Steven Levitan reaches new heights by writing what he knows.
Steven Levitan has two Emmys for writing and producing successful television comedies, so it sounds like a joke when he reveals which course gave him the most trouble on the way to earning a communication arts degree at UW–Madison: screenwriting.
“It nearly killed me, so that was interesting — that it ended up being my career,” says Levitan ’84, the co-creator of the Emmy-winning Modern Family, a show that is a breakout hit during an era when many have declared the family sitcom extinct.
After graduation, Levitan got a job as a local news reporter, but what he really wanted to do was write for the shows that aired during prime time before the evening news. He started writing what are known as “spec scripts,” hoping that they would be picked up by popular shows such as Cheers, Moonlighting, and The Wonder Years. And he didn’t let up after returning home to Chicago to work for advertising agency Leo Burnett, staying in at night to write scripts while his roommates went out.
Less than two years after moving to Los Angeles, his work paid off when he landed a spot on the writing team for the show Wings, based on a freelance script he pitched to the show’s producers. He later went on to write and produce Frasier (winning an Emmy as co-executive producer) and The Larry Sanders Show, and to create Just Shoot Me. After the cancellation of Back to You — a show Levitan and writing partner Christopher Lloyd created about a local television newscast — the two fathers found inspiration for Modern Family in conversations about their children and day-to-day family lives.
The show mirrors how the face of the American family has changed since The Brady Bunch presented the first blended family to TV audiences forty years ago. Modern Family is the story of three branches of an extended suburban family: Jay, the patriarch, his much younger Colombian wife, Gloria, and her son; Jay’s daughter, Claire, a stay-at-home mom, her husband, Phil, and their three children; and Jay’s son, Mitchell, his partner, Cameron, and their adopted daughter from Vietnam.
Most important, it’s really funny. In an interview with On Wisconsin, Levitan talked about his comedic start at the UW, how he mines his home life for ideas, and what it’s like to have fans say the show has brought their families together.
Campus was a training ground
“I got involved in so many different things in Madison,” says Levitan, who came to the UW from suburban Chicago and found some comedy roots by participating each year in the annual Humorology variety show produced by members of campus fraternities and sororities. He also took a TV directing course, produced radio dramas for WHA, and spent part of his senior year at UW–Madison moonlighting as a news reporter for the local NBC station, where one of his journalism professors was the anchor.
“I would be in his class during the day, and then he’d be tossing it to me on the air at night,” he says. After graduation, he got an on-air job with Madison’s ABC affiliate, where he covered stories ranging from holiday parades to the death of serial killer Ed Gein.
The truth resonates with audiences
When Levitan accepted the Emmy last fall for best comedy series for Modern Family, he said, “We are so thrilled families are sitting down together to watch a television show.” That’s an accomplishment in the increasingly fragmented media landscape of DVRs, niche cable channels, and Internet viewing. The show leaves viewers feeling as if its writers have eavesdropped on their families — just watch the episode from season one about Claire’s attempt to get the perfect family photo. “It just started by wanting to tell stories about family,” Levitan says.
But once the show aired, the response from fans was immediate and strong, he says: “They would come up and say to our actors, ‘I want to thank you because, because of your show, our family is actually doing something together again, which we hadn’t in a long time. So you’ve brought our family back together,’ which is pretty amazing.”
Levitan and the writers for Modern Family don’t have to go far to find inspiration for the stories told on the show. Like Claire and Phil Dunphy, he and his wife, Krista, have two teenage daughters and a younger son. An episode in which Claire can’t figure out how to operate the remote control was based on Levitan’s wife having the same struggles. And Levitan once did exactly what Phil does in the series pilot to punish his son for misusing an air BB gun: he used the gun to shoot the boy himself.
That doesn’t mean Levitan puts everything on screen. “I once wanted to use a boy’s name that I heard my daughter talking about, and she made me change it for fear that he would realize that she was talking about him at home,” he says. “And there have been a couple times where my daughters will notice me taking notice of something, or writing something down, and [they’ll say], ‘Don’t put this in the show,’ or ‘My friends will recognize this if you do this.’ But more often than not, I think they get a giant kick out of it, and I think their friends think it’s cool.”
Hitting the right notes
Levitan knows about the tricky balance between comedy and emotion. He won acclaim for a 1996 episode of Frasier he wrote in which the title character’s father, Martin, a gruff former police officer, finally tells sons Frasier and Niles that he loves them. Many so-called family comedies are too harsh to seem real or too saccharine to stomach for very long.
Levitan and Lloyd wanted to find the right balance for Modern Family. “We knew that the show, just by the fact that there were kids in it, would feel a little bit sweet and sappy if we didn’t balance it with a bit of edge,” Levitan says. That means keeping in jokes that the network and viewers may consider less than politically correct to show that the characters are far from perfect. “Those are there to show that this is not just syrupy sweet,” he says.
An entire Twitter feed is devoted to quotes from Modern Family — a sign of how the experience of viewing a television show has changed for some members of its audience. Levitan has his own Twitter account, and he uses it to communicate with fans of the show, too. “When the show starts airing on the East Coast and it’s six o’clock our time and we’re still working, we’ll take a little break and … start watching the Twitter feed,” he says. “It’s almost like getting to listen to an audience laugh, because people, as soon as they hear a joke that they like … they’ll quote the joke, and they’ll go, ‘HAHAHA!’ or, ‘That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard,’ and you really get a sense of what jokes are landing or what really works.”
Success gets sweeter with time
Levitan already had a successful career in television before Modern Family, with more hits than misses. Just Shoot Me, the first show he created, went into syndication. “I was very happy then, but I was also young, and I don’t think I fully realized how lucky I was at that moment that things had come together there,” he says.
The show, which Levitan believes never got the respect it deserved from the network, aired in fourteen time slots in seven years. “I’m extremely proud of it, and I love that cast dearly, but somehow things have been much easier on this show,” he says. “[Modern Family] has been a dream situation, and it’s hard to imagine anything getting better than this.”
Jenny Price ’96, senior writer for On Wisconsin, has tried to take the perfect family picture, but decided she will settle for a funny one.
Published in the Spring 2011 issue