A 'Modern Family' Fueled By Sibling Fodder Screenwriter and producer Steven Levitan has made a career of family sitcoms. His latest project is Modern Family, a warm-hearted comedy with a bit of edge. Levitan says he takes many of the show's conflicts straight from his own kitchen table.
NPR logo

A 'Modern Family' Fueled By Sibling Fodder

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/131564341/131586793" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A 'Modern Family' Fueled By Sibling Fodder

A 'Modern Family' Fueled By Sibling Fodder

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/131564341/131586793" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


We've been talking about sibling relationships this Thanksgiving week. The rivalry...


MONTAGNE: (as Jan) All I hear all day long at school is how great Marcia is at this or how wonderful Marcia did that. Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.

MONTAGNE: The responsibility...


MONTAGNE: (as Narrator) Being the oldest in a large family was in many ways a blessing. In other ways it could be a burden.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, the love.


MONTAGNE: (as Bart Simpson) As far as nerdy little sisters go, you're the coolest.

MONTAGNE: (as Lisa Simpson) Thanks, Bart.

MONTAGNE: Television has been enamored of the sibling relationship for decades. Last year a new kind of television family came on the screen.


MONTAGNE: Glad to have you on the program.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much. It's nice to be here.

MONTAGNE: It's so nice to have you. So we've just heard "The Waltons" and the "The Brady Bunch." Did you watch them as a kid?

MONTAGNE: I didn't watch "The Waltons." But I was a big Brady fan. That just seemed like paradise to me. Also having a crush on Marcia, that just seemed pretty great. And the colors were so bright and everybody seemed happy. I don't know. I like that show. It was innocence.

MONTAGNE: "Modern Family" is actually quite innocent in its way, but no "Brady Bunch." You actually made a bit of a face, like one eyebrow went up. Like really? Innocent? Hmm.

MONTAGNE: Well, I think "Modern Family" is warm and it has a good heart. And I think that that's something that perhaps could make one think it's innocent. But we also try to balance that warmth and that good heart with a good deal of subversive comedy and a bit of edge, so that it appeals to, you know, a wider range of people and it's not just a syrupy sweet family comedy. It's also very much commenting on our time.

MONTAGNE: Give us an example of the edge and maybe something you might not have been able to do so easily a few years ago.

MONTAGNE: In the pilot, the daughter in the very conventional family, Alex, comes in to tell on her brother, who has just shot her with a BB gun.


MONTAGNE: (as Alex) Luke just shot me.

MONTAGNE: (as Luke) I didn't mean to.

MONTAGNE: (as Claire) Are you OK?

MONTAGNE: (as Alex) No. The little bitch shot me.

MONTAGNE: That was a very important line to us, because, well, a., my daughter had said that about my son. And she used that exact phrase - the little bitch shot me. And it was an immediate signal to the audience that this is not cutesy, cutesy kid stuff.

MONTAGNE: Do your kids realize that they're giving you material?

MONTAGNE: Oh, yeah. Now they do for sure.

MONTAGNE: I mean, they've seen themselves more or less onscreen.

MONTAGNE: Now, whenever there's a good conversation or something good happens at the kitchen table, they can see me sort of very, very, very secretly reaching for my phone to either record the conversation or to start writing down notes.

MONTAGNE: Put that phone away, I don't want to see this on the show. That will happen from time to time.

MONTAGNE: Give us an example of something that actually happened.

MONTAGNE: And I finally said, I can't take it anymore from you two. You're driving us all crazy. And my daughter said, Dad, it's very simple. Griffin is 12 years old. He is at the height of being annoying. I am 15 years old. I am at the height of being annoyed.


MONTAGNE: And I thought, what an astute observation. That'll have to find its way in.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, what are the basics of siblings and how they interact?

MONTAGNE: What makes siblings so rich for television is the fact that they can be very different, but they're stuck together. Once you're a sibling, you're a sibling. That's it. And you can say, oh, I never want to see him again or I never want to deal with him again. But you can't go. So the audience isn't asking, why are these two people staying together?

MONTAGNE: In the show "Modern Family," the grownup siblings are also, you know, sort of like they never grown up. Or they're still growing out of the terrible things that they did to each other when they were young.

MONTAGNE: I think that's one of the great things about adult siblings in comedy, is that you so often revert to the eight-year-old you were. You find yourself having those same exact conversations as when you were a kid.

MONTAGNE: We have a scene, actually, between Claire and her brother Mitchell. And he's finally admitting to his sister that he was upset when she quit their figure skating duo, Fire and Nice, right before a championship meet.


MONTAGNE: (as Mitchell) You stole my moment, Claire.

MONTAGNE: (as Claire) Yeah, 21 years ago.

MONTAGNE: (as Mitchell) You shouldn't have quit. It was selfish.

MONTAGNE: (as Claire) You want to know why I quit? I quit to protect you.

MONTAGNE: (as Mitchell) From what? Glory? Fame?

MONTAGNE: (as Claire) No, come on.

MONTAGNE: (as Mitchell) From conferences? What?

MONTAGNE: (as Claire) I was bigger than you. I was bigger than you and I was afraid you wouldn't be able to lift me. You were dropping me in practice and I didn't...

MONTAGNE: (as Mitchell) I dropped you...

MONTAGNE: (as Claire)...want you to humiliate...

MONTAGNE: (as Mitchell)...twice.

MONTAGNE: (as Claire)...yourself in front of all of those...

MONTAGNE: (as Mitchell) ...three times.

MONTAGNE: (as Claire)...people. You dropped me all the time. Could you just forgive me and move on?

MONTAGNE: (as Mitchell) Of course. Yes, yes, yes, of course. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

MONTAGNE: (as Claire) Are you trying to lift me? You are. You're trying to lift me.

MONTAGNE: He's hugging her and just as he's hugging her, he starts trying to pick her up.

MONTAGNE: He needs to prove that he could lift her. That seems very reasonable to me. It's amazing, the raw nerves people have. You know, adults are dragging around all this baggage from their children. And they're pretty productive, wonderful people in their lives and they have this wonder facade, and then they get around their families and their siblings and suddenly it crumbles and they revert to that kid again.

MONTAGNE: Do you avoid actively any particular cliches of the family sitcom or do you just update them and make them edgier?

MONTAGNE: The expression in our writer's room is it's fun-miliar. Like, yes, it's kind of a fun moment but we've seen it a million times. What's the new take on this? I mean, sibling relationships, they are as old as time, of course. You hate them because they beat you up or they won't let you wear that sweater. And underneath it all, there is that bond. There is that love. We are, at the end of the day, part of the same family. We have the same experience, and that will always unite us in some way.

MONTAGNE: When you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner with your sister and her family and then of course your kids and their brothers and sisters, what do you think is going to happen? Is it going to be funny? Is it going to be touching? Is somebody going to be - is somebody going to fight? Will old wrongs suddenly surface?

MONTAGNE: And I realize how fleeting it all is and how fast it all goes, and I just want to grab on and not let go.

MONTAGNE: Steve Levitan is the creator, along with Christopher Lloyd, of "Modern Family" on ABC. Happy Thanksgiving.

MONTAGNE: Thank you so much for having me. Happy Thanksgiving to you and to everyone.

MONTAGNE: And we have been exploring siblings all this week. So today as families gather around Thanksgiving tables, you can take a break from the feast to explore our earlier stories at our website, npr.org.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.