Inside 'Modern Family's' Billion-Dollar Winning Formula and How Season 4 Might Change Everything

 Art Streiber

It's no easier for Claire (Bowen), who is struggling with her daughter's departure and dad's new child. "She thinks it's ridiculous that her father's having a kid; and at the same time, there's that question: 'Oh God, am I old? And I'm done having babies?' " says Bowen. Burrell adds that "they debate getting a vasectomy" before interrupting himself and chuckling. "It's not 'they,' it's Phil. That's like when guys say, 'We're pregnant.' Phil is debating a vasectomy."

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Despite its sunny disposition, Modern Family was born from a bit of anger. In 2008, Lloyd and Levitan's comedy Back to You sputtered despite heavy hype and a star-studded cast featuring Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton. After one season, Fox brass decided to pull the plug, leaving Lloyd and Levitan displeased. Although the duo had an overall deal at sister studio 20th TV, they vowed that their next project not be shopped to Fox. "That's a place where poor, little, defenseless, sophisticated comedies go to die," blasts Lloyd.

After taking a month or so to clear their heads, they were back on the lot to figure out what was next. Modern Family -- or, at that time, My American Family -- began with an idea to chronicle three families, including a more traditional wife, husband and kids, a gay couple with an adopted child and a third family that would go through various iterations -- a divorcee back on the market; an African-American spouse; a son with Asperger's -- before landing on an older man, his younger Latina wife and her romantic son. ("They wanted an Antonio Banderas in a 10-year-old's body," says Rodriguez of the instruction he received.) That the families would be related, a plot-reveal that comes at the end of the pilot episode, came later.

The duo took the pitch -- a PowerPoint presentation introducing the families -- to NBC and CBS first. Both networks expressed interest, but the former had mockumentary-style series in The Office and Parks and Recreation and the latter had little experience with single-camera comedy. ABC, which had stumbled of late but had a long history of family comedy, seemed a better fit.

Getting on then-ABC Entertainment chief Steve McPherson's calendar proved problematic, so the duo arranged to pitch the series over breakfast at the Westside home of Levitan's agent, UTA's Jay Sures. "It was exactly what we were looking for: the next generation of family comedy," says McPherson, who recalls Levitan firing up a homemade video of him attempting to shoot his son with a BB gun, just as Phil does in the pilot. He bought the pitch.

Vergara and Ferguson were the first actors cast. Vergara, a star in Latin America best known stateside for once dating Tom Cruise, had a talent deal at ABC, which had put her into a slew of short-lived projects including The Knights of Prosperity; Ferguson snagged the role after reading for Cam first. ("I begged to be seen for Mitchell because I played the more flamboyant character before," he says.) Stonestreet, who is not gay, took more convincing: "Eric was probably not whom we envisioned. I always saw Cam and Mitchell more as Frasier and Niles," acknowledges Lloyd, a former Frasier executive producer, whose mind was changed after multiple auditions. ("I did the same audition, but this time I dressed a little more Cam: a lavender gingham shirt and a gray cardigan," says Stonestreet.)

O'Neill got the part only after talks fell through with Craig T. Nelson, who landed on NBC's Parenthood instead. "I told my manager to make the deal," recalls O'Neill. "He said, 'They're not going to pay you your quote,' and I said, 'Just make the deal.' He was like, 'What? You're not even the star of the thing. It's an ensemble.' And I said: 'Make the deal. I have a feeling about this show.' "

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Lloyd and Levitan were eager to get back into business with Back to You's Burrell, but the network balked. "We had had Ty miscast in another pilot [titled Fourplay] that didn't turn out well," says McPherson. "So when they first came to us and said, 'How about Ty Burrell?,' we were like, 'You mean the guy in that pilot that was terrible and that he was terrible in?' " McPherson changed his mind after watching a screen test of Burrell and the BB gun. "I got the tape and told my executives: 'Holy shit. Ty's fantastic.' " Once he was decided upon, 3rd Rock From the Sun's Kristen Johnston was out and Boston Legal's Bowen -- who auditioned at 7½ months pregnant with twins and was more compatible with Burrell -- was in.

The pilot was ordered to series in May 2009. Rather than tease it with a minute of footage as ABC did the others at the upfront presentation, the network boldly opted to air it in full -- the first time a network had done so since NBC's ill-fated Joey. "It goes down as one of the greatest professional moments of my life," says Levitan of the Lincoln Center screening, during which he watched a packed auditorium erupt in laughter at several points during the 22-minute pilot.

After garnering an outsized portion of ABC's fall marketing budget -- "more than 50 percent," says McPherson -- Modern Family premiered Sept. 23 to 12.6 million viewers and positive reviews. THR's Tim Goodman, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle at the time, said it was "one of the funniest, most fully realized pilots to hit a network since Arrested Development." By January, the comedy was renewed for a second season; months later, USA locked up early syndication rights for a fall 2013 debut at nearly $1.5 million an episode.

To hear ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee tell it, the series has not only helped the network kick-start other shows, including Happy Endings and Don't Trust the B-- in Apartment 23, but also attracted other talent to the network. "It's a show that's able to be both incredibly broad and incredibly smart," he says, adding: "There's no question in my mind that Modern Family changed television."

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A week or so later, hotel guests are beginning to gather as Vergara paces around Century City's Intercontinental lobby preparing for her scene. It is the fourth episode of the season -- "a Chris episode"-- and Gloria's pregnancy has become the subject of much comedy for the writers. They have her strap on a pair of stilettos and move toward the elevators, where she'll await the arrival of her onscreen husband, with whom she is displeased. Gloria was told Jay would be in San Francisco on business; instead, he has checked into a nearby hotel to get a night's sleep free of her pregnancy-induced snoring. (He later will tell her it is "like sleeping with Rush Limbaugh.") The elevator doors open, and she slaps him, leaving Jay stunned. The director yells cut, and they try it again. And again.

Whether Modern Family's loyal viewers will respond to the new storylines is an open question and one that can keep both showrunners up at night. And yet, they say they were left with no other choice as their actors age and the landscape grows more crowded. "The trick is always evolving these characters' lives and putting them in new circumstances with new challenges," says Lloyd, "but not changing things up so much that the show stops being what it has been and what people enjoy."

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