Behind the scenes of the ABC comedy's family vacation

By Lynette Rice
April 30, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • TV Show

This isn’t the tropical getaway that Sofia Vergara had in mind. She and her costars of Modern Family — the season’s most-watched new comedy — are in Maui filming a pivotal May episode, and Vergara is required to step out of a hotel pool wearing a one-piece sheath with a sexy low back. Unfortunately, the director and the grips aren’t the only ones watching her — all sorts of creeps are leaning out of hotel windows, desperate to take her photo.

”It’s horrible!” laments Vergara, who plays Gloria, the hot Colombian wife of Jay Pritchett (Ed O’Neill). ”Nowadays, with the Internet and Twitter, it’s weird having your picture get out all over. It makes me worry that somebody will be mean and get a bad shot.”

No chance of that. Vergara looks resplendent as she plops down on a chaise longue next to O’Neill (who, it should be noted, is not wearing a one-piece sheath with a sexy low back) — but then, it’s hard not to look magnificent when you have a five-star resort and the West Maui Mountains as a backdrop. ”It’s unbelievable,” O’Neill marvels at the show’s extravagant location. ”I’ve never heard of such a thing!”

Indeed, most hit comedies wait a long time before shooting the requisite vacation episode in the land of palm trees and pupu platters. But then, Modern Family isn’t like most comedies. Though it employs the same documentary style of filming used by NBC’s The Office and Parks and Recreation, Family took that method and for the first time applied it to a domestic sitcom about three related households. For those who need a refresher: Jay, the patriarch, is married to the much-younger Gloria, who has a wise-beyond-his-years 11-year-old son, Manny (Rico Rodriguez), from a previous union. Jay’s daughter, Claire (Julie Bowen), is high-strung and has three kids with her dopey husband, Phil, played by the marvelous Ty Burrell. And Jay’s son, Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), adopted a Vietnamese baby with his life partner, Cameron (the hilarious Eric Stonestreet). The formula has worked wonders: Averaging 9.3 million viewers — almost a million of whom are under the age of 18 — Family has become ABC’s buzziest family-friendly sitcom since Roseanne and Home Improvement.

And yet, remarkably, that’s not what co-creators Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd set out to accomplish when they first sold the single-camera series to ABC last winter. ”If anything, we felt like we were taking on a higher difficulty factor doing this because there had been so many family shows and they weren’t really working on network television,” says Lloyd, who first met Levitan while working on the NBC sitcom Wings. (More recently, the two created the short-lived comedy Back to You, starring Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton, for Fox.) ”But I think once we hit on the idea of telling stories about three very different types of families, we thought this has a lot of breadth to it. We can deal with kids and kids-driven stories, but there were also a lot of fun, adult things to get into that had nothing to do with ‘Mom, I forgot to do my homework.”’

It was one of those wacky grown-up moments that got the ensemble on a plane ride west in the first place. The May 5 episode finds Gloria inviting the entire clan on a vacation to Hawaii (too bad for Jay, who was hoping for a romantic getaway), and Levitan worried that he was cheating fans if the cast didn’t actually go. ABC didn’t need much convincing, Levitan says, but some of the cast members had their doubts. ”We love this show and feel really protective of it,” says Bowen. ”We wanted to make sure it wasn’t overexposed or done in a way that feels like it’s been done before. Everything about our show is a little bit about defying expectations.”

The writers assured the cast that the subsequent episode, scheduled for May 12, would seem no different from the previous 22. The typically harried Claire will treat the trip like a chore, while the people-pleasing Phil will see it as the honeymoon they never had. Carb-loving Jay will get inspired to start working out in the hotel gym after his brother calls to remind him of his mortality. And Mitchell and Cameron get lost in a sugarcane field. Naturally, the episode will be generously seasoned with those signature Family funnies, where the writers don’t set up and deliver a punchline as much as they drop it off and quickly speed away. (That was quickly established in the pilot episode, when Phil first meets Cameron and Mitchell’s Vietnamese baby and says, ”Lily — isn’t that going to be hard for her to say?”) ”One of the first things Ed O’Neill said to me after we saw the pilot was ‘Eric, it’s good because we don’t beg for laughs and we get laughs,”’ says Stonestreet.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that fans come to the show ready to enjoy more chuckles. Though it seemed like a huge risk at the beginning of the season to sandwich the freshman comedy between the equally green Patricia Heaton starrer The Middle and Courteney Cox’s Cougar Town, the gamble paid off: Modern Family is ABC’s biggest hit comedy in nine seasons. ”I believe in comedy blocks,” says Levitan, citing Sundays on Fox and Mondays on CBS. ”Show me another comedy that’s really working that is not in a block.”

But what’s been most gratifying to the creators is the overwhelming support from their sitcom-writing peers — many of whom were put out of work after the 100-day writers’ strike in 2007-08 and NBC’s decision to program Jay Leno five days a week last fall. ”The market had gotten so dismal that people were genuinely scared to the point that all petty jealousies were tossed aside in hopes that someone would break through, so the networks would believe in scripted shows again,” says Levitan. ”Because if a show works in a big way, it reinvigorates the form and people get jobs.” He’s right about that: There are 43 comedies in development at the Big Four networks for fall 2010, up from 35 last fall.

Now the goal is to extend that goodwill all the way to the Emmys in August, when the show will likely vie for best comedy against the equally hot Glee (Family already scored a best-new-show win at February’s Writers Guild Awards). Though stars like O’Neill, Bowen, and Burrell could make a case for being the comedy’s leads, the six adult actors recently decided to submit themselves in the Emmy supporting categories instead. ”It’s an ensemble,” argues O’Neill, who still ranks No. 1 on the call sheet due to his 11 seasons on Fox’s Married…With Children. ”I had a line last week where I said, ‘I understand about 20 percent of what’s going on around here.’ That’s true. Sometimes I don’t do as much, which is fine with me.”

Nowhere was that more apparent than in Maui, where O’Neill took advantage of the downtime by taking a dip in the pool, far away from the pesky paparazzi. Unlike his onscreen wife, ”I don’t have to worry,” O’Neill says with a smile. ”They’re not trying to get me.”

TV Casts Love Hawaii!

The Brady Bunch (1972)
The granddaddy of all Hawaii episodes, this three-parter’s got everything that makes the islands great: sun, surfing, and a cursed tiki that tries to kill its wearer. If only they had saved it as a gift for cousin Oliver.

Full House (1989)
In the third-season premiere, Danny takes the whole Tanner clan to Hawaii, but they accidentally end up stranded on an island where they must resist killing and eating the Olsen twins.

Saved by the Bell: Hawaiian Style (1992)
In this made-for-TV movie, the Bayside crew goes seaside and takes a summer vacation, where they must stop some evil developers using the power of neon scrunchies and acid-washed jeans.

Episode Recaps

Parents just don’t understand… and neither do kids or spouses in this hit ensemble comedy
  • TV Show
  • 10
  • TV-PG
  • Wednesdays at 9:00pm
  • 09/23/09
  • In Season
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