EMMYS: Series Creators On Why We're Laughing

Anthony D’Alessandro, Diane Haithman and Ray Richmond are AwardsLine contributors

Boardwalk EmpireAwardsLine staffers threatened to send singing telegrams to the offices of TV’s biggest sitcom creators and showrunners unless they agreed to participate in this feature and divulge their comedy secrets on some of our favorite episodes over the past season. Lucky for us, these big cheeses were game enough to pick over what bent and never broke in each episode. On the downside, four singing telegrammers were out of work that day as we cancelled the booking and lost our $200 deposit.

Episode: Family Guy’s “Back to the Pilot” (Season 10, Episode 5)
As deconstructed by series creator Seth MacFarlane
SYNOPSIS: Brian and Stewie Griffin travel back in time to the first episode of the series.
Six Reasons to Roar:

1. Peter (MacFarlane) is in court on welfare fraud charges and sentenced to 24 months in prison, inspiring the Kool Aid mascot to storm in.
Seth MacFarlane: “That was sort of a standout gag from Family Guy’s pilot episode in 1999. It was ironically a gag that at the time the studio insisted that we cut. We fought and fought to keep it in. It turned out to be the single most quoted moment from the pilot. It’s one of those completely disconnected and yet somehow connected moments.”

2. By time-travelling, Brian alters events that stop 9/11 from happening.
MacFarlane: “Anytime you’re dealing with a time-travel story, it’s sort of a standard, very reliable go-to device to deal with future events and how the past affects the future and what things could be changed if you did things just a little bit differently. The biggest single event between that episode’s production and the present-day was 9/11, and so it made sense to use that as our focal point in time.

3. Nine southern states in the United States announce they are seceding, and President Bush reforms the Confederacy after losing the 2004 Presidential Election. Civil war is declared.
MacFarlane: “Well, here you had a situation where a President had been placed into the White House, and in half of the country something had gone terribly wrong and this wasn’t the guy who was supposed to be there. And the other half was going along with it. But I think in general, everyone felt that something had gone horribly wrong with the system, a feeling that was festering over the course of the next year or so. So we thought it a ripe area to imagine what would have happened had 9/11 never happened and that collective resentment had continued to build. It was part speculative fiction, part animated ridiculousness.”

4. Brian and Stewie accidentally go five years into the future, a future that’s suddenly very CGI.
MacFarlane: “We thought it a good idea to make the landscape look totally different here. So we used CGI, but particularly well-timed CGI. Often times, computer animation looks very smooth and a little bit too graceful and lacks the sharpness and snap of 2D animation or everyday life. So we incorporated CG, but did it in such a way as to give it the feel of a familiar 2D Family Guy style – yet in 3D. It was really artfully done by the animators, with a nice Claymation feel while still being obviously CG.”

5. We learn that the civil war has led to nuclear strikes up and down the Eastern Seaboard and killed 17 million people – including Dog Whisperer host Cesar Millan.
MacFarlane: “My friend Steve Marmel, a very talented stand-up comic, does a routine where he panics about being on an airliner with a big celebrity. If the plane went down, the headline would say, you know, ‘Lily Tomlin and Others Perish.’ He didn’t want to be in the ‘others’ category. So that’s where this came from. We figured that if a significant portion of the United States were to be destroyed in a nuclear holocaust, the big story would be that Cesar Millan would tragically no longer be hosting The Dog Whisperer. And the country would never be the same again.”

