Perhaps the oldest writers' axiom is, “write what you know.” And Steven Levitan is a living example that old axioms still work.
He's the co-creator of Fox newcomer Back to You—a newsroom comedy with Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton as co-anchors. But before he wrote for the likes of hits Wings and Frasier and created Just Shoot Me!, Levitan was an anchorman at WKOW in Madison, Wisc. He spent three years in local TV, before heading west to try comedy writing.
“Good journalists do amazing things,” he says, “but my heart was always in comedy.”
Two decades ago, when he was studying journalism at the University of Wisconsin, Levitan had internships at WLS Chicago and WMTV Madison. After graduating, he went to work for ABC affiliate WKOW. He covered local government, and eventually took on morning anchor duties. Over time, Levitan tackled meatier stories—chasing tornadoes, spending a night in prison for a report.
But he also soured on squeezing quotes out of grieving victims of fires and crime. “I didn't like the intrusive nature of what I was doing,” he says. “I didn't have the stomach for that.”
Pursuing his muse, he headed to L.A. and scored a job at Wings in 1991, moving up to co-executive producer. He then held that title at The Larry Sanders Show and Frasier, and went on to create Greg the Bunny and Stacked.
He also created With You in Spirit, about a hotshot reporter toiling in the media backwater of Spirit, New Mexico. That show drew on his experience as a cocky reporter with big-city chops from his stint at WLS Chicago.
Spirit never made it to air, but the big fish/small newsroom theme became the concept for Back to You, which sees Grammer's celebrity anchor forced to start afresh in a small market when an embarrassing Web clip gets him fired.
After their success at Frasier, Back to You creators Levitan and Christopher Lloyd were contemplating a new role for Grammer. They wanted to break from Frasier's radio therapist past, but knew that the character was so ingrained in people's minds that they couldn't venture too far. “We couldn't have him be a miner,” says Lloyd.
With Levitan's news experience and Grammer's skill at playing a media blowhard, an anchorman seemed a perfect fit. The market Grammer returns to is Pittsburgh, an homage to Levitan's fraternity brother, Ken Rice, whom he helped get an internship at WMTV years back, and who's now the anchor on KDKA Pittsburgh. (Rice has been critiquing Back to You for authenticity.)
Back to You is, of course, not the first comedy set in the newsroom. Successful series include The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Murphy Brown and NewsRadio, while Sports Night lasted just two seasons, and Norman Lear's Good Evening, He Lied never got too far past the concept stage.
Fox Entertainment brass think they've got a hit in Back to You. “The script was laugh-out-loud funny, and you've got two performers at their top of their game,” says Susan Levison, Fox Senior V.P. of Comedy Development. “The inherent energy and excitement of the newsroom just seemed like a good place to set a good old-fashioned workplace comedy.”
Levitan says he consumes the “right amount” of TV news these days, and is appalled by the amount of celebrity stories in the news. “It really disturbs me how much of the Paris Hilton mentality [news outfits] have,” he says. “In terms of Anna Nicole Smith and her baby, I just don't think people cared as much as the media thought we cared.”
The media's celeb obsession will likely be spoofed on the new show, he adds.
While he acknowledges that viewers may have tired of shows about show business, Levitan says local news doesn't have much in common with showbiz: “It's really not like Hollywood—people are very accessible. [Local TV] is a much smaller stage than people realize.”