Some Hollywood critics thought sit-coms were dead.
Then, here on ABC, a little show called "Modern Family" came along.
The show is as creative and unique as it is classic and traditional. A large family works out its quirks and problems together. What's so creative about that? The executive producers came up with some "modern" twists, including the show's faux-documentary shooting style and diverse mix of characters.
There are two siblings and their dad. The father, played by Ed O'Neill of "Married…with children" fame, is married to a young Columbia wife who also has a young son. One of the siblings, Mitchell, is gay and has a partner, Cameron. The other sibling, Claire, is your classic all-American TV wife with a husband and three kids.
"Modern Family" took him two Emmy Awards this fall and earned countless accolades from critics, and most importantly, the viewers, who turn in to the show in the millions every Wednesday.
You've probably heard of the show's success. But you may not know it owes its roots to Madison, Wisconsin.
Back in the mid 1980s, "Modern Family's" executive producer and co-creator, Steve Levitan, got his start in television at WKOW in Madison. Levitan was a reporter at WKOW for two years. He covered all sorts of stories, from the fun-loving features to hard-hitting city government.
Levitan granted WKOW's Dan Cassuto unprecedented backstage access to the cast and crew at its studios in Los Angeles, California. We spent all day with Levitan in the writer's room, his office, on the set, in the practice rooms and editing suites.
"We've had the kind of success this year that you can't predict," Levitan told 27 News. "You can only dream of having it."
Levitan and his creative partner, Christopher Lloyd, created the series together during the 2009-2010 television season. They both share executive producing duties together, switching off every other episode.
Levitan graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in journalism. He told us he initially intended to be a news reporter, and that's why he landed at WKOW.
"City council and all that? I wanted to smash my head into a wall," he told us in an exclusive one-on-one interview in his office in Los Angeles. He works in a two-story building on the 20th Century Fox Television studio lot, next door to the stage where "Modern Family" is filmed.
While sitting in the Channel 27 newsroom in Madison, Levitan realized his real dream was to write comedies.
"I'm supposed to be writing a story and I would get sucked into these comedies, because I was a big fan of TV comedies," he told us, recounting the days when there were three monitors above his desk in the newsroom for ABC, NBC and CBS. "I remember sitting there. I still remember exactly, I said, ‘I think I could do that. I could write one of those.'"
Levitan started writing spec comedy scripts from the newsroom. He eventually moved to Chicago to take a job producing television commercials, and, after that, headed west to Los Angeles.
A spec script of "Cheers" got him noticed by executives at "Wings," who hired him. He went on to work at "Frasier," "The Larry Sanders Show," and "Just Shoot Me."
In 2009, Levitan and Lloyd created "Modern Family" with a twist they'd never tried before: a faux-documentary style, known as "mockumentary," with shaky hand-held cameras and interviews edited together to make it seem like a reality show.
"We went with the documentary style because I really like those interview," Levitan said. "It adds to the place and the editing. Being able to pop into the middle of a scene and know what a character is thinking is a wonderful device."
Levitan and Lloyd created "Modern Family" with some actors already in mind. They wanted Ty Burrell to play goofy dad Phil. They also wanted Sofia Vergara to play young Latin wife, Gloria.
"We knew we wanted the families to be connected in some way. We had a lot of different ideas," said Levitan. "Maybe they all live in the same cul-de-sac. Or maybe it's three siblings. The more we thought about it, this combination just gave us a lot to play with."
Many of the storylines you see on the show actually happened.
Levitan told us Phil's character is loosely based on himself. He loves technology. He shot his son with a BB gun as a punishment for shooting someone else. His wife broke his fancy remote control because she couldn't figure it out. He tries to talk "cool" to his children's friends like Phil does on the show.
"I do that as a joke to my daughter's friends," Levitan said. "I have the awareness to know I'm purposefully sounding like an idiot, whereas Phil doesn't quite have that awareness."
The on-screen Dunphy family is, interestingly, very similar to the real Levitan family.
There are three Dunphy children: an older daughter, Haley, a middle daughter, Alix, and a young son, Luke.
At the Levitan's, there's also an older daughter, Hannah, a middle daughter, Ali, and a young son, Griffin, whose best friend is named Luke.
"There have been some times when I've taken stories directly from them. They're like, ‘you've got to change these names. I can't believe you put that in!' One time, I wanted to use the name of a boy," said Levitan. "My daughter made me change it because she didn't want the boy to think she was thinking about the boy at home."
Levitan added many of the best moments came from the real lives of other producers and writers, as well.
The show is 100 percent scripted, but executives allow the actors to improvise or suggest new jokes on the fly during filming.
"At the end of the day, I'd say it's about three percent improvised. But some of the best moments we've had are little moments thrown in by the actors."
We took advantage of our backstage access to ask Levitan a few questions:
WKOW: What are your favorites shows on TV?
Steve Levitan: 30 Rock, The Office, Mad Men
WKOW: Just for fun -- if you could step in and be executive producer of any other show, what would it be?
Steve Levitan: Saturday Night Live
WKOW: What's your favorite moment from Season One of "Modern Family"?
Steve Levitan: The Lion King scene, when Mitchell and Cameron reveal their adopted baby to the family.
Levitan and his gang, including co-creator and executive producer Christopher Lloyd, are riding high right now.
"Honestly, I can say this for the first time in my career. There's no place else I'd rather be."
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