“All of our stories come from real life,” Steven Levitan, co-creator and executive producer of ABC’s “Modern Family,” told 1,200 fans at a recent Paley Center for Media event in Beverly Hills. Asking his wife, Krista, to stand, he told the PaleyFest group that she really did smash his expensive television remote control into a thousand pieces and left it by their front door for him to find. He then introduced their son, Griffin, whom he was obliged to shoot with a BB gun after Griffin shot his cousin; and daughter, Hannah, whose video chat with her friends caught him wearing nothing but his underwear.
All raw material for a guy hailed as a savior of the half-hour television comedy for the über-hit he created with longtime collaborator Christopher Lloyd.
The show revolves around three disparate branches of a dysfunctional tribe headed by Jay Pritchett (Ed O’Neill of “Married ... With Children”), a lovable update on “All in the Family’s” politically incorrect curmudgeon, Archie Bunker. Jay is as flummoxed as he is delighted by his second marriage to the much younger, explosive Colombian woman, Gloria (Sofia Vergara), who came into his life with her overly sensitive 11-year-old, Manny (Rico Rodriguez). Jay’s own son, Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), meanwhile, is an uptight, gay workaholic who, with his partner, Cameron (Eric Stonestreet), has just adopted a baby girl from Vietnam. There’s also his formerly wild daughter, Claire (Julie Bowen), now a stressed-out mom married for 17 years to a dorky Realtor named Phil (Ty Burrell).
In one episode, Claire insists that her husband sternly lecture their son about viewing Internet porn. Phil’s response is to clandestinely show the boy how to delete browser history on the family computer.
Some secular Westside Jews may recognize a number of their own concerns being played out on the series. Levitan is an MOT who lives in Brentwood; like Phil, he has been married for 17 years, has three children and views himself as a “cool dad” to his unimpressed kids.
If some of his own Jewish sensibilities make it to the screen, it’s not in the way that early television writers used to “write Yiddish, cast British,” as Neil Simon put it. “Modern Family’s” multicultural milieu is perhaps more similar to a show like “Everybody Loves Raymond,” which melded the Italian sensibilities of namesake star Ray Romano and Jewish co-creator Phil Rosenthal.
In an interview, Levitan credited the success of “Modern Family” to its blending of diverse points of view. Levitan says he has “no filter” for his emotions; Lloyd, in his opinion, is reserved. Levitan believes that his own cultural sensibilities at times trickle down to the writing, while Lloyd sees no Jewish or religious sensibilities on the show.
“We certainly don’t delve into religion — second, after politics, on the list of show-killing topics - nor do we have any intention of doing so,” Lloyd wrote in an e-mail.
“Personally, I have never understood what a ‘Jewish sensibility’ is. I understand what being Jewish is, and what many of the tenets of the religion are — having a Jewish wife is an asset here — but I have never understood what people mean when they speak of a Jewish manner. We are skating on the edge of stereotyping here, for my money.”
“I think Jews tend to wear their emotions on their sleeves,” Levitan said. “My experience is that families are loud and emotional, and you don’t leave things in or have an unexpressed thought.
“One of our constant issues is, what level of fighting can these couples do?” Levitan added. He cited the remote-control argument between Claire and Phil: “They barely got into it, from my point of view, and Chris was like, ‘I think they’re too angry.’... But oftentimes, from our differences, the best [work] comes.”
Levitan, 48, acknowledges his strong cultural Jewish connection but says he is not religious. He grew up attending a Reform synagogue in suburban Chicago, where he aspired to become a writer from an early age. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, he took a job as a reporter at Madison’s ABC affiliate because “I wanted to be on TV,” he said sheepishly.
That career ended the day Levitan covered the drowning death of a child. Upon seeing the family “sobbing and shaking,” he said, “My first instinct was, ‘Where’s my photographer? Why isn’t he getting this?’ And I thought, ‘I don’t want to be this person.’ I quit three days later.”
Eventually, he got a job writing for “Wings,” won an Emmy for “Frasier” and created a slew of comedies, including “Back to You,” which mined his TV reporting days and was co-created with Lloyd. The show died a quick death, as did Levitan’s series “Stacked,” starring Pamela Anderson.
“I was trying to deliver a hit for Fox, which had given me a lot of money over the years,” he said of “Stacked.” “And I started asking myself, ‘How did I go from doing shows I really loved and believed in to [this]?’”
During a hiatus, he began jotting down funny interactions between himself and his children, which helped fuel “Modern Family.”
The creators didn’t want their show to be “snarky,” Levitan said, but, at the same time, they were concerned that the series have some grit so it didn’t come off as “another cutesy, sappy family show.” Some of the edginess stems from politically incorrect humor, which “always comes out of the characters and their conflicts,” Levitan said.
Thus, the patriarch, Jay, who is old-school macho, “is dealing with his son’s homosexuality, but he’s not completely at ease with it. He’s also dealing with a Hispanic stepson and an Asian grandchild. He’s trying to evolve, but he blunders.”
So, why aren’t any of the “Modern Family” members Jewish? Casting, Levitan said. “I don’t subscribe to the thinking that people won’t fall in love with a Jewish family,” he explained. “But when you have actors like ours, they don’t look Jewish or seem Jewish. So even if some of the humor seems Jewish, we’re not avoiding the issue to play to a mass market.”
“Modern Family” airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on ABC.
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