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Dan Levy and John Mulaney on the crowded comedy scene and texting with strangers

Levy and Mulaney (Photo: Victor Viega)

You might not know the name Dan Levy, but you know his work. The stand-up has written on shows like Mulaney and The Goldbergs and has toured with everyone from Aziz Ansari to John Mulaney. The latter is one of his best friends, and with Levy’s new stand-up special, Dan Levy: Lion, hitting streaming service Seeso this Thursday, November 17, we tasked Mulaney with interviewing his buddy and then answering some questions, with only a modicum of help from us. The result is an intimate and hilarious look at two good friends, their inside jokes, and their love for each other.

John Mulaney: Tell us about some of your earlier work on the stage. You were in Annie, is that correct?


Dan Levy: Yes, I was in lots of musicals in high school. I was in Bye Bye Birdie. I played Conrad Birdie.

JM: You played Birdie in Bye Bye Birdie? Very good.

DL: There wasn’t a lot to pick from in terms of my high school class, so that’s why I got that part. And I was the only person who probably would wear leather pants.

JM: You were the only person already dressed like Conrad Birdie.

DL: Exactly. So I was Conrad Birdie, and then I was a Scragg in Li’l Abner.

JM: I don’t even know what that is.

DL: Li’l Abner is a show about the Sadie Hawkins dance, where girls go after guys to get them to have a date. I guess that’s the premise of the musical. I play a Scragg who essentially is a homeless boy in the town. I did have some main lines.

JM: This is after playing Conrad Birdie? So you were basically the star of Bye Bye Birdie to some degree, and then the next time they were casting, they made you a homeless person at a dance.


DL: My big break was when I played Rooster in Annie. That was great. I had orange hair.

JM: Rooster works for Ms. Hannigan?

DL: He’s just trying to get them to Easy Street.

JM: And what’s his big song?

DL: His big song is called “Easy Street.”

JM: Because that’s where he wants to go.

DL: Yeah, he wants to go to “Easy Street, Easy Street, that’s where I want to be” [singing]. So I sang that. At the time, I was heavily influenced by Jim Carrey, as we all were, from Ace Ventura, so looking back at the videotape, I’m basically doing Fire Marshall Bill playing Rooster with orange hair and an extra, extra large suit. It’s perfect.


JM: You chose Fire Marshall Bill? Oh, my gosh.

DL: It’s pretty bad.


JM: The title of your special is Lion, which relates to your story about your trainer who breaks up all his clients into lions and zebras. He’s an intense trainer that you work with, a great guy, an intense man.

DL: He’s a very intense man. He actually texted me yesterday morning. I’m not working out with him consistently anymore, because my life is more hectic than it was when I first met him, but yesterday morning he texted me at 5 a.m. and said, “I want you to attack today like your life depends on it. If you fail, it’s over. You go home. There is no tomorrow. Please don’t respond.” That was it. That was at 5 a.m.


The A.V. Club: Why did he say, “Please don’t respond”?

DL: I don’t know. It wasn’t even a mass text or anything. It was a text directly to me. I think maybe because if I responded, then I wasn’t attacking the day. He wanted me to focus on attacking the day.


JM: Right, just read this, get up, and if you fail, go home. Even if you know you’re working from home. You’re working from home a lot.

DL: Yeah, I’m basically reading his texts as I’m watching Daniel Tiger with my son, so I’m not really attacking the day necessarily.


JM: You have been an adult for about 15 or 16 years. I would say I have maybe a rotation of 20 to 30 people who have my phone number and text me consistently. You have about 400 people who text you—apropos of nothing—constantly. Tell us how you met your trainer who texts you this at 5 a.m.

DL: I met him because when I was getting married, I wanted to get in shape for my wedding. This was a while ago. So I went to Crunch Fitness, and they give you a trainer for free. And I met him, and he told me I’m doing everything wrong. I’ve got to stop eating Subway. I’ve got to become a lion. He told me I was totally a zebra. Lions were attacking me. And then I started working out with him. Day one, I dropped a weight on my iPhone, and it got destroyed. So I was really mad at the whole working-out idea, because my phone was destroyed. But then he kind of pressured me to keep going. A little bit.


JM: A little bit, from the man who, well after working together, texted you at 5 a.m. to attack the day or go home and asked that you send no response. I bet he put a lot of pressure on you.


DL: Yes, he put a lot of pressure on me, and then I felt like I had to do it, and then I started just working out with him at Crunch. And since then, he’s gone on to become a big trainer. But I met him originally at Crunch Fitness.

JM: Dan, I don’t mean to interrogate you, but do you know any other trainers well? Are there any other trainers in your life?


