Meet Todd Levin: 'Sex' & 'Conan' Writer
Todd Levin Writes A Check| Photo: Lindsey Byrnes.
Todd Levin is the Director of ABS Community Outreach. The ABS is the Association For Betterment of Sex, of course. It sounds serious -- but not so fast.
This association is a group of comedy writers who have released a new book ("written by Association For Betterment of Sex”) called “Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk.” Levin has teamed up with writers whose credits include: The Daily Show, The Onion, Vanity Fair, Esquire, Radar, and GQ -- Scott Jacobson, Michael Sacks, Ted Travelstead and Jason Roeder.
Levin’s a career writer whose last few years have been focused in late night television. Hired as a writer for the last six weeks of Late Night with Conan O’Brien’s run, Levin moved to LA for what would be seven months of The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien. (He’s not sure if he’s to be joining Conan at TBS.)
Originally from Albany, New York, Levin spent fourteen years in New York City before his near-surprise moving to Los Angeles to be with Coco. Now, he’s living in Silver Lake, driving a car, and happily eating fake-meat soy products stuffed in tacos. LAist had a chance to talk with Todd Levin about sex, Conan and living as a New Yorker in Los Angeles.
How did the book come about?
Mike Sacks had this proposal for a parody of a sex manual, like what your parents had with drawings that still didn’t manage to make you horny as a kid -- things like "The Joy of Sex," and "Our Bodies, Our Selves." It seemed like a really great area for a book. To my knowledge, no one had ever done that as a book before -- a complete comprehensive parody of a sex manual.
Is the book entirely fiction?
That was the idea, like if John Hodgman had written a sex book -- it’s completely made up. That was a conscious choice because we figured you can only get so much mileage out of writing dirty sanchez jokes. There’s so much pedestrian sex humor, so the way we thought to make it work would be to make it very earnest and push it as far as we could. It’s full of terrible advice but it's written with a tremendous confidence and positive encouragement for the reader.
It’s supposed to make people feel better about sex and to improve their sex lives, and to improve their sexual communication, but it’s full of a lot of advice that would probably get people killed or arrested.
What was something that was too weird for inclusion?
I had pitched one idea that was this guy talking about his experience as the only black furry. It was one of those things that was an observation that only I held that I don’t think had any universal appeal.
I had this idea that the only people who get into weird fetishes are wealthy white people and I don’t know why that is. You know when you watch Real Sex or any of those things, they’re always interviewing people who paint on each others bodies, then go to an exhibit in San Diego to see these bodies in a gallery -- it’s always weirdo white people.
The artwork in the book plays a significant part. Why that choice?
We hired an illustrator to mimic the style of the couple illustrations from "The Joy of Sex." One of the authors posed for the male part. We hired a model through Craiglist to be the female. We just had them get in all these positions and photographed them and hired an illustrator to make them nude. Our idea was we wanted to get a woman who we could style like Bonnie Tyler, the singer. I believe she sang “Total Eclipse of The Heart.”
We had this really creepy photoshoot in somebody’s apartment where we just hung up an old bed sheet and the two of them did all these poses that we had come up with for the various sex positions and masturbation holds. They all had terrible stupid names that were overcomplicated and ridiculous.
What was it like to work on Late Night With Conan O’Brien for only a month and a half before moving to LA for The Tonight Show?
When I was hired I was told, “we’ll bring you on Late Night, we’ll see how it works out.” There was never any discussion of working for the Tonight Show at all even though those were the last six weeks of Late Night.
So when I first started working there, every time I’d meet somebody new on staff they would say, “oh are you coming to LA with everybody?” I’d have to say: “I have no idea.” I don’t think I was ever even told that I was going. I think I found out when, at the end of the run, people from the travel department were getting touch with me about getting to LA.
I learned later that a lot is unspoken or assumed, and you eventually relax enough to at least get a handle on it. I had no idea at the time. It was my first job in TV, so I was terrified. Every minute was abject terror that I was going to be let go.
Your GQ piece “I Was WIth Coco” was a fond looking back. What turned a stressful time into that a reflection?
I think a lot of people on staff felt like The Tonight Show was really kind of rigid, in terms of what we could do, and where we could put it in the show. There were just a few slots for comedy and that sort of had to work a certain way because that was the defined format of that show. It’s hard to do, especially when you think you’re a creative person. It’s hard to have all of these very kind of narrow parameters for what you can do.
When the show got canceled, a lot of people wrote me to say how sorry they were, and what a shame and everything, and then I think it was maybe a couple weeks after I was at a party where that was happening again, and I ran into a former writer for Late Night and he was the first person to say: “this is great. This is the best thing that could possibly happen. You should be so happy, because Conan will definitely have a show somewhere else, you guys will probably all go there, and you get to start over, and you get to make it whatever you want, and you have all of this good will.”
How are you liking living in LA?
When I first moved here, everybody would say to me, when they found out I was here from New York: “after a while, you’ll get used to this” -- like living in LA was like living with a horrible, debilitating disease. I like it though. It’s an easier place to live than New York in a lot of ways.
Having lived in New York for 14 years, I was amazed at how much pleasure I took in tiny little details that I would imagine people here take for granted -- like being able to go to a store and put things in my trunk and being done with it. For me to go to a place like Bed, Bath and Beyond, living in New York, it was like a four day trek. It was just fucking impossible. I had to have Sherpa with me, I had to have several emergency contacts -- it was so hard to do something as simple as bring home a drying rack for my dishes.
Now, it’s nice to be able to take those things for granted and focus on other things. I think that everything that is great about LA is what’s horrible about New York and vice-versa. I think that all of the things LA does really well, New York does poorly.
What’s the most surprising thing about LA?
I think a really huge misconception I had before spending any time here was that it’s just an incredibly healthy place. What I’ve discovered is that it has more fast food and junk food than any other place that I’ve been in my life. LA does things like donuts, burgers, fries and hot dogs really really well. And frozen yogurt -- which is crap. It’s amazing how many places there are to get food that will kill you in six months. That’s been a huge surprise for me.
Also, vanity plates. Somebody on my block in my old neighborhood had “MCLOVIN” on his license plate.
What’s your favorite LA restaurant if you’re paying?
That’s a hard question because I don’t know LA super well. I like Little Door a lot. Alegria on Sunset is really good -- that’s one thing I’ve had to adapt to in LA, the idea that there could be something of worth in a strip mall. That’s a very unique LA thing.
Also, I’d like to promote Sky’s Tacos. They’re very good. They are not like any other taco I’ve ever had, but I love them.
What’s your favorite LA restaurant if Conan is paying?
Providence. Maybe I’d go on my own dime, if I had a dime. I haven’t been to too many places, but Providence is one that I was like, “bravo, nice work guys.”