From ‘Modern Family’ to ‘Veep,’ Emmy Nominated EPs on Keeping Their Comedy Fresh

It’s always nice to see new shows, like FX’s “Atlanta,” get Emmy nominations for comedy series, and to know that shows nominated for a second time, such as ABC’s “Black-ish” and Netflix’s “Master of None,” weren’t one-season-wonders. But what about the veteran comedies — the ones that have earned Emmy noms year after year? Certainly they have been doing something right to stay on voters’ radars.

“The first time around it was amazing to know that people were connecting with the show,” Alec Berg, co-showrunner of HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” which has been nominated for all four of its seasons, says. “The most recent nominations feel great because it means we haven’t totally flushed the show down the toilet.”

Ask the showrunners of the veteran comedies that got Emmy noms this year how they keep the funny going, and a couple of commonalities emerge. For one, showrunners learn early on to write to the talents of their stars; that’s imperative to help give the characters layers that can last over many seasons.

“In early seasons, we’d have written a long speech for Ed O’Neill, for example,” says Christopher Lloyd, co-showrunner of the eight-times-nominated “Modern Family.” “Now we’d take out two-thirds of the words and let him say what’s missing with his smiling Irish eyes.”

A characteristic of a top comedy is that the writing staff knows what they have, as far as their cast is involved. Robert Carlock, for instance, has relied on the ensemble of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” to take the show in new directions; the Netflix series got its third series nomination in July.

“We knew by the end of the third season that, while Kimmy will always be the center of [the show] we wanted the show to be more and more of ensemble,” he says. “We wanted all of our main characters to be taking on life like our heroine does. That pointed arcs and episode structure in new directions.”

“We wanted all of our main characters to be taking on life like our heroine does. That pointed arcs and episode structure in new directions.”
Robert Carlock

In the case of “Veep,” HBO’s six-time nominee, the show had to contend with the departure of creator Armando Iannucci, who set the show’s uniquely fast-paced and vulgar voice. David Mandel stepped into the job before season five and says that keeping the show’s original voice while adding his own has been a balancing act.

“I do my version,” he says. “There are subject matters like race and religion and sexuality that the show didn’t previously address as much, so again that is us doing our version of ‘Veep’: the same but different.”

Of course, sameness is death to any show, much less a comedy. Lloyd says writing for the adult version of “Modern’s” kids has helped. “Manny at 18 is a completely different character than Manny at 10,” he notes.

In the case of the two HBO shows, there have been major shake-ups, but the comedy has stayed consistent. On “Silicon Valley,” the departure of T.J. Miller will have a lot of impact, but according to Berg: “The neediest character on our show is the business [Pied Piper] itself, so we have to work really hard to find new types of challenges for them to face.”

On “Veep,” former President Selina Meyer will be running again, this time as an outsider, according to Mandel. “We are looking to really get into the nitty gritty of Iowa, which was not something the show could do earlier when it was more about the White House. So, lots of changes.”

Shows do infuse their writer rooms with new blood every season, hiring a few newcomers per year and replacing those who have gotten their own shows. Maintaining instititional memory amid these staffing changes is key, “Modern’s” other showrunner, Steven Levitan, says.

“We say things like, ‘We already did that’ a lot more now,” he jokes when asked about how the writing process has changed over the years. “Hopefully [new writers are] bringing in fresh new stories from their real lives that we can mine. If they’re not getting into a fight with their spouse over something they stole from home and wrote into the show, they’re not digging deep enough.”

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