Steve Levitan, 47, is known for creating the TV series Just Shoot Me! Stark Raving Mad, Stacked, Back to You, with varying degrees of success. He’s also known for being highly vocal in his displeasure with the networks (like NBC and Fox) at times. And, in the words of one producer, “for being the only Jew in Hollywood who wears a 44 long”. But the veteran writer/producer — who won an Emmy Award as executive producer of Frasier and has written for the Larry Sanders Show, Men Behaving Badly, The Wonder Years and other comedy shows — is now a happy guy at the helm ABC’s Wednesday night sitcom hit Modern Family, which he co-runs with Chris Lloyd. While he has some strong feelings about the state of the TV industry, he admits in this Showrunner Q&A with Deadline contributor Diane Haithman — done before Modern Family was nominated for Emmys — that these days he’s finding it pretty hard to complain:
SL: Obviously, everything I say in this interview is [about] myself and my writing partner Chris Lloyd, we were doing this together.
DH: OK. How did you come up with the mix of characters for Modern Family and decide: This will be our neighborhood?
We knew we wanted to do something about family, and we started to realize we wanted to do something in the documentary form. We wanted to do multiple families, because we both liked the adult relationships. We didn’t want to be constantly doing kid stories, we wanted to be able to do both. Frasier was based on an adult brother relationship, and an adult father-son relationship. Just Shoot Me was a complicated adult father-daughter relationship. So then it was a matter of populating it with multiple families, and the idea was, how has family changed recently? So let’s start in the middle with a very conventional, right down the middle family — a working husband, a stay-at-home mom, and three kids. And the kids were kind of loosely based on my family in terms of the sexes and ages of the kids. And then we wanted to do a gay couple. And we wanted to do something cross-cultural as well. And what was nice there was the older man/younger woman thing. We could have done three siblings, and one of them was married [to someone from another culture]. But we liked the idea of the father being with the younger woman because you’ve got multiple things going on. There was nice conflict and tension.
DH: On other shows, there’s one gay character (the gay sidekick) but you don’t see the couple dynamic.
SL: We wanted to paint a more complicated picture. We have many [gay] friends who have been in long long relationships. It’s certainly in the zeitgeist right now with gay marriage and gay adoptions and all that, and it’s a wonderful thing to explore. In many ways, they are the most conventional couple.
DH: There always seems to be one who is out there, and the other is perpetually embarrassed by it.
SL: Yes, the worrier vs. the free spirit — why doesn’t that person lighten up? That was a struggle for us to find the right combination. Because we want them to be funny and interesting, but we didn’t want to just create Will and Grace’s gay characters with a kid. As wonderful as that show was, there are a lot of gay men who are not that fabulous, and those were the guys we were interested in. We just got so lucky with the casting, the magic and the chemistry between them, I marvel at it all the time.
DH: You talked about choosing the documentary format. Other shows are doing the same thing. Certainly NBC’s The Office does it.
SL: Because it is a wonderful device. One of the things that we did that was smart, we basically did everything that would help the comedy. Who cares if it had been done before, in terms of the documentary style or the way we shoot it, or having multiple families — if it helped the comedy, we did it. Consequently, we have a show that really runs smoothly and efficiently. And we shoot fast, and that’s enormously helpful. The documentary form itself is such a wonderful device to get to the heart of a story, cut to the chase of what a character is thinking. You don’t have to work in funky, awkward exposition. You cut to it, and you are right there.
DH: Is the show difficult to write?because the characters themselves don’t always know how they feel. It’s very complicated.
SL: That’s what so great about it. Yes, and the interviews are visually interesting, and funny, so they are not just exposition, a way of tying scenes together. We made a conscious effort to differentiate ourselves from The Office. We are all big Office fans, and they really in many ways paved the way for Modern Family’s success because they got people used to that form. It didn’t seem jarring. But we went for a lot of the couple interviews, so you get a lot of a sense of the dynamic in those interviews. And we tried to go for a slightly more cinematic feel, where The Office is more sort of ‘caught’ movies.
DH: Here there actually is an interviewer.
SL: We wanted to make it more pure and real, and our choice is to make it more beautiful, sometimes at the expense of that. It’s just a different style.
DH: How far can you go with the network? Are we living in an era where we can laugh at just about anything?
SL: They are pretty trusting. When we did the pilot, we got a couple of notes about some specific jokes that they were very concerned about — we had three Asian jokes in the pilot, and they wanted us to cut them all. We ended cutting one of them and keeping two. We just said, it’s important. And there was also a line where the little girl Alex said: “The bitch shot me,” about her brother, and that was very important to us to keep. First of all, it’s something that my daughter has said, so it’s real. And it’s also something that said right away, OK, this is not a cutesy show. This is not kids saying sweet things. There is going to be a little bit of edge to this.
Early on in the pilot [the gay couple] Cam and Mitchell made a joke about lesbians being angry, and that was important to us because it showed that here are these two gay guys who have their own biases. They have their own issues and their own flaws. They were very concerned, but once they got over that – and we fought, but we fought in a good way, and they relented — and there was just virtually no pushback, I mean really, it was crazy: the silence was deafening.
