'Modern Family' Co-Creator on Aging Actors, "Poop Jokes" and his Not-So-Funny Competition
Chris Lloyd hates writing that feels "way too easy," but that doesn't mean the 12-time Emmy winner won't exploit his own life for laughs.
This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Chris Lloyd has not turned up at the Emmy podium to accept any one of his five consecutive best comedy wins for his co-creation, Modern Family. And, if he’s being honest, he doesn’t intend to break that streak Sept. 20, even if it means he misses Modern’s shot at usurping Lloyd’s former comedy, Frasier, as the record holder for most series victories.
“I admire these actors so much because I wouldn't know where to begin if I were standing on the stage,” he says, adopting a self-deprecating tone unworthy of a man who himself holds a record with 10 best comedy wins, split evenly between Modern Family and Frasier. “That's an unfriendly place.”
Back from his months-long hiatus between the comedy’s sixth and seventh seasons, Lloyd, a married father of two, talked with The Hollywood Reporter about the changing face of comedy, the not-so-funny competition and what’s next for him.
You launched Modern Family six years ago, when half of your castmembers were young children. How has their aging, which is happening in real time, affected how you write the show?
You pine for the 10-year-old, but from a storytelling standpoint you’re glad they’re growing up. It’s an asset for us to have the kids be utterly different characters than they were in season one and two. I’ve worked on long-running shows that didn’t have kids, and you find yourselves saying: "How are we going to think up a new situation to put these characters in that we haven’t covered in 200 episodes? They’re essentially the same people." That’s why on some shows the family wins the lottery, you know? On The Golden Girls, they buy a hotel. You just have to put them in a new situation because the characters are not going to change that much.
We’ve seen more and more halfhour shows enter the Emmy race and get marketed as comedies, but you often can go the entire half-hour without laughing. Coming from a traditional sitcom background, do you see this as good or bad for the genre?
I used to be a person who railed a bit against the three-setup-lines-then-a-joke rhythm of comedy. I’d always say, "We should never be afraid to do a dramatic scene, even if it’s a whole scene without a laugh in it," because you earn so much allegiance from the audience if they feel like they’re not exactly sure what they’re in for on a weekly basis. But I will say that if we’re talking about going a whole episode without any laughs, I’m not sure we’re still in agreement with what the term "comedy" means. I do feel like you can tell more serious stories, but if you’re not delivering a little bit of levity, then maybe you’re a drama at that point.
'Family' stars Sarah Hyland (left) and Ariel Winter.
How has what audiences find funny changed since you began in the comedy business?
Viewers have become a little bit savvier because they’ve been saturated with so much comedy over the years. There’s a very quick trigger finger on the remote control when they go, "I’ve heard that joke," or, "I’ve seen that situation," in a way that they didn’t in the ’70s and ’80s. Also, I think there’s this whole genre of embarrassment comedy, particularly in single-camera, where somebody finds themselves in an embarrassing situation and we just linger on them and let the shame kind of resonate. That’s a relatively new thing, which is fun, but I think that will run its course as well. There was a period in the last 10 or 15 years where people were writing things that were just outrageous or sexual or disgusting, and that was supposed to be so cutting-edge, and I always found that incredibly boring and way too easy. Blessedly, that seems to be winding down a bit because I think the audience went, "What are you going to shock us with now?" It’s just not that shocking to talk about penises or vaginas, and poop jokes are just not that clever.
You often tell your writers to use their postseason hiatus to do embarrassing things you can turn into storylines. What did you personally come back with when you began writing last season?
Driving lessons with my son. (Laughs.) I was convinced I wasn’t going to yell at him; I was going be the picture of the cool, collected dad. It was, like, 15 seconds in before a sound came out of my throat. You can go on the Internet and find plane-crash blackbox recordings that may have the same pitch of terror and no trace of masculinity.
Fox was a network you famously avoided working with after it canceled your sitcom Back to You. Now that your studio bosses, Dana Walden and Gary Newman, also run Fox, have you gotten any pressure to start thinking about your next act for them?
No, the people at Fox are fans of Modern Family and happy with what it’s doing for their studio. Sometimes I think about what might be next, what might be another challenge, characters that would be fun to write or how have things changed since [Steve Levitan and I] came up with this idea several years ago and what might be a new way to intrigue people. I have a couple of very rudimentary ideas that I knock around. But I was on [NBC’s] Frasier for eight years, and I’ve always been sort of a one-woman man in my career. If I find something that’s great, I’m aware that it doesn’t come along too often and stay with it and enjoy the ride. You don’t get these rides very often, and I’ve been very fortunate because I’ve had two.