It's a ‘Modern Family’ Affair at the Emmys

Christopher Lloyd on getting nominations, reviving the sitcom, avoiding Fox and not learning from his mistakes.

With its 14 Emmy nominations, awards from the Directors Guild and the Writers Guild, and viewership that made it the highest-rated new sitcom of the season, ABC’s “Modern Family” is one of the biggest critical and commercial successes of the year. At the Emmys, it’ll be going up against “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Glee,” “Nurse Jackie,” “The Office” and “30 Rock”; while the last of those shows has won the last three years in a row, a recent L.A. Times poll of Emmy experts picked “Modern Family” to break the streak.

Christopher LloydCreated by Christopher Lloyd (“Frasier”) and Steven Levitan (“Just Shoot Me”), the show is a faux-documentary-style look at an offbeat extended family. The week after the Emmy nominations and a month before the show begins shooting its second season, Lloyd spoke to TheWrap about reviving the sitcom, avoiding Fox and not learning from his mistakes.

Given the show’s success, and the fact that cast member Sofia Vergara was co-hosting the Emmy nominations announcement, you must have had some expectations.
Well, you allow yourself modest expectations. But with expectations come disappointment, so you try to temper them. And I will say that what wound up happening exceeded our expectations, even the ones that we kept to ourselves. To have almost our entire cast nominated, and to be represented in all the major categories that we were submitted in, was pretty gratifying.

Your six principal cast members all entered themselves in the supporting categories rather than splitting their entries between supporting and lead …
I was really impressed because of the statement it made: that we are all part of an ensemble cast, it’s a great team effort here and nobody stands above it. And in the case of Ed O'Neill, who probably had a better chance of getting nominated in the lead category, the fact that he was willing to sacrifice that says a lot about the guy.

You could certainly argue that his statement backfired. He was the only major cast member who wasn’t nominated, and that may well be because voters felt he belonged in the lead category.
Look, I don’t think this is exactly the way he would have liked to see it play out. But again, the fact that he said, “I know this might harm my chances, but I like the idea of us all going out as equals,” it really says a lot about the guy’s integrity. Modern Family

You can hardly be disappointed when five out of your six adult cast members are nominated, but at the same time you never want to see anyone excluded. And if you talk to the actors, they all say that they completely take their cues from Ed, that he’s the anchor of the show.  So it feels especially weird to have him be the one who’s left off the list. That’s bittersweet.

When you and Steven Levitan first pitched the show, you had interest from three networks …
That’s right. CBS was interested, but they weren’t ready to make as big a commitment as ABC was, because it’s really not their thing to do single-camera shows. And there was interest from NBC, but they had two of these sort of documentary-approach comedies already, in “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation,” so it was a little bit tougher for them. 

So ABC was by far the most aggressive, and it also seemed to us to be the best match. Not only because you always want to go with the person who wants you the most, but also because it seemed like it would fit with their network.

But it was certainly gratifying to be pursued on a certain scale by all three. And we didn’t have any interest in having anything to do with Fox, after a bad previous experience. 

What happened at Fox?
Well, I mean, Fox is no place to go if you’re in the comedy business, and you … (pause)  I’ve probably said enough about it already. It’s an unkind place for the comedy writer. [Note: The short-lived Kelsey Grammer comedy “Back to You,” which Lloyd and Levitan created and produced, aired on Fox.]

What is your relationship like with ABC?
I have to say the relationship is very good. They knew that they were buying a particular type of show that was a little bit offbeat. And it’s every network’s instinct to try and steer shows in the direction of shows they’ve had that have worked before, rather than break out in a whole new way. So there was maybe a tiny bit of that on their part. But in the most part, they said, “You guys brought us this very distinct concept for a show, and we’re gonna see what it looks like.” 

Is the show as it currently stands close to what you pitched?
It’s remarkably close. The only real change was that at the very outset, we had a character who was the documentary filmmaker. The idea was that this guy had been a Dutch exchange student who had stayed with the family 20 years earlier, and he always remembered them as “my American family.” And now he’s in his 30s, he’s become a documentarian, and he realizes, the dad is now on his second marriage, both the kids have grown up, one’s gay, so if I were to make a documentary about the American family, it would be a great place to start. 

But as we got into it, it became a little bit cumbersome to service this Dutch documentarian every week. And it became a little bit self-conscious, I think. So we got rid of it.

It strikes me that at this point, after “The Office” and similar shows, the audience just accepts the conceit without worrying about it too much.
Right. I mean, it’s akin to what you see in novels sometimes, where you’re given a glimpse into the heads of various characters. You’re not thinking, from what perspective are we being given all this knowledge? You just sort of accept it. 

“Back to You” and “Out of Practice,” the two shows you did after “Frasier,”were both canceled before the end of their first seasons. Were there things you learned from those shows that were keys to making “Modern Family” work?
Definitely: Ty Burrell is an anchor that will pull any boat to the bottom of the sea. (laughs)  No, that’s one thing I didn’t  learn. He was in both of those shows, and they were both failures. And he’s a major part of why we’re successful this time.

But honestly, no. I think you have to work very hard to get the writing right and the characters right, to control everything that you have in your power, and then you have to get lucky in about 10 different ways. And we did on this show. 

In what ways?
Mostly in the casting, at the individual positions and also in the chemistry. And we got lucky coming along at the time that we did, with the network needing us and putting a lot of promotion behind us. And with the temperament of the country, who knows? Maybe people were wanting to laugh at comedies with a little more heart in them. Maybe they were intrigued by a show that had a gay couple raising a child in it. That was just lucky timing.

I’m proud of the two failures that preceded this one, but there is just that lucky thing that happens when a show becomes bigger than the sum of its parts; something just crystallizes and strikes a chord with the viewers. And that happened. 

Was there more pressure last year, when you were trying to get the show off the ground, than there is now, when you’re trying to follow a successful first season?
A little bit. Last year, we didn’t really know what the show was. And then the pilot did very well, so there was a lot of anxiety about “let’s make sure we don’t change the thing that people are really responding to in the show, even though we’re not exactly sure what it is.” 

And last year, there was also a lot of stuff about “Is ‘Modern Family’ going to revive the sitcom?”  Which is an obligation we really didn’t want. It’s hard enough to have a show succeed on its own merits, let alone trying to rescue the art form. 

But hopefully that’s past, and now you move on to the new worries: Are people going to say it’s not as good as it once was? Is the bloom off the rose because it was a novelty last year and it is no longer? But we’re still finding new stories to tell, and that’s always an encouraging sign. 

So how did Kobe Bryant’s appearance on the season finale come about?
It was something we talked about throughout the season. Obviously, ABC- Disney is partnered with ESPN, and they have a big NBA connection. And they’re also trying to push the NBA in Spanish-speaking countries, so they liked the Sofia Vergara thing. They said, “We have full access if you ever want to shoot at Staples Center, and we probably could get you some NBA players to participate if you want them.” We didn’t want to do it just for the sake of having a stunt casting moment, but we came up with a story that seemed funny on its own.

And Kobe was great. He said he was a fan of the show, and he might have met Sofia at some celebrity event, so they had a connection. It was one of those things where you go, gosh, I guess our show really has reached a certain level, because Lakers are coming over to say hi to our cast members, instead of the other way around.

CORRECTION: A photograph that originally ran with this story was identified by Getty Images as being a shot of Christopher Lloyd.  That identification was incorrect.