Q&A: Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd

The veteran showrunners believe the network comedy drought is about to end

Comedy was the hot trend at May's TV upfronts, but no laffer emerged with more heat than "Modern Family." ABC picked up the pilot to series a week ahead of schedule and screened it in full at its upfront presentation. As co-creators of the mockumentary, veteran sitcom writers Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd are taking on a single-camera comedy after last year's cancellation of their heavily hyped Fox sitcom "Back to You."

The Hollywood Reporter: What was the reaction at the upfronts when ABC showed the pilot?

Steven Levitan: They were even laughing at the setups and laughing through the punch lines, which was puzzling. But they were laughing, and as long as they're laughing, we are happy. It's so rare to have a pilot that comes with this sort of response, so we're taking preproduction seriously because we want to do our best to live up to the pilot.

Christopher Lloyd: We've also written a couple of really terrible episodes. Steven is working on one right now that will lower everybody's expectations. You gotta let the air outta the balloon a little, so we're going to put those into the season at strategic moments.

Levitan: Slowly lower expectations over time.

We're looking for that water-cooler, really horrible episode that gets the nation talking.

THR: "Back to You" was canceled this time last year. How hard was it to get over its death?

Lloyd: I've sent (Fox entertainment president) Kevin Reilly a few e-mails to just check up on how his schedule is doing, particularly on the night that "Back to You" was on, and I haven't heard back from him.

THR: The "Modern Family" pilot has a lot of racially charged jokes. Could they spark a backlash?

Levitan: We hope there's not a backlash, but we plan on being equal opportunity offenders. I think it's impossible to say that you're going to try to very realistically represent different characters without anybody ever saying something that might be the slightest bit racy.

THR: You criticized Fox over the cancellation of "Back to You," and Steve, you were upset with NBC over the scheduling of "Just Shoot Me." What do you think of the broadcast network business now?

Levitan: I would say now more than ever it behooves network executives to make long-term decisions. When you make short-term decisions, it ends up destroying your brand. When you look at certain networks that really stick with shows and let the audience find their shows, those are the ones who are the most successful right now. You see other networks scrambling and making last-minute switches and moving things around and trying stunts. It just doesn't work.
(Creating a Wednesday night comedy block) is a really great decision on ABC's part, whether it pays short-term dividends or long term. Just to say we're going to make a commitment to comedy on this night, the public will start to get that in their heads.

Lloyd: Shows that make their big splash after "(American) Idol" or after "Dancing With the Stars" -- it doesn't really get you anything because you're going to be moved around six episodes from now, and the audience may not follow you. But if you could just get parked in one place, then they could support you, and you can just very slowly find and build your audience. That's how you build a hit show.

THR: Given today's economy and the fact that single-camera comedies are pretty expensive, how are you planning to keep costs down?

Levitan: It doesn't do us any good to do a show that never has a prayer of making any money because that's how the plug gets pulled. We're helped by the fact that it's documentary-style because it allows us to scale things back a little bit and to not be so worried about lighting and making every shot look beautiful. Why do you need thousands of dollars worth of lights to light a scene that a real documentary crew would be shooting naturally?

THR: You both come from multicamera backgrounds. Do you think that format has a future?

Lloyd: Definitely. I think for whatever reason, the industry is going back in that direction. But it never entirely made sense to me why it went away from it. My kids, both of our kids, watch multicamera stuff. It just became the fashion to do single-camera shows. People seemed to forget that even that wasn't so new. Single-camera shows was the way comedy started in the '50s and '60s -- "The Beverly Hillbillies," "I Dream of Jeannie."
A multicamera comedy is never going to be the most exciting option straight out of the box in September. But over time, I think you'll find audiences saying, "OK, well, I sampled that, I checked it out; let me come back over to the thing that just makes me laugh or gives me a good feeling at the end." And a well-made sitcom will always do that. That's why so many sitcoms take a while to catch on. But once they do catch on, they stay on forever, and they become really important in people's lives. Networks have to make the investment to stay with them.

Levitan: It feels like (comedy) is making a comeback now. I think that the networks seem like they're investing more. And it feels like people are ready for comedy.