Director Jason Winer, left, and show co-creator Steven Levitan chat with… (Peter "Hopper" Stone / ABC )
"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."