6. Dozens of Brians and Stewies arrive together at the same point in time while struggling not to mess up the timeline.
MacFarlane: “There’s a little dose of Back to the Future II in there, where Doc and Marty have to return to the same time period twice. And they not only have to avoid screwing with the timeline but also avoid meeting themselves from the first time they went back. We just took that premise and went nuts with it, so Brian and Stewie have to keep going back to the same moment in time over and over and over. And at a certain point, the time paradoxes become impossible to navigate and they just kind of give up and go back to the drawing board.
–Ray Richmond

Episode: Curb Your Enthusiasm’s “Palestinian Chicken” (Season 8, Episode 3)
As deconstructed by director Bob Weide
Synopsis: A Palestinian chicken restaurant is incredibly popular with Larry and his friends despite its open hostility towards Jews and Israel. Meanwhile, Larry’s approached to inform people that their habits are agitating by family members too scared to do so.
Six Reasons to Roar:

1. The dinner table debate over whether a Palestinian chicken place should be allowed to open next to a beloved neighborhood deli.
Bob Weide: “There are a lot of seeds planted in this scene that pay off later on. The whole table debate about whether the chicken place should be allowed to open next-door to ‘the sacred ground’ of Goldblatt’s Deli was a takeoff on the bogus controversy of the so-called Islamic Center opening near the site of the World Trade Center 9/11 attacks. It was a great way to satirize the debate under the guide of discussing something as trivial as chicken.”

2. Larry Miller’s wife goes for the cake after telling Larry David to keep it away from her “no matter what.”
Weide: “I used to say that Larry rarely expressed a point of view on the show that I didn’t agree with. The question was always the extremes he’d go to in backing his position. This is one of those cases. Look, if someone enlists you to keep them from eating dessert ‘no matter what,’ do you wrestle that person to the ground to keep a brownie out of their hands? I remember the challenge of that scene was how much to let the argument escalate before Larry and Juliet (Denny Siegel) fall out of frame. By take three, it occurred to us that we should probably put mats on the ground.”

3. The battle over Funkhouser’s yarmulke in front of Al-Abas Chicken.
Weide: “What I really love about this scene is when Larry walks into the Palestinian chicken place to a standing ovation. At first, he’s a bit confused by it, but then quickly realizes what’s going on and accepts the adulation, and then even gets a little cocky. Anne Bedian, who plays the hot Palestinian woman, Shara, tells Larry she likes him. And after he says, ‘What’s not to like?’, she ad-libs, ‘You’re a Jew.’ I had to bite my knuckles to keep from laughing and ruining the take.”

4. The sex scene between Larry and Shara, complete with Funkhouser’s entrance, shock and disgust.
Weide: “Anne was a great sport. We encouraged her to shout out the most vile, anti-Semitic things she could think of, and when she ran out, we all fed her lines by shouting suggestions across the room: ‘Occupy this, you circumcised pig!’ and ‘I’m going to fuck the Jew out of you!’ And Anne would just repeat them like a trooper. I’m glad it was a two-story house, because when I first read the outline, I envisioned this shot looking down on Funkhouser after he walks in and overhears this. He follows the sound and looks stunned, straight up into the camera. It’s a big laugh.”

5. Larry eating his chicken lunch in the rabbi’s office, leading to another game of food keep away.
Weide: “With all of the controversy about this Palestinian Chicken place, it never occurs to Larry that maybe eating it in a Rabbi’s reception area isn’t such a good idea. Joanne Baron, who plays the Rabbi, did some very funny stuff. But in the editing room, Larry and I felt that as soon as they sit down in her office, and she’s jonesing for the chicken, the audience is going to know what’s coming. So we have to get to the struggle over the chicken ASAP. The idea that a Rabbi would be wrestling Larry for this Palestinian chicken struck me as some kind of weird, funny, Jewish fetish porn.”

