Sometimes I realize, yeah, I was wrong [about what’s offensive], I could see that now from their point of view, why that would be…when you object to these things, you’re handing the far-right, a giant sledgehammer to kill us with.
One of the unexpected revelations of the maiden season of Steven Levitan’s playfully meta new Hulu comedy series Reboot is how, to an unprecedented degree, many of its funniest, most resonant moments happen in a TV writers’ room. When network execs decide to reboot a dated, Full House-style sitcom called Step Right Up and bring back its original cast (including Keegan-Michael Key, Judy Greer, and Johnny Knoxville), they also bring back the show’s original showrunner—'80s dinosaur Gordon (played with magnificent crust by Paul Reiser) to co-run the show with his estranged millennial daughter Hannah (Rachel Bloom). In addition to their own broken relationship, the father and daughter have to unify a writers’ room that’s half his and half hers—i.e., half distinctly un-woke, pistachio-shelling geriatrics with a bottomless appetite for corny, often utterly inappropriate jokes and half Gen Z, post #MeToo greenhorns who find the elders’ jokes either insufferably unfunny, profoundly offensive, or both. When Gordon is introduced to the young writers—two women of color and a gay man—he cluelessly quips, “What, no Eskimos?”
Beyond mining the eternal comedic vein of old versus young, Reboot hits fresher funny payload by prodding and poking at the charged, resonant question of how modern sensitivity and comedy can co-exist. It’s a question that Levitan—the TV comedy icon behind Frasier and Modern Family—is well equipped to tackle, though, as he readily admits, his age and experience now place him more in the pistachios-shelling camp. His experience is on display with familiar satirical territory like the Fabergé egos of actors or the blind dependance on ratings and demographics of execs, but it also really shines grappling with the fresher stuff about writers trying to decide what’s actually funny in today’s world.
Levitan spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about the intense real-life debates that took place in the writers’ room on Reboot, how much the show evolved from its original inception, and why his new wife, who had never really seen him writing for a show, found him in his office, banging out a draft, with tears streaming down his face.
How did you find and strike a winning balance between the inside baseball lampooning of the industry with hitting the general audience?
First and foremost, it needs to be more of a study of characters than it is of the actual business itself. People watched The Office and they didn’t know anything about selling paper. The first thing is to make sure the characters are interesting and, at the heart of the character, there’s a relatability there, and that you’re caring about their relationships, their growth, their setbacks, and their triumphs, and you’re just emotionally hooked in.
And then the other thing is, I’m at the point in my career where I just need to write things that are interesting to me.
If I do it with a respect for the audience, then I feel like that’s okay, that there’ll be enough people who will sense my enthusiasm about the subject matter and the general humanity present in the situations and the characters. That it’s an interesting enough subject that people will say, “Oh, I think I know what they meant there,” and they’ll relate to it in some way.
That said, I will say that there are a few jokes in this thing where I’m like, there are about 40 people who will know what that means, and I’m okay with that. I feel like, well, alright, those 40 people are going to really enjoy that.
This show is super meta—the show about making a show—but by the same token, you’ve got tight three-act structures, some setup and punch line stuff, and A, B and C plots. How intentionally did you maintain that classic sitcom structural stuff as well?
Yeah, it’s interesting because I did have to try to break some old habits. Some of that stuff is pretty ingrained, so I worked hard to do that at times...Part of it is, on Hulu, they still have to allow for commercial breaks because there’s a segment of Hulu viewers that don’t pay the monthly fee, so they have commercials, so it highlights that three-act structure. You wouldn’t feel it as much if it just rolled through without those breaks. But yeah, there were times where I had to stop and say, “Nope, nope, that feels very network-y, what else can we do here?” That was a good exercise for me. And I enjoyed the freedom of having extra running time, most of all, so that we could let moments play and breathe and put in some music and make it feel a little bit more cinematic in spots.
One of your signatures through all the hit TV comedies you’ve done is heart. Under the broader comedy, Reboot has some poignant, dramatic plots going on. Does that help you balance out both the comedy and the meta thing here?
