Tuesday, July 20, 2010

'On Writing' with Steve Levitan, The King of the New Sitcom...

Modern Family is a show that has been noticed by fans, critics, and even other television show creators. Reality producer extraordinaire JD Roth pinpointed Modern Family as a show that has "a real truth to it" during a recent panel at NATPE's TV Fest. Roth said when he watches the show, he just knows he's looking at Steve Levitan's family up there on the screen. Because, after all, you have to write what you know for it to be really authentic. And Levitan admits that he and his writers do still from their own lives-- and their friends' lives-- all the time.

"We will be sitting at the dinner table, and my daughter will be talking about something she's upset about and I'll be trying to sneak notes," he laughs, making writing the show look as easy-- and fun-- to write it as it is to watch it.

And in the writer's room, which he jokes that he has filled with a "group of homeless men [he] thought was important to help out," it's much of the same: "We sit around; we talk; we share too many stories from our lives!" Levitan claims that Phil's behavior in the infamous iPad episode was based on something he himself would do and that his own wife has also broken a remote control into a million pieces just like Claire Dunphy.

"[The attitude in the writer's room has always been] we want you to spend time with your families. We want you to pick your kids up at school-- or if your kids in a play, go see the play. But come back with a story!" Levitan laughs again. "Something is bound to happen!"

Levitan and his cohort in crime and co-creator of Modern Family, who as of yesterday have reportedly split, always knew they wanted to do a show with a traditional family at the center but two different, slightly non-traditional branches off to the side. Levitan admits that it took a while to get the characters to where we see them today. "At first we thought we'd do it with a single mom, raising a child alone," he shares. "And for a little while, Manny had Asperger's because we thought that was new and different."

Levitan oversees just about every other of the twenty-something scripts per year. He will sit in his office and work on the following week's script as the current one is being shot on set and on location. He makes the process sound effortless and like his team has been working together forever: "We really don't do a lot of rewrites," he shrugs. "Some of my writers came from sitcoms where they were doing four or five rewrites. We rewrite up until the table read and then do one more [after that]. But we do tweak on the side. Our actors are adept at improv and things, and so we can and do like to keep it fresh."

Creating material that was fresh and real and different has been important to Levitan long before the Modern Family pilot was being developed, but he feels that comedies have gotten a bad rap lately. "When you're writing a four-camera sitcom," he says, "the audience at home takes their cues from the [laugh track] so everything has to be bigger. The jokes have to be bigger." In Levitan's work, though, he prefers to allow reactions speak for themselves. "I always say to pretend you're driving in a car, you know? Focus on driving the car and throw the joke away. Everyone take it down a notch and be more subtle. It's important that the jokes are still there, but they're not as obvious." This certainly explains why some of the biggest laughs from his show often come from a look a character throws when they think another isn't looking!

Levitan admits that sometimes he will still have to fight to keep jokes he has written in the show, but sometimes he actually fights against certain jokes in initial drafts. In the pilot episode of Modern Family, for example, there are two jokes at the expense of baby Lily's ethnicity. But Levitan admits that in the beginning there were actually three. "When Phil first hears Lily's name, he has that line about her having trouble pronouncing her own name, and then Jay calls her a little potsticker," Levitan reminds. "The one we made them cut was from a scene when the guys couldn't get her to sleep, and Cam said 'I didn't even know Asian eyes could open that wide.' We cut that one because [Cam] said it. I figured 'let them be protective' and everyone else can have their moments."

But in a nutshell that explains the mixture of sweetness and edge that makes the show-- and Levitan in general-- so successful and so believable!

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