Steve Levitan, the co-creator and showrunner of Modern Family, gave a keynote at the MIPTV last April in Cannes.
ILTVSW was lucky enough to seat with him and talk comedy writing, team writing and Zeidgeist.
ILTVSW. You said that you created the show at a moment of your life when you were not having a great time. Does it take that feeling to create a great show ?
Steve Levitan. I think being in that mindset maybe opens you up to break patterns and to dig a little bit deeper and being more open to taking chances. And that is a good frame of mind to be and to say at the end of the day, let’s strip down all that external stuff, what we usually do or what we think people are expecting of us or the normal way of going about things and let’s just get back down to the truth. What’s the truth of the situation and let’s just stop caring about those external factors and focus on the story, the characters and trying to say something that you perhaps want to say.
ILTVSW. Does that mean that a writer must go out of his comfort zone to find truth ?
Steve Levitan. You develop a stronger, I shouldn’t say this word but … you know, bullshit meter. Things that normally would fly, things that normally would be OK you feel that : « no that’s not exactly right, that’s not exactly what happened » and maybe by being a little bit more strip bare you can get to the truth easier and you are less afraid of digging and finding it.
Writing comedy is better with other people
ILTVSW. You talked about how hard it is to do the job on your own, does writing comedy make it even harder ?
Steve Levitan. Yeah. I believe writing comedy is better with other people. Because Modern Family would not be what it is without our amazing group of writers. We bounce idea out of each other all the time. Somebody says one thing and that sparks an idea over there and than somebody builds on it over there and suddenly you have something that no one person could have thought of but by putting those minds together you got something really amazing and different. That’s why I think comedy is best done in a group. A good group. And a cohesive group but a group. Now that’s not to say that some of my favorite things haven’t been written by Woody Allen. Sometimes it is a partnership of two people and that’s very good and there is Tootsie. Some are my favorite movies of all times. But most of my favorite TV shows, comedies, they are all mostly done by groups of writers.
ILTVSW. True Detective proved recently that excellent TV drama could be written by a single writer, is this impossible with comedy ?
Steve Levitan. Carl Reiner went away and wrote thirteen episodes of The Dick Van Dyke show back in the day now he ended up having writers at some point. But in this day and age, you know … David Kelley did it with Ally McBeal but it’s kind of a different thing. It just seems to be the best way to do it. Nobody can be that funny on their own. If you are hiring well, you find people who have strengths that you don’t have and build on it so you make sure you have people with different abilities and points of views.
ILTVSW. Could that be the reason why Louis CK only writes short seasons of his show ?
Steve Levitan. That is a good example. Even though he does write with Pam Adlon, it’s a singular vision and again he is certainly a very very funny man but he ended up getting darker, the show got darker. I have heard that this season was going to be lighter.
I’d rather fail on my on terms than on somebody else’s
ILTVSW. Do you think you get better at picking the jokes with experience ?
Steve Levitan. You just develop this radar and it is not always right. Actually there is no right and wrong. I could say : « I like it better that way, let’s go that way » and there could be three other writers in the room saying : « no, it’s that way ». If I don’t think strongly about it and they do, I’ll go with them. But over time you just develop a sense of things. So much of the tone of a show is determined that way. I’ll say : « I just don’t get it, it doesn’t feel real to me » and that comes with time and also having the confidence to listen to your own gut is important. And that comes with time as well. I have been wrong but I’d rather fail on my own terms than on somebody else’s.
ILTVSW. When did small and personal become OK on TV ? And what made it possible for you ?
Steve Levitan. I am not sure when that started happening. I mean The Office was a big part of it. I think it opened the door for our show in a lot of ways. Got people use to the smaller single camera sensibility. Cable opened that door a lot. I think that single camera makes multi camera feel more false. There can be very good multi camera but it is even harder to make it feel very real and organic in that setting than in single camera where it is sometimes harder to be really funny. The old adage, and where a lot of single cameras went wrong fifteen years ago, was that they thought that in single camera it didn’t have to be as funny and it is actually very false. The reality is in single camera you probably have to be funnier because you have to be more subtile and so the jokes have to be really there and they have to be rapid pace but you can’t land on them, you can’t hit them so hard. So I always say to actors, not that I have to say it to our actors now, but the guest actors or whatever, don’t hit that joke so hard. Pretend you are driving alone and the cops are chasing you and you just open the door and drop something out and keep going. Don’t make a big deal about it.
ILTVSW. Jokes versus emotion is a great dilemma for comedy writers … At the end of the day which one is the most important for you ?
Steve Levitan. I think you have to earn your emotional moments by balancing it with really strong comedy and that is the key. If you rely too much on one it is harder to engage an audience. So brilliant shows like Seinfeld and 30 Rock that really relied on comedy, they had to be even funnier than everybody else to make an audience stay with them. A show that is sappy and not very funny people say : « it’s fine but I am not compelled to watch it ». But you can give people both. They have a much stronger connection to the show. You are taking them on a ride and you are giving them a chance to experience a range of emotions from « I am laughing, I am laughing isn’t this great ! and then all of a sudden, wow I am tearing up and then boom you just hit me with a great joke and I am laughing again ». People feel satisfied and that is when you really make a connection with the viewer. I think it is possible to go for both at the same time but I think that you have to number one be funny and close number two to allow the viewer to feel something.
ILTVSW. Are there some mornings when you wake up and feel the fear of losing that fun of yours, your comedy talent and ask yourself will I be able to be funny today ?
Steve Levitan. This morning (laughs). I think that if you really look at comedy, it tends to be a young person’s game. Because I think comedy is a lot like fashion. The Zeidgeist you have to be growing up in that time and really out there and living and going through all these experiences that everybody else is. As you get older you get a little bit more insulated. So that concerns me that sometimes when I will reach a certain age where my comedy feels a little bit dated. I think I will always have a sense of humor but will it be of a different era ? I think about that and I do my best to stay relevant and to understand what’s going on in the world and to work with young writers so I feel that we are representing many voices and being inclusive. But there will come a day when nobody wants to talk to me (laughs) … There are amazing people like Norman Lear for inspirations, who I look at with such admiration. They found different ways to stay relevant with the years.
Titre: Modern Family (2009 – )
Creators: Steve Levitan, Christopher Lloyd II
Cast: Ed O’Neill, Sofia Vergara, Julie Bowen, Ty Burrell, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet, Sarah Hyland, Ariel Winter, Nolan Gould, Rico Rodriguez
© 2015 ILTVSW – not to be reproduced without a prior authorization from ILTVSW
Next week in ILTVSW … Oops, not decided yet, sorry.