"I keep hearing about this 'Modern Family' effect," says Steven Levitan, co-creator of the hit ABC series being lauded for spearheading the recent renaissance of comedy on TV. He's on the set, plopped on a chair in the dining room of what audiences have come to know as Jay and Gloria's swanky home. Dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, Levitan is self-deprecating and awkward — hardly what you'd expect from the savior of the sitcom.
But that's the position he — along with the show's co-creator, Christopher Lloyd — finds himself in.
That's not to say that the genre was totally dead when "Modern Family" launched in 2009. CBS sitcoms such as "Two and a Half Men" and "The Big Bang Theory" were doing quite well. But comedies were mostly in the trough, with reality fare such as "American Idol" and "Dancing With the Stars" crowding the top-rated show rankings year after year alongside tried and true dramas. Now, the genre is experiencing a revival, more than any time since "Friends" and "Everybody Loves Raymond" ended their runs in the early '00s. And "Modern Family" is leading the parade.
"We sort of got noticed right off the bat," Levitan said. In its first season, the show averaged 11 million viewers and put an end to "30 Rock's" winning streak at the Emmys, grabbing top honors in the comedy category. It was widely embraced by critics; the Los Angeles Times' Mary McNamara applauded it as "sharp but not cruel, amused but not judgmental." (Fellow Times critic Robert Lloyd was so overwhelmed by the near universal raves that he wrote of how odd it felt "critically, to remain so unmoved by things that have moved so many.")
The show's boffo ratings and award wins (five Emmys this year alone) continued to pick up momentum through the second season. The third-season premiere Sept. 21 brought in 14.3 million viewers — up more than 1.5 million from last season's premiere. Putting it into perspective: "Modern Family" beat out the heavily hyped premiere of Simon Cowell's "The X-Factor" — and it has continued to beat the reality series since the start of the season.
"I'm sure Simon Cowell has a target on my back," Levitan said. Jokes aside, news of the blow against reality TV came with some satisfaction. Levitan posted on Twitter: "It's extremely gratifying that a scripted comedy finally beat an overhyped karaoke contest. Thank you, #Modern Family fans!" As if to crystallize "Modern Family's" pop cultural impact, Apple even featured the series in its iPhone 4S presentation this month.
And the so-called "Modern Family" effect seems to be spreading. The first pickup of the season went to Fox sitcom "New Girl." And half-hour comedy series — including "New Girl" and fellow rookie "2Broke Girls" — had a big showing during fall premiere week among adults ages 18 to 49. New ABC comedies "Suburgatory" and "Last Man Standing" and NBC's "Up All Night" are off to solid starts. Meanwhile, veterans "Two and a Half Men" and "Big Bang Theory" have posted notable gains in ratings.
"Modern Family's" success has also reinvigorated the family comedy. Reports of edgy family sitcoms in development — including two for NBC, one created by Ryan Murphy, the other starring Snoop Dogg — made the rounds this month.
"That's what happens in Hollywood," Levitan said. "It's just weird when you've got the show people want to imitate. How many times did people try to re-create 'Friends'?" It's not like we're the holy grail. Something else will come along eventually. We were just lucky to have created the right show at the right time."
So what is "the right show" for the current moment of economic uncertainty and technological transformation? One that seamlessly manages to feel edgy and forward-looking while also being as comforting as an old sofa.
"It gives you the family hug at the end of each episode," said Jason Winer, an executive producer and director on the series.
Consider the episode being filmed on this day. In one scene, Phil (Ty Burrell) seeks advice from his curmudgeonly father-in-law, Jay (Ed O'Neill), about a job offer. "I have three kids and at least one of them is going to college," Phil says sincerely. "Worst-case scenario, they all go." The droll scene hints at the financial realities parents face — but instead of getting too serious, it wraps with Jay urging Phil to follow his heart.
Similarly, a story line from a first-season episode in which Phil shoots his son with a BB gun could easily have been in "Leave It to Beaver." But the series' humor relies on our understanding that Phil is trying hard (and not quite succeeding) to live up to an echo of traditional masculinity, adding a layer of currency.
"This isn't the 1950s anymore," said O'Neill, who plays the patriarch. "This show reflects society as it is today. And that's not easy."
That means not being afraid to portray a gay couple trying to navigate parenthood or, in the age of Twitter and Apple products, giving prominence to the role technology plays in the characters' lives. (The Disney-owned network received criticism for devoting an entire episode of the series to Phil's desire to have an iPad; at the time, Steve Jobs was the largest shareholder in Disney.)
To further distinguish itself from the old-school family sitcom, "Modern Family" borrowed the mockumentary format previously used on such workplace comedies as "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation," which provides a kind of distancing effect.
"Visually, what we try to do with the camera is let it feel like the audience is observing the joke," Winer said. "I think the audience has grown more sophisticated over the years because we now have a whole generation of people growing up with YouTube and reality content. People like to discover things — rather than showing you the joke, the show likes to let you find the joke."
That means the writing has to be much more on point, Lloyd said. "We don't even have the benefit of an audience to react to it," he added.
But it's the family-friendly sensibility that has rendered the series a hit at a time when shows have shifted toward being less broad in their appeal, said Bill Carroll, a media analyst with Katz Television Group.
"TV was missing a show the whole family could watch," Carroll said. "And TV was missing a show that wasn't so specific in its sense of humor. 'Modern Family' deals with everyday circumstances, not someone going back to community college, or a quirky person running an office, or people at a TV show. Those are well-done shows, but pretty much everyone knows what it's like to have a family."
As family men themselves, Levitan and Lloyd thought creating a show that reflected the lives they were now living might translate to success. "There's something to be said about writing what you know," Levitan said. "We were both living this life — raising kids, dealing with very contemporary issues specific to these times."
Lloyd, whose father, David, wrote for "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Taxi," is well versed in the comedy scene: His first writing gig was on "The Golden Girls." From there, he worked on the 1990s NBC sitcom "Wings" and served as an executive producer on "Frasier" for many years. Levitan also wrote for "Wings" and "Frasier." He would later create and develop the pilot for "Just Shoot Me!," which ran for seven seasons. But things stalled from there, with comedies "Stacked" and "Back to You" (the latter co-created with Lloyd and also featuring Burrell) quickly getting canceled.
"I just sort of stopped and asked, 'What am I doing wrong?'" Levitan said. "I remember my agent saying, 'What do you want to be doing?' and I said, "I want to win awards. I want to do the show that's respected.' I don't care about the biggest hit or the biggest syndication deal. I cared about creating a show that I was proud of.... And yes, that meant one that got Emmy love."
Levitan would later wax lyrical on the burden that now comes with those ambitions becoming a reality. "Every scene we do, in the back of my mind is a bunch of cynical comedy writers on other shows saying, 'Boy, they have really lost it,' or 'I don't see what all the fuss is about.' I want them to say, 'I hate to say it, but that was a great episode.' That's what's on my mind at the beginning of every scene now. Every single scene."
The show's actors, who have mostly found fame late in long careers (with O'Neill as the most obvious exception, having starred on "Married … With Children" for 11 seasons), are also appreciative but cautious.
"I'm the great naysayer on set," said Julie Bowen, who stars as high-strung Claire and previously appeared on NBC's "Ed" and ABC's "Boston Legal." "I'm always looking for the backlash and for things to go terribly wrong. I've been on the darling that became the not darling. I've been on the one that never quite got off the ground. I've been on the one that sort of middled around for a while. I've been on those, so I'm prepared for it, I'm waiting for it."
Burrell, much like his on-screen persona, takes a more jovial outlook.
"I have a job that will last for a while," he said. "That's pretty darn cool."