Only two series have achieved the dizzying honor of winning the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series a total of five times: Frasier and Modern Family. Showrunner Christopher Lloyd can claim to have helped shepherd them both. Co-created by Steven Levitan, Modern Family has picked up the award for each of its five seasons, going back to the series’ 2009 debut. With another nomination for the sixth season, Lloyd will be looking to break his own record this year. Already in production on Season 7, he looks back on a remarkable journey.
How has it felt to watch this show enjoy so much success from audiences, critics and your peers?
Of course it feels gratifying. I remember early on people reviewing the show saying, “This one feels like it’s built to last.” You never want to believe that, because you feel like you’re putting a curse on things if you do. But when I look at the cast that we assembled, and the fact that we have so much strength in each one of those relationships, there just seems to be so much to explore in the series. There are so many dynamics you can create. Fingers crossed, it seems like we’re not going to run out of gas on this one in terms of what we want to write about. It’s thrilling to see that, almost 150 episodes in, people are still very attached to these characters.
How much of that success is owed to the cast you put together?
We wrote a pilot script that we were happy with but it really just worked on the page. When we thought about casting it, some of the actors we were familiar with. We knew Ed O’Neill professionally and we’d met with him on another project. We met with Sofia Vergara because she was on a network deal. Ty Burrell is someone I had worked with on two previous shows. But you don’t really know what you have until you sit these actors opposite one another, and in this case we didn’t really know what we had until we had a first cut of the pilot. Suddenly you see that dynamic between Ty and Julie feels so real. Ed and Sofia promise so much conflict and a lot of fun. Eric and Jesse just look right, even though that wasn’t necessarily how we envisioned it.
Did they have a hand in their characters’ development?
After we shot the pilot and were starting to plan the first season, we sat down with the actors and said, “How do you feel about the character? What aspect of your personal life do you think might find a way in?” Eric told us about being a clown. He had always wanted to be a clown and had considered actually going to clown college. He also was a former athlete and football player—that was one of the other great, unexpected aspects of that character. With Sofia, she’s a very glamorous, very beautiful woman, but she’s fiercely attached to her family. That again runs counter to what you might expect. You might imagine that character would be superficial and a little bit selfish, but she, herself, would probably step in front of a car if it were heading for one of her family members. That loyalty streak comes straight from Sofia. We incorporated certain things that they thought might work, and you’re also dealing with really experienced, really solid actors with a lot of resources, so we never felt that we had to write strictly to people’s strengths because they didn’t have many weaknesses.
Is the starting of each new series at all daunting, knowing you have this ever-growing body of work, and the acclaim it has brought, to do justice to?
It is, because you have a certain contingent demanding changes in these people’s lives. And I think that’s a section of the audience that is used to watching dramas, where things are always happening. But family life isn’t Breaking Bad, and there won’t be giant cliffhangers and monumental changes in these people’s lives. At the same time, we’re always challenging ourselves to nudge outward a little bit, but not so much that people start to feel like the show isn’t the show anymore. A built-in asset for us is that the kids are getting older. Haley is now an adult and interested in possibly pursuing a legitimate adult relationship—that Haley is very different from the Haley who was this surly teenager in the pilot. Likewise, romantic Manny, who was wearing a silk shirt in the pilot and writing crazy poems to an older girl when he was 10, is not the same 17-year-old Manny who’s driving a car and actually on the verge of becoming a sexual being. You feel some of that same boy in that almost-man, but it does enable us to let the series go naturally because the kids are facing these things and, as a result, the families are facing these things.
What else can we expect from Season 7?
Alex is going to college. She’s very happy in some ways to leave this family behind and get around people she thinks are more like her. It’s not as easy as she thinks it’ll be, but she’s not sure how to express that loneliness. It’s a way into a bittersweet feel that has been the hallmark of our show. It’s hard for Phil and Claire because they’ve already lost Haley, and Luke this year has developed a little bit of a criminal streak, but he’s not a particularly good criminal. So Phil finds himself estranged from Luke. Jay’s in his late 60s now and he’s looking at retiring from his own company. Claire is the heir apparent, but there’s a bit of pressure that comes with that. Mitch and Cam actually are in tough financial straits in a way that they haven’t been in previous seasons. It’s a thing that families go through, and they feel the pressure of that. We also revisit Phil’s long-standing fear of clowns. He thinks he’s over it, and they’re hosting a carnival and their clown can’t make it, so Phil thinks it’ll be fine for him to be a clown. But then there’s an emergency that takes place in a house of mirrors and Phil has to confront multiple clowns, all of them himself. If you’re a fan of Ty Burrell you can imagine what that’s going to look like.