A candid conversation about the state of TV and the problem with ratings, plus some outbreaks of jealousy and ego between Steve Levitan and Dan Harmon, creators of the third-year comedies "Modern Family" (the reigning Emmy champ) and "Community" (acclaimed if overlooked by voters).
(Photos of Harmon, left, and Levitan by James Acomb for TheWrap)
In this era of fragmenting audiences and declining shares for the broadcast networks, do you have a sense of the audience you're making your shows for?
STEVE LEVITAN: When I write, 90 percent of the time I am picturing it through the eyes of other comedy writers.
DAN HARMON: That’s what we do, too — we assume that everyone in the audience is a genius, and write for the most jaded person you can imagine. Sometimes someone so jaded that they don’t exist.
LEVITAN: But that’s a problem. If you go for the most jaded person, you can really screw yourself up by being too cool for school. Another part of me thinks about the fans, the people who really just like the show and love these characters.
HARMON: Yeah, when we were first launching our show, I was honored to be characterized as part of this post-ironic movement in TV. The grunge, and the lack of eye contact, and the self-deprecation and the self-loathing was coming to a conclusion, and now we were once again acting like there were still 200 million people watching every night, and that we were dividing them among three networks. Because there’s a craftsmanship brought to bear from that: Mom’s watching, Dad’s watching, the kids are watching, that’s TV when it was at it’s best. And in order to make the best TV, should you pretend that you’re still living in that world? "Modern Family" definitely has that purity and that optimism. And even though we get characterized as snarky and clever, there is a lot of optimism to "Community."
But aren't you deluding yourself when you act as if that audience is out there?
HARMON: Yeah. I have to pretend. I mean, if I looked at the Nielsens and based whether to get out of bed on them, I would be in bed right now. So I have to continue to assume that the world is watching. And the way I can justify that is that in this age of DVD and YouTube and Hulu and Comic-Con, eventually I meet a whole bunch of people who have apparently seen the show and love it. It’s just the 1.5 and 1.4 [Nielsen ratings] that really suggests that not a damn person has seen the show.
LEVITAN: We just got some outrageously good plus-seven numbers. It’s both heartening and depressing at the same time. It shows you that people are watching, but they’re watching in different ways. This particular week, in 18-to-49, the live-plus-same-day rating was a 3.9. But the live-plus-seven [days] was a 6.2. That’s a very respectable number. It’s great that those people are watching, but are we truly getting credit for it, or ad dollars?
HARMON: That's how you and I measure it. For me, the whole point of coming out here and writing television was to reach people. So we don’t care if they watch it a day later, and we really don’t care if they watch it on their laptop. But because Colgate doesn’t reach people who aren’t watching it on a 4-3 screen with a one-way transmission, it's not supposed to count.
LEVITAN: You can’t blame the audience. You have to blame the system that is not counting all those people. I don’t know how you solve the DVR problem. I think there should be some kind of technology that if you fast-forward through a series of commercials, you have to watch one commercial. But that’s like a premium commercial that’s put in after the fact, that’s always timely. That way, you always get credit for it, because people are going to be watching it. They have to be.
HARMON: I think that we’ve gotten in the habit of looking at advertising as if it was cancer or something. We have to figure out something else. When we talk about monetization of the internet, and these new technologies, we all start from the point that we’re used to commercials being a passive one-way transmission of something you’re forced to watch. So now we’re trying to figure out how to force people to passively sit through these commercials, and that era is gone. It’s like MP3s coming along and people trying to figure out how to make them like CDs. We need to probably regress to the era of …
LEVITAN: Sponsor-bought shows?
HARMON: Yes. The Colgate Comedy Hour.
LEVITAN: Or people have to raise their game to make commercials that people want to watch. You look for the Old Spice guy, because you want to see that, because you know that it’s going to be as entertaining as the show you’re watching. But it’s tough.
I can only get my measurement and my gratification from how were all doing relative to everybody else. That’s the only thing we can go for, because you can’t think, well, 20 years ago we would have been canceled, and now this is considered a good number. That’s kind of irrelevant. Given today, where there’s 100 times more channels, how are we doing compared to everybody else? That’s all that matters, I guess.
HARMON: Yeah. And the metrics that matter are people coming up to you at a bar and saying, "Your show’s the best show on TV."
On the creative side, there’s this spectrum of opinion that ranges from "network TV is dead, the sitcom is dead" to "This is the Golden Age."
LEVITAN I like the Golden Age. I’m going with that.