And because the tone of our show is so warm, and people seem to like the characters so much, they trust our instincts. Occasionally will be a note over something like: ‘You can’t say this movie title because it’s not a Disney-owned movie [Disney owns ABC]. We had a joke that mentioned The Hurt Locker in it, and that’s not a Disney owned movie. And we said, you just can’t put those kinds of constraints on us, that we’re only going to be mentioning your movies. And to their credit, they relented. So they’ve actually been ridiculously reasonable, I have to say. I’m pretty vocal about my dissatisfactions.
DH: I was hoping you would be.
SL: In a weird way, it kind of highlights how dysfunctional those past experiences were. We’re in a good position now. The network is happy, so of course we get treated well.
DH: How different are the networks from each other in terms of what they want? Since you have had so many different shows out there, for so many different entities, is there a way to characterize them?
SL: The truth of the matter probably is, despite all the fun that I have at Fox and NBC’s expense, the quality of one’s experience with a network depends largely on the success of your show. If Modern Family was not a hit, and was not in the good time period and was not being promoted and [ABC Entertainment President] Stephen McPherson didn’t care about it, I might have a very different feeling about ABC. But because things are going very well and because Steve McPherson cares about it and they have promoted it very heavily, I couldn’t be happier. I know, I feel bad — I should have more controversial things to say. But it’s hard to be bitter when there is nothing to be bitter about.
But I do think there are certain challenges that particular networks pose. I think certain networks find a landscape that is simply more difficult in which to succeed. Like Fox — it’s a schizophrenic schedule, it changes, you’ve got your Idol schedule, your pre-Idol schedule, baseball, and it’s very difficult to get any consistency there unless you are on Sunday night, which is its own unique thing. It’s hard for me to do a show that probably fits into that lineup. So that’s a difficult place, and I tried too many times to succeed there.
And there were other mistakes. I don’t think it was marketed particularly well at Fox, I didn’t think there was a lot of logic to their scheduling. Clearly comedies work in blocks. The only comedies that are working right now are Sunday night on Fox, Monday night on CBS, Wednesday nights on ABC, and to some degree Thursday nights on NBC. You need a flow, and you need the personality of a night, and if you don’t have that it’s just very, very difficult to pop out. If people sit down and say, I’m in the mood to watch comedy, they do it in blocks.
DH: So Modern Family is the anchor of your block?
SL: Yes, there hasn’t been a single week that the night hasn’t peaked at Modern Family, considerably. So we are feeling very good about the strength of our show. But without that flow, it’s very difficult.
DH: What comedies to you watch? Or have you had enough of comedy and find other things to watch?
SL: Yeah, I watch 30 Rock and The Office, I certainly watch those shows. And I even admire elements of Community; I think the dialogue in that show is just crackling, very strong. There are definitely times when I don’t even want to turn on TV, and that was more the case in the past than it is right now. In the past if it was a show I liked I would feel bad that I didn’t write and create it, and if it was a show that I didn’t like, then why am I watching it? There was really no winning for awhile there. But now I am at peace and happy, and so I can really enjoy shows. I’ve probably seen every episode of 30 Rock, and most of the episodes of The Office. I am definitely a fan and I feel like other people are doing great work.
DH: I understand that you got into this business by writing spec scripts.
SL: I wasn’t writing them with hopes of selling them to the actual show. It was just as a sample. It was a Cheers and a Wonder Years.
DH: You were trying to get on the staff of the show.
SL: Yes, and you were more likely to get hired on a different show. Because the people writing that show are likely to look at your script and say: “This kind of missed the tone a little bit.” But to the rest of the world it’s, hey, that really sounds like a Cheers. People read more pilots now than they used to. When it’s a pilot, it’s supposed to stand on its own, so in some ways it’s easier to read. I read a really bizarre pilot when we were staffing for Modern Family, and it was a comedy about terrorists, and a really difficult subject to make funny, and so we ended hiring that person.
DH: What’s the most difficult thing about being a showrunner?
SL: First of all, in a nutshell, it’s two jobs that are opposite ends of the spectrum in one. You have to be a writer. But this is also a job that takes being very thoughtful and very empathetic to people, very sensitive. And writers tend to be introverted, and tend to have an inferiority complex. And on the other end of it, you have to be a manager of people, you have to be strong, you have to be the broad shoulders for 200 people, you have to fight for them, you have to make tough decisions, you have to fire people, and you have to find a more efficient way to do something. You’ve got budgets. You’ve got to call up the network and know when to put your foot down about something – and when not to. You are constantly taking one hat off and putting one on.
DH: You can’t just sit in an office and write.
SL: You have just written a scene that is very heartfelt. And then you have to make a phone call and say: Why did you give away the ending in that promo? Or a script comes in that you’re not happy with and you have to figure out how to deal with it.
DH: When anything is as successful as this show, there are going to be imitators.