It really evolved. In the very beginning, when I first thought of this idea, for me I thought the correct tone was something along the lines of a good Christopher Guest movie, which is quite broad and the characters are larger than life…I wanted to do a show that was just funny. I thought that we have a shortage of comedies that are truly going for genuine laughs. But then over time it just evolved, relationships changed in the construct of this series.
Hannah was a one-scene character, and she was gone. She was there to throw you off and that was it. Then I decided to keep her around and we came up with the idea to make it a father-daughter relationship, which wasn’t there originally. And as soon as we did that, it just called for more heart. It was hard to do it without it. 30 Rock for example, [is] a behind-the-scenes television series that didn’t go for heart on purpose. They just went pure balls-out comedy, and it was a really brilliant show. In some ways, while this was not a conscious effort to steer away from that, it does help differentiate it, give it a reason to exist and not just be another one of those. Here’s a look at our business; it’s eccentric, it is joyful at times, it is cruel at times, it is hilarious at times, it is sad at times, but it’s filled with human beings that have genuine lives and emotions, and we’re going to show all of that.
Things get going when Gordon comes into the new writers’ room and does the Eskimo bit. Tell me about how you approached addressing the post-#MeToo environment from the vantage point of a TV writers’ room?
Again, that’s something that evolved. In the beginning, this was very actor-centric. It was really going to be focusing primarily on the actors going through this journey. Gordon was an obstacle for them, and I thought that was going to be the series. But as we expanded the world and brought in Hannah we suddenly realized, we’re going to have to have a whole part of the show that is not on set. Then we started thinking about the writers’ room, and I remember the day we were talking about it and it occurred to me that if Hannah brings in her writers and Gordon were to bring in his writers, there would be a culture clash that feels very funny to me and something I haven’t seen and something that feels very relevant to right now.
It’s one of the funniest things on the show.
I remember we all got very excited about that. I just latched onto that. That, “Oh, this could be a huge part of the show, that’s really interesting and timely and fun to write because we can explore boundaries by talking about boundaries, which is such a fun thing to do. And we might be able to push the boundaries a bit more because we are in fact talking about them.” It’s just such a relevant part of our lives these days in writers’ rooms [and sensitivity has become an issue on TV and in comedy in general].
I’ve evolved from being the young guy in the room to now being the oldest guy in the room, and I will find myself on the other side of it sometimes, where I’m pitching something and then a young writer will tell me, “You can’t do that,” and I will find that ridiculous, perhaps. Then, over time, my mind is either changed or it’s not. I try to listen, I try to partake in it, and sometimes I realize, yeah, I was wrong, I could see that now from their point of view, why that would be. As I tell my daughters, other times, you’re being ridiculous and when you object to these things, you’re handing the far-right, a giant sledgehammer to kill us with.
I try to balance all that because I do think that, especially when you’re dealing with people who mean well and are just trying to find some comedy in a situation, and they’re not trying to be hurtful in any way, of course, you can also be inadvertently hurtful, and we are all becoming better aware of that. But at the same time, we need to all hang onto our sense of humor.
Not to make it overly grandiose, but writers’ rooms really are an interesting crucible. You’re literally creating a world. Tell me a little bit about what your writers’ room looks like and what it’s like to be in a writers’ room addressing this stuff.
Yeah, it’s really interesting. And I went through a similar version of this on Larry Sanders, where you would be talking about a scene that would involve the writers or you’re talking about a scene that would involve Larry, but you’re talking to Gary about it and Gary, in that moment, might have been demonstrating some very strong Larry tendencies and not have been aware of that. And all that’s very interesting. A good example that we just went through on this one was, in the fourth episode when Gordon overhears that [Spoiler alert: two female characters are discovered in bed together.]
[A male] character says, “Yeah, sure, when you have two actresses who were scissoring, that’s definitely not going to get around a set.” Then you cut to the writers’ room, and one of the old writers says, “I don't get it, what’s scissoring?” And then that brings in the conversation of what is scissoring. And then [our actual writers’ room was] talking about that because it just felt like a funnier way to say that they were in bed together or whatever.