HARMON: "TV is dead" is another way of saying that TV has been fragmented to the point of a vapor. But that makes it ubiquitous, and that makes it also accessible. It increases the surface area of television. Writers are able to find their voice, and there’s an audience for them. More so than in the financial Golden Age of TV, where if your show didn’t have a talking car in it, you'd better go write a play. Now, if you love zombies, but you want a little bit of necrophilia and some talking car, there’s a network for you. It’s the Golden Age of TV creatively, because writers are flocking to TV to express themselves and connect to an audience. I think if you were cynical, you could say that they’re flocking there the way the Visigoths flocked to Rome — there's a lot of shit there for them to destroy. (Laughs) But it’s different, because I think these Visigoths are making beautiful statues and things.
LEVITAN: I think that’s a good point, that in those days where there were three networks, there were some very amazing shows…
LEVITAN: You look at "All In The Family" — that was an incredible thing for that time. And going back, for me, "The Dick Van Dyke Show," and then to "Cheers" — there were always amazing shows, but there was also a lot of crap because the only game in town was mass, mass market.
You know, you had to reach 30 million people or it was a failure. And when you need to reach that many people, all the edges, typically, get rounded off. So it’s nice that, as Dan makes the point, there’s room for a smaller audience, that it’s still meaningful, and those people get to make the show they want. That’s important.
Both "Modern Family" (right) and "Community," to a certain degree — and Dan, yours probably more — are on some level conscious reactions to old-style sitcoms. They're playing with the old verites, and sometimes making fun of them.
HARMON: Yeah. We were all raised in these cribs that had these nanny bots with TVs for faces. We learned to interact, we learned how to tell a hero from a villain, we learned about social cues and political cues and things from television. It's like neo-classicism. Maybe I’m being more perceptively tongue-in-cheek about it, but aren’t we both, like, heralding a lost innocence?
LEVITAN: We're coming from a past where, for a while, emotion fell out of fashion in TV comedy, starting with "Seinfeld." When I was writing on "Wings," which was my first show, we were there late one night working on a story about the character Fay [Rebecca Schull], and how the pilot Joe Hackett [Tim Daly] was very superstitious and couldn't fly unless he had this piece of a blankie. (laughs)
We had to stay for dinner so we ordered food in, and I said, “Hey everybody, I taped this 'Seinfeld' masturbation episode that aired last night. Why don’t we watch it over dinner?” So they wheeled in the VCR — that's how we watched things back then. And, of course, it was the most brilliant episode of television ever. And afterwards, I think, we all wanted to cry. Because suddenly we felt like radio salesmen in the TV age, and it felt like everything had changed in that moment. You'd better be that funny and that subversive, and there wasn’t a hint of emotion in there. And that was the new vogue.
It carried forward, and I would even argue, through "30 Rock," which I’ve heard Tina Fey talk about this, she wants just to be funny. Between "Seinfeld" and "30 Rock," there were a lot of years of that kind of comedy. I think if anything, our show is a bit of throwback to the times before that, where emotion was okay. Because we started to feel that we were longing for emotion — let’s just not get schmaltzy with it, so let’s make sure we balance it, let’s give them the emotion and let’s balance it with some hopefully subversive and cutting-edge comedy, and maybe those two things will add up to more.
HARMON: You know, "Wings," for all intents and purposes, was a great show. It was definitely taking on the mantle of "Cheers," saying "Let’s do it again, with fresh characters." But it’s great, that story of this punk-rock guy, this Sid Vicious named Larry David, ruining your week! It's hilarious!
LEVITAN: But it’s a high-wire act. If you’re existing on purely a comic level, and that’s your mission, if you don’t hit comedically, it thuds, it falls. There’s no net there. If you have an emotionally-satisfying show, and it doesn’t necessarily hit on every joke, if you’re still interested and you still care about the characters, and you’re wondering still what it’s going to happen on this — I frankly think it’s easier.
HARMON: Easier to have a little bit of sap, right?
LEVITAN: I think it’s easier to do. Because you have that net.
HARMON: Absolutely. Tina Fey is in the 24-carat comedy wholesale business, but there can’t be a single flaw. Our show is just like, ‘Yeah, we’ll take 20 percent of that, and aren’t they cute?’ Here’s the thing: Larry David’s personality is what’s ringing through. It’s a great scientific observation to be able to take part in, because you get to watch "Curb Your Enthusiasm" after "Seinfeld," and you get to really understand the relationship between show-runner and product.
Because there he is immediately afterward on HBO, and you can see the similarities, and you can see the voice that began to ring through "Seinfeld," after all these things fell away. Starting and end each episode with Jerry doing stand-up, or making Kramer’s hair higher or lower — those things just fell away. It was like a car going so fast: the hood goes, the hub caps go, and this hot rod is just Larry David and four f—ing wheels and an engine — that’s all it was.
