NATPE 2013: Lessons in TV Comedy With 'Modern Family's Levitan and 'Frasier's Casey

In NATPE panel session, pair says drawing from personal lives makes comedy universal
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Complete Coverage: NATPE 2013

Veteran comedy writers Steve Levitan, creator and executive
producer of the multi-award-winning Modern
Family
, and Peter Casey, who's produced such iconic comedies as The Jeffersons, Wings, Cheers and Frasier, gave B&C editor-in-chief Melissa Grego some insight into how to
produce a great TV comedy during a discussion at this year's NATPE at the
Fontainebleau in Miami Beach.

Lesson one: Silence can be helpful.

"I started my TV comedy career working on Wings," said Levitan. "Any
room would have been daunting to me at that point because I was terrified, but
they were known to be a daunting room ..."

"... which means they were often a silent room,"
chimed in Casey.

"Sometimes, [Wings'
executive producer] David Angel, may he rest in peace, would take his shoe off
and just start staring into his shoe," said Levitan. "And I would
think, 'They are just trying to think of a way to get me out of the room.'

"It was a wonderful place to soak up TV comedy and
learn the right way to do things -- at a lot of places people were staying up
all night or going off on half-baked ideas, but we learned the right way to do
things."

In summary, said Levitan: "Silence means there are no
Jews."

Lesson two: Prior to trying to write a great comedy pilot,
do the following things: Clean your office, and then re-read the Cheers and Frasier pilots.

At least, that's what Levitan does, and he's won three Best
Comedy Emmys in a row for his efforts.

"Those are two incredible, perfect pieces of
work," Levitan, who will receive the Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award on
Tuesday night, told Grego. Levitan showed a clip from the Frasier pilot in which Frasier and his father argue about living
together -- a scene that included humor, but wasn't all about the jokes.

"All of a sudden, here was an incredibly powerful, real
moment in this show and it really made Frasier
stand out as something special and something I tried to emulate and steal from
often," said Levitan. "That [kind of scene] wasn't done before Frasier. They would have cut the scene
with a joke at the end."

"We were nervous writing that scene for just those
reasons," said Casey. "If you are used to getting a certain amount of
laughs per scene, it can be uncomfortable, but the key is to have the actors
who can pull it off."

That brings us to lesson three: Hire sane, reasonable people
with whom you want to work.

"Showrunners are becoming more public figures now with
Twitter and new media," said Levitan. "I frankly think that's, for
the most part, a good thing. In some ways it gives the showrunner a bit more
power. It used to be that after a certain point the actors really had all the
power. Part of what Peter taught me to do well is cast sane, reasonable people.

"If you have a showrunner with a bit more of a public
persona, then the audience is behind the showrunner. That helps to level that
[power] and I think that's a good thing."

That said, lesson four is that while it may good to be
active on Twitter, it's not necessarily good to take notes from Twitter.

"It's good to interact with fans to a point, but you
don't want to listen too much to people," said Levitan. "Three people
might say something and then you think everyone thinks that but, no, maybe just
those three people think that."

Finally, lesson five: Feel free to draw from your personal
life to tell funny TV stories, no matter how much it might embarrass your wife.

"The longer the show is on, the more we tap into our
lives and dig for minutia and awkward little things," said Levitan.
"If we are arguing about this then we must both care about it a lot. I
think that's why people relate to it.

"We're now playing all over the world in places that
have very different cultures, but everyone seems to relate to and love the show
and it's because family is universal. No matter what fight you are having with
your kids and with your spouse, no matter how much you think it's weird and
specific to your family, it's happening a million times all over the world at
that moment."

For example, in one famous scene from Modern Family, all three Dunphy kids are bringing their parents, Phil
(Ty Burrell) and Claire (Julie Bowen), breakfast in bed on their anniversary,
but end up discovering them in a "compromised" position.

Said Levitan: "It's not the first thing people think of
when their kid walks in on them having sex: hey, this could be an Emmy!"

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