DL: No, there are no other trainers in my life.

JM: Who was the man you met on an airplane that you gave your number to?

DL: That’s numerous people.

JM: I guess my point is that you’ve given your cellphone number out to people you’ve met on an airplane.


DL: Oh, yeah. I’ve given my phone number to the weirdest people. I get texts from people all the time. This one guy named Rudy texted me two days ago. He’s like, “Hey, it’s Rudy. We met on an American flight in 2010. I was living in Cleveland. I’m producing movies now. Will you star in my movie?”

JM: You realize the people on Sully’s flight don’t keep in touch as much as you do with everyone you’ve ever been on an airplane with?


DL: That is true.

JM: How does it happen that you talk to the person you’re sitting next to? And then walk us through how the cellphone number gets exchanged.


DL: Well, here is what happened. This was also before I always traveled with my noise-canceling headphones. This was early on when I was doing lots of traveling with stand-up and all the colleges. Every week I was on a different flight, and I would sit there and be bored. I’d be sitting next to people, and we’d just strike up a conversation. It would sort of lead into, “Oh, you’re a comedian? I design websites for a pharmaceutical company. Maybe we could work together.”


JM: And then you’d go, “My number is 310…”

DL: Yeah, and then it would just happen. I’ve given a lot of people my phone number, but one time, I sat next to the CEO of American Eagle.


JM: On an American Eagle flight?

DL: On an American Eagle flight. So I thought this was going to be my big break into… I don’t know, free flights or something. I emailed him afterward, and I was like, “Hey, it was great meeting you. I would love…” I don’t even know what I said in the email.


JM: “I love free flights.”

DL: “Subject: I love free flights.” And then he never responded. But I use his name whenever I send a complaint to American. I always say I’m very good friends with the CEO of American Eagle, and I cannot believe we were delayed five hours in Denver.


JM: And what is the return on that complaint?

DL: Some miles.

JM: Really? How do you feel about people tweeting at airlines about their delays?


DL: I feel like it’s enough already. I know I’ve done it, but I just feel like at this point, it’s like a stand-up comedy trope.


JM: And there are always comedians tweeting at airlines.

DL: It’s only comedians. And I get it.

JM: It is only comedians. It’s not comedian content. It’s using social media to complain about an airline.


DL: “Hey, F you Delta. I’m at the gate. What the F.” Just that, over and over.

JM: Yeah, “Thanks again. Because of you I just…”

DL: “Because of you, I almost didn’t make my show that didn’t matter.” A lot of those tweets.


JM: Now that’s a good question. Do shows matter? If either of us walked out on stage or not, does it matter at all?

DL: No. We’ve talked about this before. Nothing really matters. The show has to be good because you want to be good. But if it’s not good, it doesn’t matter.


JM: Are there too many comedians?

DL: Yes.

JM: Would you like to be a comedian in the ’50s, when there were, like, four comedians?


DL: I would have liked to be a comedian in the ’20s, or maybe even a comedian on the Mayflower and have a statue somewhere. There are way too many comedians now.

JM: Yeah, but you would have been sick too much back then. You get sick now, and you have all medical options at your disposal.


DL: I wouldn’t have made it on the boat. I actually can’t make it on a boat for more than half an hour. I can’t imagine going across.

JM: Do you get seasick?

DL: I mean, I have.

JM: Were you ever bit by a spider in a writers room?

DL: No. I was bit by a spider but not in the writers room. I was bit by a spider and the infection grew in the writers room to a point where, when I was in the Mulaney writers room… There were a lot of things going on, but one of the bigger things going on was my infection, my spider bite, and so I had to leave in the middle of the day.


JM: You had a black vein on your neck.

DL: Yeah, and it was terrifying.

JM: It was terrifying. You started to become delirious, I remember, but you stayed until about 8 p.m. that evening.


DL: Well, I cared about the show.

JM: And the spider poison went to your brain, and that’s when you wrote all 13 episodes, and that’s why they turned out the way they did.


DL: That’s what happened.

JM: Did you give the spider your cellphone number?

DL: Yes, the spider is designing my Tumblr page.

JM: Speaking of designers, you and I had the same contractor work on our houses because we both got married, and we bought our first homes with our wives within the same couple years. And we both love our contractor. You text with our contractor just about five times a day, correct?


DL: I would say five, depending on what’s going on. I text with him a lot because me and you both, we love the idea of contractors and flipping houses.

JM: You almost recently got involved in a flip that would have ruined you, is that correct?


DL: Yes. I’m so into the idea of flipping houses. I was trying to get in on one with our contractor. It turns out it would be all of the money I have, and then I would lose it. So, I’m glad.

