Don't tell my mother: How a nice Jewish girl created a hit show

Former Hollywood film executive Nikki Levy is the creator of LA’s hugely successful storytelling show, ‘Don’t Tell My Mother! (True Stories You’d NEVER Want Your Mom to Know).’

Nikki Levy (center) onstage with the full cast of ‘Don’t Tell My Mother!’ (photo credit: LOREN PHILIP)
Nikki Levy (center) onstage with the full cast of ‘Don’t Tell My Mother!’
(photo credit: LOREN PHILIP)
LOS ANGELES – Even though she stands at just five feet (“Though I lie and tell people I’m 5’1”) Nikki Levy plants her three-inch heels on the ground, firmly commanding center-stage of an LA theater. Embracing the enthusiastic audience with an infectious smile, she relishes introducing the storytelling show she created, Don’t Tell My Mother! (True Stories You’d NEVER Want Your Mom to Know).
To raucous applause, the 37-year-old proclaims: “This is where we get to pay homage to and make fun of the women who gave us life. L’haim!”
Levy mined an untapped side of the storytelling market when she came up with the idea of Don’t Tell My Mother! three years ago. The show invites actors, performers and comedians to tell 10-minute real-life stories that are poignant, pithy, sometimes embarrassing and always funny. And of course, they are all stories that your mother wouldn’t want to know.
What sets Levy’s show apart from other storytelling ventures is that they’re workshopped, scripted and rehearsed. Each performer works closely with Levy to ensure their story has a clear three-act structure with a succinct beginning, middle and end. And every story has a character arc in which the hero – the storyteller – always comes out on top.
It comes naturally to Levy, because she spent years working in film and script development in Hollywood. But it took her a long, long time before she realized that she was born to create, produce and take part in Don’t Tell My Mother! Levy bounds into our meeting at a Beverly Hills cafe, green eyes flashing with excitement and with the same energy and enthusiasm you witness on stage. What you see is what you get with Levy – except here, she’s wearing flats. Yet she still seems taller than her five feet.
Born and raised in Floral Park, Queens, Levy says the idea for the show had a lot to do with her being a Jewish New Yorker. “That, and I’ve had an overly close relationship with my mother.”
By way of explanation, Levy shares that her parents separated when she was 12 and divorced when she was 20; her parents hated each other (“My dad had an affair with a Scientologist”); and she was the only person her mother confided in.
“I wasn’t just her daughter. I was her husband, her best friend, her therapist. I was her other half, really. She talked to me about her divorce and her unhappiness, like she should have done with her therapist." In addition, Levy says she never fit in with the other Jewish kids – because her family had no money. “So my mom was my best friend. I knew that because she told me she was and I believed her, because I thought she was always right. And I told her everything, too.”
The “overly close” relationship the two shared also included an annual ritual on Levy’s birthday. Every year from the age of six until 19, the duo would literally reenact her birth. “I’d sit on her and she’d go through the process as if it were October 10, 1977. But during those reenactments, the one thing we never did was cut the cord!” Levy says it wasn’t until she went off to college at Chicago’s Northwestern University that she ascertained it was okay to keep things to herself. “I learned in therapy that in some far-off land, there were people who didn’t tell their mother everything. I learned about boundaries at college.”
But it would still take many more years before Levy could take that information and meld it with her own personality, culminating in Don’t Tell My Mother! “My whole life – through school, camp and my adult working life – I was always told that I was too much, too loud, too inappropriate, that I needed to simmer down.”
After graduating from Northwestern with a degree in radio/TV/film, Levy moved out to Los Angeles and worked at several big studios including Imagine and Fox. A feature film executive for many years, “I got fired from Imagine because I talked too much and had too many opinions...
I wanted to create an arena where ‘being more’ was welcome, where it was appropriate to be inappropriate.”
The Don’t Tell My Mother! name, Levy says, came from the Cheap Trick song “Surrender.” She sings the chorus: “Your mommy’s alright, Your daddy’s alright, They just seem a little weird.’” Levy acknowledges the irony of her show: While most of the stories are based on things people did keep from their mother, her stories are ones she should have been holding back from mommy dearest – but didn’t. Accordingly, she has told the story of her birth reenactment on the Don’t Tell My Mother! stage.
It may have taken decades for Levy to finally figure out what she was supposed to be doing with her life, but once she did, she took the skills she had learned working in Hollywood and hit the ground running.
“I said, ‘I know how to tell a story. I know how to help people figure out the three-act structure of a movie.’ And that’s essentially what these stories are – they’re 10-minute movies.”
Levy used her Hollywood contacts to connect with great actors, and trawled LA’s stand-up comedy circuit to find performers and put together 10-minute stories that were “juicy, wild and fun.”
Levy knew she could help craft these stories with her performers “because it’s not a journal entry, it’s not your therapy session,” she explains. “This is curated work.”
And when she came up with the idea of holding a Mother’s Day show where it was all about working your mother into the story, she realized she’d captured lightning in a bottle – and the format hasn’t changed in three years.
“The idea,” Levy notes, “is that our moms did some things that were great and some things that royally screwed us up, and in there are the best stories.”
