When “Modern Family” premiered on ABC in 2009, Variety said it was “easily the new season’s best comedy pilot” and noted that it “deftly [served] up laughs on multiple levels — from understated one-liners to grand sight gags.” Though the series, which follows three individual, nuclear families that make up one larger extended brood, broke some new ground by showing a same-sex couple adopt a daughter from Vietnam in the pilot episode, much of the heart, humor and even inter-character dynamics were part of a tried-and-true formula. And it was those elements that series co-creator Christopher Lloyd believes ultimately made the show successful enough that it is hitting its 200th episode milestone in its ninth season, with a 10th season already ordered.
“It felt, in many ways, very traditional,” Lloyd remembers about shooting and then screening the pilot of “Modern Family” almost a decade ago. “I think the things that made it succeed were less the things that made it different than the things that had been around on TV, but done well.”
“Well” might be an understatement. In fact, the Alphabet felt so strongly about “Modern Family,” which it was using to launch a brand-new night of comedy on Wednesdays (the show was given the 9 p.m. time slot, a position it has remained in ever since), that it screened the pilot in full for advertisers at its upfronts presentation, ahead of the series’ fall premiere.
Gary Newman, who was 20th Century Fox Television chairman in 2009 and is now co-chairman and CEO of Fox Television Group, says “Modern Family’s” high-profile launch was a career highlight for both himself and his partner Dana Walden.
“It anointed the show as the best comedy of the season and the best comedy of the generation, and it has lived up to that,” Newman said on-set at the 200th episode celebration in late 2017. “‘Modern Family’s’ celebration of family — all kinds of families — has shaped a social and political landscape and impacted viewers’ lives in ways that few series have.”
The series premiere drew 12.6 million viewers, a number that series co-creator Steve Levitan admits he never expected because he was focusing on writing what “felt real” and not what the show could potentially do.
“At that point the comedy world was pretty depressed, and the odds against another big comedy hit were pretty high,” Levitan says. “ABC had a long tradition of family comedies, so maybe they just needed one right then. Something about it just felt right.”
Fast-forward nine years and “Modern’s” family has only grown — literally, in the case of the youngest members Sarah Hyland, Nolan Gould, Ariel Winter and Rico Rodriguez, who went through their teen years on-screen — but also in the size of the cast itself. Jay (Ed O’Neill) and Gloria (Sofia Vergara) welcomed a son in the fourth season, making him (Jeremy Maguire) and Lily (now played by Aubrey Anderson-Emmons), the daughter Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) adopted in the pilot, the second generation of the show’s child actors.
“‘Modern Family’s’ celebration of family…has shaped a social and political landscape and impacted viewers’ lives in ways that few series have.”
Levitan and Lloyd both point to their cast as a major reason the show has been so successful (with 22 Emmy wins for the series, its cast and crew to date). “We were delighted and surprised to find out some of the special talents that our cast had, and we put them to good use in the show,” Lloyd says. “Jesse’s a good singer; Eric’s a good drummer; Ty [Burrell] can do anything physical — you can put him on this funky duck thing where he’s sweeping up the kitchen, and we have to do this tomorrow, and somehow he’s able to do it. Sofia’s a natural clown — she does more things with her voice, little dialect things, over the years. These are bounties that just opened up to us.”
What has been important to the show, therefore, is finding a healthy balance of storytelling to consistently allow each cast member a chance to shine in individual moments, as well as to bring them together in “big group stories” for milestone moments from graduations to simple family dinners. “That goes back to the pilot,” explains Lloyd. “When we screened the pilot for people, they got so excited when they found out everybody we were following was part of one big unit. That still happens — that excitement for our audience and for us when we get everybody together. There’s a great energy that comes from that.”
It isn’t enough for that energy to be light and funny, though: it must also be able to deliver an emotional punch.
“We like to make sure all of the characters get emotional moments because that is really where you earn the loyalty of the audience. We learned that early on,” Lloyd says. “It’s a little bit easier to dismiss a character who’s just known as being funny by doing x, y, z, but if they surprise you by having a little bit of an insecurity over something or a vulnerability in some way, then the audience really takes them into their heart.”
Although the show has already told 200 stories of family antics, it is not suffering from a shortage of ideas. After all, the writers mine from their own lives — Lloyd, for example, used an experience catching his son alone in his room with a girl for a memorable moment between Phil (Burrell) and Luke (Gould), while Levitan says he was inspired to have Haley (Hyland) get kicked out of college after a friend’s son got caught drinking at a party and was expelled.
“Years ago Chris and I just started writing something that was personal and about our lives, and at a certain point, when we decided for example to have a gay couple with a kid, I remember saying, ‘Well, there goes Middle America.’ But this is what felt real, so let’s write it, and we proceeded,” Levitan says. “I feel like we can pretty much tackle anything now!”