A GoPride Interview

Nikki Levy

Do tell!: an interview with Don’t Tell My Mother’s Nikki Levy

Wed. April 2, 2014  by Gregg Shapiro

I wanted to start a show where I could take writers and performers whom I thought were brilliant, help them develop their work, and get them seen and discovered.
Nikki Levy
Northwestern grad Nikki Levy is an unstoppable queer force. She's a Hollywood hotshot in development and production (heard of Frost/Nixon? Imagine Entertainment?). Levy is also a writer and performer and the brains behind the laugh-riot known as Don't Tell My Mother. Everyone has a story (or 20) that they don't want their mother to know, but that they have no problem telling friends, or in the case of Don't Tell My Mother, a roomful of strangers. Since its inception Don't Tell My Mother has allowed writers, comedians and other performers to get up onstage and spill their guts about hilarious and harrowing true life events that they would never share with dear old mom. On April 7, at the Laugh Factory, 3175 N. Broadway, Levy hosts the Chicago premiere of Don't Tell My Mother, as a benefit for IMPACT, the groundbreaking LGBT program at Northwestern University. The line-up features true stories performed by lesbian actress Fawzia Mirza, musician and actor JC Brooks, actress Jen Kober and others.

GS: (Gregg Shapiro) Nikki, you were a film producer at 20th Century Fox. How did you get into that line of work

NL: (Nikki Levy) The old fashioned way, by working in an agency mailroom and getting yelled at 23 hours a day [laughs]! But seriously, it was that AND going to Northwestern University for Radio/TV/Film. I knew I wanted to get into the industry when I was a kid. Northwestern was an amazing place to study. If you don't know, working in the mailroom is the Hollywood equivalent of grad school. I was never so thin (and nervous) in my life [laughs]! But it paid off. I left there and became an assistant to an amazing producer, Alison Greenspan, who became my mentor. From there, I worked my way up and became Director of Development at Ron Howard and Brian Grazer's Imagine Entertainment where I developed comedies, and the Academy Award-nominated film Frost/Nixon. I ultimately ended up at Fox running director Chris Wedge's company (Ice Age, Epic). It takes plenty of love - not only for the medium, but also for the business - to stay in it. And I truly love it.

GS: Were you always a film buff growing up?

NL: Funny question. I would sit in my parent's living room and (like most kids) watch the same movies over and over again ‘til I wore out their crappy VHS tapes. I loved the classics – Moving Violations, Trading Places, Down And Out In Beverly Hills. I loved Eddie Murphy! I think I was as much in love with the idea of Hollywood as I was with movies; which turned out to be a good thing.

GS: What is your all-time favorite movie?

NL: Hands down, Coming To America. Pure. Genius.

GS: What was the impetus for creating Don't Tell My Mother!?

NL: I used to write and perform a lot. Getting into (movie) development took me away from that, and I would spend my time developing other people's material. I love that, but I missed the other side. I missed performing! And I love comedy. I wanted to start a show where I could take writers and performers whom I thought were brilliant, help them develop their work, and get them seen and discovered. And it worked! We have had numerous people signed (by agents and managers) from their performance at DTMM. We've even had someone get a pilot.

I work with people like I do my screenwriters – we go back and forth with drafts, and I help them develop their stories so those 12 minutes are the best version of the tale they want to tell.

That being said, there is another reason I started this show [laughs]! I am a loud, sexual, Jewish New Yorker. That being said, my entire life (as an exec and before), I was told that I was "too much" or "too inappropriate" and that I should "simmer down." I tried and succeeded somewhat, but I felt like a tea pot shoved with a rag. And I wanted to explode. So, I wanted to create a place where it was "appropriate to be inappropriate." Where we could be honest and direct and funny and real, and it be welcomed!

I also have a very close relationship to my mother – she is amazing. I grew up having to tell her everything. I heard that in some far-off lands there are people who don't do that. And they fascinated me! So, the name of this show is kind of a wink and a nod to that.

GS: What is the criterion for a performer to participate in the show?

NL: I go out to tons of comedy clubs looking for new talent (stand ups, improvisors, etc). I also get a lot of our performers from agents and managers who want their clients seen in a new, different, perhaps more vulnerable way. For example, Diana Ross' daughter, Tracee Ellis Ross (Girlfriends), did our show and it was the first time she ever performed her own words. And she has been a successful actress for years. Diane Neal (Law & Order: SVU) has done our show many times. From her extensive work in TV, you may not know how hilarious she is, but she is far and away one of true funniest people I know, and killed at the show.

I look for people whose humor has heart, intelligence and vulnerability. This show is about relishing in our collective dysfunction. I like to honor that in the room. Each show is now comprised of a number of emerging performers, as well as one or two known people like Traci Lords, Kate McKinnon (SNL), Fortune Feimster (Chelsea Lately), etc.

GS: Has your mother ever seen a performance of Don't Tell My Mother!? If so, what did she think of it?

NL: She has and she loves it! She was at our New York show, and has been to the Los Angeles show about four times. Sometimes she comes up on stage, sometimes we Skype her in. Nothing shocks her! Except maybe that story about me and the sexy party I went to while visiting her. But she was a public school science teacher in NYC. She got over it!

GS: If you were a mother, what kinds of things would you worry about your own children not telling you?

NL: When I am a mother, I want my kid to tell me anything…that she wants to. Unlike my mother, I wouldn't corner her about masturbating while making her bed. Just saying [laughs]. I believe when the lines of communication are open, not much could go wrong that can't be fixed.

GS: How did you go about selecting the talent, including singer/actor JC Brooks, comedian/actress Jen Kober and musical act The Joans, for the Chicago production of Don't Tell My Mother!?

NL: Jen Kober is like the DTMM mascot. She's done so many shows and actually got her agent from her show over 2 years ago. She is one of the most talented people I have ever known. And I am lucky to have her in this show! She is a force of nature, an out lesbian, and a brilliant, loving woman. The world should know who she is. I had seen JC perform with his band, and loved his story! Sneak preview: he's going to do a piece about finding his long-lost dad…on Facebook. The Joans are brilliant! They are a band dedicated to giving Joan Crawford a rock and roll voice. Since Joan is the impetus for Mommie Dearest, and since they are brilliant and queer, it was a natural fit. I love them!

GS: The Chicago production of Don't Tell My Mother! is a benefit for IMPACT, an LGBT program at Northwestern University. Why was it chosen as beneficiary.

NL: So much of my coming out story takes place at Northwestern and around Chicago. Brian Mustanski, the director of IMPACT, is a dear friend from college, and a fan of our podcast. When he mentioned us bringing the show to Chicago to benefit his organization, I jumped at it. I am an out lesbian in Hollywood, and I take great pride in the beauty of storytelling to relieve some of the fear of coming out/being gay. I can't think of a better beneficiary. We love our gays!

GS: What are you most looking forward to about the Chicago production of Don't Tell My Mother! at the Laugh Factory?

NL: I am so excited to do it at Laugh Factory Chicago. It's an amazing venue. And I can't wait to bring this show to a whole new audience. Chicago is a fabulous breeding ground for talent, and I am excited to work with great, local performers. I also can't wait to hear The Joans live. I am a big fan.

GS: Are there any other upcoming projects on which you are working that you would like to mention?

NL: Check out our podcast on iTunes. And we have a book on the way!

Interviewed by Gregg Shapiro. Gregg Shapiro is both a literary figure and a music and literary critic. As an entertainment journalist, his work appears on ChicagoPride.com and is syndicated nationally.