November 12, 2019

Steven Levitan’s Home Life Is Fodder for ‘Modern Family’

“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.