'Modern Family's' Dan O'Shannon: 'I Rarely Watch' TV Comedies (Q&A)

Dan O'Shannon Headshot - P 2013
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Dan O'Shannon Headshot - P 2013

This is an expanded version of a story that first appeared in the April 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

After giving the opening talk of the Library Foundation's new Writer's Cut series at the downtown library March 23, Modern Family exec producer/writer Dan O'Shannon -- a multiple-Emmy-winning veteran of Frasier, Cheers and Newhart who took eight years to pen the book What Are You Laughing At?, analyzing TV comedy writing -- confessed to THR that instead of writing a feature during his upcoming hiatus (or escaping to Hawaii): "I'll go back to my hometown of Cleveland and sell tickets to the Cleveland Film Festival. I'll live in a furnished apartment; it's a place I can go where I don't have to be funny. Last year there, a water fountain broke, and someone told me -- being an employee -- to go clean it up. So I did! If my friends at Modern Family knew this, they would assume I was crazy. It just takes the showbiz out of you for a while."

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O'Shannon is not your ordinary television writer-producer. What Are You Laughing At?, which is subtitled "A Comprehensive Guide to the Comedic Event," touches on comic theory, social interaction, modes of communication, receptor factors, incongruity and comedic entropy. He's more the intellectual-professorial-television writer hyphenate -- even though his credits read like every major TV comedy of the past 20 years. He also writes a highly irreverent comic strip called Mrs. Jesus on his website Oshannonland.com -- making as much fun of marriage as it does religion -- which he's working into this next book.

O'Shannon recently talked with THR about the nature of comedy, TV writing and why sitcoms have not caught up the quality of dramas on television today.

The Hollywood Reporter: So what is your general theory about television comedy and writing?

Dan O'Shannon: Well, there are four or five major theories -- all viable -- but if comedy was only one thing, there wouldn't be such a thing as comedy today. It has to be a shape-shifter, come at you from a variety of ways; surprise is a big element. You don't just watch a sitcom, it's competing with every sitcom you've ever seen. The form is always shifting. Some people say Modern Family peaked at season two, but there's always those people. The timing of Modern Family was great. Snarky comedy was somewhat played-out, making fun of people who are unfamiliar. Modern Family celebrates our similarities; we can put down our weapons for a minute. Comedy does not have to be mean.

THR: What do you laugh at?

O'Shannon: Gosh! My friends make me laugh -- other writers on Modern Family make me laugh. That's my main source of laughter. It's competitive in a very friendly way; we all have a very good résumé on this show. We all have professional self-esteem, so we comedically compete for the sport of it. It really is not gamesmanship, just games.

THR: What comedies do you watch on TV?

O'Shannon: I rarely watch them; it feels like work to me. Last summer I watched Big Bang Theory -- and I do not like Two and a Half Men. I was in the doctor's office and Big Bang was on. It's clever -- not as bad as you think it would be. It's not Two and a Half Men-style comedy.

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THR: It's supposedly "the golden age of television" on cable, but those great shows mostly are dramas, with the exception of Girls, which is more dramedy. Why haven't comedies been reinvented?

O'Shannon: It's tricky. Sitcoms are dealing with the masses, but actually they are not the lowest common denominator. Sometimes networks work so hard not to lose money that they will eliminate shows they find have offended one person, losing potential viewers. Thank God there's an outlet for different stuff; there's so many different kinds of people. There are so many misconceptions about what comedy is, what a sitcom is; it's generally a room full of people making decisions. Drama is easier to disagree about. There are very many outmoded ideas of what a sitcom is -- for instance, that the lead character has to be likable. Not true! Archie Bunker is the best example, but execs refuse to learn from what has worked. Look at Jack Benny; he was always miserable. Old shows have lessons to teach. I believe in my heart that audiences need to be challenged. Networks want to hold their hands, take them through it. Enjoying the sitcom is not a passive experience anymore; you need to be able to assemble jokes in your head. The total passive audience is over; they can be engaged. Look at how active and interactive one has to be on the Internet. Trigger different feelings. There's always been this conception that comedy is low, a less-than-dignified genre; circuses stained comedy for years and years and years. Even people who are in comedy think that. And then there's Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro doing comic roles in films. So things are definitely starting to shift.