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3. Be Funny, Biting, Sweet, Ironic, and Just This Short of Sappy

The family sitcom gets a rewrite.


Eric Stonestreet and Sofia Vergara in Modern Family.  

Modern Family

We’re living in the glory days for sitcoms, with contemporary classics ranging from the brilliantly nasty (Curb Your Enthusiasm) to the sweetly acerbic (30 Rock) to the gloriously crude (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). Judging from this lineup, it would be easy to imagine that a truly smart sitcom must be written in blood, or at least hard lemonade. And yet this season’s breakout is pure sharp sugar: ABC’s Modern Family, the series that revitalized the warm family sitcom.

Creators Steve Levitan and Chris Lloyd took as their starting point the mockumentary—that loose, voyeuristic, one-camera style (inspired by reality TV) that revolutionized sitcoms with the British version of The Office. Then they added fresh character types like gay adoptive dads to create a show that feels, somehow, at once vanguard and old-fashioned. “We never said, ‘Where’s the square we jump on that no one’s jumped on before?’ ” says Lloyd, the son of sitcom legend David Lloyd, who died last fall (he famously wrote the “Chuckles Bites the Dust” episode of Mary Tyler Moore.) “But sitcoms have been snarky and cynical for twenty years, and I think America had its fill.”

In their first draft, they took their documentary conceit literally (the cameraman was a character), but abandoned that approach, in part because, as Levitan puts it, “I don’t like families who let cameras into their home, like Jon and Kate.” Instead, they worked with reality-style techniques to juice each joke, from head-on “confessionals” to the subtle punctuation of characters’ glancing at the camera.

Lloyd and Levitan knew they wanted diverse families, but they couldn’t find a link; they considered a black-and-white interracial couple, a single mom, neighbors on a cul-de-sac. Then they hit on the notion of an older father, Jay, starting over with a second family: Gloria, his younger Latina wife, and her 10-year-old son Manny, from her first marriage. It’s Jay’s second chance at fatherhood, but he’s also struggling to maintain relationships with his two adult children, Mitchell, a prickly gay lawyer, and his sister Claire, a tightly wound stay-at-home mom. Like their father, each is married to a more emotionally spontaneous spouse—flamboyantly effeminate Cameron and sensitive-dad Phil. And these families include children as well (Claire and Phil have three kids while Mitchell and Cameron have adopted a Vietnamese baby). “The idea was that there is no single American family who typifies all of us,” says Lloyd. “And we were like, wait a minute: Now we have a show.”

Still, it’s the tonal balance that really makes Modern Family stand out. The show’s tricky mandate is to merge the heartfelt with the incisive, often within a single scene. That means finding fresh angles on corny topics (like parenting and marriage) and skirting the risks inherent in comic types like the fiery Latina. To get a sense of how well they succeed, we dissected an exemplary episode, “Starry Night,” written by Danny Zuker and directed by Jason Winer. It originated in a formal challenge, to write three simultaneous stories that take place over one evening. In the central plotline, Claire and Phil argue over supervising their son’s homework. Meanwhile, Mitchell goes stargazing with his father, only to have the evening spoiled by his stepbrother’s zingers. And Cameron tries to bond with his Colombian mother-in-law. Mixing pratfalls, wordplay, and a deep devotion to character, it a perfect example of how the show manages to speak to sitcom nerds and 7-year-old children alike.

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