Where did grow up exactly?
I grew up in Pikesville, specifically Stevenson, but I went to high school at Friends School of Baltimore
I know Julie Bowen went to RPCS. Do you ever compare notes on the set of Modern Family?
We do! Occasionally, we’ll lapse into Baltimore accents to make each other laugh.
Your parents still live in Baltimore. How often do you visit?
Probably twice a year. Always the holidays and a Ravens game. Most recently, I was at the Giants-Ravens game, which was an awesome one. If you live in LA for a long time, your blood gets thin so it’s hard to sit out there like a real wimp. But I bundled up, and I couldn’t have loved that game more.
Speaking of the Ravens, what are your thoughts on the season? [Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before the Ravens won the Super Bowl]
Here’s what I’ll say, I have, in my house in Los Angeles, a signed commemorative Ray Lewis helmet. And, in the middle of that incredible game in Denver when the comeback was happening, I took it off my shelf—where, honestly, I’m not making this up, it sits right next to my DGA [Directors Guild of America] award and my Emmy—I took it off my shelf and I put it in the middle of my dining room table as a kind of rallying cry. And when they came back and won that Denver game I have since left it on my dining room table.
So, what you’re saying is you are basically the reason Baltimore is going to the Super Bowl?
We all do our part.
Do you think Baltimore has influenced your comedic sensibility at all? Well, there are amazing artists and filmmakers from Baltimore that have come to define a kind of Baltimore sensibility, I’d say Barry Levinson paramount amongst them. Diner was a big influence on me. The kind of casual, semi-improvisational feel of that movie, the intimate way that it looks at its characters and sort of lovingly observes their foibles, I would say that defines the kind of thing that I do on Modern Family and now on 1600 Penn. I try and do comedies that are very human, the way you sort of glimpse in and take a loving look at characters’ flaws.
There is thread of sweetness in all of your projects, particularly about the concept of family. Are you aware of that? Is that deliberate?
It’s been pointed out to me, and I can’t deny it. I can’t say that it’s necessarily conscious but if a therapist were to look at it, they’d say, “I bet you come from a very loving family.” And the truth is, I do, an incredibly close-knit Baltimore family. We continue to be close and see each other all the time. My whole family lives vicariously through my adventures in the business. They know the details of the deals, the executives, down to the hierarchy of who’s boss at 20th Century Fox, where my deal is. Yes, we’re very close-knit and they’re also very funny, so the loving environment in which I was raised and their sense of humor has definitely had an effect.
The performing bug bit you very early on, right?
Yes, it’s true. I did all sorts of local plays and I did television in Baltimore growing up. I used to host a weekly segment on Evening Magazine for WJZ called “For Kids’ Sake with Jason” and that led to a talk show on WJZ Saturday mornings called 411 that I hosted every week. It was in my blood, and when I went off to school at Northwestern I was sort of determined to get a “real education.” I was going to be an English major and since I had done all of that performing stuff growing up, I felt like I better hunker down and really “do some learnin’.” But I couldn’t stay away. I ended up doing play after play and sneaking into acting classes and, at one point, a dean said to me, “What are you doing? Just go ahead and declare a performance studies major.” So, I gave in and did just that.
And your family was always supportive?
Yeah, I thought I wanted to be an actor. I didn’t know I wanted to be a director. Growing up, my dad joked that he had one son, me, who wanted to be an actor and he was super proud and another son, my brother, who wanted to be a lawyer and he wanted to kill him. In addition to that, from a very early age, my dad knew that I was going to be a director. He said it repeatedly, and I had no idea why he said that. Like I said, I thought I wanted to be an actor, but at the same time I thought that I was also studying photography, taking pictures all the time, writing, telling stories, and I think he just saw the totality of that and saw the direction that all those skills were heading. My grandmother saw it too. Selma Winer. She was a local fine artist. She was an amazing painter and had a really remarkable eye. For my 11th birthday she gave me a really thick biography of Robert Altman. At the time, I was sort of bummed about the gift. I was sort of like, “Oh, how about a bike?” But now, man, I stare at that volume, which sits on my bookshelf, and I marvel at what she must have seen in me at the time to give me that book. Even Altman himself is a particular hero of mine now. He was one of the first to combine drama and comedy in an unlikely way and use improvisation heavily to define character.
The reviews for 1600 Penn have somewhat mixed but have stressed the show’s potential.
