I stopped watching Modern Family regularly early in its second season, when I noticed they were going for easier laughs and more predictable storylines. I would check back on occasion, encountering more “eh” episodes than “huzzahs”, an example of the latter being the delightful Second Season “Halloween” episode, where the bearded, red-headed lawyer character was caught scaling down a building clad in a “Spiderman” costume. (He believed the lawyers in his office were expected to come to work that day in costume, and it turned out they weren’t.)
That one was special. But overall, I found Modern Family offering diminishing surprises.
So I’m holed up upstairs – ‘cause when a baby’s sleeping – we are currently boarding baby Milo and his parents – the house goes unequivocally on “mute.” For reasons more likely related to “there’s no game on tonight” than actual enthusiasm, I decide to return to Modern Family.
My choice is also a defensive maneuver, since Dr. M is less likely to reject watching Modern Family than an SVU episode – always my “default viewing” selection – and if I don’t find a mutually acceptable option, we will end up watching her favorite form of entertainment – any show where a couple is looking to buy a house.
Dr. M agrees to watch Modern Family, and I am rescued for one night.
The episode – I believe it’s “Episode Seven” of Season Four – turns out to be surprisingly enjoyable. Immediately, my analytical mind leaps to the task of ascertaining the reason why. I used to do shows. I remain interested in the process.
That I had never entirely figured out.
I recall during those three years when I wrote eight scripts per season for The Mary Tyler Moore Company that, invariably, one episode per season would rise demonstrably above the rest. This situation always perplexed me. Though I admit I am easily perplexed.
All eight MTM scripts had been written by the same capable writer – me – and yet, every season, one of them was noticeably superior.
In my exploration, using Fourth Season Modern Family “Episode Seven” as my guinea pig, I come down to three elements, the third of which, I believe, being the most salient. For “dramatic build” reasons, I shall leave that one for last.
Okay, so my third point explaining why this Modern Family episode stands out relates to the generous allotment of funny jokes. For plot reasons I will explain later, the chubby gay character is required to fix breakfast for his young niece and nephew. The meal’s primary component is fake bacon, which he claims is indistinguishable from real bacon except for the look, the texture and the taste. He first labels this alternative breakfast meat “fakin”, then quickly amends the name – since he prepared it from scratch – to faux fake bacon, or “fokin.”
For me, that’s three bunched-together laughs. More than I’ve gotten recently from entire episodes of Modern Family.
Shelley Long plays the older character with the “Trophy Wife’s” first wife, who, if not entirely crazy, appears alarmingly overmedicated. As reflected in this joke:
“I recently discovered my cat Frances buried in the backyard. I’m just praying that she died first.”
A little twisted, but, to me, still funny.
Last “good joke” example, and my personal favorite: The airhead older sister has been kicked out of college and her parents are helping her pack up her belongings. The airhead daughter claims the expulsion has been a wake-up call for her, and from now on, she is determined to knuckle down.
As they’re about to exit the dorm room, the airhead’s father says, “Where are my keys?” The airhead daughter says, “They’re on the make-up table.” To which, her mother ruefully responds, “Oh, honey. That’s a desk.”
Last line in the show; big laugh from me. I believe Dr. M even cracked a smile at that one.
I could offer other “quality joke” examples, but I’m tired. Trust an expert. The episode had a surfeit of them. And if you don’t care for “surfeit”, how’s “plethora”? (Any Three Amigos in the audience?)
The second element explaining why this Modern Family episode was, in my view, a number of cuts above the others is casting.
As I mentioned, the older guy with the “Trophy Wife’s” first wife was played by Shelley Long. Why is this important? I will tell you.
Say you’re a capable pick-up basketball team, and Larry Bird comes along and says, “Can I play?” Right away, the level of all the other players shoots up, in an effort to keep up with their Hall of Fame teammate.
Shelley Long not only brought spark and sparkle to her guest-starring role, she raised everyone around her’s game as well. Add that to the regular players’ confidence delivering first class material, and you have a talented cast working at the top of their abilities.
Now, finally, the main reason I believe this Modern Family episode excelled:
They were telling an important story.
As compared to the story they did a few weeks ago, wherein the older guy’s tortured by his pregnant “Trophy Wife’s” snoring. Yawning is contagious. I contracted it from that episode.
The inciting incident here is that the airhead daughter had been arrested for getting drunk at a college party, and falling on a policeman. This is, essentially, not a funny story. It’s a dramatic story, with significant consequences.
In an interwoven story – Modern Family tells three stories per episode – the yuppie couple’s youngest son has an allergic reaction to the “faux-kin”, which was prepared with soy, and they’re off to the hospital. And the third story involves the potential fireworks when a first wife first learns that the second wife is pregnant.
All these stories matter, by which I mean “sitcom” matter, rather than “Hurricane Sandy” or an outbreak of meningitis. Stories that matter provide a buttressing spine to the comedic hi-jinx. Stories that don’t matter, like the snoring story, stand entirely on their jokes.
That’s why you have to start with a solid, believable story that matters. When you have one, the jokes seem to come more easily, and more generically. Throw in a “top-of-the-line” guest performer, and you’re on your way to an episode that undeniably stands out.
Why can’t you do that every week?
Because stories that matter with comedic possibilities are not easy to come by.
I once pitched a story for The Bob Newhart Show during a time when comedian Dick Martin was a consultant on the show. When he was asked what he thought of the idea, Martin replied, “Good drama.”
Though Martin meant it as a criticism, when I heard that, after recovering from the stinging rebuke, I knew we were on the right track.
The best comedy episodes emanate from the essential underpinning of a dramatic storyline.