Networks revive family comedies
At Starbucks locations across Los Angeles, out-of-work comedy writers are polishing off their “Modern Family” spec scripts.
For the first time in a while — and definitely since the writers strike — there’s optimism in the comedy ranks. And much of that good feeling can be traced this fall to ABC’s breakout “Modern Family.”
“For morale in the comedy business, it’s been huge,” says Alphabet comedy topper Samie Kim Falvey. “All of us who love comedy and refuse to abandon it as a business feel validated.”
“Family” is one of several laffer success stories this season: ABC’s “The Middle” and “Cougar Town” also have performed well enough on either side of “Family” to earn full-season pickups, while CBS newcomer “Accidentally on Purpose” and recent NBC additions “Parks and Recreation” and “Community” have picked up some ratings ground recently.
Then there’s CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory,” which has graduated from hit to megahit thanks to its new timeslot behind “Two and a Half Men.”
But “Modern Family,” even rival network execs agree, is having a major effect on the laffer biz, thanks to what it represents: the revival of the family comedy.
Once a staple of primetime, the family laffer had fizzled by the middle of this decade, as remaining holdouts like “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” retired.
The disappearance actually began in the 1990s, when families stopped watching TV together — and the nets upped their efforts to reach young adults with less kid-friendly fare like “Will & Grace” and “Two and a Half Men.”
As the nets started chasing a narrower comedy niche, their sitcom stables were slowly depleted. Last year, for example, ABC entered the fall with just one comedy on its entire schedule. And NBC, which in 1998 scheduled 18 comedies in primetime, was down to four.
Net and studio execs eventually realized they’d completely turned their back on the family laffer. But coming up with a show that would work in the 21st century — for an audience now used to cynical comedies and reality TV pacing — hasn’t been easy.
“It feels like the family comedy has been the big staple on everybody’s development report for a long time,” says 20th Century Fox TV exec VP Jennifer Nicholson Salke. “But nothing had been really inspired or broken out in a really significant way. This show, starting at its inception, raised the bar on all that.”
When creators Chris Lloyd and Steve Levitan first pitched “Modern Family,” it contained most of the elements you now see on the show: three related, but very different families. There’s the older patriarch, who has recently married a much younger Latina wife; his daughter, who’s married to a man who tries a little to hard to be the cool dad to their three kids; and his son, a gay man with a husband and a newly adopted baby.
But as originally conceived, the show was told through the eyes of a Geert, a Dutch documentarian who 20 years earlier had lived with the family as a foreign exchange student.
“At the end of the day, it seemed too taxing to pay attention to that character week in and week out,” Lloyd says. “We wanted to focus more on the relatable family members of the cast.”
What remained was a thoroughly modern take on the family comedy, with a mockumentary device (and reality TV-style confessionals), a dose of snark — but also a bit of warmth that is a bit of a throwback to the family laffers of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
“For some reason having shows with a hug in them became anathema to the comedy community,” Lloyd says. “It was all about being snide and cynical and snarky. We do our share of biting stuff and sarcastic stuff, but that feeling only takes an audience so far.”
Viewers want to laugh, he says, “but if you can make them also feel something, some warmth in the show, that’s what brings them back. Not that there’s anything remotely revolutionary about that. But we found the balance.”
ABC execs were high enough on the show that they picked up the pilot early, which Falvey says allowed the network and studio to cast the show well, starting with Ed O’Neill, as well as Julie Bowen, Sofia Vergara, Ty Burrell, Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson.
The Alphabet also gave the show an early series order, and screened the entire pilot at the net’s May upfront presentation to advertisers.
But “Modern Family” was by no means a slam dunk. The network gave the show the nearly impossible task of holding down the 9 p.m. anchor slot on a Wednesday night completely filled with new shows. And when awareness studies showed low returns for “Family,” the net shifted more marketing money to the show immediately following it, “Cougar Town.”
The net also was forced to give away “Modern Family’s” big pilot reveal: The fact that the three separate families are actually related, something that viewers don’t discover until the very end of the episode.
“We did some early research on tracking and marketing, and people were not getting how special this show was,” Falvey said. “A lot of the heart comes from understanding this is a big family unit.”
Levitan and Lloyd weren’t big fans of the marketing decision, but didn’t protest.
“They did everything you could ask for in launching the show,” Lloyd says.
Salke says she believes the show has fallen into the zeitgeist of the moment — that audiences, faced with economic woes in the real world, were looking for more feelgood fare.
“Shows like ‘Modern Family’ and ‘Glee’ have tapped into the audience’s real desire to be entertained, to laugh, cry, have fun,” Salke says. “It’s not the typical tone that you have seen.”
The success of “Modern Family” has helped populate network development reports with more family-oriented laffers. Net and studio execs say they’re also busy looking at other forms that have been missing as of late — including the modern take on a relationship comedy like “Mad About You.”
“People are looking, and saying, ‘where’s our “Modern Family”?’ ” Salke says.