I’d attribute that to a couple of things. Number one, 1600 Penn is such a big concept: the idea of a comedy about the First Family. It requires some time to kind of buy into it, get past the idea that they’re the First Family and just start to enjoy them as characters because we have a very specific world we’re creating with very fun and specific relationships between the members of this family. You almost have to get past the idea that they are who they are, even though that adds to the comedy as you go along. Another part of it is, Modern Family is the one exception over the past 10 years that has been embraced both critically and commercially just out of the gate. Historically, family comedies take a little time to build. TV is a habit, and it takes a little while to ingratiate yourself into people’s viewing patterns, especially when it comes to families. A show like Everybody Loves Raymond, which, by the way, one of our executive producers, Mike Royce was one of the key members of that team. That show, people didn’t really start watching until its third year. There is a third thing: Because it is such an ambitious show, I feel like, while I’ll be proud of them forever, our first and second episodes, admittedly not the best episodes. I think the whole show started to come together with the episode that aired last night “Who’s the Baby’s Father.” And, sure enough, we had a significant uptick in viewership, and going up in the third week is a very good indicator. And I gotta say, I’m actually really proud of how quickly we found this show. Unfortunately, reviewers get the first three episodes. They have to. Those are ones that are ready. We’ve now shot all 13 episodes. I can truly say that each one gets better than the last. I think we’re about to send out a new batch [of episodes] to reviewers so a lot of people who were undecided—reviewers who basically said, “Boy, this show has a lot of potential. Really think they’re going somewhere with this, but I’m not quite sure what to say about it yet. We’re very confident that [with the next episodes] the people who were on the fence are going to buy in and start to love it in a big way.
Well, television is a marathon, not a sprint.
I think the other thing is, we’ve been guided by a very steady hand in that guy that I mentioned, Mike Royce. Mike is an incredible showrunner, and he created the show Men of a Certain Age. I think there were elements of the pilot that—if you thought it was entertaining—you might say to yourself, “Yeah, but if they take it this way, it could be annoying.” That’s the way we have NOT taken it. Instead of going broader and sillier, we’ve gone in a much more grounded, character-based direction and dug into these characters and learned more about their relationships and I think it’s really benefiting because of that.
How do you deal with criticism?
I hate it. I’m very thinned-skinned. I put my entire heart and soul into my project and I work so hard and believe so much in the things I decide and commit to doing. Sometimes, people have very intelligent things to say. But it’s frustrating when people don’t meet the thing on its own terms. I’ve found so often that negative reviews have less to do with reviewing the thing itself and more reviewing their expectation of what they thought the thing should be. That’s the part that’s frustrating. So I do try to isolate myself to a certain degree, which is hard. It’s hard in this day of Facebook and Twitter and ever-present media. I was really fortunate with 1600 Penn that we were mid-season, so we really got to just put our nose to the grindstone and write and produce all 13 episodes before anybody had to say “Yay” or “Nay”. And, frankly, I had such an amazing time doing them and our cast had such a magical chemistry that I’m glad we got to put all that down on film before anybody’s confidence got rocked by outside thoughts.
When will you know of the show is picked up for another season?
May. I just so believe in how fun these episodes are coming up that, as they roll out, I think people are going to fall in love with this family. It’s a little unfortunate that we’re on at 9:30 because kids will really love this show. It’s totally family friendly. But there are a few edgy jokes and we do our best to earn our keep for NBC’s somewhat edgy Thursday night, but it’s definitely the most family friendly show they’ve had in a long time. And that family audience just has to find us.
Writer/producer/director/actor/comedian: When do you sleep?
I don’t sleep very well. Whether it’s worrying about a cut on 1600 Penn or what people are going to think of an episode or gearing up for the next pilot I’ll be directing, I’m a type-A personality. I keep moving and I keep worrying. In my childhood bedroom in Baltimore I used to have a Post-It note over my door that said, “Perfectionism is paralysis.” And that went up at age 13.
What was it like screening 1600 Penn at the White House for President Obama?
The president gave an incredibly touching impromptu speech before the screening. Mostly making fun of Jon Lovett, but also saying that in a place as stressful as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, they've got to be able to laugh at themselves. It acknowledged the frivolity of the screening but made it seem important at the same time. It was awesome.
What’s next for you?
Under my deal with 20th Century Fox, which is my homebase, I’ll be directing two new comedy pilots.