Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor.
How many writer-producers does it take to make an Emmy-winning comedy? In the case of Modern Family, it’s a staff of 12 including co-creators/executive producers Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd. Like many series creators, Levitan and Lloyd mostly tapped colleagues from comedies they had either created or worked on to assemble a writers room where the team speaks the same language. Before creating Modern Family, Levitan and Lloyd worked on three comedies together: Wings, Frasier and the short-lived Back To You, which the pair co-created. Most members of Modern Family’s creative family are descendants of those three shows and/or two other comedies created by Levitan: Just Shoot Me and Stacked. AwardsLine has ventured deep into sitcom history — stripping the banana peel all the back way to 1990 — to trace the writing roots of Modern Family. Please note that this is not intended to represent each writer-producer’s complete, or necessarily best, credits. It covers only comedy series that have at some point included two or more Modern Family writer-producers on staff (as writer-producers unless otherwise noted).
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Where It Began
In the beginning, there was Frasier. Actually, the Cheers spinoff doesn’t date back to the beginning of time, or even TV time — but the comedy that received a record 37 Emmys in its 11-year run always has been considered an acme of comedy writing, and four of its staffers went on to Modern Family. Lloyd spent eight years on Frasier. Levitan also spent a year on the show. Lloyd acknowledges a dominant “Frasier gene” in Modern Family’s creative family. “You could take it further back than that. In a way, The Mary Tyler Moore Show begat Cheers begat Frasier, and perhaps Frasier begat Modern Family,” says Lloyd, who’s already a second-generation comedy writer as the son of David Lloyd (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Taxi and others).
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A dozen writer-producers is a large family indeed. When Modern Family began, the staff was eight, maybe nine. “One of the things that happens with shows is, the studio starts seeing it as a good investment, so they don’t mind spending a lot of money on the writing staff,” Levitan says. Levitan and Lloyd had two things in their favor in nabbing top writers: One, the 2007-08 writers strike had derailed deals and left many top writers idle when Modern Family was in development; and two, Modern Family came along during one of those cyclical periods in TV history when comedy was “dead.” Top talent who might have been developing their own shows 10 years ago needed jobs. Lloyd points out that while a cable comedy with a limited season can get by on one person’s vision, when you’ve got a 24-episode season, the team approach wins. “It’s an assembly line. You are doing not only 24 episodes, but they have to be the same shape and size, exactly 21 minutes and seven seconds,” Lloyd says. “I’ve seen it over 25 years — even the best writers around benefit from having other smart, challenging people in their midst who question things.”
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Better With Age
Modern Family is a family show, but its writing staff is a mature audience, so to speak. Says Lloyd cheerfully: “We’re ancient. There’s a heavier presence of Metamucil and soft tangerines than you would normally see.” It’s somewhat unusual because TV comedy has always been considered a young person’s game. Lloyd says that even during his early-career stint at The Golden Girls, the writers who put words in the mouths of elderly women were in their 20s and 30s. Levitan offers two reasons why Modern Family will probably never be sued for age discrimination: One, Modern Family chooses writers who can bring some family and parenting experience to the table; and two, there’s nothing like a solid track record to streamline the production process. Says Levitan: “If you are on a well-run, quality show, you really learn good habits. When I worked on Wings and Frasier, it was far better than a master’s degree. You are learning that jokes that fly in other places don’t fly here.”
It’s not enough to be good. When a writer-producer joins Modern Family, they have to fit into the family unit. “In most people’s minds, writing is a solitary occupation,” says Lloyd. “Well, 10 or 12 of us are going to try to be of one mind and create one thing. There are a lot of ways that it can go wrong. There are probably times when you say, ‘That person is a tremendous talent, but I’m not sure they’re going to be a great team member here.’ You would choose the person who is going to swim with the fish a little better than the one who is the standout talent.”
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