6. The Jewish vs. Palestinian protest at the end as the chicken joint opens up next-door to the deli.
Weide: “For the final conflict on the show – whether Larry should be with ‘his people’ or join the Palestinians who want to keep the chicken place open – it’s no contest. Shara promises herself to Larry “anytime, anywhere.” As if that isn’t enticement enough, she adds, ‘I have a sister! Larry … You, me and Jasmin!’ I believe in a court of law, that’s what they call, ‘Case closed.’ “
–Ray Richmond

Episode: How I Met Your Mothers season finale “Magicians Code, Part 1 & 2” (Season 7, Episode 23 &24)
As deconstructed by series co-creator Carter Bays.
Synopsis: Ted (Josh Radnor) and Robin (Cobie Smulders) attempt to calm Lily (Alyson Hannigan) as she gives birth. Meanwhile, a drunken Marshall (Jason Segel) and Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) are stuck in Las Vegas. Following Lily’s birth of Marvin ‘Wait-for-it’ Erikson, Barney and his stripper g.f. Quinn (Becki Newton) are halted by TSA airport security on their way to Hawaii. Barney is carrying a ‘mysterious’ box, which is actually a magic trick that produces an engagement ring for Quinn. Ted seeks out his ex-Victoria (Ashley Williams) at McLaren’s pub, finds her in a wedding gown and drives off into the sunset with her. “Code” ends in the future where a tuxedo clad Ted is called into Robin’s bridal chambers. The deduction in typical Mother twist-fashion? Barney didn’t wind up with Quinn; it was Robin he took down the aisle. But is Robin getting cold feet?
Six Reasons to Roar:

1. Pregnancies are Hysterical
“Oh, that’s absolutely true,” Bays says referring to Lily’s contractions at the onset of the episode. Birthing babies have been a fountainhead for laughs in sitcom land well before Gloria screamed on All in the Family. “Enough of the writers have become parents over the course of the series that we all have pregnancy stories. In terms of our show being one where the writers draw from their own lives, it was a logical step to take.” In an effort to remain calm through her pains, Lily insists that Robin and Ted regale her with old stories, ones which were coincidentally…

2. Writers’ Lost Anecdotes
Robin tells Lily there’s no problem if they don’t make it to the hospital: “If you don’t make it time, I have got you covered. When I was 13, my father caught me kissing a boy, so he sent me to our family’s ranch for foaling season. Once you see a baby horse erupt through that birth canal, you even stop touching yourself! Anyway, I had skinny arms and I got up there elbow deep and I lost a swatch.” Bays explains, “This episode served a clearing house for old stories from the writers’ room, ones which could never fill an entire episode, but made for fun vignettes.”

3. Barney is a magician.
Bays explains, “This has been part of Barney’s character as a pick-up artist from the beginning. The inspiration comes from Neil who is the president of The Magic Castle [in Hollywood] and a serious magician.” Barney’s tricks spur wonderful…

4. Flashbacks
Such back-to-back Mother moments from various characters’ p.o.v.s rival those in Zucker, Zucker and Abrahams film productions. For example, Barney recollects that the TSA security guard (who doubles as a magician) made a woman disappear on one side of the body scanner and pop out of a suitcase rolling out of the X-ray. But in Quinn’s version, the guard performed a card trick. Bay expounds, “I think (the incident) is inspired in part from Neil’s life when he was stopped at the airport with a strange magic trick in his bag.”

5. Rob Huebel as Mr. Flanagan, Barney’s Magic Mentor
Children’s Hospital’s doctor of sarcasm plays a magic shop employee who instructed Barney in the ‘Magician’s Code’ (never reveal your tricks). Turns out, Mr. Flanagan wasn’t teaching Barney’s mom ‘the disappearing salami trick,’ he was actually sleeping with her. “We’ve been fans of Rob’s for a long time and thought it was wonderful for him to appear on show,” Bays says.

