Channel-surfing on any given day is nearly guaranteed to include a sitcom that University of Wisconsin graduate Steve Levitan wrote, produced or created.
His brand of refreshing, honest comedy has permeated television screens for the past 25 years, leaving audiences with tender, poignant humor that has yet to be reproduced in the same fashion.
Levitan spoke to UW students Thursday afternoon at Grainger Hall. The future sitcom creator graduated in 1984 with a journalism degree, a field he worked in as a correspondent for WKOW-TV in Madison. Levitan said he thought it would be the best way to get ahead. But, despite his collegiate background in journalism, this was not Levitan’s intended line of work.
“I was never that interested in journalism, but I really liked the idea of being on TV,” Levitan said during the talk.
His interest in television landed Levitan in several radio-TV-film classes in the communication arts department. He specifically recalled his screenwriting course, which put him under pressure and ultimately shaped his career ambitions.
But like many other UW students, academics were just the tip of the iceberg in Madison. Levitan spent his time partying with Sigma Alpha Epsilon friends and earning average (or slightly above) grades, which, according to Levitan, have never mattered.
“Working in a creative job, no one has asked to see my college transcript once,” Levitan said.
After a two-year stint in Madison post-graduation, Levitan moved back to his hometown Chicago and took a job at ad firm Leo Burnett. But, this was still not where he hoped to be.
“It was a way to get closer and closer to what I wanted to do,” Levitan said. “There was one time where they flew me out to LA to film a project, and I had written a couple spec scripts, so I used that opportunity to network.”
And Levitan hasn’t left Los Angeles since. After sending out two of four total spec scripts, Levitan briefly worked as a production assistant on various programs and sitcoms until he was hired as a writer for the NBC sitcom “Wings” in 1990.
From then on, Levitan’s career has been on the up-and-up. In 1997, he created the critical and commercial hit “Just Shoot Me,” part of the coveted Thursday night NBC lineup that included “Seinfeld” and “Friends” at the time.
But without a doubt the immense popularity of the ABC mockumentary “Modern Family” has defined Levitan’s career and put him on the map as one of the most successful TV showrunners of our time.
Following the lives of three related suburban families, “Modern Family” was born out of the idea that some of the most definitive sitcoms — like “Seinfeld” or “30 Rock” — have no emotion. These shows, Levitan said, rely on a suspension of disbelief that can only go so far.
“Things that are false don’t play anymore,” Levitan said. “Story is everything.”
The mockumentary sitcom has certainly been done before. Critics often credit “Arrested Development” for pioneering the genre with other shows following in its footsteps. But “Modern Family” was the first to prominently feature gay characters in its cast. Levitan credits the success of “Modern Family” to its strong conviction in its premise.
Though he claims the premise is at times progressive, Levitan said he did not expect “Modern Family” to cross the generational lines that it has.
Madison’s rainbow history: Hotel Washington allowed diverse LGBTQ community to uniteAn unassuming Cafe Palms employee allegedly emptied the evening’s cigarette butts into the trash the night of Feb. 18, 1996, not Read…
“‘Modern Family’ got real because of the subject matter,” Levitan said. “Once it stops being about them being gay and them being good parents, you know the job has been done. How do you do this show in this age and not have one of the couples be gay?”
After discussing his latest hit, Levitan offered advice to aspiring writers in the room. While he said he job is certainly glamorous, there is a lot of work required to get there.
“When you’re in a creative job, you’re really putting yourself out there,” he said. “Swing for the fences and write things that you care about that are important to you. The best stuff comes from real life.”
As the communication arts major continues to slave away, pouring heart and soul into Celtx and Premiere, Levitan forges ahead every day, putting his own spin on the great American sitcom. But, unlike many other successful screenwriters, he also found himself in the same Vilas classrooms as those in his audience.