At ABC, the network that brought viewers iconic comedies such as Laverne & Shirley and Roseanne, there hasn't been much to laugh about lately. But this season, ABC has its best chance in years to reverse its sitcom slump. Of its four new Wednesday-night comedies, three—The Middle, Modern Family and Cougar Town—have been picked up for full seasons.
Whether any of these programs achieves hit-TV status and goes on to multi-season runs remains to be seen. If that happens, the man credited with helping to spur that critical course-correction could be Steve Levitan.
Levitan is the co-creator and executive producer—with Chris Lloyd, his longtime collaborator—of Modern Family, a show that explores the daily rituals of life in the 21st century, when a family unit can come in many permutations. The critical favorite is also the most-watched sitcom on ABC's schedule.
For Levitan, Modern Family became a silver lining wrapped around a pretty dark cloud: the failure of Back to You. That Fox series, which was culled from Levitan's own experience as a news correspondent in Madison, Wis., at NBC affiliate WMTV and a subsequent gig at ABC outlet WKOW, was a major disappointment for the veteran writer of hits such as Wings and Frasier.
“I'm sorry that show didn't last. I think we were really hitting our stride there,” Levitan says.
While the experience still smarts, and Levitan maintains that Fox did not adequately support the show, he does admit that “maybe it's one of those happy accidents: If that show had succeeded, we wouldn't be doing [Modern Family].”
He brings to Modern Family 18 years of experience as a writer-creator-producer, with successes as well as disappointments, and the knowledge that one must always serve the work. It's what makes Levitan so valued a force.
“If a joke is not working, he's the first to kill it,” says Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who plays Mitchell Pritchett on Modern Family. “He can do that because he immediately fixes it with a better joke. I've been on shows where you worry about the quality of the writing; you worry if the writers are going to be able to pull it off. Not on this show.”
Levitan's sitcom career began in 1991 when famed Frasier co-creator David Angell gave the novice scribe a chance to write an episode of Wings. A staff-writer job followed, and by the end of his four years on the series, he was a co-executive producer.
From there he went to HBO's Larry Sanders Show, and in 1995 joined Frasier. Levitan created a slew of comedies including Just Shoot Me, Greg the Bunny, Stacked and Stark Raving Mad.
After so long a stretch, he decided to take a break from the business. It was during the “break” that he accidentally wrote a pilot for a family comedy.
“My kid said something funny at the dinner table. And I thought, Oh, I should write that down in case I ever need dialogue with kids,” he recalls. “And so I did, and I just kept going and two days later, I had a pilot.”
Mining the nuances and interpersonal drama of family is organic to Levitan's and Lloyd's current life-stage.
“Chris and I each have families,” Levitan says. “That's what we're dealing with. Our lives are our kids and soccer games and school and our wives' issues with people at school. It's what we're living, and so the stories are going to be there.”
Jason Winer, the show's director and a co-executive producer, says Levitan knows exactly where he wants scenes to go.
“We're both control freaks,” Winer says, “and we understand that about each other. When something is bugging him and it's a detail that somebody else might dismiss, I get it. Those are the instincts that help a show go from good to great.”
Levitan grew up in the Chicago suburb of Glenview, Ill. He gravitated toward TV news because, as he puts it, “I thought it would be cool to be on TV. And as a kid from the Midwest, that seemed like my best shot.”
Tall and square-jawed, Levitan had anchorman looks if not the persona. He parlayed an internship at the NBC affiliate in Madison into a paying job as a correspondent while attending the University of Wisconsin. After he graduated in 1984, he landed a job at the Madison ABC affiliate.
“I found myself in completely bizarre situations on a daily basis,” he says. Levitan covered the death of serial killer Ed Gein, who was the inspiration for Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.
“I met murderers. I met major leaders. I met people in the middle of a crisis,” he says. “I got to see it all in a couple of short years.”
And he was quickly burnt out on the daily diet of tragedy and depravity. The tipping point came when he had to report about the drowning deaths of several local kids in a river: “I said, this is not for me. I like making people laugh. It just felt like it was against my personality.”
He moved to Chicago where his then-girlfriend was living and landed a job as a writer at Leo Burnett, the advertising agency responsible for such iconic pitchmen as the Jolly Green Giant and the Marlboro Man. Soon, Levitan was traveling to Los Angeles for commercial shoots and getting a taste of Hollywood.
“I started to realize that there were actual people who really do write for these shows,” he says.
In 1989, he moved to Los Angeles and got an agent. He wrote a spec script for The Wonder Years and eventually found his way to Wings: “It was a wonderful strange journey, but I got there.”
Levitan now has a shelf of awards—including an Emmy for Frasier—and the status that comes with producing more hits than misses in the maddeningly bureaucratic business of network comedy. If he can help lead ABC out of the comedic wilderness, he'll have achieved another milestone.
“Back when I was working the night shift on the 10 o'clock news, we had three monitors on the wall at the station and I would find myself watching sitcoms instead of wanting to do my job,” he says. “I remember thinking, you know, I could write that.”
Broadcasting & Cable Newsletter
The smarter way to stay on top of broadcasting and cable industry. Sign up below