6. Plot Twists
The ball bearings of Mother. Seven seasons in, Bays and co-creator Craig Thomas are still inching closer to revealing who Ted’s bride-to be is aka the titular Mother. Bays explains “At the end of season 6 (a year ago), we establish what will be the end game of the series: Ted meets his bride-to-be at Barney’s wedding, one that he’s the best man of. This year the journey was figuring out who Barney was going to marry, and that was Robin. But the show isn’t a whodunit. It’s less about who she is then how Ted meets her. … From the beginning of the show, Mother has been about the nature of memory and storytelling and how we’re going to remember our lives 30 years from now. We’re not going to remember the boring days, but the crazy adventures that will get aggregated in our memories.”
–Anthony D’Alessandro

Episode: Modern Family’s “Aunt Mommy. ” (Season 3, Episode 15)
As deconstructed by Christopher Lloyd, co-creator/showrunner.
Synopsis: Says Lloyd with co-creator/showrunner Steven Levitan: “I love as many twists and surprises as you can put in the story, arriving at a more emotional place that you don’t really expect to find yourself.” In “Aunt Mommy,” a tipsy Claire Dunphy (Julie Bowen) offers to help her brother Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and his partner Cam (Eric Stonestreet) in their quest for another child by donating an egg to meet with Cam’s sperm so the child will carry the DNA of both dads’ families. This idea seems much less attractive the next morning. Like many Modern Family episodes, this one is based on real life, co-writer Abraham Higginbotham’s (who penned with Dan O’Shannon) experience when he and his partner approached a sister about donating an egg (this plan did not ultimately result in a child).
Six Reasons to Roar:

1. Modern Architecture. The egg story is big, but only one of many in this multilayered episode. Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell) has sold a house to Mitch and Cam’s friends Steven and Stephon (pronounced Steph-ON, it’s funnier), who arouse Mitch and Cam’s envy as the proud fathers of a son-by-surrogate. And Jay (Ed O’Neill) botches an attempt to get stepson Manny interested in masculine pursuits. That’s a lot of story – but, Lloyd says, “When you really have a great sort of blueprint architecture for the show, then it’s fun to lay on the jokes.”

2. Wine and Tears. During the wine-soaked dinner celebrating the house sale, Phil is moved to inebriated sobs when he imagines how much he would love a child that is a blend of Mitch and Cam. “It’s funny to see Phil cry, but to see him expressing a genuine emotion was funny and touching at the same time,” Lloyd says.

3. There’s Got to Be a Morning After. Lloyd calls Claire and Phil’s morning regrets a new twist on the joke of two drunk people who wake up together. “Their faces are telling us: ‘Oh, God, what did we do and how do we extricate ourselves?” Lloyd says. “I love the cut to Claire in the kitchen, looking really haggard. It’s so rare that we have our actresses, who are so beautiful, not looking their best. I enjoyed that moment, her looking beat up and holding that egg in her hand.”

4. Photo Shopping. By morning, Phil, Claire and Mitch are desperately seeking a way out, but Cam upends audience expectations by remaining enamored of the egg plan. He finds a website that can meld photos of two people to see what their child would look like. He tries out the Cam-Claire combo, but also can’t resist trying out Cam-Gloria and…Cam-Justin Timberlake. Says Lloyd, “Part of the struggle in editing was showing the picture as much as we could, it was such a funny sight.”

5. One-Liner. Cam’s enthusiasm for Claire’s unorthodox proposal led not only to the photo of Baby Cam Timberlake, but to a great joke: Cam calls the idea “adorable.” “It’s not adorable, it’s Appalachian,” Mitchell snaps.

6. Doing Wheelies: Jay lies to Gloria (Sofia Vergara): The theater tickets they wanted aren’t available, so Manny (Manny Rodriguez) is free to play football instead. Manny ends up with an injury and a motorized wheelchair. Says Lloyd, “There were a few things that were just sort of lying around from previous story meetings. One of those was Manny getting some kind of injury and riding around like an old man on a Rascal, it seemed a natural fit. Here is a genuine tense conflict between Gloria and Jay; set against this is Manny crashing into everything possible behind them. It’s really just there to be noticed, or not.” Still, emotion trumps sight gag when Jay comes to value the bond between Gloria and Manny instead of bemoaning Manny’s fate as a mamma’s boy. “That’s not at all where you would expect that story to go,” says Lloyd.
–Diane Haithman