Q&A with Nikki Levy
“Saturday Night Live” alumna Laraine Newman shares an experience she had in high school, when, high on a psychedelic drug, she saw her mother as a person and not just her parent for the first time.
Actress (and daughter of Motown icon Diana Ross) Tracee Ellis Ross, one of the stars of the TV series “Girlfriends,” which ended in 2008, shares a story about when she once used what she thought was a toilet, but which was actually a stage prop, and how she worried that her mistake would ruin her mom’s reputation.
On Sept. 13, Newman and Ross were among a cast of comedians, screenwriters and actors who appeared in the show “Don’t Tell My Mother!” an increasingly popular storytelling comedy show produced monthly at Café Club Fais Do-Do in Los Angeles. Next month, the show celebrates its one-year anniversary with a performance on Oct. 11 and expands to New York.
“Don’t Tell My Mother!” creator Nikki Levy is a producer at 20th Century Fox who grew up in a Jewish household in New York — with a stereotypical Jewish mother. During a series of interviews, she described how, for her, the show’s best stories are wild without being mean-spirited, salacious but still enlightening. The following is an edited and condensed version of those interviews.
Jewish Journal: If you’re a performer, what’s the incentive to go out in front of an audience and share something personal and humiliating, other than to get laughs? Are there other reasons that performers might do it?
Nikki Levy: I figure it’s for a couple of reasons. One, it feels really good to be honest — and sometimes it’s easier to do it in front of a crowd than in front of a really good friend.
Also, I think people like to get exposure. Someone who is doing our next show got an agent from doing the show [last May]. Someone also cast a pilot from doing the show. So there’s the actual work incentive.
But I think the other incentive is the honesty involved with it. I work in the entertainment business, a lot of people I get are people who act and write, and I think a lot of people don’t get to do this kind of show. They’re maybe on a TV show or write for a super successful sitcom or something, but that idea of sharing writing, performing in a different kind of medium and in a really personal way is kind of freeing. They’re not writing for someone else’s voice, not writing for a character. They’re writing as them.
JJ: Your audience has been growing, and similar comedic storytelling shows also have been dong well. Why do audiences respond so enthusiastically to this type of confessional storytelling?
NL: Well, my feeling is we’re bombarded with so much bulls— all the time that it’s very compelling when someone honest is performing. I learned this thing once, in acting class — it’s a reason we look at car crashes: All of a sudden, we see something that’s real, it captures us because it’s truth. For instance, in a play you drift off, but the minute someone gets real, actually real, your eyes automatically go to that person. In this world now, with Facebook, Twitter and celebrities tweeting personal things, we’re past the point of going to see stand-up [comedy], of someone doing a character. People want to see things that are real and things that are honest.
JJ: You’ve had 10 shows and hosted dozens of performers at this point. Do performers make similar confessions? You said a lot of the stories have been salacious. What other topics have popped up a lot, besides sex?
NL: We had a great story from someone who accidentally shoplifted at age 24 and got arrested, when really she was spacey, as opposed to shoplifting. One of my favorite stories — by [performer] Jen Kober — she told a story about being a fat kid in a small town and her mother would make her ration cheese that she got from Costco. Jen, 8 years old, realized she needed to steal the entire block of cheese and convince her mother she never bought it. That’s a story I loved. They’re definitely not all sex stories. Drugs come up. Getting arrested comes up. Stealing comes up. Losing your virginity is something that comes up.
I told my “Hand-Job in the Holy Land” story. … I think it was probably 1993. It was the USY Israel Pilgrimage. … I told that story in March. People loved it. It was short, like five to seven minutes, and people loved it. A lot of audience members are Jews … a lot of the audience having been in USY tours when they were kids.
JJ: How did you become interested in comedy?
NL: Well, I came from a totally bananas household, the wild, wild East Coast of Queens. And coming from two parents who did not get along, there was a lot of yelling, so I would park myself in front of the TV and I would pop in the same three VHS tapes over and over again: “Coming to America”; the critically acclaimed [she says this sarcastically] “Moving Violations,” starring Bill Murray’s brother, John Murray — it’s so awesome but so bad; and “National Lampoon’s European Vacation.”… I don’t know what drew me to comedy, but I loved it and I love everything about it, and I was totally in love with Eddie Murphy, completely in love.
When I was 12, I came out to L.A. with my mom to visit family, and one of my family members worked at Paramount, so we got a tour of the studio lot, and I saw Eddie Murphy’s golf cart — this is during the ’80s, and I thought, “Oh my God, I’m totally going to work at a studio, in movies, in casting or development.”
For whatever reason, I chose development. But I loved comedies since I was a kid, probably because it was a great distraction from all the craziness at home. It was such an awesome escape.
JJ: So when did you move to Los Angeles to pursue development?
NL: I moved in November 2002. I’d been working at the Oxygen network, in New York, but I’d gone to school [at Northwestern University] for film [specifically, creative writing for media]. I always wanted to work in film, and there was no film in New York. I was 24 years old, and my mom said, “If not now, when? And if you don’t like it, come back.”
I sublet my amazing place in Park Slope, and I came out here, and I felt the max I would be here is six years. [She landed several jobs, including positions at Imagine Entertainment as the junior development executive on Oscar nominee “Frost/Nixon” and running “Ice Age” director Chris Wedge’s animation company, before taking a break living in Buddhist monasteries in Northern California, “because I wanted a change,” she said.] … It was during that time, between Imagine and working for Chris, that I started writing again and doing a little performing here and there.
Last October, we had our first [“Don’t Tell My Mother!”] show, and we had 100 people waiting at the door. It was Yom Kippur, and it was my birthday. … I had told my producer to lay out 35 seats because I wanted the place to look packed. … When all those people came, I was flabbergasted, literally.
JJ: So your expectations for the show weren’t high?
NL: No, I didn’t have any high hopes for the show. I just figured we’ll do it, and it will be fun. I worked with people on their pieces, like I do now, and hoped it would be good. … I couldn’t believe all these people came. Granted, they were mostly my friends, but still they showed up and gave the impression that maybe there is something to this. The theater took the entire door of 100 people. I didn’t even arrange anything with them. They took all the money because I was, like, whatever, I don’t care.
I get that a big part of [the success] has to do with the title — we all have something with our moms and want to hear salacious stories that you wouldn’t share elsewhere. … But I couldn’t believe it. I felt like I was finally inhabiting my own skin. And it became, like, OK, we’re here to make these people happy. Let’s just have fun. And it was such a fun show.
For information about upcoming performances of “Don’t Tell My Mother!” visit donttellmymother.com.