SL: I just saw an article about the “Modern Family Effect,” which is pretty surreal. I heard a saying once that the definition of Hollywood is 10,000 people running to the spot where lightning just struck. People tried to recreate Friends for many many years. It’s so elusive and there’s so much serendipity that goes into getting a show to work. It’s not like we cracked the code, so the next thing we do is going to be just as brilliant – we got very lucky here, things happened to come together, and we’re just holding on for dear life.
DH: What are the notes like? Your reputation is that you don’t listen to notes anymore which is why Modern Family is successful.
SL: We get notes from ABC. And 20th TV [the producer] weighs in. Chris Lloyd and I are a very strong presence in that process, and we can be a bit intimidating at times, so we try to discourage people from wasting our time. But we also try to listen when people have good ideas. But both of us feel strongly about this: we simply never, ever, ever do anything we don’t agree with. We’ll never take a note from anybody that we don’t agree with. We won’t do it to make somebody happy. We might say that’s a lateral move and it’s making them happy, fine, but we’ll never do something that we think is wrong. I think everybody should do that. I’ve always done it, even when I didn’t have a history to fall back on. And I think it’s what you need to do in this business.
There are a lot of people chiming in because it is their job to chime in. And while they may be very well meaning, and might have very good things to say at times, certainly everything they say is not going to be right, like everything I say is not going to be right. So you have to learn to listen to everything, and cherry-pick the good notes.
DH: With multiple shows over multiple years, I assume you get a certain amount of authority that helps you.
SL: Just Shoot Me was the first thing I did. I had had five years or so of writing experience, but this was the first time I was a showrunner and all that, and I stuck to my guns right off the bat. Even then, when I didn’t have any power and Just Shoot Me was a fragile show on the network, I decided I was going to succeed or fail on my own terms. I did it with respect. I would tell people why. I would never say: “Screw you, you guys are idiots, you guys are fools.” I’ve never done that. I try to be friendly with people. I try to show people the same respect I would show any human being. But at the end of the day, it’s my job to protect the vision of the show. You have to be reasonable. There are a lot of people in my job who want to flex their muscles and scream and yell and all that, and I find that counterproductive. Sometimes you do have to scare people a little bit: if someone is not acting in the best interest of the show, then maybe you need to scream and yell a little bit, or let them know you’re in charge. But you do so selectively, and do so with forethought so that you’re in control of the situation, not out of control. You are doing it because you need to let someone know, hey, you’re crossing a boundary here. That’s what being a leader is.
DH: Does it help to be taller than they are?
SL: It probably does, yes. I’m allowed to lie back a little bit, as opposed to the league of Napoleons of our time. Look, there are some people who do not handle power well, and I just don’t have a lot of respect for those people. I said in my WGA speech the business has gotten so screwed up and mismanaged that we benefited from that because people were so gracious about our show, so happy with our success, because thank God something that they liked was actually working. People who are our competitors were going out of their way to say the nicest things to us. So that’s been a wonderful thing.
When Leno moved to 10PM, in my mind, I quickly did the math and said: “There goes about 800 jobs,” and it’s such a negative approach to programming. The bottom line is, if you don’t think there’s a future in network television, and that network television can be big and can be what it was, then you should not be in that chair. Because if you don’t believe it, certainly your dwindling audience isn’t going to believe in it, because you are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by playing for margins.
DH: The last thing I want to ask you about is Twitter. Like the tweet you wrote, “What is Na’Vi for “Shut the fuck up, Jim Cameron?” As a comedy writer I imagine Twitter must be so attractive. Because brevity is the soul of wit and all that.
SL: That was just a gut reaction to the situation, to him speaking us to us in that [Avatar] language at the Golden Globes: “I’m going to make up a language, and then speak to you in it.” I found that a little odd. He certainly is a talent, and I respect his moviemaking, but that was just a little absurd. Twitter is fun – I’m a tech guy, I love anything new, I’m big on all that stuff; I got onto it for the same reason I got on Facebook – well, I’m hearing all about this, the only way to fully understand it is to participate in it and see if I like it. I have 3,000 people or something like that following me, it’s so tiny. Cartoon characters have more people following them. Dogs. Rico Rodriguez, who plays Manny on Modern Family, he went on and in one day got more people than I have.
I do think that Twitter serves a really valuable purpose for television in that it creates that shared experience once again. If you search for Modern Family, say, as the show is airing, people are tweeting the jokes they like in real time as it’s playing. It’s a way for us to track what jokes people like, what people are saying. For us it’s fun to respond to. But more importantly it makes people want to watch the show as it airs, because then they get to go online and talk about it. They don’t want to talk about it three days later, when it’s no longer news. I think it gets people to watch the show live again. It becomes the virtual water cooler, and it’s a way to reinvigorate network television.
DH: We’re done. Anything you’d like to add?
SL: No, I am just ridiculously grateful right now. It’s sappy, but true. For awhile I thought maybe I should start switching over to features, start living that life, because TV is getting very tiring. But now there’s literally nothing I’d rather be doing than Modern Family.