JM: Lion is a hilarious special, and no one makes me laugh harder than you. But before people tune in to Lion, which is a great hour of comedy, should they be aware that if you were able to make a living flipping houses you would not be doing comedy?


DL: Yes, 100 percent. My goal is to be like, “Oh, yeah, Dan Levy is a really funny comedian, but do you know he’s been flipping houses for the past five years?”

JM: Right. You’d like to do comedy, like, twice a year, and everyone would be like, “Why is Dan doing so well?” And then they’d be like, “Oh, he’s flipped houses.”


AVC: Did you get into flipping before you started watching HGTV, or did HGTV make you get into flipping?

JM: He’s always loved real estate.

DL: Yeah, I’ve always been into it, but it really coincided with being married and watching those shows and meeting real contractors. It was like seeing it happen.


JM: Dan goes to open houses. Did you know that?

AVC: I did not know that.

JM: Dan goes to open houses with one of his G.D. babies.

DL: So much so that every Sunday, Abe asks me what we’re doing today: “Are we going to the park or are we going to an open house?” For him, an open house is basically as much fun as a park. We need to stop it though, because he’s ransacking the bedrooms, because he goes into open houses looking for toys. On Sunday, we were at a house, and we came upstairs, and whoever lived there, their toys were all over the floor and in Abe’s pocket, and we had to take them out of his pocket. But you love open houses, too.


JM: I love open houses. I’m always bummed when the bed is not real, and you sit on it, and it’s a box. Have you ever had that situation?

DL: There’s nothing worse than a poorly staged house.

JM: Or where it’s a box spring, not a mattress, and you sit on it, and it sags, and everyone looks at you like it’s your fault. It’s like, “No, you put a fake bed here.”


DL: That’s what happened two weeks ago with Abe, because he jumped onto one of those beds, and it started falling apart. The real estate agent was getting upset, but also I was doing the whole thing where I was asking so many questions [that] she thought I was going to buy the house. So she was sort of okay with it.

JM: She thought she had someone on the line while his child destroyed the staging.


DL: Exactly.

JM: You talk about Abe and your daughter. Do you name your daughter in the special? I forget. I’m only not saying her name because this is public.


DL: Oh, no. It’s okay.

JM: Your daughter’s name is Romy. I guess there’s enough social media now that no one’s children are private. That used to be a big thing that you wouldn’t know who people’s children’s names were, but now we put them on social media, and it’s a lot of fun.


DL: Yeah, they’re on social media. They’re very cute. I find I have less jokes about Romy, because I haven’t fully engaged with her life. But she’s very cute.

JM: Romy is very cute. And she’s had more experiences since you filmed Lion. I believe she’s able to walk now and can climb a ladder, right?


DL: Yeah, she climbed a ladder. She tries to be like her older brother, so she actually tried to flip out of the crib the other day, which isn’t good because she’s so little, and she has to stay in the crib. So we found her sort of hanging on by one arm like Sylvester Stallone in Cliffhanger. She was just like, “Abey, Abey.” She said her first full sentence yesterday, which was “More goldfish now.” That was her first sentence. So we’re happy about her. She loves eating.

JM: That is great. Was this when she broke fast? [Note: This interview took place right after Yom Kippur.]


DL: Actually, I was about to tell you, last night at break-fast, all the kids left the table to play, and she stayed just eating white fish. Like an adult. She stayed with the adults and kept eating while Abe ran around with a Popsicle.

JM: How were the High Holy Days with the children?

DL: It might be time for me to start asking you questions. It was fine. I fasted. It was weird. And I get tired. I get a headache, because I drink a lot of coffee.


JM: You can drink coffee during Yom Kippur?

DL: No, no. I don’t drink anything, so that’s why I got a headache, because I drink so much coffee, as you know, that not drinking all day, I guess I got a crazy headache.


JM: But at least you got to be with your children at home while you had a headache.

DL: Yeah, so it was easy. Abe was yelling at me that he wants to go to Michaels, which is his favorite place to go now.


JM: What is Michaels?

DL: They sell fabrics and crayons. It’s the weirdest store. It makes no sense.

JM: Wait, is it for children?

DL: No. It’s for people who want to do crafts.

JM: That’s his favorite store, and he was screaming at you on Yom Kippur that he wanted to go to Michaels.

DL: So how is being on Broadway?

JM: Being on Broadway is great. I’m at home right now. I report to the theater at about 6:15 with our wonderful makeup artist for Oh, Hello and the wonderful Annamarie Tendler Mulaney transforms us, and then we have a show at 8 tonight.


DL: I’m going on Saturday. I cannot wait. It was the funniest show I’ve ever seen. I laughed nonstop. How many jokes are in the show? Do you even know?

