The past decade has been a nonstop cycle of TV revamps and reboots. Old sitcom favorites like Full House and Saved by the Bell roared back to life in the streaming era, while the new Roseanne crashed against modern political divides and transformed into The Conners. The latter was particularly thought-provoking for Modern Family creator Steven Levitan. As his own successful sitcom was winding down in the pre-pandemic years, Levitan approached actor Keegan-Michael Key with an idea to explore TV reboots from the inside.
"It was a while ago that he brought this idea to me," Key tells EW over the phone during a set break. "When he mentioned it, I thought, 'God, I haven't heard anything like this before. I can't believe no one has done this yet.' Then I was like, 'Quick, quick, let's leave. Let's get out of this restaurant and get in a writers' room.' That was my first impression of the pitch. It was a fantastic idea."
Writing didn't start quite as fast as Key initially wanted. His first conversation with Levitan took place before the COVID-19 pandemic, and that obviously delayed film and TV production for a time. But now Reboot exists, and it premieres on Hulu later this month.
Michael Desmond/Hulu Reed Sterling (Keegan-Michael Key) and Clay Barber (Johnny Knoxville) on Hulu's 'Reboot.'
Key plays Reed Starling, an actor who once starred on a superficial sitcom called Step Right Up alongside Clay Barber (Johnny Knoxville), Bree Marie Larson (Judy Greer), and Zack (Calum Worthy). The show ended when Reed quit, desperate to prove his true talent as an actor. Now, years later, the actors reassemble when a young writer named Hannah (Rachel Bloom) comes up with a compelling pitch for a new version of Step Right Up.
As Levitan told EW earlier this year, Modern Family was inspired by his home life and those of the other writers. Reboot, by contrast, is a workplace show about how the TV sausage is made. It follows the actors, the writers, and producers (like Krista Marie Yu's Elaine) as they try to make this reboot work.
"The big thing that viewers will really start to learn, if they're not in the business, is that everyone has their own thing going on," Key says. "Everyone approaches the business for absolutely different reasons, and everyone's coming from different angles. We explore the mosaic of different reasons and motivations for why people want to make a TV show in general and a comedy show specifically."
For example, Key's Reed once wanted to demonstrate he could be more than just a sitcom actor. Now he wants to make up for getting the original show canceled.
"He feels a sense of responsibility to the rest of the cast," Key says. "The other thing that's very exciting for Reid is he's so enamored by this possibility that the show could have some kind of artistic worth, which of course he did not think that the original version had. He is thrilled that Hannah is in charge. It's going to bring this fresh new taste and take these characters that he believes are extremely hack, and give them nuance. But he does feel responsible for the show having gone away and now he feels like, 'I'm the one that has to get this thing back on track again and I have to be here for my castmates.'"
Hulu Johnny Knoxville and Calum Worthy on 'Reboot'
Knoxville's Clay, by contrast, really just needs something to keep him out of trouble.
"Clay needs this show because otherwise, bad s--t finds him during the day," Knoxville tells EW. "He needs the framework, or he's gonna get in trouble."
Outside of Step Right Up, Clay is a comedian known for dirty jokes. If that reminds you of Bob Saget's presence on Full House, then you've hit on Levitan's exact inspiration for the character. "Clay and Bob, who was a friend, are very different people," Levitan says. "Their backstories are different, but I thought that was an interesting way to go: To have this very edgy stand-up comedian on a family-friendly show."
Levitan continues, "There were a lot of actors who came to mind for that, some of whom were actually stand-ups, but Johnny has this charm and this edge to him that I just thought was really nice. It felt fresh to me. He's a really fantastic guy who works very hard and he's a joy to be around. It was rolling the dice a little bit because we didn't totally know what he was capable of doing, but we decided it was worth going for, and we think he's fantastic."
As the captain of the Jackass franchise, Knoxville certainly knows a thing or two about dirty humor. And with the success of Jackass Forever earlier this year, Knoxville also knows what it's like to pull off a successful reboot of a dormant franchise.
"In real life, I'm known as a naughty comedian," Knoxville says with a laugh. "I think I drew a lot from my own experience. It's not too far off. Though Jackass is practically a family-friendly thing now! You've got fathers taking their sons and grandfathers taking their grandchildren to see it."
But there is a difference: On this Reboot, Knoxville doesn't have to worry about getting charged by a bull or knocked out by a boxer.
"It's nice to know that I will be able to walk when I go home at the end of the day," he says.
Reboot premieres Sept. 20 on Hulu.