And everybody thought that because "Seinfeld" was successful, that television had changed. But the way it changed was everyone started imitating Larry David, and then you had a bunch of equally uncharismatic shows that were egregiously sardonic and gratuitously cynical. I watched shows from that era, and I'd think, you don’t hate the world that much! You’re a TV writer! Relax!
Do you have a sense of where you want your shows to go next season?
DAN HARMON: I have a sort of aesthetic-slash-psychological sense that in general, "Community" (right) needs to move two-and-a-half notches more toward "Modern Family." (laughs) And that’s not really a joke.
We need to ground our characters more. I wouldn’t use the word serialized, but the metaphor I keep using is that I wanted our show to be a string of pearls, and for each episode to be a modular, self-contained thing. I thought that was the smart thing to do in the face of low ratings, to welcome the viewers. I think the unintended effect was that it feels like just a bunch of pearls with no string, and it gets awkward and eclectic and noisy.
Season three, even if the numbers weren’t low, I would still want to change, just by virtue of my own boredom, and my constant thirst to do something I haven’t done yet. And the thing I haven’t done yet is what this guy is accomplishing, which is actual sticking to the ribs, using television the way it’s supposed to be used. It’s hard to make a show that actually people welcome into their living room without effort. The jaded tendency is to characterize that as somehow stupid or watered-down — and obviously, watching "Modern Family" you know that’s not the case.
And the challenge in front of "Community" is to figure out how to add a little bit of that maturity, stability, confidence to the show without compromising its characteristic cleverness and energy. We have to grow up a little bit. I’m not ashamed to say that we need to be 5-8 percent "Modern Family."
Steve, does "Modern Family" need to be 8 percent "Community?"
LEVITAN: Well, it inspires me to take big swings and try harder and not get lazy. Let’s not walk around patting ourselves on the back. Let’s not watch a run-through and think it’s cute because everyone loves Cam and Mitchell. Think about the best scenes of the best episodes of these other shows, and use it to motivate you. Because the first time I hear someone say, “I think it’s gotten kind of lame this year,” it’s gonna break my heart.
As an Emmy and Golden Globe winner last year, Steve, is there extra pressure to have a funny speech if you win for a comedy show?
LEVITAN: It's not just that. If it’s a friend’s birthday party where you have to give a speech, you feel it. I very unfortunately just had to give a eulogy, and you get up there and want to just be heartfelt and just speak off the cuff, but f— that. You better make them laugh, or they will go “You know, he’s not that funny.”
HARMON: I’m going to blow your mind when I win my Emmy this year. I’m just going to start sobbing. I’m not going to be funny at all.
The two of you had a brief Twitter feud of sorts that started when Steve did an interview and said …
HARMON: “I even admire elements of 'Community.'” They asked him a gotcha question, like what other shows do you like, and he just rattled off a bunch of shows that he liked. And it wasn’t good enough for me, because mine was tacked on at the end and it was qualified too much. (laughs)
LEVITAN: It did not come out the way I intended at all. Sometimes I watch Dan, and I think, that's the f—ing greatest dialogue. I would just marvel at some of the things they were doing, and that's what I meant to say. And it came out in this backhanded compliment kind of way that I didn’t intend.
HARMON: It's insane to me, but when you talked about the pressure of the eulogy, I was almost gonna make fun of you and go, "Come on, nobody wants you to be funny in their eulogy." But now we segue into this conversation, and I had all these expectations about a guy I didn't even know. I was mad at Steve Levitan, a stranger, because his show was successful, and it was the same age as my show. It's like he was the quarterback, and I was the nerd, and he wasn’t complimenting my show right.
It's weird, the balloon animal of the writer's brain. I shouldn’t say the writer's brain, I should say my own brain. I would say to my girlfriend, "f—ing Levitan," like I knew the guy! I came home one night and she was watching "Modern Family," and I was like. "This is what you do when I’m not here?" It was like she got caught cheating on me, watching "Modern Family."
LEVITAN: I still probably haven’t said this to you, because I don’t want to sound like a condescending prick. But I meant to say was that I’ve never been in this position before, to have the show that got all the attention. When so many good things were happening to us, there was a part of me that felt really bad for a show like "Community," which was getting overshadowed. I said to somebody, "It's like Phil Mickelson during the Tiger Woods-dominated years," where he’s an amazing golfer and if not for Tiger Woods would be getting all this attention. See, I'm going to sound like a prick because I’m saying we’re the Tiger Woods of shows.
HARMON: The crime was mine. The amazing thing to me is how much power I give a stranger that I decide is somehow symbolic of something. I have like a personality like, I have to pick a Salieri to characterize myself as Mozart. I needed a villain.
LEVITAN: So now you’re Mozart, and I’m Tiger Woods. (Big laughs) We don’t have an ego problem, I think we’re establishing that.
