On the set of the Syd­ney­based episode of the Emmy award-win­ning Mod­ern Fam­ily, it is clear com­edy is a se­ri­ous busi­ness

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell

‘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

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