One of our young female writers said, “Scissoring is not real. It’s a construct of heterosexual male porn. In real life, lesbians don’t scissor each other.” And so we’re having this discussion and I am disagreeing with that person, saying, “I don't think you’re correct.” And immediately I said, “Well, then this goes in. This conversation we’re having, verbatim, goes in.” This is exactly the kind of stuff that we’re talking about and here we are demonstrating this…
So it’s writing itself at this in that moment.
Yeah, at some point, of course. It’s just a line or two... And by the way, I immediately got on the phone with a woman who I’d known who had been with women, and I had put her on speaker [and asked] “Is this a thing?” In any other job, in any other workplace, that’s wildly inappropriate and you couldn’t do that, but in our room, it’s work and isn’t that fascinating? So I love that playing out.
That’s just one example of many. We had racial conversations about things in our writers’ room and all these things come up, and I’m constantly looking for a way to work it in.
The fictional TV executives on the show, who are the subject much satire on the show, are not from some fictional network, but actually from Hulu.
Oh, that was my request. Again, I’m trying to say from the very beginning, “Look, I want this to feel as real as possible, so every time we have a choice to make, let’s go as real as we can.” So if we suddenly are making up that network or that streaming service, it just doesn’t feel the same. And they were very cool with it, right away they said, “Yeah, of course.”
Thus far have you ever caught the writers’ room, or you, writing something dirtier or using words that you can only use on streaming for the sake of making the show feel more streaming?
It’s a very good question. It’s something that I used to think about on Larry Sanders sometimes I’d think that something was funny just because Artie [Rip Torn] said, “Cock sucker,” and I said, “Oh, I hope we don’t fall into that trap.” And it’s a little bit hard not to because I really did want people to sound real. So I tried not to censor myself…And looking back on it now, watching it, I think I could say, having some distance from it finally, on those first episodes, I might argue that, there are maybe one too many “fucks” in there. Maybe we kind of overdid it and could have showed a little bit more restraint.
At times we did it for effect. There’s the David Mamet joke in there...
Yes, that one required it.
In terms of the nudity, we had no intention of doing that. We thought we would shoot it in more of a network way, but when we were shooting it, Judy [Greer who plays Bree Jensen] just said, “Let me just do it this way, where she actually does expose her breasts in that moment.” It was her idea and it just felt like, wow, this is a powerful moment because these two people are coming back together. It’s awkward, it’s tense, and you just don’t expect it. It felt really loaded and funny and powerful to us, in a way that felt warranted… afterwards, because we had it shot multiple ways…we said to Judy, “It’s 100 percent your call,” and she came into the edit room and watched it, and she’s like, “Yeah, it is.” It certainly gets your attention, and it certainly makes the point of that scene of when Reed is feeling awkward in that moment, you, as an audience, can go, “Whoa, yes, I get it.”
When you’re not in the writers’ room, when you’re writing on your own, what’s your ritual?
As early in the morning as possible, the earlier the better. If I can get up at 6 a.m. and throw on some sweats, grab a cup of coffee, do a quick straightening of my desk—which has to be done whenever I write—and go. If I start at that time, I could go for six hours of just writing, because I started my day on that note with fewer interruptions and I get on a roll. It has to be early. It’s harder for me to start when I’m tired…
I will say, a very quick little story, because I just got married a week and a half ago and…
I read that. Congratulations.
Thank you. During COVID, when a lot of this stuff was going on, my fiancé had never seen me in full writing mode…so what freaks her out a little bit is that I kind of act as I write. I don’t do it out loud but my facial expressions are performing the parts. And there was a moment when she came in, and there was a moment she came in and I had tears rolling down my face, and she’s like, “What’s wrong?” And it took me out of that moment because I didn’t realize I was even doing it, but I was writing this scene that was very emotional to me.
Was there any glimmer of a look in her eye that maybe she was marrying a madman?
Yeah, that’s a daily.
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