'Modern Family' Writers Reveal Their Squabbles (Condoms!) and What the Show Would Be Like on Cable (F-Bombs and Ad-Libs)
As the top comedy hits 100 episodes, the show's wickedly funny writing staff open up about the process of making one of TV's most beloved series and reveal the "racy" scene for which they can't believe they got away.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Comedy was dead -- or so read the myriad headlines when Modern Family bowed in fall 2009.
Four years and 18 Emmy wins later, the series' cast and crew gathered Sept. 4 on the 20th Century Fox lot in Century City to toast the show that ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee credits for having "brought back comedy."
The multigenerational half-hour proved that a relatable story offering a mix of humor and emotion can captivate an audience -- and re-energize a business. In the years since, ABC has raked in more than $600 million in ad revenue, reports research firm Kantar, and cable's USA Network agreed to pay about $1.8 million per episode to run the show's repeats.
Its consistency, coupled with its success, both commercial (nearly 10 million tune in weekly) and critical (four consecutive best comedy Emmys), make it the envy of every network. "We're in the midst of development season, and for the fourth year in a row when we go out to the networks, what we hear from network presidents is, 'Can you just bring us our Modern Family?' " says 20th TV chairman Gary Newman.
His partner, chairman Dana Walden, suggests obsession with the show is no different at their studio: "There are very few comedy pitches that I sit through where at some point Modern Family isn't mentioned."
On the eve of the show's milestone episode, Modern's wickedly funny writing staff open up about the process.
If Modern Family makes it to episode 200, you'll see …
Ben Karlin: All the characters get gay married.
Dan O'Shannon: If the past is any indication, three more Lilys.
If I knew at episode 1 what I know at 100, I'd have …
Brad Walsh: Pitched all of the subsequent episodes fully formed, then turned to Danny Zuker and said, "What've you got, Twitter Boy?"
Paul Corrigan: Run.
The thing I can't believe we got away with is …
Abraham Higginbotham: Straight couples all over this country often identify with and enjoy the neurotic relationship bullshit Cam and Mitch endure together. I love when people approach me with, "My dad and mom are so Mitch and Cam." Every time it happens, the broken, freaked-out teenager in me heals a little bit more.
Danny Zuker: The kids walking in on Phil and Claire having sex. More specifically, the position they were in when they were caught having sex. Watch the episode again. It was the funniest choice by a mile, and I'm so glad we got to do it, but it was definitely one of the most racy moments we ever put out there.
Corrigan: Taking Boston Market out of the lunch rotation.
The most memorable debate in the writers room was …
Steve Levitan: Either whether the "Dude Ranch" episode should be an hour long or whether Claire should send Haley off to college with condoms. I lost the first one (we went with a half-hour) and won the second (yes on condoms!).
Zuker: I found myself (surprisingly) arguing against Claire packing condoms for Haley to bring to college. I couldn't, and still can't, imagine myself sending my twin daughters off to school with condoms. If I could, I'd send them off to a convent, but I still haven't been able to find one that takes Jews. I was utterly convinced there would be an uproar when the episode aired, but happily I was wrong.
Higginbotham: A few writers thought it was insanely inappropriate of Claire. It went on and on: Would you mind so much if Phil was leaving Luke with condoms at college? Is it genderspecific? Personally, I love those debates because: A) I know we're on to something worth exploring on the show; and B) We start with strong points of view for our characters. Some of the work is done just by us yelling at one another in the room and then making wildly offensive jokes to cut the tension.
Walsh: Whether the "Dude Ranch" episode should be an hour. It was as heated as any discussion we've had. I've never heard Chris Lloyd whisper that loud.
Bill Wrubel: What the hell Jay does for a living. It's still debated. Pritchett's Closets and Blinds? How are those things the center of a lucrative business?
O'Shannon: Cam and Mitch's adopted son. America came dangerously close to falling in love with a wisecracking inner-city child.
Jeffrey Richman: Finally getting California Pizza Kitchen off our list of takeout places for lunch.
Corrigan: That Boston Market thing.
The character I'm most at ease writing for is …
Walsh: Cameron. There's something about pretending to be gay that just feels right. Also Phil, because he's super hot.
Higginbotham: Oddly, Haley and Jay. Something in my gay DNA allows me to access both the grumpy, reluctant misanthrope with a sensitive heart and the vain, sometimes bitchy, teenage party girl … with a sensitive heart. Also, my shameless, barely secret desire has always been for people to consider me so attractive that I must be stupid. That did not happen, so writing Haley is a kind of wish fulfillment for me.
Elaine Ko: Jesse Pinkman. I write a ton of Breaking Bad fan fiction.
Looking back, the episode I'm most proud of is …
Walsh: "Fizbo." The writing of the second draft is when I learned you're not trying hard enough until your wife sees you cry.
Levitan: I'm probably most proud of the pilot and "Caught in the Act." The pilot because the stars aligned and it came together better than we could have ever hoped; "Caught in the Act" because it means I didn't emotionally scar my children in vain.
If Modern Family was a cable show, we'd be able to …
O'Shannon: Use Julie [Bowen]'s ad-libs.
Wrubel: Do a crossover with Sons of Anarchy and give the fans the Married… With Children reunion they always ask about.
Zuker: Say f---, and that would be f---ing cool every once in a while. But honestly, I don't think this particular show is harmed by the restrictions of network television. I hear from so many of my friends that they watch it with their kids -- I watch it with mine -- and we are always cognizant of that fact when we're writing it and would never do anything to f--- that up. Hashtag f---.
Now that Mitch and Cam are getting married, we can …
Levitan: Start to feel good about the future of humanity.
Richman: Start breaking stories for the divorce.