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It spoils nothing to reveal that in the Modern Family finale, there is a group hug so spectacularly COVID-unsafe that one 6-foot space is occupied by 16 different people. If Seinfeld was a show about nothing (Was it? Did any comedy ever have more plot?), Modern Family was always, unabashedly, about emotion. OK, why mince words in a postapocalyptic world: It was about love. Certainly we always aimed for the high physical comedy moments: Phil, wearing a dog’s shock collar, reaching the edges of the yard … Claire smiling lugubriously at the topic of death … Gloria shooting a raft out from under Manny … Cam, in a Stanley Kowalski white T-shirt, yelling for a lost Stella, the dog.
But these were adornments in the Modern Family house. The bricks and mortar were the sneaky moments of love. Competitive Claire letting Phil win a footrace because it’s the first day of school, always a hard one for Phil, because he loses his kids that day. Or Jay, letting Manny believe a limo he has ordered for himself and Gloria was actually sent by Manny’s wayward father. Phil, at a doll hospital with Haley, dealing with a broken American Girl but really coming to a painful acceptance that his daughter has lost her virginity.
We debuted in 2009, when comedy was tilting heavily toward the cynical. In stand-up, as in scripted comedy, the premium seemed to be on shock value and pushing the envelope. And much of it was terribly funny. But there did seem to be an opening for comedy that had heart. Cheap sentimentality was to be avoided just as cheap jokes were, but genuine, earned emotional moments seemed to give our audience a nutritional value they craved. An early byword for me was: “Give them laughs and they’ll stay, give them heart and they’ll come back.”
Having adopted this formula, we writers got to write from personal experience. Absurd moments from our lives begat episodes, but so did heartbreaking ones, even confusing ones. I caught my 16-year-old son in bed with a girl once, and it infuriated me, though I couldn’t quite identify why … until Phil caught Luke, and then discussed it with Claire. “That,” my son said after watching the episode a year later, “explains a lot.”
All of that may help to convey why our last week together felt like two parts celebration and at least one part funeral. We were saying goodbye to something wonderful and personal.
Our actors as much as our writers brought their own family experiences into the mix — Eric modeled Cam after his own mother, there’s a lot of Ty’s dad in Phil. It was 11 years of us exploring what family is, with a supreme esprit de corps, virtually everyone putting the show first and themselves second, and everyone equally reveling in the chord we seemed to strike with the audience. What snuck up on us is that we had formed our own family in the process, and it turns out it’s awfully hard to say goodbye to your entire family all at once. Besides those lunatics who sign up to go live on Mars, who ever has to do that?
So the last shot comes, the final wrap is called, and our whole company converges into a big, soggy mass (apologies, Dr. Fauci … we didn’t know, we didn’t know!). And the farewells are draining. I hug Julie and Ty and realize I’m saying goodbye to four people I love, because Phil and Claire are in that hug too.
We all walk away from our cherished Stage 5, each with our own sustaining memories: Eric and Jesse vying to make each other break up in our direct-to-camera interviews? … Ty making a helpless Julie laugh so hard, we need 13 takes to get through two speeches? … Sofía’s glorious malapropisms? … Our child actors — like our own kids — turning into adults before our eyes? … Ed’s ever-valuable Hollywood axioms (“Never do a scene standing if you can sit, never sit if you can lie down”)?
We walk away with sadness, of course, but it’s a sadness tempered by gratitude. We had 11 years with people we love, doing a thing that we love. Even before the world was plunged into isolation, it was hard not to recognize how lucky, lucky, lucky we were.
Christopher Lloyd is the co-creator of ABC’s Modern Family.
This story first appeared in the April 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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