Conan, Bad Sex Advice and Johnny Drama: The Todd Levin Interview
Todd Levin has had a busy year. He was hired to write for The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien only to have it be unceremoniously yanked from the air a few months later, an experience he recounted in an article for GQ that’s required reading for comedy nerds. While waiting for Conan’s new show to come together on TBS, he co-wrote the fake sex manual Our Bodies, Our Junk with his writing team The Pleasure Syndicate. And now, he’s back to being a writer on Conan, which is debuting in a couple of months.
He was kind enough to talk to me about writing a highly irresponsible sex book, what he hopes to do with Conan’s blank slate and why comedians just love to rag on Entourage.
What was the process of writing Our Bodies, Our Junk like? Did you split up chapters and each have your own sections, or was it more all-around collaborative? Were you all in one place as you wrote it or did you send chunks around via email?
The book came together surprisingly smoothly. In the beginning, a couple of us wrote a very skeletal outline, just to figure out which general areas of filth we wanted to cover. Then, for each chapter, we all pitched a bunch of ideas, and informally voted on our favorites. Generally, the person who pitched an idea was also assigned to write it. (One of the writers – Jason Roeder – ended up writing most of the chapter introductions, both for consistency and because he was really, really good at it.)
We usually tackled two chapters at a time, with one of us serving as “editor” to punch up sections, smoothing transitions, and remove any redundant mentions of “fried semen” or “appendectomy scar tissue.” Most of this happened over email, because I was in Los Angeles while the other authors were in NYC.
What other books inspired you guys? I assume both comedy books like America: The Book as well as straight-up sex books like The Joy of Sex, but would love to hear about the specific research you guys did and what really inspired you.
The Joy of Sex, Our Bodies, Ourselves and Masters & Johnson were big influences for style and tone—really, any book that tries to explain or quantify intimacy is almost guaranteed to be funny and awkward. To me, those sex manuals were kind of like cookbooks that attempt to backwards-engineer Twinkies and other processed foods. Like Ho-Ho’s, sexuality becomes much more absurd when you try to understand it.
We were also really big fans of those big, comprehensive humor books like The Daily Show’s America: The Book, The Onion’s Our Dumb Century, and some of the old National Lampoon parodies.
One book I kept coming back to as we were writing this, though, was John Hodgman’s Areas of My Expertise. That book was such a great achievement in the way it used a consistent and authoritative voice to communicate hundreds of pages of fairly convincing bullshit.
Who were your ideal readers that you had in mind when you were writing this? Who was this book written for?
We didn’t write the book with any particular audience in mind; we just tried to write something we’d want to read. And, because it was a subject that’s pretty well-tread comedic territory, we were pretty conscious about avoiding the easy jokes. We figured if people wanted to read naughty puns or references to the Dirty Sanchez, they already had plenty of other options—just pick up any copy of Good Housekeeping.
The result is a mix of high- and low-brow humor that’s pretty absurd, maybe even to a fault. I think serious fans of comedy will appreciate it most, but I hope there’s something in there to entertain and disturb everyone.
What is was like to have an all-male writing crew? How would an all-female writing crew have differed?
I really have no idea how different this book would have been with an all-female writing crew. I would imagine the drawing of a vagina might have been more accurate, though, and might not have included so many rows of fangs.
When we started writing, we were pretty conscious of being “five dudes writing a sex book” and how that might impose certain limitations on the book’s voice. So, one of the first things we did was ask a couple of very funny female comedy writers—Alison Silverman and Sarah Thyre—to be guest contributors. We also put one of our authors, Ted Travelstead, on an injectible estrogen cycle. His skin has never been more dewy.
How did The Pleasure Syndicate come together? Do you guys have any future projects planned?
One of the writers, Mike Sacks, is not only a very funny individual but is also a true connector in the Malcolm Gladwell sense. (Actually, it would not surprise me if Malcolm Gladwell and Mike knew each other. That’s how much of a connector he is.) Mike has a gift for drawing like-minded writers into his orbit, and we all collaborated in various configurations on humor pieces for Esquire, Details, and a few other publications. The five of us wrote as a team for the back page of RADAR Magazine. When that magazine folded—for its twelfth and final time, I think—we thought it might be nice to work on something bigger together. That’s how this book, and The Pleasure Syndicate, were formed. We’re having varsity jackets made as we speak.
There is already a second book in the works right now. This one is about the only thing nastier and hornier than sex itself: the American workplace.
There are a bunch of comedians who just LOVE ragging on Entourage every Monday after it airs. Your Twitter picture is Johnny Bananas, for example. What’s the deal with the love/hate relationship that comedians have for that show?
How dare you assume my love of Entourage is tinged with hate!
I can’t speak for anyone else, but that show continues to fascinate me simply because of how far it is up its own ass. Here is a perfect example: on a recent episode, there was a scene with actor/comedian Bob Odenkirk and Dallas Mavericks owner, Mark Cuban, and they gave Cuban all the dialogue. Sometimes I think Turtle’s only job on that show is to explain the celebrity walk-ons: “Whoa! Do you guys know who that is? That’s retired MMA champion, Ken Shamrock!”
Maybe, in the end, we’ll learn that the show is a meta-commentary on the blind, tasteless, self-congratulatory nature of the entertainment industry—but I hope not. I’d prefer to believe when one of the characters on the show pitched an animated series to a network executive, starring a crudely and hideously illustrated ape with Kevin Dillon’s face and beard, and the executive exclaimed, “Johnny’s Bananas could be the next Simpsons!” the producers of Entourage sincerely believed that statement as much as the characters did.
Are you officially a writer on Conan’s new show? How’s its development coming along? Are you involved in planning for its format and such?
Yes? Some of the Conan staff is already back on the show, and have been for a while. And now that the writing staff finally has its paperwork done (as of yesterday), it’s just a matter of getting our start dates. So, I’m not officially a writer on Conan’s new show but I might be by the time this interview appears. [Ed. note – He is.]
As for the show’s format, I can’t really say. It will definitely have elements of a traditional talk show—I recently had a chance to see a model of the set, which is still under construction, and I noticed a tiny desk, guest couch, and potted plants. I would imagine those items will be incorporated into the new show, only larger. I think they’ve also booked their first big guest: Ed Begley, Sr. (Unfortunately, Ed Begley, Jr. said no.)
If you had free reign and didn’t have to get approval from anyone else, what sorts of things would you do on Conan? Are there any big, sweeping changes or crazy ideas you’d implement in a perfect world?
If I had my way, there would be live animals in every single sketch, as well as live animals wandering around the set throughout the program. I’m not kidding. I figure that way, if a joke doesn’t go well, you can always cut to an English Bulldog wearing a Sherlock Holmes cap, having a snooze on the guest couch. It’s a great fail safe device.
Actually, one thing I really hope we can do at the new show—especially now that we’re only shooting four shows a week—is put a little more polish into some of our video pieces. That’s something I really admire about SNL and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. In the past, our video stuff has always been rushed together and I would love to have the time to occasionally produce high quality video clips. I think they’d really help make some of our diarrhea jokes pop, you know?