There Is Always Something New To See

Eliot and I have watched several episodes. I try not to compare this show to Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. They have different purposes. We watch Eugene Levy’s new show to see areas of a country we may have missed, or may want to consider for future travel destinations. Even if we never get there, it’s wonderful to know that there’s always a new part of the world waiting for us.


Eugene Levy Never Wanted to See the World

The comic actor balked when he was offered a travel show. But hosting “The Reluctant Traveler” showed him the (mild) joys of leaving his comfort zone.

By Anna Peele

Eugene Levy has never been a traveler.

As a child in Hamilton, Ontario, the farthest his parents might take him and his siblings was Lake Erie’s Crystal Beach, an hour and a half away by car. They would spend two weeks each year staying at the same spider-dominated cottages, eating at the same fish and chips place and visiting the same local amusement park. Levy rode a train for the first time at 8 and never repeated the exotic experience.

As a 76-year-old, Levy maintains the ancestral position that the known is the best place to exist. Why should he leave his life in the Pacific Palisades, where every day promises comfort? Each morning, Levy wakes up and puts on the round Leon eyeglasses he purchased in bulk and has worn in the same discontinued style for more than a decade. He drinks coffee with cream and sugar. If it’s Wednesday or Friday, Levy golfs, always with the same people and half the time not bothering to keep score.

If he’s working on something, Levy descends to his office to write or edit or go over scripts. He and his wife of 45 years, Deb Divine, might go to West Hollywood to see their daughter, Sarah, and her baby son. They’ll often have dinner with Martin Short, Levy’s friend for over five decades, who lives less than five minutes away. “I truly love having nothing on the agenda,” Levy said.

So when David Brindley, an executive producer, and Alison Kirkham, an Apple TV+ programming executive, called Levy in 2021 and asked him to host a travel show, he said no.

They’d never get Levy to a safari, he told them. He had watched animals on wildlife programs and didn’t need to travel halfway around the world to see them again. He doesn’t love water. He doesn’t like the hot; he doesn’t like the cold. This, along with Levy’s vehement aversion to sushi and fear of humidity that could ruin his hair, became basically the episode guide for “The Reluctant Traveler,” which premiered Friday on Apple TV+ and follows Levy from Finland to the Maldives. There is a safari episode, a hot episode, a cold episode, a jungle episode and a lot of uncooked fish.

As can be gleaned from the title, Levy’s lack of anything resembling wanderlust is the defining gimmick. But it’s also genuine, and the host himself still has no idea why anyone would have thought of him for the role of travel guide. “I’m not a curious person,” Levy said in an interview last week. “No sense of adventure.” He can’t pretend to be excited about things he isn’t, and he has historically had no interest in being himself on camera for anything longer than a talk show appearance.

“As a character actor, the further the character is away from me, the more comfortable I was doing it,” Levy said, inverting his magnificent brows into a chevron. “The closer you get to me, the interesting factor starts dropping.”

It’s a sentiment he expressed over and over as we talked at a restaurant in the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan. “This is the longest interview I’ve ever had,” he said before he even sat down in the private room, seemingly baffled about how we would fill the time. “I’m rambling,” he said later, while not rambling. It felt less like an expression of anxiety than a writer’s un-self-conscious assessment that this dialogue could be tightened and punched up.

Levy’s career has been a series of ensembles and repertory companies. His first professional role was joining Short in putting together a now famous 1972 production of “Godspell” in Toronto, with a cast that included Andrea Martin, Gilda Radner and Victor Garber. A few years later Levy, Short and Martin joined John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Rick Moranis and Harold Ramis, among others, on “SCTV” (1976-84), the beloved Canadian sketch comedy show that emerged from the Toronto branch of the Second City improv and sketch company.

In the 1990s, Levy became a leader of cinema’s pre-eminent mockumentary troupe, co-writing (with Christopher Guest) and starring in “Waiting for Guffman” (1996), “Best in Show” (2000), “A Mighty Wind” (2003) and “For Your Consideration” (2006). He played “Jim’s dad,” Noah Levenstein, in eight of the nine “American Pie” movies. Through this oeuvre, he became the comedic personification of spectacled, mostly well-meaning men who, in Levy’s assessment, “weren’t necessarily the sharpest pencils in the drawer.”

It was in “Schitt’s Creek,” the great sitcom Levy created with his son, Dan, about a group of coddled people who gain sentience through exposure to real life, that he came closest to portraying himself: an affable, affluent father who wears nice suits and has no tolerance for bad hotels. He was working with both of his children — Sarah played a diner waitress named Twyla — and the closeness of the role to himself created a dual consciousness in his performance that he hadn’t previously experienced. “I can’t believe my kids are on camera here with Catherine O’Hara,” Levy would think while he was acting in a scene with Catherine O’Hara.

By the end of its sixth season, “Schitt’s Creek” had gained nine Emmys, including a lead actor award for Levy. That success and impact led him to “The Reluctant Traveler.” He had ruled out doing another comedy series because he believed nothing would be as good as “Schitt’s.” He would have considered drama, but then Brindley and Kirkham called with their idea for the unscripted series, which was different from anything he had done before. Levy said the concept was originally pitched to him as “Room With a View,” a series highlighting luxury hotels around the world.

