Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson has turned his focus to the world of politics. No, he hasn't started making trips to Iowa and New Hampshire. First he directed the Robin Williams-as-president comedy Man of the Year (arriving in stores today on DVD), then just last month NBC greenlit his and producing partner Tom Fontana's new series M.O.N.Y., which follows the trials and tribulations of an interim New York City mayor (played by Will & Grace Emmy winner Bobby Cannavale). TVGuide.com welcomed the chance to speak with the Baltimore native about his bend toward the bureaucratic.
TVGuide.com: Wag the Dog (1997) was your only overtly political film up until Man of the Year. What made you want to revisit that world?
Barry Levinson: There were a couple of elements. One, I've been fascinated with issues of computer malfunctioning in terms of the voting process. And two, I'm interested in the idea of a comedian, not just an entertainer's but a comedian's, viability as a candidate. They're much more capable public speakers and in certain circumstances they would really just trounce a regular politician.
TVGuide.com: Are there any specific events or trends in America that made you say, "Hey, it's totally plausible that a comic could be elected president"?
Levinson: Well, as it turns out Al Franken is going to run for senator in Minnesota, so it's inevitable that comics are going to get into politics. It's already happening. When people are smart and quick, they become very disarming. They have enormous appeal. That goes all the way back to Will Rogers. Will Rogers probably could've gotten elected president.
TVGuide.com: Both Robin Williams and Lewis Black are some pretty in-your-face comics who share a lot of screen time in Man of the Year. What was it like working through scenes with those two?
Levinson: Well, both are very disciplined actors. In fact, Lewis studied at Yale in the drama department. It was great, because I was in the company of two very intelligent, smart, politically savvy comedic actors.
TVGuide.com: Howard Stern has said that he was originally approached to play the lead in Man of the Year. Is that true?
Levinson: Yes. What happened was that I wrote this with Robin in mind, but there was a period of time that because of circumstances it might not have worked out with Robin. So I talked about doing it with Howard. That was around the time when Howard made his radio deal with Sirius. Then that became an issue, and by that time Robin's issue had been worked out.
TVGuide.com: It seems like it would have been a much different movie with Howard in the lead role.
Levinson: Sure, but I think Howard has ability as an actor. I think this would've pushed him farther than what he's done with the one movie. But there's always going to be a difference when you use a different actor.
TVGuide.com: You have a politically oriented TV series in the works with M.O.N.Y. What appealed to you about the project?
Levinson: Well, it's been a long time since we've seen someone running a city, with all of its problems, without being too earnest. We'd like to be able to show a guy who's not a politician. In some ways, it's akin to Man of the Year, in that it's a guy who's got common sense who's decent, trying to work within the bureaucracy of government.
TVGuide.com: You have Spike Lee attached to direct the pilot. Why was he a good fit?
Levinson: Spike is a real New Yorker. He understands the tempo. He understands the characters. And he's able to do both dramatic and comedic work. It's not that the show's got comedy-comedy, but there are some lighter moments.
TVGuide.com: Should audiences expect the same grittiness as in some of your previous projects, like Homicide: Life on the Streets and Oz?
Levinson: I don't want to set up any kind of preconceived notions. It's not supposed to be a gritty show, but it's not going to be some kind of polished piece, either.
TVGuide.com: With the popularity of The Daily Show, Colbert Report and Real Time with Bill Maher, do you think many Americans have gotten to a point where they need humor to stomach the political climate and news of current events?
Levinson: Yes. I certainly feel that way. I think the frustration level is so overwhelming that if we don't bring some humor to politics, people would go nuts.
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