Steve Levitan & Peter Casey Discuss Keys to Successful Comedy Storytelling


MIAMI: Steve Levitan, the co-creator and executive producer of Modern Family, and Peter Casey, producer on such hits as The Jeffersons, Cheers and Frasier, took part in today’s Storytellers that Shaped the Face of Pop Culture track at NATPE, in which they discussed several aspects of what it takes to put together a successful comedy.

The session began with the two admiring each other’s long list of television credits and recounting having worked together on shows such as Wings—which Casey created and produced and Levitan served as a writer and co-producer for on several episodes—and Frasier—which Casey was the creator and executive producer of and Levitan worked as a writer, co-executive producer and consulting producer on for a number of episodes.

The two went on to discuss the value of partnerships when creating a comedy, both agreeing that it’s important to be part of a team. “I’ve only worked with partners,” said Casey. It’s great to have someone to bounce your ideas off of. If someone is having a down day, the other person was there to help lift them up. It is great to get two different perspectives.”

Levitan added on the topic: "[Co-creator] Chris Lloyd and I are very different people, but we both found ourselves floating around after some failed ventures, so we came together and did the show. We really do bring very different sensibilities to the show, but somehow it came together nicely and it worked. There are two of us and we usually disagree, and there is no tie-breaker…. So we very quickly came up with the concept of ‘I run the show this week, you run the show next week.’ That evolved into, I oversee 12 episodes every year and Chris oversees 12 episodes every year." 

Levitan also talked about how the concept of ageism in Hollywood is changing somewhat, at least when it comes to bringing together people to tell a good comedic story. "When I started on Wings I was in my late 20s, and the big topic of conversation was ageism. The thinking was, once you got passed 45—or, god forbid, 50—good luck getting a job writing TV comedy. Our staff now is ridiculously old," he joked, eliciting chuckles from the crowd. “[This is because] we’re telling family stories, so we want people who have raised families.” Levitan said that the average age of his staff at Modern Family is about late-40s. “What’s nice is that we reach people of all ages.”

The question was posed as to whether or not the role of showrunner has changed in recent years, which Levitan said isn’t necessarily the case: "95 percent of the job, in reality, hasn’t changed, and hasn’t changed since [the days of] I Love Lucy. And that’s because 95 percent of the job is to tell stories in a fun and compelling way. You can dress it up with this medium and this way of delivery, and now we’re going to show it on your phone and now we’re going to show it on your shoe,” he quipped, “but it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, if it’s not a compelling story with fresh, interesting characters, no one will want to watch it. What has changed, he said, is that "showrunners are becoming more public now, with Twitter and new media. I frankly think that, for the most part, that is a good thing…. It’s great to interact with fans, up to a point. You don’t want to listen too much to what people are saying."

The comedies that Casey and Levitan have worked on are very much grounded in real life, and the two both agreed that drawing from personal experiences is one of the best ways to tell an engaging and relatable story. "With Modern Family, the more we tap into our lives and the minutia and the awkward little things [the better]—you have a fight with your wife and your kids, what’s the story line here? If we’re arguing about it, we must both care a lot, so how could this become an episode? That’s why people relate to it."

Levitan added that the family dynamics that are at the center of Modern Family have helped make the show a hit internationally. "We’re playing all over the world and we’re hearing from really crazy far-off parts of the world, and they still really relate and love the show, and that’s because it’s universal. Family is universal. I guarantee you that whatever fight you are having with your family and whatever challenges you are facing and the moments of victory you have, no matter how much you think they are weird and specific to your family, it’s happening a million times all over the world at that moment. We try to tap into that."