JM: All the jokes.

DL: All the jokes are in the show. I almost want to count them on Saturday night because I feel like that would make the next amazing article.


JM: We have a couple sentences that are required for plot such as, “Oh, no, now we have to do this,” and we want to replace them with jokes. We cannot stand even the three or four sentences that help explain the plot of the play, because they’re not jokes.

DL: I feel like that was my takeaway when I saw the L.A. version. I know it has changed. But I’ve never laughed that hard consistently ever. It was amazing, so I can’t wait to see it in New York.


JM: I thank you.

DL: I was wondering what it’s like, because you’re so used to stand-up. It’s just you and your nice suit. Stand-up sound checks are hilarious. You go in, and you say, “Hey, sounds good.” Maybe check the lighting. But this is a whole different thing.


JM: Yes, we did three weeks of tech rehearsal. It’s very funny to have a mark. When you’re filming something, you have marks and spots you have to be in. There’s staging, and there’s blocking. But I’m so used to just pacing around doing stand-up [that] to have cues like “crosses stage right to stage left” or different spots for spotlights is weird. In the first couple shows, it’s so tempting, as you’re talking, to say, “cross down stage left,” because you’re thinking as you’re speaking. Also we have props that I have to make sure I have in my pockets every night. I always go out there, and in the first couples minutes of the show I’m like, “Oh, no, do I have my Swedish Fish and the fake cellphone?”

DL: Not to talk about me again, but when I was in a production of Hello, Dolly! in middle school, I played Horace Vandergelder, and I forgot my wallet to pull out for a prop. I remember my drama teacher slid it across the stage, and it hit my foot. So you might need a drama teacher or me in the front row just in case. I can throw your Swedish Fish on the stage.


JM: I actually think with Oh, Hello we could get away with leaving and going to get props.

DL: I know you’ve said it so many times that you think it’s the funniest thing ever that you’re even doing the show, because I remember it started out as a joke that when people would say, “After the sitcom, what do you want to do next?” and you’d say, “I want to do Oh, Hello on Broadway.” Now it’s a real thing, and you’re actually on Broadway.


JM: It’s an extremely expensive joke. Mike Birbiglia said, “It’s like a million-dollar joke.” He’s was like, “It’s like you’re doing a show making fun of the M&M store in the M&M store. But you guys also love M&Ms, and it’s really expensive.”

DL: The funniest thing for me was when Anna [John’s wife] posted something about all of the Broadway shows that wrote you guys saying “break a leg” on opening night. That’s what I thought was the funniest.


JM: It’s wonderful. We’ve gone to see other Broadway shows, and it’s really an amazing community, because people on Broadway love it. They love the theater. That’s what they want to do. People in L.A. are like, “I hope I get on Raymond and get a deal so I can have $400,000 and never be that funny.” I retract part of that statement, maybe. It’s not that Raymond wasn’t funny.

DL: I know what you mean.

JM: A lot of people want just deals. But Broadway is people working in this world because they love it so much, so it’s an amazing community to be a part of. It’s ridiculous we get to do this. We’re so lucky we get to do this.


Ad-Rock did the show, and afterward he was like, “What I like about this is, ya know, is that when you have dumb F-ing ideas, and you’re like, ‘We should never do that, but it’s really funny.’ But it’s so dumb that you don’t do it.” He said, “You guys actually did it.”

DL: You watch a Broadway actor, and it seems like they’re doing it live on stage, and it’s so different than stand-up. It’s like hanging out with a group of comedians talking about comedy versus getting the love. It’s so genuine from Broadway.


JM: It’s extremely genuine. And I think a lot of comedians sometimes pretend to find the job more taxing than it is.

DL: Yeah, exactly.

JM: It is pretty incredible, the group of people that work on our show and in the theater world.


DL: Have you been able to do any stand-up at all on your Mondays, or are you just so tired?

JM: No, I’ve been trying to not lose my voice, because it was going the first couple shows. But now that I can do the show every night, I’m going to start doing The Comedy Cellar at night.


DL: Awesome. And then your plan is to do a big, fun stand-up comedy tour afterward?

JM: I hope so, unless I get cast. See, right now I’m the star of a Broadway show so I could get cast as a Scragg in Li’l Abner.

DL: Well, fingers crossed.

JM: Yes, fingers crossed I’ll be a nonspeaking homeless walk-on extra. I’m very excited for everyone to see Lion. It’s a great special, and you’re a great comedian.


DL: I’m really excited to see Oh, Hello, because you’re a great comedian and friend.

JM: Gut Yontif to you and yours.

DL: Talk to you in five minutes privately.


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