At a recent meeting at Hulu’s offices, over coffee and luxury bottled water, half a dozen executives entertained a pitch for a new series. Well, not exactly new. The idea: Reboot the beloved early ’00s comedy about a blended family, “Step Right Up.” Though it ended abruptly after its lead departed, the show has, surprisingly, found a robust audience on streaming, particularly among, an analytics specialist notes, the family and “live-to-laugh” quadrants.
“Are we sure that’s not just people leaving it on for their dogs?” a colleague asks.
Her boss voices a further concern: Are reboots still a thing? His team answers him with a very long list, which includes “Fuller House,” “How I Met Your Father,” “Veronica Mars,” “Gilmore Girls,” “Gossip Girls,” “The Wonder Years,” “Party of Five,” “Party Down” and on and on and on.
“What the hell,” the boss says, convinced. “Let’s remake something original.”
This is the opening scene of “Reboot,” a Hulu half-hour comedy from the showrunner Steven Levitan (“Modern Family,” “Just Shoot Me!”) with a premise so flawless it seems bananas that no one has thought of it before. A turducken of a show, it features a multicamera family comedy, nested inside a single camera workplace comedy, shoved into a behind-the-scenes Hollywood spoof. The series is also a referendum — a pretty fun one — on the way that the sitcom has advanced in the past several decades and its migration from network to cable and streaming.
“This really is an affectionate look at our business,” Levitan said, speaking from a home office with “Modern Family” cutouts in the background. “The bizarre characters, the weird situations, the important meetings you have over something that’s unbelievably trivial and embarrassing. It’s really such great fodder for comedy.”
Levitan first had the idea for “Reboot” several years ago when “Roseanne” returned and then disappeared, following a racist tweet posted by its star, Roseanne Barr, and then returned again, sans Barr, as “The Conners.” The presumed backstage drama intrigued him.
“I remember thinking to myself, Well, that’s the show I want to watch,” he said. “Modern Family” still had a few seasons to go. He assumed that someone else would dream up the same idea in the meantime, but no one did. Or no one was greenlit, anyway. So he took his pitch to Hulu. (He has an overall deal with 20th Television, which is, like Hulu, part of the Walt Disney Company.)
I asked Karey Burke, the president of 20th Television, who helped to develop “Reboot,” if Hulu’s real-life executives had ever expressed any qualms about the show’s satire. (There’s a dazzling swipe at “The Handmaid’s Tale” in the pilot, for example.)
“They love it,” she said. “And I don’t know that other platforms would be able to handle the zingers as gracefully as they have.”
Craig Erwich, the president of ABC Entertainment, Hulu and Disney branded television streaming originals, confirmed this, saying that he and his real colleagues enjoyed being in on the joke. “We loved it,” he said. “It’s funny. And it’s funny because it probably rings true.”
Not all of these jokes target streaming services. A bunch take aim at networks, where Levitan spent most of his career. Others go after changes within the form of the sitcom itself. Many of these last are voiced in the form of arguments between Paul Reiser’s Gordon, who created “Step Right Up,” and Rachel Bloom’s Hannah, the millennial writer-director who pitched the reboot.
“Comedy has evolved since you last wrote for television,” says Hannah, tartly. “I mean, honestly, whole species have evolved.”
Some of that evolution has pushed sitcoms away from the live-audience multicamera style, the province of a studio comedy like “Step Right Up,” to more visually sophisticated single-camera formats. The move from network to streaming, a move that “Reboot” explores, has wrought other changes. This new “Step Right Up” no longer need to adhere to a 22-minute format with A, B and C story lines and pauses for commercial breaks. More sexually explicit material is now permissible, as are obscenities.
“It’s the world of sitcom, but it’s streaming,” Reiser said in an interview, speaking of the move to streaming generally. “So you can say whatever you want, and you’re not going for the laugh, necessarily.”
But old constraints die hard. Though “Step Right Up” has taken on a new look, most of the episodes of “Reboot” do still honor a three-act structure. And if the set-up-punchline, set-up-punchline form has given ground, A, B and C plots remain. “It’s inherent,” Levitan said. “It’s baked into my bones right now that shows will have a certain sense of structure and plot.”
And yet, as “Reboot” demonstrates, and as a rewatch of most ’80s, ’90s and ’00s comedies will prove, content has changed. Jokes that punched down at women, queer people, disabled people, people of color — rarely make it to air now. Levitan framed this as a limitation, if a good one.
“The whole #MeToo, woke culture, it has changed where you can go, and by and large, in a positive way,” he said. “Where it gets tricky is when everybody is so scared of offending somebody that you don’t even go anywhere near the line anymore.”
Bloom, who cocreated the sitcom “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” sees this new sensibility as an opportunity rather than a curb or a cause for angst. “There’s a mindfulness that’s being asked of people now that wasn’t being asked of people before,” she said. “I think it’s making us all better people, better comedians.” And she enjoys playing Hannah, even in her occasional humorlessness.
“A girl who wears baggy sweaters with anxiety?” Bloom said. “I know that person.” Reiser, who described himself as “a little bit more aware than Gordon” agreed with his co-star. “I never understand people who say, ‘You couldn’t make that joke anymore,’” he said. “I go, ‘Why would you want to? How much do you want to make a joke?’ It’s kind of not cool and insensitive.”
Some of the strongest scenes of “Reboot” are the ones set in the writers’ room that dramatize this tension. The writers whom Hannah has hired — a queer man and two women of color — clash openly with the older Jewish writers of Gordon’s acquaintance. In one scene, a younger writer critiques a joke pitched by the TV veteran Selma (Rose Abdoo, the series’s stealth M.V.P.).
“I thought gay people were supposed to be fun,” Selma snaps back. But eventually they find a joke everyone likes. It involves a pratfall. Pratfalls are funny no matter what.
But “Reboot” isn’t only funny. There’s a persistent sweetness to it and a sense that people can change, usually for the better.
“That’s something that’s quite thrilling about the show,” said Keegan-Michael Key, a “Step Right Up” star. “It’s a Steve Levitan hallmark, isn’t it, that sense of people being open?”
“Step Right Up” is the reboot at the center, but nearly all of the characters are rebooting themselves in one way or another, recovering from divorce, addiction, regional theater. Levitan mentioned how fans had told him how “Modern Family” had helped them work through difficult moments in their own lives. He hopes that “Reboot,” a show about Hollywood elites with Bentleys and real estate portfolios and connections to Nordic royalty, can do the same.
“Bringing a little laughter into people’s lives is a really joyous thing to do,” he said.
“Reboot” remains agnostic on the question of the worth of reboots themselves. Many real-world ones seem like little more than cheap intellectual-property grabs, and few improve on the original. Some are so dismal that they actually poison their predecessors, retroactively. The creators and stars of “Reboot” had varying opinions on the form. Or no opinion at all.
“I don’t think that’s for me to say,” Levitan said. “Yeah, I would rather not draw the ire of comedy writers.” Reiser survived the reboot of “Mad About You” pretty much intact and seemed optimistic about the form. Bloom was less so.
“The most exciting part of a reboot for me is the headline of a reboot coming up,” she said. The reboot itself was usually a disappointment.
Key sounded more hopeful. He thought that reboots might work, at least notionally, and could even be innovative if the animating idea were persuasive enough. “I really think that is possible,” he said. “It’s all about angles.”
Until Hollywood figures out those angles, we’ll just have to make do with something original. Like “Reboot.”