Interview with Rob Kutner, Joel Levinson, and Stephen Levinson
In November 1972, the Ms. Foundation for Women released Free to Be… You and Me, an album and book geared toward children, championing self-acceptance and rejecting societal gender norms. Actress Marlo Thomas, who came up with the idea for the project, hoped to fill what she saw as a void of progressive children’s entertainment. Singers on the album included Thomas, Alan Alda, Diana Ross, Cicely Tyson, and Carol Channing. Forty years later, Joel Levinson (The Tonight Show), Stephen Levinson (Channel 101, Funny or Die’s Noah’s Ark), and Rob Kutner (Conan) decided to do a comedic send-up of the classic album they listened to so often as kids. Turning the album, titled It’s OK to Do Stuff, around in an incredibly short two-week period, they invited actors and comedians like Lizzy Caplan (pictured), Eddie Pepitone, Fred Willard, Samantha Bee, and Colin Hanks to lend their vocal talents. It’s OK is a light-hearted and funny take on the original, mixing songs and skits to pay tribute to Free to Be. We chatted with Joel, Stephen, and Rob to discuss their musical comedy inspirations, the songwriting process, and more.
Rooftop Comedy: So what, if any, exposure did you have to Free to Be…You and Me while growing up?
Stephen Levinson: My parents, who were also Joel’s parents, bought it on vinyl and I played it until it was battered. It was one of those albums, as a kid, I made them play it over and over and over again. It’s funny because I probably haven’t listened to it since childhood, but when Rob approached me with the project, I re-listened to it and it was just—amazing. When you haven’t listened to a song in so long, you listened to it so much back then, you instantly remember so much.
Rob Kutner: I have a four year-old daughter and, pretty recently, I was playing it on CD for her after not hearing it for a really long time and almost every one of those tracks opened up a well of memory. And I remember at the time, it was kind of this mind-blowing album for what it is—there’s nothing else out there like it. Not only are there all these empowering things about boys and girls and what you can do, but also so entertaining and so charming. It wasn’t at all ideological, even though it’s highly ideological now.
SL: That was the original impetus, I think.
RK: I saw that story being listed. I have a twisted mind so my immediate thought was, “What if there was this bizzaro version of it? What happens in the recording studio that we can do sort of like an ultimate history of it? And then I remembered that I knew Joel and Stephen and they’re amazing. [Joel laughs] I have a string around my finger to help me remember. I was like, “Oh, that can actually exist”.
Joel Levinson: Yeah, ultimately, it was driven by the 40th anniversary so it was kind of like, “We’ve got two weeks. Let’s see what we can do”.
RK: My wife had a baby a few weeks ago, so literally there was this biological ticking clock going on, where Joel and I were like in this creative frenzy trying to get this thing going. And then we brought Steve in because Joel and I are incapable of actually taking something into the real world.
SL: My baby’s not born until January, so I had a little bit more breathing room than they did.
RC: Did you listen to any musical comedy growing up?
SL: Stan Freberg in particular. Stan Freberg was one of those albums that we listened to it as music, before we even knew it was comedy.
JL: You’re right! [Laughs]
SL: Our parents played those albums for us…
JL: Before we had any chance of getting a joke. We just knew that people in Allan Sherman’s audience were losing their shit. They couldn’t get enough of Allan Sherman.
SL: I was going to say Tom Lehrer also. I think also, the musical songs that Monty Python does. They do these amazing dark and twisted songs that sound very light and upbeat. No one else does songs about the things they do, like “Finland” and things like that.
RK: I was just going to say, I’m the youngest of the bunch of us and the music I listened to growing up, I think, the line between comedy and real music blurred a lot. If you look at Poison and Billy Idol and the videos I was watching. When Steve was watching them in high school, I was watching them as a five year-old and it’s much harder to see whether or not they were joking.
RC: I wanted to ask you guys if you could tell me about what went into writing some of these songs and what the process was.
JL: Rob brought about the general idea then he threw some titles at me, I threw some titles at him and we tried to get a laugh and whichever one did was our pick. It was all done via e-mail.
RK: There was one point at which Joel just sent a list of potential song & album titles – I remember one was “Friends Of Friends” and I just immediately starting writing the song in my head. I could instantly hear this whole story of awkward people who didn’t really know each other and were stuck in a room together… things like that would be like a little spark and explode and other songs grew into something.
JL: Musically it’s born out of the original Free To Be… The music they wrote and performed on the original album is actually really great music. Those songs had a lot of rhythmic changes though, and with comedy you kind of want to stay away from that but it was basically pretty major chord-heavy and simple so we could lay the jokes over it. The whole point on this musically is to stay out of the way as much as possible.
SL: And Joel, for a living, enters online video contests and most of his entries involve songs, so he’s great at just whipping out a song and then forgetting about it – and it’ll be stuck in my head for the next month.
RC: Do you think Free to Be holds up today as a relevant, useful piece of entertainment for parents to share with their kids?
RK: I do think that, like with the Doll thing, Disney has sort of set up this empire that every girl is indoctrinated into princess school, starting at age three and a half. Our daughter is already obsessed with unicorns, just because the culture is there.
SL: Our parents bought me a doll, I think because of this album. I was not into it. They tried.
JL: The Free to Be album also went with this amazing Free to Be book. Some of those Shel Silverstein poems are just as worthwhile today as they were when they were written. Same with “It’s Alright to Cry”. That one is totally timeless. It’s totally beautiful.
SL: And how many times does that get quoted and people don’t even know where it’s from?