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

Eric Stonestreet and Sofia Vergara in Modern Family.Photo: Danny Feld/Courtesy of ABC

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.

3a. Let father (occasionally) know best again

In the first scene, Phil sits on the sofa, watching the Nature Channel with earphones on. He doesn’t notice that behind him, a family fight is breaking out—until Claire snatches the headphones off. They then argue about how much to oversee their son Luke’s school project on Vincent van Gogh.

Phil: You might have a little more confidence in him.

Luke: (He has taken Phil’s spot on the sofa, apparently convinced that sound-canceling earphones prevent the family from hearing him.) Mwaaaah! Mwaaah! No one can hear me now. Oooooh. Everybody is stupid. Except me. Ha. Ha. Ha. I am funny.

Danny Zuker (writer): I’d been trying to think of an idea for the opening scene, and I had my iPod on, listening to the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” walking into my house, singing, dancing, and I see people smiling and I think they’re into it. My daughter is laughing so hard she’s got a tear coming down! Then I take my earphones off—and it’s World War 3. I completely missed the fight. So I wrote an early draft in which Phil dances into the house, and they rewrote it with him obliviously listening to a nature special, which works just as well.

Chris Lloyd (creator): Probably three quarters of our kid things come from our lives—we had six writers last year and all of them were parents.

Steve Levitan (creator): So for Claire and Phil’s argument, it was part of an ongoing discussion my wife and I had about how she sits over my son when he does homework. And my point is: How is he going to learn?

CL: Then Steve would put his wife on the phone and I’d end up having an argument with his wife. Like we’re married.

DZ: There was a line we took out, because it came from my life—my wife saying sarcastically, “Your way is great, because not only does it teach the kids a lesson but it allows you time to go out and play poker.” Which is true! But it doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

We argued about Claire: Some writers were worried this episode did not make her especially likable. But you know, Steve and I are both married to women who we find completely likable, who do this. And we’ve always been very interested in the classic sitcom thing: that the husband is always wrong. It’s not so much that it’s sexist, I just think it’s lazy writing. It felt important to go the other way sometimes.

3b. Upend stereotypes, sometimes by embracing them

Mitchell’s diva-loving husband Cameron is planning to go out for the evening with Gloria, his Latina mother-in-law—he’s certain they have a lot in common. But there’s a flashback explaining why Cameron’s nervous about the evening: At a party, he’d made an accidentally racist-sounding remark in front of Gloria.

Cameron: Honestly, I wish that tart would go back to Columbia and take her weird little Brown friend with her.

CL: Something similar had happened to our writer Brad, who had referred to “a Brown person” as obnoxious and managed to alienate half a party who didn’t realize this African-American person had gone to Brown University.

Eric Stonestreet (Cameron): The show has two characters that can say things like this: Jay, a traditional guy, and Cameron. It’s a brilliant stroke, really, because Cameron is a forward-thinking, progressive gay man who says borderline stereotypical-racist things—and it’s complicated, because it’s clear that my character is a good person.

CL: There’s a lot of Eric in Cameron. Early on, we asked all the actors about special skills, and Eric was a football player in college. He was also a clown named Fizbo. He grew up on a farm, he plays the drums. We added all that to the character’s background, and the sports thing enables him to bond with Mitchell’s dad in a way Mitchell never could.

SL: Right away, to have a gay guy who played college football, that opens up the character to an audience.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Mitchell): I’m very protective of Mitchell and Cameron, of their relationship. I would like to see them show more physical affection—we film scenes several ways, including kisses—but at the same time we’re moving cautiously, because it’s sort of a gay Trojan horse in people’s living rooms.

Sofia Vergara (Gloria): They wrote the character of Gloria specifically for me: I’m from Barranquilla, I’m divorced, I have a kid. People do often ask me if she’s a stereotype. But I think it’s fabulous that she’s passionate, she’s loud, she’s voluptuous! I wouldn’t want to be described as quiet, with no ass, and boring. So maybe I am a stereotype—my mom is and my aunt. So what?

SL: We haven’t established yet how Gloria met Jay. The weirdest version was that the day his divorce was finalized, he was feeling fragile, and she was the bikini bartender.

SV: The first time they came to me, they said they met at Hooters. And I’m like, What, no—why? Does she have to be a Hooters girl? They said, “Okay, you’re right.”

3c. Punctuate drama with pratfalls

There’s been a running gag since the first episode, based on a Ty Burrell (Phil) joke, that there’s a broken step that Phil keeps promising to fix. In “Starry Night,” he trips as he and Claire go up to check on Luke’s progress with his Van Gogh project, only to discover Luke taking apart a Mr. Potato Head toy. Claire yells at Phil and storms away.

