of her family. But George Needleman is the latest kind of fussy, funny, bushy-eyebrowed, precise and put-upon man portrayed by Eugene Levy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEST IN SHOW")

LEVY: (as Gerry Fleck) And, you know, at some point a good friend of ours said, you know, you've got all these great songs that you do about your terriers. Do something with them because you're celebrities now.

CATHERINE O'HARA: (as Cookie Fleck) Thinking, yeah.

LEVY: (as Gerry Fleck) Yes.

O'HARA: (as Cookie Fleck) Why not?

LEVY, O'HARA: (as Gerry and Cookie Fleck) (singing) Back yard, front yard, or the park...

SIMON: Mr. Levy, who's been acclaimed for his wild improvisational work over the years, in Second City; and in films including "A Mighty Wind," "Best in Show," and the "American Pie" movies, joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

LEVY: Wow. It's my pleasure to be here.

SIMON: I hope we don't get off on the wrong foot if I tell you that as a kid, I remember going to see the improvs at Second City. And there was a big thing because the Canadians were in town.

LEVY: Oh, you were there. And I know exactly when that was - August 1974.

SIMON: And it was the greatest Second City cast I ever saw. It was - of course - you, and Catherine O'Hara...

LEVY: And Catherine O'Hara, who had just replaced - that week, for the first time - replaced Gilda Radner.

SIMON: And - I guess - it was Andrea Martin and John Candy and...

LEVY: Yeah. Dan Ackroyd.

SIMON: It was amazing.

LEVY: We were used to kind of doing a - perhaps a cheaper version of comedy up in Toronto, than they were used to in Chicago. You know, we kind of got the ABCs in, you know, how to kind of move a scene along and, you know, make it work without getting cheap.

SIMON: Yeah.

LEVY: And we did that till we got back to Toronto. And then we got cheap again.

SIMON: How do you wind up in a Tyler Perry movie?

LEVY: Well, you know, I got a phone call saying there's great interest from Tyler Perry to have you in his next movie. And I thought, hmm, that's odd, in a way, because there's usually not a lot of white people in his Madea movies. But I was kind of excited to work with this kind of iconic figure in the entertainment business. You know, it excited me.

SIMON: My reflex reaction was that Tyler Perry would seem to be a different kind of creative force than Christopher Guest, and the group of you who've made those famous mockumentaries - like "Best In Show." But is he, really?

LEVY: He's an amazing improviser, Tyler Perry, and he encourages improvising. I was excited to play this kind of straight man to Tyler Perry. I do gravitate to kind of the straight-man situation, you know, in my life. When I looked at the old, great comedy teams - you know, Abbott and Costello - my focus was always on Bud Abbott.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN")

BUD ABBOTT: (as Chick) Now listen, Wilbur. If you don't stop imagining these crazy things, I'll take you to a doctor to have you examined.

LOU COSTELLO: (as Wilbur) But I tell you, I saw him. And when I see what I see, I saw it. That's all, because Mr. Talbot, he - same way. He saw it.

ABBOTT: (as Chick) Talbot. Talbot. He's crazy. You're both crazy.

SIMON: You grew up, I gather, in Hamilton, Ontario. Your father worked at a famous automotive plant there. When did you begin to find out that you could make people laugh?

LEVY: In high school, I took an old notebook, and I had these weird little stories or poems. I would title something "Insect Asides."

(LAUGHTER)

LEVY: You know, and then I would write: Spider spider spin your web, clean your cleats and scratch your head. Don't eat figs, tomatoes or spaghetti, just lie around and throw confetti.

So I would write these things in my little notebook, which I entitled "Poetry Pros and Cons." And at some point, somebody in the cafeteria said, what are you writing in there?

He kind of looked over to see it, and I got defensive because I figured, well, nobody is going to find this fun - this is just for me. And he said no, no, let me see it; and then he started laughing. And he says, I've got to show this to my friends - over the next table. So he took the book and passed it around, and then people started laughing. And this became kind of infectious; it just got around.

It got to the point where I ran for president of the student council. So my poster would be like, "It's a bird. It's a plane. It's Levy! No, it's a bird." And then would be "Vote for Levy," at the bottom; that would be like, a campaign poster. And I got elected.

SIMON: So have you - as a writer, actor, director, comic inspiration - have you given a lot of thought over the years, to what makes something funny?

LEVY: Comedy, in general, is very subjective. It's whatever makes you laugh. Whatever makes somebody laugh is funny to them. I mean, I loved the Stooges, growing up. I loved Laurel and Hardy. I loved all the cheap stuff - Abbott and Costello. I loved - I was a huge fan of Jerry Lewis, Martin and Lewis - when I was a kid. I don't think I really got into anything more sophisticated till much later in my life. I mean, as a kid, if I was reading Noel Coward, I wouldn't turn to somebody and say, you've got to read this! It's hysterical!

(LAUGHTER)

LEVY: Maybe it was the influence that Second City had on me, that kind of honed my perception of comedy; where you go into the theater, and you're given these kind of golden rules of comedy that work for the Second City Theatre. And those are the rules that - has kept this theater going in Chicago since 1959; and has kept it going in Toronto since 1973, doing eight shows a week. And that is, always work at the top of your intelligence level.

And it's something that you think, well, why do you have to be told that? But when you think about it, OK, I get it; I get it. It doesn't matter how cheap a joke you're going for, or how cheap a situation. If you're doing it smart, then it's quite valid and - you know, and good.

SIMON: Do you still write those incredibly clever poems?

LEVY: I don't. I think I - in fact, when I go back and look at them now, they're - you know, it's like you kind of thought you were funny at the time, but you weren't really that funny at the time. Although I do like the title; I will use the title for something - "Poetry Pros and Cons." But a lot of the content, no.

I don't really sit down and doodle funny things. I'm much more critical of myself now. I'll write something down and go, OK, what is it? That's garbage. Put it away. Stop writing. Shut up.

SIMON: Well, what a way to end. Eugene Levy co-stars with Tyler Perry, who plays about half a dozen roles in their new film, "Madea's Witness Protection" program. Thanks so much, Mr. Levy.

LEVY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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