Hulu's Reboot Creator Steven Levitan Talks Being Free Of Network Censors, Avoiding Schmaltz, And More [Exclusive Interview]

Steven Levitan has been working in television for over 30 years. Though you might know him best today as the creator and executive producer of the Emmy-winning comedy sensation "Modern Family," Levitan has a history that stretches back to beloved shows like "Wings," "Frasier," and "Just Shoot Me." So when it comes to creating "Reboot," a new Hulu series about reviving a beloved fictional sitcom from the 2000s for a modern audience, he's one of the best people for the job.

Hulu's "Reboot" follows the revival of a sitcom called "Step Right Up," a series that takes cues from the likes of "Full House," "Family Matters," "Step by Step," and a myriad of other network sitcoms from decades ago. The series stars Keegan-Michael Key, Judy Greer, Johnny Knoxville, and Calum Worthy as the sitcom revival's cast, who all bring decades of baggage that has built up after their show came to an end. Then we also have Rachel Bloom and Paul Reiser as the estranged father-daughter duo who are forced to work together on this TV project. 

Ahead of the show's premiere of the first three episodes on Hulu today, /Film spoke with Levitan about bringing this show together, how much of it is inspired by his own experiences in TV, his new freedom from network censors, and much more. 

'I wanted it to sound real, and talk the way people talk, and just not feel filtered'

So I've seen all eight episodes of "Reboot," and it's fantastic. It was also surprisingly more edgy than I anticipated. Was it freeing to be able to move away from the network standards and censors?

It was very freeing to do that. I've been doing the network thing for a long time, so it's very nice to try something different, and just go with whatever feels right to me in that moment.

When you have so much freedom like this, how do you figure out how to censor yourself so that you're not pushing things too far? So that it's just raunchy or edgy enough without going overboard.

I don't know. Hopefully I succeeded at that. I don't know, because everybody's standards for that might be different, but I just had to go with my gut. At certain times I'd pull back a little bit, just because it felt gratuitous to me. But at the same time, I wanted it to sound real, and talk the way people talk, and just not feel filtered. I'll get a sense, probably a better sense, after a little distance from it, and go back and look at it, and gauge people's reaction if my instincts were on.

Speaking of making it real, I love the writers room sequences. The dichotomy between the old guard and the new generation feels like something you had to have experienced yourself over the years.

Yeah, for sure, definitely. There have been many moments like that through the years, and I've even experienced it, frankly, in the writers room on this show, because we had some very young writers. It was funny to me that things that I thought were completely okay to do raised some eyebrows with some of the younger writers. It's inevitable when you're dealing with different generations, you're going to have different standards. And it's something that we as a society, and we as an industry, are battling, are agonizing over, it seems like every day right now. So I certainly thought it was very fertile ground to explore.

I especially love the commentary on how there are certain jokes and gags from back in the classic sitcom eras that were much more nonsensical. And it feels like today there's maybe a little more thought put into jokes having some significance or at least some semblance of logic in the story.

Yeah, for sure. We're trying to evolve, but there's room for everything. There's room for good, silly comedy somewhere, and I hope we never lose the childlike part of us that enjoys something that's funny for funny's sake. But at the same time, I love smart comedy best. In a weird way, this show gave me a chance to do both, because I can do the sillier stuff, as long as it came with some commentary.

'We changed two cast members, and I changed quite a bit of the script, to fix it, by learning things'

When it comes to the fictional sitcom at the center of "Reboot," how much of the history of "Step Right Up" have you guys thought out in the writer's room? Do you know how many seasons it lasted? Or have an idea of any guest stars who might have appeared on the original show, who could maybe come back in future episodes?

Yeah, it ran seven years, and we have talked about some other characters that may have been on the show that might come back. That felt like sort of second season stuff. But I didn't spend an enormous amount of time fleshing that series out. I have a basic understanding of it, and it of seems like every time we have to write a scene for rehearsals or whatever, they're pretty easy to write. I think the hard part, for me, the hardest part is when I want it to be a really good scene in that show. It's a little bit harder than when I'm trying to write a hackier scene. Those come very naturally.

Another great throwback comes in the form of the Disney Channel-esque movie titles that Calum Worthy's character Zack has starred in over the years. Do you just have a running list of a bunch of different movies like that to make reference to whenever an opportunity comes along?

Well, I used to have more of them. They were in the old first pilot that we then tweaked. And I had even more. But yeah, they're fun to come up with. They're getting a little bit harder now, but they're definitely fun to come up with. We had a really good time with the DVD covers as well.

Yeah, I talked to Calum, and he was even saying, "These all feel movies that we easily could have made."

Yeah, everything had to feel real to us, so yeah, we said, "Yeah, we could see that movie, for sure."

So talking about that original pilot, how long has this project been in gestation? Did you have a different cast before, or has it been the same this entire time?

We shot an original pilot, Jesus, I don't remember when. It might have been last summer, I think. And we changed two cast members, and I changed quite a bit of the script, to fix it, by learning things. And I changed... Even Zack's character changed quite a bit. So I learned a lot from doing that first pilot. The changes I made with the actors, those were two wonderful actors who were there before. They were really great, but the dynamics just didn't feel quite right with what they brought to it. So I just felt like I needed to make a change. That's on me, not on them [...] I mean it when I say it was my fault. The characters weren't quite clear enough before, and I took them in a different direction, and it really wasn't on them.

