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The fifth-season premiere of ABC’s Modern Family featured a marriage proposal that wouldn’t have been possible only months ago. But in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision allowing same-sex marriage in California, producers of the Emmy-winning comedy knew the time was right for its gay couple, Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet), to take the plunge. Here, Jeffrey Richman — one of the 20th Television-produced comedy’s two openly gay writer-producers — reveals to The Hollywood Reporter‘s Lacey Rose in his own words the emotional process of writing Wednesday night’s landmark episode …
We hadn’t really talked about Mitch and Cam getting married until DOMA and Prop 8 came onto our radar when we got back to work in the middle of May. We don’t usually do California-centric stories — and while we don’t really identify where the characters live, we knew we weren’t going to send them to another state to get married and they weren’t going to have a fake commitment ceremony. We’d avoided that for four seasons. Mitch and Cam have been in a relationship for eight years, they already are a family and they have a daughter, so there needed to be a reason for them to get married. This became the “why now.”
When it actually looked like [same-sex marriage] might become legal, it seemed like we could really make something of that. Then it sort of gathered momentum because it wouldn’t just be a one-off story. It would give us episodes leading up to a wedding, and we’re so hungry for stories. You could see a bachelor party, you could see a party planner, you could see so many things. We spent a lot of time and energy breaking the first story and arcing out potential other stories and then trying to find out, by whatever means we could, how close to being real this was. We were very ahead of ourselves and so enamored by the story arc and the idea that we went way out on a limb.
By the time it happened, June 26, we knew this was going to be the season premiere and there were two or three more episodes that had been broken that involved a wedding. There was no backup plan. When it finally [was settled by the Supreme Court], I was more happy as a writer, and then I remembered, “Oh yeah, I can get married.” I was in London at the time, but I remember it was such a relief. If it had gone the other way, it would have meant a lot of work.
I remember we all got back to work in May and started to talk about that first episode. We usually work in two separate rooms, but that first week we were all together. I remember we talked a lot about how a proposal would work because even Abraham Higginbotham and I, the two openly gay writers in the room, didn’t know. Does someone propose or does that make it a gender stereotype? And if it’s OK, which one proposes? After a lot of discussion, we came up with this story where we’d have them on two separate tracks to propose to each other.
It’s not a political show, and we bent over backwards in the episode not to be political. We all said this would not be about making a statement; it was very much about keeping it between these two people and what it means for them. These were questions that I dealt with personally, too. Now there’s this law that’s been lifted, what do we do with that? Do we get married? I know people whose relationships had suffered because one didn’t want to get married. So again, our goal really was to keep whatever story we were telling very specific to Mitch and Cam and just have the California part of it be the reason, the jumping-off point.
There are different ways and styles of telling stories, and, ultimately, it comes down to the taste of the showrunners. Whether we’re being led by [co-showrunner] Chris Lloyd or by [co-showrunner] Steve Levitan infuses the episode with a certain sensibility, and then as writers our job is to fulfill that vision. This was a Chris episode. I was the only gay writer in Chris’ room because Abraham was in the other room, and it was just a natural thing for me to write it. Now that’s not true of particularly “gay” episodes, but this one was different. Sometimes you can kind of raise your hand and sometimes it is just a natural thing. I think this was a little of both. Chris is a pretty thorough story-breaker, so I went off with a really solid structure and I didn’t feel more or less pressure than I had with any other episode. But I loved the story.
As I started writing, I became unexpectedly emotional. I teared up writing it. I teared up hearing it read. And I completely teared up seeing that moment where they both just say “yes” at the exact same time. That was so moving for me. I felt like, “OK, maybe I got it right because I never cry at weddings.” My boyfriend [actor John Benjamin Hickey] always reads the first draft and he called me in tears after he read this one. The writers on the show were unbelievable, too. It’s not that we’re not sweet to each other normally, but we all have a lot of work to do and you forget to send an e-mail or compliment a writer on a draft that comes in. But I got a lot of really nice notes for this one. I think you don’t realize how invested in those characters you are until this huge thing that had been denied to them suddenly is not an obstacle for them. I really hope it’s as moving to other people as it is to me.
It turned into this very arduous shoot because it had a million different locations and it had night shoots. And that big emotional scene was on the side of the road, so even the geography was difficult for the [production] trucks to get to. It was shot all over town, too, and it was the first one back [after the summer hiatus] so all of the actors were there. But when Jesse and Eric filmed that final scene, you could see that that moment was going to land and be very special. You could just feel it.
But you can’t think of the historic part of it — the “Wow, these are the first gay characters on TV to be legally married” part. From a writing standpoint, it had to just be about telling a story. That’s the job. We saw it was another vein we could tap into that would provide us stories, much like Gloria’s [Sofia Vergara] pregnancy did last year. Once I step away, though, I realize how unbelievably fortunate I am as a writer and as a gay person to have participated in something like this — and on an insanely popular TV show. We don’t have premiere parties anymore, so I’ll watch it with my boyfriend at home. It’ll be the first time he actually sees it.
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