Claire: (angrily) I don’t want to hear anything about your new method of doing things. There’s one thing that works with these kids, and that is staying on top of them. Which, thanks to you, my friend, I will now be able to do all night long. (She trips on the step and falls down the stairs.)

SL: This is a moment where I go—I don’t want to sound like a jerk but—this is really working. That’s an incredibly dangerous physical move, where she just took it upon herself to throw herself down the stairs.

Jason Winer (director): In the first couple of takes we did a minor trip. Then I said, “Really go for the fall.” She took a real tumble, so when she stands up with that glare, I think she was using some actual physical pain.

CL: I had to ask her to stop.

JW: And the improv Ty threw in here was so genius, because he’s trying to make a point about Luke’s ability to focus. But he’s distracted himself, and he trips and says, “Your son is working on an awesome Van Gogh—gotta fix that!—masterpiece.” There’s a lot of jokes inside what is essentially a dramatic scene: There are real stakes for the couple. And in the midst you’ve got this ridiculous step thing, explored three different ways—he trips, she falls, then he avoids the step and glances at the camera.

3d. Don’t be afraid to dive deeper into emotions

On his night out with his father, Mitchell feels bullied, since his 10-year-old stepbrother keeps “zinging” him with jokes, egged on by Mitchell’s father, who insists this is “how brothers express love.” Eventually, Jay explains why he brought Manny along: He was getting picked on at school. Jay apologizes to Mitchell and then Mitchell and Manny have a bonding moment over being the two “weird” kids.

Jay: If you’re going to be mad, be mad at me.
Mitchell: Done.

CL: The story about Manny zinging Mitchell was much larger in the script.

JW: Some of it felt anachronistic, like Manny was an old comedian instead of a 10-year-old kid.

DZ: Then we wound up cutting a scene I was in favor of—but it worked better without it. They’re setting up their telescopes and Mitchell was like, “Hey Dad, remember Orion? You probably don’t remember this but that was the first constellation you ever showed me.” And Jay said, “You’re right, I don’t remember that.” We knew what our intention was—to establish Mitchell’s disappointment—but it didn’t feel funny.

There was also a joke that came from my own dad, about what’s below Orion’s Belt: “Orion’s dick.” As a kid, I thought it was the funniest thing ever, but it wasn’t funny onscreen. And we don’t generally do crass.

CL: There’s nothing that’s been more overdone on TV than sex jokes. In sitcoms, who can be the raciest, most disgusting? But we also added to the scene, at the last minute: We had a speech for Mitchell that we’d cut from the script, and during filming I wanted to go back to the original.

DZ: We sat there out in Laurel Canyon with a flashlight and we started just jotting it down, what could we expand? And Chris had the great line that I love, about how when you’re an adult, everybody wants to be different: “And that is where we win.”

JW: This is an example of a creative difference that yields options. When we were filming, I felt that a longer, more emotional monologue came out of nowhere. We filmed it both ways. But in retrospect, what I didn’t understand is that our viewers have gotten to know these characters. They understand that Mitchell is an outsider, that Manny has been ostracized. So when these two characters suddenly start talking about feeling weird, it connects with the audience’s experience of the characters not just in this episode but throughout the season.

3e. But stop one beat before treacle

The episode ties up the plots, as Modern Family often does, with a voice-over. In this case, it’s Luke’s successful presentation about Van Gogh’s Starry Night—a project he did, in the end, come up with himself, using the Mr. Potato Head ears in his collage. As Luke practices his speech, he muses poetically about the idea of something up above, watching over all of them— and then springs into a comic kicker.

Luke: Aliens! Who could be here in a second to liquefy us and use us as fuel!

JW: It was a great way to undercut the treacle of it all so it didn’t get too sweet.

CL: There are people who go crazy if the ending is too sentimental. And other people look forward to it. How do you please all of those people?

SL: I love the sentimental endings, personally. If you were writing it for me, we’d do them every week.

CL: This episode might be the closest to giving everyone what they want. When Luke is talking about the stars, there are cynics going, What is this treacly thing? And then there’s the aliens joke—and the people who like the sentiment, well, you can’t take that away once it’s happened.

Before my father died, he saw the first several episodes—but he was fading in and out. I don’t think he was identifying anything in it that was about our family, but you know, he liked good sitcoms. We hope this is in the vein of the best shows he worked on, in that it’s about flawed, funny people, but it has room for heart.

3. Be Funny, Biting, Sweet, Ironic, and Just This […]