Backstage at ‘Modern Family’: Little extra touches add up to great TV comedy

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LOS ANGELES — It’s lunchtime for all three branches of “Modern Family.”

Chattering happily and casually, they file into an obelisk-shaped room, carrying their paper plates of salads and healthful-looking side dishes, and they take their seats at a long, long table.

Alex and Haley Dunphy sit side by side, as do Phil and Claire, Cameron and Mitchell, and Jay and Gloria. (The younger kids — Manny and Luke, Lily and Joe — aren’t here today.)

They work on their lunches — and they get to work.

Scripts are opened, eyeglasses are put on, and the story unwinds. Soon the room is rolling with laughter as Gloria gives Jay the business about a certain personality shortcoming, and Alex and Haley bond over each other’s romantic follies, and Cam and Mitch banter as only those two can.

Last Wednesday, one week before the Season Seven premiere (8 p.m. Wednesday, WLS-Channel 7) of ABC’s groundbreaking and five-time Emmy-winning “Modern Family” (which lost out on a chance for a record sixth-straight best comedy win to “Veep” on Sunday), I visited the “Modern Family” set, watched a full table read of a work-in-progress episode and sat in on a taping of a scene in another upcoming show.

Sarah Hyland and Ariel Winter on “Modern Family.” | ABC

Sarah Hyland and Ariel Winter on “Modern Family.” | ABC

While edgier fare such as “Louie,” “Veep” and “Girls” have stolen a bit of the thunder from “Modern Family” in the last couple of years, let’s remember how groundbreaking this show was when it debuted in 2009 — and how strong the writing and acting remain after some 144 episodes.

I believe it’s one of the Top 10 half-hour comedy series of all-time.

Joining Ariel Winter and Sarah Hyland, Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen, Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Ed O’Neill and Sofia Vergara for the table read is an iconic comedic actress who will be guest-starring on this particular episode. She is introduced to enthusiastic applause, and the table read begins.

Even in this relatively early stage of the creative process, the writing is so sharp and the actors are so comfortable with their characters, it’s easy to envision the episode that will eventually air. All the cast members are engaged and generous with their attention, even when they’re not involved in a particular scene.

After the table read, I’m given a tour of the “Modern Family” sets.

Eric Stonestreet, Aubrey Anderson-Emmons and Jesse Tyler Ferguson on this week’s “Modern Family” season premiere. | ABC

Eric Stonestreet, Aubrey Anderson-Emmons and Jesse Tyler Ferguson on this week’s “Modern Family” season premiere. | ABC

In the real world (and in some exterior shots on the show), the home that serves as the Dunphys’ is on Dunleer Drive in Los Angeles; Cam and Mitch’s duplex is in Century City, and the Pritchetts’ place is in Brentwood.

Of course, that’s not how it works when it comes to cranking out a TV show.

The magic must be consolidated.

So on Stage 5 on the Fox Studios lot — an enormous building that has housed everything from segments of “The Grapes of Wrath” to “L.A. Law” — the Dunphys’ living room and Lily’s bedroom and Alex’s dorm room and Luke’s bedroom and the Pritchetts’ entranceway and Mitchell and Cam’s living room are all connected.

(Surprisingly, though, the staircase in the Dunphy house set doesn’t lead to nowhere, as would be the case with most TV shows and sets. The bedrooms are literally upstairs.)

Every photograph on every wall, every knick-knack tucked into a corner of a kitchen or dining room, every poster on every kid’s bedroom wall, every award is specific and true to the history of the show.

Sofia Vergara, Rico Rodriguez and Ed O’Neill on the Sept. 30 episode of “Modern Family.” | ABC

Sofia Vergara, Rico Rodriguez and Ed O’Neill on the Sept. 30 episode of “Modern Family.” | ABC

The lighting and background set detail (and post-production editing) on “Modern Family” are among the most creative and ambitious ever seen on a sitcom. Think about your favorite comedies, from “Cheers” to “Friends” to “Frasier” to “Seinfeld,” and how the primary sets have few windows — or static background images. That makes it so much easier to light and to maintain a consistent look. On “Modern Family,” nearly every episode includes multiple daytime scenes with open windows in the background. Morning feels like morning.

This afternoon’s shoot is taking place at the “Pritchett house.” Gloria answers the door, Mitch and Cam enter, there’s a bit of byplay among the three of them about a previous plot thread and then Mitch and Jay have a scene together.

It’s more of a setup situation than a payoff — but as the cast goes through one, two, three, four, five takes, subtle shifts are made, line readings change, and it gets better each time.

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