For the first Mother’s Day show, Levy recruited actress, singer and comedian Mary Birdsong (who most recently appeared in The Descendants with George Clooney). The name recognition was enough to have agents start calling Levy, asking if their clients could be in her show. Among them was Tracee Ellis Ross – daughter of Diana Ross, currently appearing in the television series Blackish.
Levy reveals that the clamoring on her doorstep was a chance for these wellknown performers to be themselves. “It’s incredible, there are so many wonderful performers in movies and on hit TV shows, but they have never ever had the chance to perform their own words.” Her show suddenly gave them that opportunity.
Among those Levy has featured are Justin Halpern – author of the hit book Sh*t My Dad Says, Kate McKinnon and Lorraine Newman from Saturday Night Live, Beth Grant from The Mindy Project, Doris Roberts from Everybody Loves Raymond, former porn star Traci Lords, and Joanna Kerns – “one of the few female directors working full-time in television,” who got her start on the 1980s sitcom Growing Pains.
Levy's clearly doing something right. The shows, which are currently performed in LA once a month, are always sold-out and have garnered a strong, almost cult-like following.
The secret? Levy says it’s the way the production spotlights smart people. “It’s funny and they’re willing to show their vulnerable side. It’s in that vulnerability where we get the comedy.”
She cites just one example, when actress Beth Grant told a story of how she discovered masturbation while swinging on a rope as a kid. “People love that,” Levy says. “Because we all masturbate, but there’s something to be said about seeing people who seemingly have this perfect life revealing something like that. We feel like we’re not weird. And we see them in a different light, too, and we can relate to them.”
Levy acknowledges that much of the show’s success comes from living in an era of social media, where celebrities now have Twitter accounts and Facebook pages and not everything they say or do is crafted by their PR team.
The show’s audience is diverse but, not surprisingly, is comprised of members of many gay and minority groups. Levy herself came out as a lesbian 19 years ago, and affectionately refers to herself in the show as, “Your dyke with a mike.”
It makes sense, she says, that many of her audience members are gay. “If you’re gay, you’ve had to come out at some point and coming out is the ultimate hero’s journey: You have the call, you don’t want to answer it, you go through the trials and tribulations and you come out the victor in the end. Gay people, queer people, minority groups: All feel that way.”
And for Levy, it was a double whammy being gay and Jewish. As a kid, all she dreamed of was being able show up at synagogue services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in a BMW, wearing great clothes, and to sit in the main sanctuary.
“But my parents were teachers. We showed up in a Honda with the bumper falling off, held up by string. My mother dressed like someone out of the shtetl and we were in the overflow room, because we couldn’t afford the seats in the main sanctuary.”
Of course, these tales of childhood woe have now been mined for her Don’t Tell My Mother! stories. “And our audience keeps growing because everybody has a mishegas [personal craziness] with their mother. If we can tell these stories that were embarrassing and horrific and sad but with distance, we can find the humor. We relish in our dysfunction.”
Levy acknowledges that there’s something inherently Jewish about not just the show’s title, but the show itself. “We Jews are storytellers,” she relates. “We tell all these stories about Chelm and we are the underdogs, and I think that’s what makes us great.”
“The best stories are the underdog stories. I don’t want to hear how you were the most beautiful girl in high school and you really wanted to date the homecoming king and so you did,” Levy scoffs.
“Nobody cares, and we will not like you. I want to hear how you were awkward, how you were the fat girl whose mother rationed the only thing you loved – cheese – so you would hide in the bathtub with a block of cheese and whittle away at it.”
The cheese tale was, in fact, a true story told in the show by comedian Jen Kober – a nice Jewish kid from the South – who was discovered by an agent at Don’t Tell My Mother! and now has a successful career on stage and television.
So what does Levy’s own mother think of the show? “She loves it,” Levy enthuses. “She finds it hilarious.”
There are plans to expand the show across the country (it’s already been performed in Chicago and New York) and a series of books are in the works, not just Don’t Tell My Mother! but also “Don’t Tell My Therapist,” “Don’t Tell My Teacher,” and “Don’t Tell My Dog.”
Levy has also finally embraced her Jewish identity without apology, and realizes she doesn’t need to drive the BMW or wear fancy clothes to fit in. For many years she’s been active in LA’s local Jewish IKAR community (“Fusing piety and chutzpah, tradition and imagination, activism and spiritual practice”), and says her first trip to Israel in 1993 was a life-changing event. She notes she’s always been pretty observant and “somehow noticed this correlation between doing well on my tests and going to services on Saturday mornings.”
Levy spent six weeks in Israel as part of a USY tour in 1993. “I came back and I wanted to be a part-time rabbi,” she says. “I still think my second calling is to be a rabbi.” And in typical Levy fashion, she has performed a story at Don’t Tell My Mother! based on her experiences in Israel.
“It’s called ‘Hand Job in the Holy Land.’” Levy would love to take Don’t Tell My Mother! to Israel. “There is something intrinsic about this Jewish outsider thing,” she says. “That’s the part in all of us that I think it appeals to.”
Back on stage to close the latest show, Levy once again stands up, mike in hand and surrounded by the evening’s performers, and signs off with what has become the show’s familiar catch-cry.
“Remember,” she says, beaming from ear to ear, “If it’s not one thing…” And the audience and performers shriek back in unison, “It’s your mother!”
You can hear some of the Don’t Tell My Mother! stories at and many more on the show’s podcast site on iTunes.