Besides providing a base for your silly little feuds, is Twitter a valuable tool for you or your show?
HARMON I don’t know if it’s a valuable tool for my show. You’d need a control group, and the only way to have that would be a parallel universe in which my show existed but Twitter didn't. So I don’t know if it’s beneficial or detrimental.
But I know that emotionally it’s incredibly soothing to me. Looking at those Nielsens, they keep getting lower. People can tell me all they want about daylight savings and seasonal things, and, “Oh things were low across the board, oh the NFL playoffs, blah blah blah.” F– you, my numbers have gone from a 2 to a 1.5 over two seasons, and I’m depressed. I feel like no one was watching in the first place, and now even less people are watching.
I have two things that counter that concept. I have going to panels where people cheer, and I have Twitter. I can’t tell you the number of things I’ve done in my career that I thought no one was watching and that finished in darkness, and there’s always that moment four or five years later — some random conversation at a jukebox, someone who saw that comic book you wrote, someone who was a fan of that sketch show you did that nobody saw. One conversation and it changes everything and you go home happy. I touched somebody, I connected. Now you can actually get that regardless. So to me as an individual staving off the necessity for therapy, it is helpful.
It would be interesting to do an experiment. If you told me that my show was picked up for three years instead of one more season, I would gladly spend one of the seasons as an experiment sealing myself off. I wouldn’t read any reviews, I wouldn’t read anything, as long as you promised me at the end of that season I got to keep doing the show no matter what.
LEVITAN: I don’t think it would change one thing.
HARMON: Probably not. You know what it is? You see things on Twitter that you say to yourself, I told you so. That’s all it is. I think that you’re crazy and that you have enough voices in your head to populate 10 Twitters.
LEVITAN: I talk about this all the time: we're all living in fear of the clunker episode in our show. Now, maybe we’ve already had it and I don’t know it, I don’t know. But that’s what I keep checking on Twitter for.
Given a choice between a season where you couldn't see anything written on Twitter, or a season where you’re not going to get any notes from the network …
HARMON: Guess what I’ll pick? Twitter is a little better for me because it’s an emotional medium — 140 characters. It’s like a vanity license plate, like a bumper sticker. You just get people going like, “Troy and Abed for the win!” No network note ever said "Troy and Abed are magnificent together; they have a lot chemistry; they are adorable; they rule; never let them stop being friends; always use them at the end of every episode."
LEVITAN: We have a very good relationship with the network; they’re very happy with us. We don’t ever take notes we don’t agree with. We listen. They often point things out to us with a fresh eye, because we’ve been a little too close to the story. “Hey, I got lost right there,” or “I checked out a little bit right there.” Those are the notes that are really helpful from anybody, I don’t care if it’s from the president of the network or from the security guard. Because comedy can be lost when clarity gets lost.
I think it’s very easy for everybody to dump all over the network notes process. By the way, they maybe horrible for other people. They happen not to be horrible for us. They trust us, and they’re just another voice in the process, and they’re very respectful. So I can’t dump on them.
HARMON: You’re so grown up, Levitan!
But you did have problems with the networks in the past.
LEVITAN: I had major problems with NBC. I was mistreated by NBC, and I made it very, very clear I was never a big Jeff Zucker fan. And then with Fox, I tried a lot of shows. I had about four or five shows that aired on Fox and failed. Some of them were good and some of them were not good, but nothing I did worked there, for whatever reason. Partly, because it’s a schizophrenic schedule. You’ve got "American Idol" season, you’ve got baseball season. Everything was determined by that. There hasn’t been another live-action comedy hit on Fox since "That '70s Show." It started, what, 10 or 15 years go? That’s a long time.
For whatever reason, it’s not conducive for us at this point. But ABC has been a wonderful place for us, so I can’t complain. And I think NBC is going to return to being a really good place to develop shows.
HARMON: I have that feeling, too. I worked with Robert Greenblatt 10 years ago on a pilot at Fox that didn't go. He's not trying to keep from getting found out. He’s here to do a job, and he knows it’s not going to be easy. I get good, positive tingles because he sounds like a guy who believes in network branding, which I firmly believe in.
I miss the days of everything’s part of the same plate, and it wouldn’t be on the network if it wasn’t good. I miss the days of, like, "Be there, the NBC family." They never told you who you were, they only told you that they were the prestige network and that if you came here you could see good TV. "A-Team" is here, "Night Rider" is here, "Manimal" is here, "Cosby" is here, blah blah blah. I got a glint of that. Maybe I’m projecting it. I’m a chronic optimist.
LEVITAN: I find that hard to believe.
HARMON: No, it’s true! I hold humanity to a high standard, and I keep thinking that tomorrow a big turn is going to come.