Steven Levitan would be happy with a legacy of producing
quality television that not only made people laugh but also made them
feel something. Most people in the industry would agree that Modern Family, the Emmy-winning comedy Levitan created with Christopher Lloyd, has done much more than that.
Four years ago, comedy was considered dead on TV, with only CBS' Two and a Half Men cracking the list of the top 20 most-watched programs, which was dominated by dramas and reality shows. Modern Family, which premiered in 2009, is widely credited with reinvigorating the stalled genre.
"Modern Family is going to be included among a handful of
comedies that pierced through the cultural zeitgeist and became much
more than just a TV show," said Gary Newman, chairman of Twentieth
Century Fox Television, where Levitan has had a deal since the late
1990s. "When you think about some of the great comedies-whether it was M*A*S*H, Cheers, Cosby, Friends-this show, I think, is going to be included in that group. Generationally, it was a lightning rod for comedy."
The series did so by presenting something different than the comedies on the air at the time. While Two and a Half Men and The Office tended toward the snarky, Modern Family arrived with endearing characters and story lines that were heartfelt rather than cynical.
Newman, who worked in business affairs at NBC in the 1980s under
Brandon Tartikoff , said the late programmer would have been an enormous
supporter of Modern Family, with both he and Levitan sharing a concern for the integrity of content.
Levitan, 50, never met Tartikoff , but both started their careers at
WLS Chicago. Levitan began at the station as an intern while studying
journalism at the University of Wisconsin.
While he was always interested in writing for television, the
Chicago native did not initially consider it a serious career choice. He
spent three years as a local TV newsman in Madison, Wis., before
working in advertising. It wasn't until Levitan moved to Los Angeles to
produce commercials that a spec script he wrote got him a staff job on Wings in 1991. There, he got to cut his teeth on a hit show.
"Fortunately, in my first job, I landed at a place where people
cared about quality," Levitan said. "I really owe a lot to the guys at Wings-Peter Casey, David Angell and David Lee-because they gave me my start and got me off on the right foot."
Casey recalled Levitan stood out by displaying a good observational
eye for humor, a fearless ambition and being active in the writers'
room, like when early in his Wings tenure he came up with the idea that saved an episode from falling apart in the second act.
"It ended up making a very funny episode and it was one of those
things where we went, ‘OK, we think we've found somebody here,' that
they're confident enough to go out there on that limb and then to
deliver," Casey said.
After four years with Wings, Levitan went on to write and produce for The Larry Sanders Show and Frasier before creating the successful, if underappreciated, Just Shoot Me (which changed time slots 12 times in its seven years on NBC). He then had a string of oneseason shows such as Stark Raving Mad and Stacked. By the time Fox cancelled Back to You in 2008, Levitan and Lloyd were approaching the end of a three-year deal at 20th TV.
"I'm sure they were feeling some pressure to succeed," Newman said.
"We had made a big investment in them, and it hadn't paid off , and we
certainly were anxious for them to succeed as well."
With Modern Family, Lloyd and Levitan had a project they were
excited about, and one that was personal (the Dunphy family of the
series is loosely based on Levitan's: his wife, Krista, and their
children, Hannah, 19, Allie, 17, and Griffin, 15). After NBC and CBS
showed tepid interest, the team pitched it to then-ABC Entertainment
president Steve McPherson, who bought it in the room.
"[Steve] and Chris really captured this sort of change in our
culture, the idea that the modern family is not what some people would
term the traditional family, it's a blended family," Casey said. "I
think that will be a portion of his legacy, along with what I consider
to be some of the best Emmy acceptance speeches. And I have a feeling
he's going to have plenty of practice."
So far, Modern Family has won three primetime Emmys for
outstanding comedy series. Though after the third award, Levitan (who
accepts all the series' awards over the press-shy Lloyd) said backstage
he is "praying everybody doesn't get sick of us," and that he does worry
about an inevitable decline.
"The way that we handle that uncomfortable feeling is to work even
harder so that people feel that if we do happen to win something, that
we deserve it, and we're not just there because of momentum or because
we're there running on fumes," Levitan said.
Eventually, Levitan said he could see himself writing and directing a
feature film or making a more limited, 13-episode HBO-style series.
Whatever he chooses to do, Modern Family has already secured him a place of historical honor-and that's something the funny man takes very seriously.
"In a show like this, I think it becomes part of the responsibility
to protect its legacy, and that's something I think about," Levitan
said. "When we feel like it's run its course, we should try to go out
with some dignity."