On the set of the Sydneybased episode of the Emmy award-winning Modern Family, it is clear comedy is a serious business
‘Y OU could hardly appreciate the comic if you felt yourself isolated,” Henri Bergson wrote, going straight to the matter’s heart. “Laughter appears to stand in need of an echo.” I think of this while watching two of TV’s great comics work together one rainy late Sydney morning. Jesse Tyler Ferguson and his on-screen lover, Eric Stonestreet, who play gay couple Mitch and Cameron in Modern Family, are in Australia to film an upcoming episode for the fifth season.
They’re sitting at a small table outside China Doll, one of the ritzy restaurants along the converted Woolloomooloo finger wharf, once a rat’s maze where criminals went to ground, now home to Sydney’s new media money. Or at least where they love to dine.
There’s a smallish crowd of bewildered onlookers — the actors seem particularly nondescript and anonymous — a few security guards futilely asking people not to take photos, and a Ten Network entertainment reporter, the indomitable Angela Bishop, shooting a behindthe-scenes look at the show’s visit to Australia. They’re surrounded by a bustling film crew, two cameras perched quite intimately about a metre from the actors, who are absorbed in the minutiae of the scene they are filming.
The two comics work quietly and attentively, between takes receiving many directions and in response subtly altering their intonation, timing and their characteristic double takes. They seem almost unsettlingly calm and collected, though both often break into spasms of laughter at tiny moments of improvised humour, a new gesture or an unintended inflection. Working with them is Kiwi funny man Rhys Darby — he played the hapless band manager and consulate attache Murray in Flight of the Conchords — who at one point bangs his head on the table as laughter convulses him.
He’s apparently a TV talk-show host called Fergus, a character who is friends with Cam and Mitch. It’s the role Kyle Sandilands claimed he had turned down due to laziness and lack of interest in acting, something for which we should be eternally grateful. One scene has the three actors practically falling off their chairs as a bus with a huge photograph of Darby plastered on the side keeps being stranded in the Sydney traffic as the drivers tries to somehow manoeuvre it into the background of the shot.
Directing the episode is co-executive producer Steven Levitan, who works closely with two writers, Danny Zuker and Elaine Ko, also producers on the series, who constantly give the actors quiet notes and different directions to follow. This is intensely collaborative comedy.
The show was created by Levitan and his long-time comedy collaborator Christopher Lloyd; both have a commanding list of comedy credits to their names, including many years of writing and producing the wonderful Frasier.
Among the glowing procession of television images filling our living rooms, there are shows that engage our attention in such a way that we become a little obsessed with them. We even start to stalk them, impatient with anticipation until we can see them again. These insistent series become resonant because we spend so many hours with them. Modern Family has become one such show, hooking us four years ago in the space of a few short months, a comic gem in the form of a supposed documentary study of three families.
Creatively, it rejects the strict artifice of conventional sitcoms — the timing, acting style and choreography — in favour of real-life atmosphere. The series uses all the tricks of the mockumentary — the handheld camera movement, the abrupt, wide-shot compositional setups and framings, the confessional set pieces — but employs them with clever comic restraint.
There’s no chasing after characters, no intruding on their space. The camera is usually locked off, hovering slightly while maintaining the same wide shot. This kind of coverage offers the show’s audience the privileged view of its characters’ lives and is far more subjective than the universal perspective on things of conventional comedy, with every angle covered from every point of view.
If the characters of that other great mockumentary The Office, for example, satirised the supposed objectivity of the straight documentary of which they were supposedly part, Modern Family’s people take it seriously. The comedy emerges as they reveal their disingenuousness, seemingly never aware of how one set of moments, where they reveal something of themselves, so devastatingly joins to all the others. It enables the writers to structure the episodes as a neat, almost refined series of comic sketches that slide effortlessly into each other.
The actors are in Sydney with the other 12 performers from the show, which is of course centred on patriarch Jay (Ed O’Neill), a true guy’s guy who has found a much younger wife, Gloria (Sofia Vergara), the passionate, sassy and fiercely doting mother of eternally fussy Manny (Rico Rodriguez). Apart from Mitch (Jay’s son) and Cameron, there’s Jay’s daughter Claire (Julie Bowen), a little neurotic and increasingly shrill, geeky husband Phil (Ty Burrell) and their three children, diminutive spitfire Haley (Sarah Hyland), brainy Alex (Ariel Winter) and little brother, mischief genius Luke (Nolan Gould).
One of the guys offering an echo to the actors as rain threatens is writer Danny Zuker, who when he’s not suggesting stuff, trying to locate the humour in each moment, stands with Ko and Levitan beneath an umbrella watching a monitor as each take is captured. According to Zuker, the idea for the episode is straightforward. Phil has discovered he was actually conceived here, so he’s back for a little pilgrimage to Sydney, bringing his family to share it with him. “Over the course of the episode, Australia basically beats the shit out of him,” says Zuker, with relish. “Whatever Americans can think of to reduce Australia to comically, we abashedly go for; we hope we turn every cliche on its ear.
“There is something in this show for everybody — the key obviously is families. It feels like a campfire; we can sit around together and there’s an entry point for everyone.” Ko, the other writer producer on set, agrees. “It’s the inevitability of family — we all have them. We try to find the heart of stories — usually funny comes first — but every episode we ask where the heart moment is.”
She says as writers, it’s easy to write jokes, but the bigger challenge is to connect on an emotional level, keeping it tightly under control, alternating the distinctive controlled pathos with often deftly physical comedic ridiculousness and some hilarious dark verbal comedy. There are up to 12 writers working on the show. “When we write these scripts, it shouldn’t be a well-kept secret, they’re really group efforts; if my name is on the script — that just means I wrote the first draft,” Zuker says. The stories evolve largely from their own lives and they come up with the story together. After that first draft is turned in, they all do a rewrite.
“After the group of writers reads it, we make suggestions before the actors read it and we’ll do a rewrite,” he says. “After the cast reads it, we’ll listen to it, and we’ll rewrite it again.” Even when the cast is shooting and something doesn’t work, instant changes are made and the writers adjust all the way through. “We’ll get to editing and see a cut of the show, and sometimes we’ll see something in a scene doesn’t work, and we’ll do a small reshoot.”
And there is much adjusting on the morning I watch, the two writers and Levitan glued to the monitor, discussing in detail the comic rhythms of each moment. Often, one of the two actors joins in and then goes slightly away to practice an intonation with the writers, though Ferguson is equally prone to break into a bit of soft shoe and croon obscure lyrics from Broadway musicals. At one point, when Ko and Zuker labour somewhat in pointing out to him the structure of a particular line, he quietly snaps: “I know the joke.” He turns away and wanders off singing some lines about the Titanic and dancing a little. Maybe comics like these don’t need much of an ear to provide that echo at all.
Modern Family: Australia: Holiday episode airs with a behind-the-scenes special on Sunday, April 27, on the Ten Network.
Kiwi funny man Rhys Darby, left, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet film a scene for Modern Family: Australia: Holiday, at Woolloomooloo Bay’s Finger Wharf in Sydney