Eugene Levy on ‘Cheap’ Humor and Working with Tyler Perry

I like Eugene Levy, I really do.  It’s kind of hard to put that in writing though, because as endearing as Levy is in Christopher Guest‘s mockumentries and as Jim’s Dad in the American Pie movies, he’s in some incredibly awful movies. The SCTV veteran has starred in such “gems” as Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd, New York Minute, The Man, Ri¢hie Ri¢h’s Christmas Wish, and Madea’s Witness Protection, which is now in theaters and is one of the most negatively-reviewed films of Levy’s career. Nonetheless, Levy spoke with NPR on how he got cast in the film, which is directed by and stars Tyler Perry, and why he isn’t afraid about going for a cheap laugh.

Since Tyler Perry’s films feature predominantly African-American casts, Levy admits being a bit confused when he was contacted about starring in one of his films.  He explains, “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.”

Levy claims that his background in improv — famously the films he does with Christopher Guest are unscripted — was matched by Perry’s ability to improv as well.  He says, “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 look at the old great comedy teams, you know, Abbott and Costello, my focus was always on Bud Abbott.”

Levy is often cast in comedies that employ a lot of slapstick or “cheap” humor, which he admits is his first love when it comes to comedy.  He says, “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 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.”

As for tips for comedians, he points out that he always tries to work from a smart angle.  He says, “Always work at the top of your intelligence level. And it 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.”

Perhaps Levy could do it even more “smart” if he chose his roles a bit better, but what do I know?  He’s the one that makes the big bucks!

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