MIPTV: 'Modern Family' Creator Steven Levitan Talks Exporting Comedy
"What we have come to realize is that whether you are living in the Westside of Los Angeles, whether you are living in Ohio in the Rust Belt and having tough times, or Europe or Asia, experience is pretty universal," he said.
After more than 20 years in the business, Modern Family co-creator and executive producer Steven Levitan has a few hits under his belt and a shelf full of Emmys.
Modern Family has been an unabashed hit in the U.S. and abroad. The show, which so closely reflects Levitan's life that his street in West L.A. has been used for exteriors and scenes, told the packed auditorium at MIPTV that he didn't try to adapt the program to make it more appealing to overseas audiences — and that's what has bolstered its success.
"We said, 'Let's tell our story honestly and not worry about trying to make it more universal. Let's tell our experience specifically and realistically and see what happens,' " he said of his and co-creator Christopher Lloyd's pilot process. "What we have come to realize is that whether you are living in the Westside of Los Angeles, whether you are living in Ohio in the Rust Belt and having tough times, or Europe or Asia, experience is pretty universal."
The show's diverse cast also boosted its international appeal, as did winning five Emmys and a Golden Globe. But that too was a byproduct of his and Lloyd's storytelling, not a determined maneuver.
"We went through a period where emotion in comedy sort of fell out of favor. It became unfashionable. It became hip to have no hugs and just to go for the flat-out comedy, and it's wonderful if you can pull it off," he said, citing Seinfeld and 30 Rock as examples.
"[Christopher Lloyd and I] both loved shows like Cheers and Mary Tyler Moore where you got really good comedy and a dose of emotion and felt it was about something. So we wanted to do a family show and wanted to do something that hadn't been done," he added.
Levitan feels pressure to keep the show fresh and tries new story structures, including a recent episode that unfolded completely over Apple products.
"We don't want to hear 'Modern Family has really lost it,' or 'They are really limping out.' We work extra hard to continue to do something that's really different or tell a story in a new way," he said.
As for predictions for another Emmy for the show's sixth season: "I don't think we'll keep winning; it would just boggle the mind. It's probably time someone will end our fun ride," he said.
Levitan also compared Modern Family to the show he and Lloyd worked on previously, the short-lived newsroom comedy Back to You with Kelsey Grammer, Patricia Heaton and Fred Willard, which failed.
"It didn't take off. That's the business. You could bring together this amazing group of people, and for some reason, it just doesn't magically line up," he said.
He partially credited Modern Family's success to timing, casting and luck. "You can only control so much. There are 10,000 decisions in the course of making a pilot — I might be underestimating — and you could make 9,999 correctly, but you get one decision wrong and it could sink the whole thing. There are so many ways to fail, so for things to come together this way is just a ridiculous anomaly."