It's hard to believe that we've had ABC's hit sitcom "Modern Family" in our lives making us laugh and, at times, cry for the past three seasons on ABC. But as with any popular series, time not only flies but it's often easy as a viewer to forget that the adventures (and misadventures) of the Pritchett/Dunphy family don't just appear miraculously on our televisions. Instead there are writers tirelessly crafting the scripts, actors bringing their talent to the words on the page and, as a result, more than a few Emmys awarded along the way.
As the last few new episodes of "Modern Family" air (the finale is set for May 23rd), tonight's "Disneyland" episode finds the gang embarking on family trip to the Magic Kingdom so our Jim Halterman thought it was a good time to ask Executive Producer Danny Zuker about the work that goes into the show, whether we'll see a cliffhanger of some kind to lead us into Season Four and what it was like letting the cast free in the happiest place on Earth.
Jim Halterman: A general question first, does the fact that the show is so successful and so beloved bring a pressure to the writers and the producers?
Danny Zuker: I think we care about the show as much as the fans do and I think we've all worked on shows in the past that we haven't been this proud of...none of us are really spring chickens and at 48 I would be the oldest guy on most staffs so I'm solidly in the middle of our demographics. But what's good about that is we've all had careers and we've all had ups and downs and know what it's like to be on a show you're not proud of and all of that. So, we know how special this is to have a story that's utterly aligned with, like, Steve [Levitan] and Chris [Lloyd] writing a great pilot and the most miraculous cast in television comedy, maybe ever, because there's ten of them and they're all fantastic. None of us take that for granted and we certainly love it and I think we work pretty hard to maintain a certain quality.
JH: Yeah. Speaking of the cast, at this point at the end of Season 3, does the cast still surprise you? Can you still find stuff with them that you didn't realize was there two seasons ago or a season ago?
DZ: I feel like in every show we're surprised by things that they do. I do think every show and every performance and every time we've gone to the editing room there's a revelation. I'll speak for one scene but there was basically a scene I wrote in the episode 'Leap Day.' Basically, the scene was this - Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) was planning this huge 'Wizard of Oz' party for Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) and now we find out there's been a tornado and he's trying to hide the fact that he was planning this party so he wouldn't seem insensitive to Cameron.
And I'm watching [Mitchell] in the driveway of that house distracting Cameron and he starts doing this dance, it's the goofiest dance, and probably we have like 30 minutes of footage. Well, it was the funniest thing but it was utterly surprising. I mean, we know how funny Jesse is but he was just so goofy and it's not really scripted and it's one of my favorite moments in the series even. Because he's so...there's so much joy in that stuff.
JH: I feel like in this season more than the last two, I've seen more heavier issues pop up on the show that don't weigh down the show because you guys deal with them so comically, whether it's death, like Walt (Phillip Baker Hall) dying, or the menstrual cycles of the Dunphy women all coming together. How does that get constructed?
DZ: I've been with the show since day one and a lot of these ideas have been up on the board for a long time like even from early in Season 1, just sort of the ideas or stuff, and it was always sort of thought like well we're doing good with some of these lighter stories and we're delving into these slower moments here, and we'll get to those as people know the characters. I think you earn those stories after people live with the characters and they have more impact. But death in a family you just met doesn't mean very much but it does in a family you've spent three years with, it means a lot more, and I think we planned it out.
Frankly, Walt was created to die. Steve first talked about this story and its framework is based on his own son, Griffin, who had befriended an elderly man who died, and, I'll paraphrase it for Steve, but they wanted to make sure their son was processing it in the right way and he was sort of taking it in stride, he wasn't processing it in exactly the way that Steve did. So, even when we introduced Walt the first time last season, that was always our thought that we were going to kill off Walt and do an episode.
The way that episode ultimately came together, we could not predict that it was going to go in that direction. That's in the writing of it. But we always sort of knew that it was going to be episode about how does one process that, what's the starting off point [and] even in the early draft we didn't have that idea that Claire (Julie Bowen) smiles. That was a Chris Lloyd idea, one of those last minute ideas and then, again, she surprised you and she did it so well. My kids have taken to doing that inappropriate smile around the house now. They like that sort of thing.
JH: I'm constantly amazed at the kids on the show. Have they kind of soaked in all the wealth of the older actors or are they just that sharp?
DZ: I have a couple of answers to that. First of all, they're all very bright, all these kids are, they're much smarter than my own kids. I think that helps, but they are, I do think you play tennis [and] when you play tennis you play up to the level of the person you're playing with and it is helpful to have them with such skilled people. I had a really interesting time the first time I ever did a driving scene. I shot a driving scene, I think it was in the first season, and it was with Rico [Rodriguez, who plays Manny] and Ed [O'Neill, Jay] and so the way we shoot those scenes is the car is being towed, and we're driving through and we're trying to get into position to where you shoot, but their microphones are open.
So, we're on the back of this truck listening in and I think we watched for, you know, 15 minutes, Ed coaching... really, he was like teacher and coach and letting [Rico] know 'here's where you get the idea to ask me this so think about that.' Rico is such a sponge for that and watching them work out the scene together...it was a very interesting glimpse into that process and I think it's quite an invaluable education for any performer and a real man working through that. I don't think you can do much better than that.
JH: This week the show goes to Disneyland. What can you tease?
DZ: I think the episode is really fun and we approach those big episodes, like if we're going to do the Disneyland episode, what's our take on it? You get some interesting history about Jay and Mitchell and Claire about an earlier trip when they were kids and what was going on in [Jay's] life with his first wife and the impact that that place had and it's really funny. And Ty [Burrell, Phil] has some very funny moments on a roller coaster, let's just say.
JH: How did you guys actually shoot there, the fact that everybody's so recognizable?
DZ: It was amazing, The Disney Company were very, very nice, I mean they really set it up great and our cast is pretty open and is very great at meeting people. But it was very real. They made it very, very easy. I have to tell you it was very cool for me just to kind of peek behind the curtain a little bit, at Disneyland. The 10-year-old boy in me was very, very excited about that, I have to say.
JH: I talk to a lot of people working in dramas and they always have this tension and expectation this time of year to do big cliffhangers. Sitcoms can kind of get around that a little bit, but is there any kind of cliffhanger coming up in the season finale?
DZ: Everybody in the family is going to be there and they're going to literally be hanging off a cliff. They go mountain climbing and they're hanging off a cliff. [laughs] I'm not going to tell you anything on this. I love my job.
JH: But is there a cliffhanger?
DZ: I would not say that there's a cliffhanger but I would say that there is a satisfying and surprising and fun end to the season that will make everybody want to join us again in September. I guarantee it.
JH: In general, so many of you guys have been around for a while and done a lot of different shows, do you feel like comedy changes over time, or is it the people that change and comedy just kind of adapts to that?
DZ: I think the tone changes and I think tone is cyclical. I think comedy is very tied into its time. I think what was so brilliant about what Chris and Steve did was a lot of television comedy from late 1990s to the 2000s, there was a lot of snarkiness, and, by the way, I happen to love snarkiness. I think some snarkiness is fantastic when it's developed like a hierarchy and I certainly tweet snarky and I love that, but there's been a lot of that and they set out to write a show that was not the least bit cynical. It was a show where people genuinely kind of liked each other [and] in its own way what was so revolutionary about it was it really wasn't that revolutionary. It was an anecdote to those times and I think that happens a lot. I mean when you look at, like, Cosby had been on and that was a very warm and embracing show, and into that, Roseanne came out, which was a much harder show. So, I think we go through those cycles and I think Chris and Steve wrote that right.
"Modern Family" airs Wednesdays at 9:00/8:00c on ABC.