Sitcom showrunners seeing spots

Road to the Emmys 2012: The Comedy Nominees

Ask “Modern Family” co-creator Christopher Lloyd about the realities of crafting a comedy for broadcast television, and he’ll tell a story about the name of his production company, Picador.

“A picador is the guy in a bullfight who helps make sure the matador doesn’t get killed by distracting the bull,” he says. “That’s what TV writing is. You’re just distracting the bull long enough to stick around for the next set of commercials.”

He’s joking, of course, but he has a point. Comedies made for network television are a particular breed of beast, and the moves made by a creative team, from how a show is structured to the edginess of its content, are inevitably shaped to some degree by their ad-supported homes.

The good ones, like ABC’s “Modern,” NBC’s “30 Rock,” and CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” — which all nabbed Emmy comedy series nominations this year — make those maneuvers look easy, even when that’s not necessarily the case.

Exec producer Robert Carlock of “30 Rock” admits to longing for the uninterrupted flow and “more filmic pace” of pay-cable series and fellow comedy category nominees “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Girls” and “Veep.” “Sometimes you’d like that luxury, to be able to just build towards that one perfect idea,” he says.

Instead, producers of broadcast comedies find themselves working up to several ideas — many of them designed to entice viewers to stick it out through the commercials.

“We try to build to some sort of jeopardy moment at the act break,” says “Big Bang” exec producer Steve Molaro. “You want people to come back on the other side to see what happens.”

“Sometimes we just go out on our best joke and assume that people like the show enough that they’re gonna sit through the commercials or DVR past them,” says Lloyd of his “Modern” classic, which has won the comedy series Emmy the past two years. “But (the breaks) do dictate a certain rhythm in our storytelling. I wouldn’t call it an asset. It’s just something that we’ve learned to work with.”

Carlock, though, has come to value the traditional broadcast structure as he and “30 Rock” creator Tina Fey prepare to launch the seventh and final season of their Emmy darling.

“With a show like ours that can be odd, having that structure imposed on it can be helpful,” he says. “It forces you to tell those weird stories in a conventional way. It grounds it a little more.”

For the most part, the content itself of “Big Bang” and “Modern Family” has fit comfortably within the confines of broadcast. The characters who populate “Big” world are largely clean-cut, socially awkward science nerds, none more so than Sheldon (Jim Parsons), whose idea of swearing is uttering the word “Rats!” and whose big move on a girl consists of holding her hand.

“When you’re going that slow, and it’s that wholesome, I don’t think there’d be an improvement by the freedoms that cable might offer,” Molaro says. “There’s a sweetness to this show and the characters, and I think that’s one of the factors that people love about it.”

Likewise, a large part of the “Modern Family” mass appeal is that viewers relate to the show’s extended clan and the drawn-from-real-life situations.

“It doesn’t need to be on cable,” says co-creator Steve Levitan, who also earned an Emmy nod this year for directing. “So often, we’re just talking about family subjects, and there’s a way that parents talk around their kids that’s perfectly suitable for network television.”

Still, Levitan cops to at least one episode when the leniency of cable would’ve come in handy — when pint-sized tyke Lily drops the F-bomb in public, much to the horror of dads Mitchell and Cameron (Emmy nominees Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet).

“In our first cut, we originally had the ‘f’ and the ‘k’ sound,” reports Levitan, “and it’s way funnier with that than it was as aired, where they made us remove the entire word. That was an annoying battle.”

One he’s still looking forward to winning, in a way. Says Levitan: “The ‘f’ and the ‘k’ sound will be on the DVD!”

Road to the Emmys 2012: The Comedy Nominees
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