Big Bang Kaley Penny
Credit: Cliff Lipson/CBS

Just three years ago, Eric Stonestreet was another no-name actor working in Hollywood, getting by with occasional appearances on shows like Nip/Tuck and CSI. Today, he’s an Emmy-winning co-star of Modern Family who easily ranks as one of the funniest men in primetime TV. Does he deserve to earn as much as 30 Rock’s Alec Baldwin or The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons?

That’s what the producers behind ABC’s hit family comedy will begin asking this summer, when the ensemble is expected to seek substantial raises for working on the three-year-old series. Similar renegotiations are already in the works on Two and Half Men (where deals are up for Ashton Kutcher and Jon Cryer) and Grey’s Anatomy (Ellen Pompeo, Patrick Dempsey and Sandra Oh, among others), but the MF talks have the potential to be the juiciest — depending on whether the adults band together à la Friends back in 2000.

And there-in lies the rub. While Modern Family, at 13.7 million, is ABC’s most-watched comedy and is an Emmy magnet, not every member of the Pritchett-Dunphy clan may be deserving of the same mammoth payday. Since the experienced Ed O’Neill (Jay Pritchett) began the show in 2009 as its highest-paid star (at a reported $100,000 a week), his renegotiated salary should keep him at the top of the heap. Still, reps for Sofia Vergara, the Columbian beauty who came out of nowhere to play Jay’s wife, Gloria, will no doubt argue that she deserves to earn as much as Ty Burrell (Phil Dunphy), Julie Bowen (Claire Dunphy) or Stonestreet (Cameron Tucker) — all of whom have earned Emmys for their work on the comedy. And Vergara will likely use The Big Bang Theory as her most timely exhibit A: The comedy’s three stars — Parsons, Kaley Cuoco and Johnny Galecki — all scored the same salary of roughly $200,000 a week, up from around $60,000, when their deals were renegotiated last year.

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

“Modern Family is a true ensemble,” opines one competing studio head. “So arguably, percentage wise, they should be getting the same increases. But the mistake actors and the agents often make is banding together. If you do that, you have to make sure they really stick together and one doesn’t peel off.” To wit: BBT’s Parsons attempted to negotiate separately because he’s the only cast member to win an Emmy. But Deadline reported that he was told to take or leave the $200,000 offer or risk tabling talks to this summer, instead.

“There is an inherent distrust that is hard to overcome,” says another longtime network executive. “In what other business does someone being paid $250,000 a week adamantly believe that they are getting screwed?”

Credit: Danny Feld/ABC

Fortunately, it’s not expected to be nearly as dramatic over on 2.5 Men, where Kutcher has already hinted publicly that “I want to work with these guys.” The only question is how much over his current salary of $750,000 per week that CBS is willing to pay him. ($1 million? $1.1 million?) The same goes for Grey’s Anatomy, where contracts are up for longtime stars like Pompeo and Dempsey. Fortunately, both have commented publicly about wanting to return to the veteran hospital drama (under the right circumstances). “It’s worth having a conversation,” Dempsey told TV Guide. “Why not have a discussion about continuing? The question is whether I do a full season, a half season, or come back at all?” Let’s hope it’s not the latter.

Lost in all of this money talk, of course, is how salary talks can sometimes hurt the bottom line. More money going out for pay hikes can mean less cash to develop the next Modern Family, or take a chance on the next unknown like Vergara. But that’s hardly the problem of talented actors like the stars of Modern Family, who deserve to be rewarded for helping to make their comedy a huge success. But re-negotiations can often be a bitter pill for the suits. Adds the longtime exec: “We take all the risk in development. Hundreds of millions of dollars. Talent is paid even if a pilot fails or get paid millions in development deals and produce nothing. Then when a show is a success they all feel that we are stealing from them no matter how much they are paid.”

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