[Editor's note: Leslie Bibb and Michael McKean are the actors in question. Judy Greer and Paul Reiser ended up taking their roles in the final form of the pilot.

'Then it's not just operating joke to joke and gag to gag, but there's something deeper there'

On a similar topic, obviously, we love to talk about the things that we like about a series, the stuff that we're proud of. But I'm always curious to talk to creators and see if there's anything you feel like they'd want to improve upon. Anything you feel like maybe needs more development or that you might improve upon in a second season?

I'm very proud of the season as a whole, but I could look at moments in episodes and think, "Oh, that could have been better," or "I wish we had tweaked that a little bit more." So I'm never quite satisfied. But overall, I'm really proud of this series. I think it says a lot that I wanted to say. I think that it's both uplifting and funny, and has some heart to it. [I hope] that people will feel something.

Yeah, the heart, I think, actually was one of the more surprising parts of the series. Because the satire and the comedy is so much more biting here, that you don't necessarily expect to have these genuine, heartfelt moments with some of these characters. But it really does hit pretty well, I think.

Yeah, that's the kind of comedy I like best, or that's the kind of television show I like best. One that ultimately makes people feel good, but at the same time it makes them feel something else, something that they can relate to the character. Then it's not just operating joke to joke and gag to gag, but there's something deeper there. Life is like that, and I think as long as it doesn't become too serious and too schmaltzy, then it's a really nice balance. Many of my favorite shows over the years have done that beautifully.

Do you already have some idea of what you would want to do in season two and where these characters might go next?

I have some notions on that. I don't think we painted ourselves into a corner, but we definitely left some balls in the air. I think there are a lot of interesting possibilities on where they can go. I know if I had to just sit down and start writing, I feel confident I could do that.

But I also love the part of the process where the room gathers in the beginning of the season, and we talk about where we are, and where we could go, and see if there's some surprising little twists on that. You know, you try to create a series, and my process has been to try to create as many possibilities as you can, as far as places to go in the series. But there were surprises even for me, as we went on, where we discovered dynamics that were, "Oh, that's great, let's go with that. Let's dig deeper on these two, or on the writers and what they're going through." So I love the discovery part of this, but I feel like we can take it to a very compelling place.

One of the things I thought was interesting, obviously there's so much focus on the dynamic between Gordon [Paul Reiser] and Hannah [Rachel Bloom], as father and daughter, as well as the showrunners and producers. But there's only been just a very brief mention of Hannah's mother, and I wonder if that's something that could come into play in future episodes?

It absolutely could. As well as Hannah's step brother.

'I like it when a show reflects the time it was in'

Are there any sitcom revivals that haven't happened, that you think could be interesting, that you might like to see yourself?

Nothing comes to mind. It's funny, because the shows that I loved the most are, again, moments in time. I wouldn't want to see "Cheers" today. I wouldn't want to see, these actors are no longer with us, but "The Dick Van Dyke Show," or "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," or that kind of thing. Now, you could take a show, you can imagine a show like "All in the Family," which was such a strong concept and say, "Oh, maybe something could be done with that in these political days." I know it's been tried a thousand times, and I realize that Norman Lear just struck gold with that cast. It took him three tries to get that cast right, but he struck gold. And again, it was of its era. So I like it when a show reflects the time it was in. It'd be like — I'll leave it at that. I don't want to force this metaphor.

Since you've worked in sitcoms for a long time now, going back as far as "Wings" and "Frasier," how do you feel like the sitcom has evolved? Has anything significantly changed about how we bring comedy to audiences in this TV package?

Yeah, the biggest change has been the dominance of single camera over multi-cam in the marketplace today. My theory is it came about, in part, because of reality shows and because of things like YouTube, where people were getting used to a steady diet of shows that felt more real than the sitcoms that they were watching. And filmmakers wanted to take advantage of that form. It felt more like a movie, it felt more subtle and all that.

But at the same time, you have things like "Friends" and "Frasier" and all sorts of wonderful multi-cams, "Everybody Loves Raymond," that have been on, that are still very popular on streamers. Even "Full House" was rebooted, because it was popular with younger people. So I don't know, I'm a little bit rambling, but the multi-cam is a form that you almost have to overcome these days. Because it feels a little bit retro, but I'm convinced that somebody will come along and do it, and create another show that audiences enjoy as much as, say, a "Friends." But now the audience is so fragmented, that it could never quite be the phenomenon that show was.

Obviously, this is a show that is about a sitcom revival. So I was wondering how would you feel if ABC wanted to revisit "Modern Family" in a decade or so? Is that something that you would want take part in? Would you rather somebody else do it? Is that something that interests you at all?

Right now, that does not interest me. I'm really enjoying doing something new. I'm so proud of "Modern Family." It was a dream experience. I loved that cast with all my heart, and everybody who worked on that show, but I look at it as a completed work. It's of its time, and I'm not looking to revisit that. And if down the line, there becomes a compelling creative reason to do so, I could revisit it at that time. But ultimately, it doesn't seem like something that I would choose to jump back into.

Well, thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Steven, I really appreciate it. I loved "Reboot," and I hope that we hear about a second season sometime soon.

I appreciate it. Thank you. I'm really proud of this show, and I'm glad people are responding, and I appreciate you saying that. So thank you.

The first three episodes of "Reboot" are streaming on Hulu now, and new episodes debut on Tuesdays through October 25, 2022.