LOS ANGELES — A young man arrived at Ty Burrell's hotel room to stock the minibar and immediately recognized the co-star of the ABC comedy "Modern Family."
He loved the show.
Thanks, Burrell replied. The man went on to quietly describe how his family gathered each week to watch "Modern Family" together, and because of those group viewings, he was getting to know his younger siblings better.
"I know we're not curing cancer," said Burrell, who portrays the earnest goofball dad Phil Dunphy, "but it feels nice to see people affected by the show."
"Modern Family" is the most critically acclaimed and popular new comedy of the TV season, the centerpiece of ABC's Wednesday lineup and already renewed for a second season. Not only does it fulfill a comedy's central mission — provide genuine laughs — it nudges preconceptions and isn't afraid to show some heart amid a sea of snark and irony on television.
More than heart was on display one recent evening when "Modern Family" commandeered a Los Angeles hotel lobby to shoot some scenes. Hoots and hollers from crew members alerted those whose heads were turned the wrong way that they had missed actress Julie Bowen streaking across a room clad only in a bodysuit.
Bowen, who portrays Claire Dunphy, was about to film a scene in which she's supposed to be naked underneath a trench coat. You'll just have to watch the episode that airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. EST to find out why.
Funny family stories at heart of show
The production team of Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd is behind "Modern Family." Besides working together on "Frasier," they have credits that include "Wings," "Just Shoot Me" and "The Wonder Years."
Following the failure of "Back to You" on Fox — a sore subject — the team and their writers were kicking around ideas for new series. To break the monotony, they'd sit around and tell stories about the odd and amusing things their families had done.
They eventually realized that these stories were funnier than anything they were making up. Some are already familiar to "Modern Family" viewers: the wife "busted" for dressing up to impress the firefighters taking her husband to the hospital; the writer who was once an ice dancing partner with his older sister. Levitan had given his son an air-soft gun and told him if he ever shot someone, he'd be shot himself; that made it into the show's pilot.
Everyone on the writing staff has a family, Levitan said.
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"It's almost a requirement," he said. "Only parents come into these situations where the stories come easily."
Levitan and Lloyd decided to tell the story of three different families: a traditional mom and dad with three kids; an older man and younger wife, both on second marriages; and a gay couple adopting a baby. They wanted each family to be unique but able to interact with the others, so they made the older man the father of one partner in each of the other two couples.
"That was the magic idea that made it not just an idea but a real series," Lloyd said.
Shot in faux documentary style
The series was originally called "My American Family," told from the perspective of a Dutch documentary maker revisiting the family he knew as an exchange student. But the producers thought having another character behind a camera lens was too cumbersome. They ditched the Dutch filmmaker, but kept the faux documentary style, familiar to fans of "The Office."
While deciding to make a family comedy is one thing, avoiding cliches is another thing entirely. The producers' success at this is revealed each week as more layers are peeled back on the characters.
Patriarch Jay Pritchett (portrayed by Ed O'Neill) may seem like the typical older man who married a trophy wife (Sofia Vergara). But it's intriguing to watch him build a relationship with his new wife's son and learn how Vergara's character needs not a sugar daddy, but someone dependable in ways her first husband was not.
The gay couple Mitchell and Cameron try to meld their contrasting personalities at a time when they're hyper-nervous about being new parents.
"We wanted to do a gay couple that was not sort of finger-snappy and fabulous," Lloyd said. "These guys are a little bit nerdy, like college professors who are a little anti-social. They care about their kid, and over think things. That's kind of winning to America, especially an America that might be a tiny bit hesitant about a gay couple."
Bowen, 39, plays Dunphy with the hyper-energy she has in real life, knowing all too well the tricks her television children can play because mom was doing them herself only a short time ago.
She puts up with Phil (Burrell), one of those characters who isn't quite as hip as he believes.
"Modern Family" has increased ratings in its time slot among young viewers by 12 percent. And with characters that are rich, diverse and numerous, there's enough to fill several years of story lines.
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