The Untold Oral History of the Long-Running Family Sitcom
An oral history, with the full participation of cast and crew, of one of the most popular sitcoms in television history.
Since premiering in 2009, the groundbreaking television sitcom Modern Family has garnered tens of millions of devoted fans, earning 75 Emmy nominations and 22 Emmy Awards, including five in a row for Outstanding Comedy Series (one of only two sitcoms to ever achieve that feat). Professors have written about it. Psychologists have lectured on it. Leading publications, such as The New York Times and Washington Post, have explained their love for it. With funny, heartfelt and relatable stories about family, Modern Family has gained a worldwide following of hundreds of millions of viewers in countries as diverse as England, Israel, The Netherlands, Germany, and South Africa.
As much as people love the show, few know the stories behind it. How did a kernel of an idea by Emmy-winning writers Steve Levitan and Chris Lloyd morph into a television juggernaut? Where did they find the cast? How did they come up with story ideas and film favorite episodes? What went on behind the scenes? Up until now, there have been individual stories and interviews about the show, but nothing comprehensive that captures the complete story of the series.
Marc Freeman’s Modern Family: The Untold Oral History of One of Television’s Groundbreaking Sitcoms is the only major book ever written that explores this show as told by those who created it. More than seventy people, including the entire cast, crew, and creators, detail the full history of this iconic sitcom. The cast recalls their memories of the trials and tribulations of casting. They share their impressions from the first table read through the last light turning out. Writers, directors, and performers walk readers through storylines, production and favorite episodes. Guest stars such as Elizabeth Banks, Josh Gad, Adam Devine, Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane recall their appearances on the show while others recount their experiences working with Kevin Hart, Barbara Streisand, Ed Norton and more. Readers get to go behind the scenes and experience the show like never before, including personal photos. They’ll also discover the never-told fallout and divorce of the two showrunners, making the show two separate series blended into one. Even people unfamiliar with the show will gain deep insight into what it takes to put a series on television.
I started watching Modern Family around season three, I think — I caught an episode when I was visiting my father in LA. It was funny, and I started watching it whenever I could. Like all long-running shows, it experiences ups and downs, but it held strong for a surprisingly long time. With the show recently ended, I thought this Oral History would be an interesting read. I was not disappointed: exhaustive, engaging and illuminating, I enjoyed this.
Like many oral histories, there are times when it can feel maybe overly detailed. Modern Family starts with the story of how the creators’ came to work together, their struggles in the screenwriting business, and then the various bits of inspiration and happenstance that brought this show together. Freeman then moves on to assembling the family, with mini-bios of each of the main actors. By the end of the first third(ish) of the book, we’d only reached the end of season one. After that, the book certainly picked up its pace, and didn’t always follow a chronological structure.
We learn a lot about the cast and crew, their approach(es) to the show, as well as their love for the characters, their colleagues and the material. Many of the actors come across as so grateful and humbled by the success of the show, and their parts in it. They also seem to have created a pretty healthy, friendly and welcoming atmosphere — given how much time they spend together, I imagine it would have been impossible to sustain it for so long if they didn’t get on with each other. A wide range of topics are covered, many of which illuminate what was really going on behind the scenes. For example, the kids’ challenges of growing up on TV, navigating social media and fame; various interesting production challenges; certain health challenges (I was surprised to learn how sick Hyland was during the show’s run); the strange fact that female writers just never stuck around for long (a strange chapter that doesn’t really come up with an explanation); the joys and difficulties of location filming in Disney, Australia, Vegas; and the often-infuriating and taxing nature of using babies (in this chapter, Freeman’s notes are also very funny); and many more. There are plenty of amusing asides, observations and tidbits.
Freeman provides a pretty detailed account of the unusual working relationship that developed between Levitan and Lloyd — this ended up being one of the most interesting inclusions in the the book, and something that keeps cropping up throughout. Far less harmonious than one might expect, from a series that ran for 11 years, during the second season they learned that they couldn’t work with each other. From the writing staff and cast, including Levitan and Lloyd, we learn how they managed to make this work: by splitting each season’s episodes, as well as the writing room. Each of the creators didn’t watch the episodes written and shepherded by the other. This means, according to what is reported in the book, that only about 20% of the episodes have been seen by both Levitan and Lloyd. It was up to the rest of the writers to ensure continuity. On the face of things, this sounds like it would be a nightmare, but it seems to have worked extremely well (even if the family-metaphor seems a bit stretched by the end of this section). There was frequent tension, but for the non-showrunners it seems to have encouraged a pretty fertile creative atmosphere.
One thing that sets Freeman’s book apart from many other oral histories is that some of it was compiled as the show was being produced. Specifically, the final season. Freeman was there during the final season, and got access to the script development process, cast interactions and eventual goodbyes as the final season wrapped. This didn’t, as far as I could see, really influence the rest of the book so much, but it did add some extra good bits.
Reading the book took a little longer than originally anticipated. In addition to the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to the initial development of the show, I also sometimes had to stop reading to re-watch episodes that were mentioned or being covered — especially some of those earlier ones. Reading Modern Family reminded me of many of my favourite moments in the series. I think I’ll go back and re-watch for first couple of seasons again in the not-too-distant future.
Even though my interest in the show itself was not consistent throughout its run (it starts to miss more often than hit in some later seasons or stretches), Freeman’s book does an excellent job of keeping the story moving and providing plenty of tidbits and interesting observations throughout. Sure, the first third is a bit slow, but it establishes the cast and crew’s backgrounds and temperaments and helps inform everything that comes after. If you are a fan of oral histories, and interested in behind-the-scenes Hollywood content, then I think you will find Modern Family interesting. If you are a fan of the show, too, then this is a must read.