Sometimes a show comes along that taps in to your own family’s zeitgeist. For some it may be the trials and tribulations of the Moons in Albert Square. For others, the Sabbath mayhem of the Goodmans in Friday Night Dinner. For my family it’s the Pritchetts in Sky’s hit comedy, Modern Family as in the space of half-an-hour they argue, rant, and attribute blame, sulk and then hug before the credits roll.
For the record The Pritchett’s aren’t a Jewish family, but Steven Levitan, the man who co-created them is and admits that -“My own cultural sensibilities at times trickle down to the writing.” This explains why all the kvetching and kvelling seems so familiar in spite of the fact that it’s delivered by a Columbian beauty or a chubby gay man from Missouri.
To help the uninitiated, Modern Family is about three branches of a dysfunctional family headed by politically incorrect silver surfer, Jay (Ed O’Neil) who lives with his second wife, Latin sexpot Gloria (Sofia Vergara) and her sensitive poet son, Manny (Rico Rodriguez). Jay’s own son Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), an uptight homosexual lawyer who lives with the highly emotional Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) and their adopted Vietnamese daughter, Lily. And then there’s Jay’s daughter, Claire (Julie Bowen) who is married to goofball Phil (Ty Burrell) and has three children Hayley (Sarah Hyland), Alex (Ariel Winter) and Luke (Nolan Gould).
It is Claire’s family that most resembles the Levitan household and Steve makes no secret of the fact that from day one he has used his own real life experiences to drive the action. Co-creator Christopher Lloyd does the same thing and their shared history as Emmy award-winning writers and producers on Frasier suggests they know what they’re doing.
“So the episode in which Claire smashed up Phil’s expensive TV remote control, well that is what my wife Krista did to mine,” continues Steve. “My kids know that I use what happens at home and are very wary about mentioning anyone at school. ‘Don’t you dare’ they’ll say, if they see me listening.”
Steven Levitan grew up attending Reform synagogue in Chicago and loving Carl Reiner, M.A.S.H’s Larry Gelbart and the work of James L Brooks. “I watched a lot of TV. Too much according to my parents, but things haven’t turned out so bad.”
He is certainly right about that as apart from a brief sojourn into journalism which proved not to be his thing, Steven’s CV reads like the wish list of every aspiring comedy writer in the west. Career highlights include executive producer on Frasier, Emmy nominations for Outstanding Writing in Comedy for The Larry Sanders Show and Just Shoot Me, the show he created starring George Segal. As for Modern Family, there have been so many awards that shelf space at his production company, Picture Day is at a premium.
“Every award means something, “says Steven who was nominated last week in the best international category at the British Comedy Awards. “After six years when you are waiting for everyone to give up on you, anything that conveys that they haven’t is very satisfying.” With fans in 200 countries eagerly anticipating each new episode, the pressure is on to maintain the standard and the writing team now consists of 14 people of which a third are Jewish. Yet another reason for Jewish sensibilities to permeate the Pritchetts.
“You write about what you know and interactions with one’s family are coloured by the culture we grow up in,” explains Steven. “I believe a writing team is like a baseball team. You can’t have nine short-stops, so everybody has to have a different strength, but they all have to be funny and smart.”
Assembling the right team behind and in front of the camera accounts in part for the show’s uber success, but it is also the heartening combination of laughter and tears that accounts for its cross-generational appeal.
“Comedy with real emotion was out of favor for a long time,” he explains. “When Seinfeld came along it wanted to exist on a level of pure comedy and then 30 Rock followed. Both were huge hits, but pure comedy is incredibly hard and Chris and I both loved shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Cheers where we got caught up in a character’s journey. If the characters feel real they can make you laugh, cry and then laugh again. All in all it feels like a very full and satisfying meal.” Lockshen soup and salt beef on rye comes to mind as the Pritchetts are not averse to a deli sandwich, but to fully appreciate what Steven means I recommend the episode when Hayley goes to college and arguments get in the way of the emotional goodbye her parents dreaded. Crestfallen they return home, only to see Hayley on Skype wearing the T-shirt her dad gave her. That was a genuine Levitan family experience and writing about it didn’t stop Steven from welling up when it aired.
Though fans won’t want to hear this, Steven is philosophical about the day Modern Family comes to an end. “Every show has a natural life span except for The Simpsons which is in a world of its own,” he says. “The kids are growing up and you can only do so much before you start repeating yourself. I don’t want us to limp out. So when we feel we are about to run out of steam we’ll stop.” Hopefully the Pritchett’s will send us a forwarding address.