Small Screen: Family sitcom writers find inspiration at home

PASADENA, California — As far back as Leave it to Beaver, the family comedy has supported the backbone of primetime TV. People can identify with shows like Modern Family, The Middle and Black-ish because the problems facing the sitcom family often reflect what’s happening in their own homes.

Eileen Heisler, co-writer with DeAnn Heline of The Middle, says she knows the feeling. “I think it’s wonderful when you’re in the middle of something really hellish, when you want to kill your child at times, and a little piece of you just steps out and says, ‘I’m hating this now, but it’s going to be really fun when I write it.’ So I’d say the kids are the great inspiration.”

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Executive producer Steve Levitan, who commandeers Modern Family, agrees. “So many ideas have come to me personally in dealing with kids, in a moment, in some sort of a funny situation,” he says.

“My kids start talking about something, or an argument breaks out, or whatever it is, and I’d start to just grab for my phone and start writing it down, because I’m, like, ‘This is going to be great dialogue,’” he laughs.

“And it often leads to something good. But I’m also always amazed at the power of a good writers’ room. You come in with a little notion of something, and you put it on the table in front of all these really talented people, it starts to build on itself and somebody comes up with, ‘Oh, that reminds me of this and this.’

“It’s just that Modern Family is the result of so many really smart people throwing their lives and their families at a challenge. And I think that’s why maybe it resonates so much, because we’re bringing so much of our lives.”
Because these family situations are so universal, the creators are often accused of being mired in the past. “The network would say, ‘People think your show is in the ’70s,’ ” recalls Heisler. “Like, ‘Oops.’ I think it’s because it stemmed from our memories.

“I guess it’s such a tiny thing of the times that I think influenced us when we were creating the show ... the house was a two-hand-four-hand house of two parents, both parenting equally. And that was really important to us. That maybe was a little bit of a rebellion ... That’s a sign of these times versus those times we grew up with.”

“Back then everyone had to be milquetoast,” adds Heline. “And we have a mom who sometimes maybe makes the wrong decision sometimes. Sometimes she’s selfish. Sometimes she says, ‘My kids are weird. It’s driving me crazy.’ You know, whatever it is, I think that now families [on TV] are allowed to be a lot more real than they were back then.”

They are so real that on Levitan’s Modern Family two of the major characters are a gay couple parenting a little girl.

“In the beginning, it was a lot about Mitch and Cam being gay. And now it’s just, hopefully, about these two people raising a child,” says Levitan, who produced 142 episodes of Just Shoot Me!

“And we let it be what it is and not hammer that home too much. And that’s how it’s evolved for us ... a lot of these issues feel like, when we start digging into it a little bit, it starts to feel retro too, like we’re hitting it too hard, like the world is past this. Our kids are past this. We need to be past it too.”

Working with child actors can be tumultuous because they are constantly growing and changing. “We found on our show that even though it was scary to think about things happening like them going to college — and I never
like change and it’s always really frightening — then it starts to make you realize that they lead you to more stories,” says Heisler, who has worked with Heline since college on shows like Murphy Brown and How I Met Your Mother.

“The scariest thing was the year that Atticus (Shaffer, who plays Brick on The Middle) came back and his voice was this de-eeep voice, and that was probably our scariest moment. Because people were like, ‘Did you hear Atticus?’ I’m like, ‘Oh, my God. Like, the show is just over. What are you going to do?’

“And he tried to kind of talk in a higher voice and that didn’t work either, and it was just really scary. It was like real-adolescence and show-adolescence at the same time, says Heisler. “We all kind of had to get used to what the new voice sounded like, and he had to sort of feel the character in his new body and voice, and then you’re golden. But it’s certainly not as easy as animated characters.”

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