Writing sitcoms in teams the American way produces much funnier scripts than the British tradition of having a single writer, the creator of Modern Family has claimed.
Speaking at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, Steven Levitan said: ‘We have ten or 11 people writing plus me and Christopher [Lloyd, the co-creator]. They are all there for the same purpose.
‘If you do it correctly, then the show gets much better for having those people there than it ever would have from one person. It’s not getting sanded down by committee; it’s lots of people pitching great ideas that then go through one person’s head.’
His show has become the most-watched scripted programme in the world, and said he had become such as success because he had ‘stuck to his guns’.
He said: ‘So many times people try to take the edge off characters because they’re not likeable or you not with them for some part of the story. But it’s OK for us to disconnect from a character, or feel he’s a bit of a prick if that’s what makes him interesting.’
But he said he was not averse to receiving notes and suggestions from network executives – but tried to foster a relationship where he could accept only those ideas he thought would improve the show.
‘I’ve taken on board many suggestions,’ he said. But it’s our job to take the good ideas, whether they came from the head of the network or the security guard and ignore bad ideas whether they came from the head of the network or the star of the show. If you don’t do that you’re dead from day one.
‘Usually if you’re respectful, and explain why you won’t take an idea on board, people tend to be reasonable.’
Each Modern family episode is usually written and recorded in a week, and Levitan said the key was to planning each script meticulously before any dialogue is written.
As an example of the challenges of storyboarding, he said: ‘You can’t have one story that takes place over eight days and another over an hour; they all have to line up You try to fix as much in story before any drafts – drafts often hide problems rather than brining them to the fore.’
He also said that when they came up with the idea for the series: ‘We tried to pack the show with as many dynamics as possible so we had a lot to play with’ – which is why one of the families was a gay couple, and another was a ‘cross-generational, cross-cultural’ relationship.
Levitan also said the mockumentary format, including cutaway interviews with the characters, was a boon to his show – but only possible after the US version of The Office acclimatised viewers to the style.
‘It’s such an amazing format for comedy,’ he said. ‘We were able to get rid of all the stuff that got in the way of the comedy. We could do away with exposition, we just had people say something, or we could jump inside their heads. It added pace; as did the ability to cut between three stories.
‘The format allows for small lines, too. With a multi-camera audience sitcom, things are either a big joke which you have to hit hard, or lines get dropped because they don’t get a big laugh. But this allows you to be small and subtle.’
He also spoke of the challenges of working with children, saying: ‘At one point we thought maybe we should do this as an animated show; that’s how much we didn’t want to work with kids.’
For Lily, the adopted Vietnamese daughter of gay couple Cameron and Mitchell, he said: ‘We started with twins [playing the role], but it became increasingly obvious that they hated it. They would play happily outside then come inside and cry. It would take us a long tie to film scenes and it felt we were torturing them. It was time to fire the babies!’
They then cast Aubrey Anderson-Emmons, now four, and revealed ‘at the end of her first day’s filming, during a dramatic pause in the action, she said: “You look a lot like the guys from Modern Family.” But eventually she got it.’
And he denied reports that the stars’ pay demands were causing problems on the show, saying: ‘It’s a normal part of the process that when a show hits a certain point, all the reps sharpen their knives and tuck their napkins into their collar…’
Five of the cast last month filed legal papers to have their contracts declared void in the dispute over pay. It has been reported that the actors receive that the actors each earn around $60,000 an episode, but want a sliding scale that could rise to up to $300,000 an episode by series eight.