Divine was surprised when Levy told her he was going to take the job. “It’s so outside his comfort zone,” she said. She asked him, “Eugene, honestly; you’re going to do that?” He was — partly because Kirkham and Brindley had proved their creative flexibility by altering the brief to focus on Levy’s warm curmudgeonliness. “I love the people I’m working with,” Levy told me.

Levy’s collaborators are drawn to his sweetness and lack of pretense, along with his methodical brilliance. “‘Schitt’s Creek’ is a perfect example of that,” Short said. “Everything is logical, and some things are exaggerated, but still they’re based on what would happen and could happen. Eugene is very specific.”

Divine said, “He’s unlike anybody I’ve ever met in my life.”

“He doesn’t have any damage,” she explained. “He’s like a little Buddha: He just lives in the moment. He doesn’t gossip, he doesn’t care about show business that much. He does his work, goes in, has fun and gets out. But no, there is no damage.”

She added: “Believe me, I’ve looked.”

Divine and Short said that Levy’s parents are the root of his lack of brokenness, as well as his disinclination to vacation. “He grew up in a sheltered but loving, loving family,” Divine said. His mother “came to Canada on a boat” from Scotland at age 12, she added, “so her idea of traveling is steerage.”

Short said: “Eugene’s the sweetest human being in the world. There’s no one kinder. There’s no one more beloved. You’re dealing with the Saint Eugene here.”

A hallmark of Levy’s characters is that they’re funniest when acted upon — think of the doubly left-footed Gerry Fleck, from “Best in Show,” constantly running into people who have slept with his wife, Cookie (O’Hara). In at least one aspect, Levy’s onscreen persona is close to his familial role. “He’s the brunt of the jokes,” Sarah said of her father’s faux-low status. “It is all out of love — he’s so easy to pile up on because he takes it really well, and he’s a very particular person. And he’s the least sensitive out of all of us, which is why we end up doing it.”

Levy smiled when I relayed this, evidently delighted that his daughter had correctly analyzed what he tries to provide comedically. His earliest influence was Jack Benny. “He wasn’t afraid to have funny people around him as the star of the show, because his strength was reacting to them,” Levy said. “They would be funny and getting a laugh, and then he was able to get a bigger laugh from his reactions to them.”

This is what makes “The Reluctant Traveler” work, despite breaking Levy’s career-long avoidance of being the lead or playing himself. “Putting myself front and center was kind of an uncomfortable thing for me,” he said.

Brindley describes Levy as “a sort of anti-lead.” It’s odd to watch someone who is passively receiving — or as is often the case with Levy, actively resisting — experiences a typical travel host would greet with enthusiasm, like exploring the open markets of Venice or wading into the cerulean waters of the Indian Ocean.

When Levy is offered reindeer fillet, he says, “I don’t want to eat reindeer, to be honest.” In a segment about food in Japan, Levy swallows a tiny morsel of raw fish with the enthusiasm of a toddler “trying” a broccoli floret in order to unlock access to dessert. “It’s me,” Levy says to the camera during the same episode, identifying who the problem is.

But Levy’s best moments are, as usual, ensemble-based. In what may be the funniest scene of the series, Levy goes ice fishing with a man and his unsmiling 6-year-old son. For most of the day, Levy fails to catch anything while the boy amasses an enormous pile of perch. “Honestly, the kid was pissing me off,” Levy told me 10 months after filming, falling back into character as a disgruntled, fishless man with snowflakes on his eyebrows. “I didn’t think he really particularly liked me.”

As production went on, Levy began approaching interactions he would typically skip with a new attitude. “You know, this isn’t bad,” he recalled thinking. “I’m kind of liking it.” He said the conversations he had were the most memorable part of making the show, which included staying in two renovated royal palaces and sticking his arm up an elephant’s rectum to attempt to secure a stool sample in South Africa. (Levy failed to retrieve an acceptable specimen.)

Sarah went to several shooting locations for “The Reluctant Traveler” and spent time with Levyas did Divine. Sarah said that growing up, she rarely traveled with her father except to places where he was working — often from their home in Toronto to Los Angeles in the summers, and to Rome and Monte Carlo one year. (Levy protested that they did go to “the Barbados” once.) If it weren’t for television and film, Levy wouldn’t have encountered so many things outside of the enviably contented existence he has created. And although being elbow-deep in an elephant is probably as far from teeing off in the Pacific Palisades as it’s possible for Levy to get, that willingness to extend himself for the bit — and the check — has led to his success. It helped him create a home he never wants to leave.

Looking back, Levy said he was happy he took the job, in a typically understated way: “Actually, it was kind of an enjoyable, uh, show to do.”

When I asked what other experiences Levy might not have had without his career, he immediately said, “I wouldn’t have married my wife if it hadn’t been for work, because I was at work [at the Second City theater] when she came in applying for a job. I said to the manager, ‘Hire her.’”

Then Levy frowned and looked down, toward the little Order of Canada maple leaf pin on his lapel. “What would I have missed?” he muttered. “What would I have missed out on it if hadn’t been for work?” He raised his head slowly, eyebrows windshield-wipering up in reaction to his realization: “I would have missed out on my life.”

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