Benjamin Svetkey
October 30, 2009 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The weather couldn’t be more miserable. Rain and wind are whipping umbrellas inside out all over the Century City lot. But on one soundstage, where Modern Family tapes, the mood is all sunshine and rainbows: This is the happy land where ABC is saving the family sitcom.

”People used to come up to me when I was on other programs to tell me they liked the show,” says Ed O’Neill, the actor who spent 11 seasons jamming his hand down his pants as Al Bundy on Married…With Children, but who now plays Jay Pritchett, Modern Family‘s cranky but loving grandpa. ”I’d be like, ‘Really? What do you like about it? I’m curious.’ But now when people come up to me and say they like this show, I find myself saying, ‘Isn’t it great?’ That’s the first time I’ve done that in my whole life as an actor.”

The effusive praise comes for a show that, in some ways, couldn’t be more familiar. From the Ricardos to the Bluths, kooky families have been a sitcom staple. In the Pritchett clan, O’Neill’s Jay has a hot, young, Colombian second wife, Gloria (Sofia Vergara), whose precocious 11-year-old son, Manny (Rico Rodriguez), thinks he’s Ricardo Montalban. There’s also Jay’s tightly wound daughter Claire (Julie Bowen), her nudnick husband Phil (Ty Burrell), and their three kids. And finally, you have Claire’s prickly gay brother, Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), who just adopted a Vietnamese baby with his big-boned life partner, Cameron (Eric Stonestreet). What makes Modern Family different, though — and the reason it’s averaging 10.6 million viewers, outperforming The Office and Family Guy — is its tone. It’s as sharp as Seinfeld, as layered as Arrested Development, with characters every bit as lovable as those in Raymond, but there’s also a flavor we haven’t tasted on TV for a while: sweetness. ”There have been a lot of extremely funny shows on the air,” says co-creator Steven Levitan (Just Shoot Me). ”But they’ve all been sort of cynical about emotion.” Levitan’s producing partner, Christopher Lloyd (the two met while working as scribes on Wings), nods in agreement. ”Your first obligation is to make the audience laugh,” he says. ”But if you can add an extra dimension and make the audience feel something — a warm moment, a character’s vulnerability — that’s so appreciated. There’s a hunger for a show that makes you feel good.”

For the last few years, TV comedy has been in a rut. Last fall, networks introduced only four new sitcoms, as compared with 1997, which saw 15 debuts. But this season, ABC took a risk and stacked its Wednesday lineup with four new comedies from 8 to 10 p.m. The decision paid off, and the network has already picked up three of the shows for the whole season: Modern Family (which has the most buzz and critical adoration), Courteney Cox’s Cougar Town, and Patricia Heaton’s The Middle. (Kelsey Grammer’s Hank, which pulls the weakest ratings of the bunch, has yet to receive a pickup.) ”We’ve been struggling to get back in the comedy business,” says ABC president Stephen McPherson. ”We were trying to get back to our family comedies; Roseanne and Home Improvement were ABC’s iconic shows. So Modern Family is a big step for us.”

When Levitan and Lloyd pitched the show to ABC, they were still licking their wounds from Back to You, their Kelsey Grammer newsroom sitcom that fizzled on Fox two seasons ago (Burrell had a role as a reporter with an unpronounceable last name). It’s still a sore spot: ”Getting notes on creativity from Fox is like getting notes on fashion from the Braille Institute,” sneers Lloyd. For their follow-up act, the duo initially had an idea ”for a show about an Archie Bunker-type retiree who finds himself living with his Asperger’s-challenged son,” explains Lloyd. ”But we kept coming back to family because we both have kids and we’re always telling stories about situations that come up at home.”

Having burned out on the traditional multicamera sitcom format with Back to You, for Modern Family they went the trendy mockumentary route — though they scrapped an original plan to include a Dutch filmmaker character who was making the ”documentary.” Still, they’re careful to point out that they weren’t just hopping on the Office bandwagon. ”The fake documentary form has been around forever,” says Lloyd. ”Obviously, The Office does it. But Woody Allen did it too with Take the Money and Run. And there was the Spinal Tap movie. We’re just the first family comedy to do it.”

In the spirit of a true documentary, the writers take plenty of stories for their show directly from their real families. A scene from the pilot in which doofus dad Phil punishes his 11-year-old son by shooting him with a BB gun came from Levitan trying to give the same misguided lesson to his own child. ”I even videotaped it,” he admits. ”I’m writing a story right now involving my wife’s inability to master technology. I came home one night and found a remote control in a thousand pieces by the front door. That’ll be in the show.” The actors also sacrifice their home lives for the cause. ”We all come in to work with stories,” says Bowen, who recently ”found my husband punching holes in the wall looking for a place to put a wall safe. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is so Phil.”’ Amen to that, says Burrell. ”I am Phil…and I love how well-intentioned he is. He’s basically a dog that can talk. Every time anybody comes in the door, he’s crazy happy to see them, but he’s always knocking things over and eating crap out of the fridge and getting his paws over everything.” Yet typecasting doesn’t apply to all the actors on the Modern Family set. Stonestreet, for instance, a 38-year-old former clown from Kansas, had to figure out how to play an extroverted, dancing fool of a gay man, despite the handicap of being single and straight. ”I ground the character in my mom,” he says, pointing to his visiting, silver-haired mother, who’s standing in a corner of the soundstage. ”She’s very passionate and excitable, just like my character.”

Upcoming episodes will see Claire’s anniversary gift to Phil — a command performance by their favorite musician, Izzy LaFontaine (guest star Edward Norton) — go horribly awry, and Jay will feel a newfound pride in Manny when he turns out to be a fantastic fencer. Also, Benjamin Bratt (Law & Order) will guest as Manny’s sketchy dad, and Stonestreet’s real-life clown training will pay off when Cameron dons a red nose to work the birthday party for Phil and Claire’s son, Luke (Nolan Gould). On this show, Levitan and Lloyd aren’t complaining about the network’s notes, because they’ve mostly been thank-yous attached to gift baskets. And the execs aren’t the only ones weighing in with praise. Producers have heard through friends of Steven Spielberg and Sacha Baron Cohen that they love the show. ”We never got anywhere near this amount of attention on Married…With Children,” marvels O’Neill. ”People actually respect this show.” And more importantly these days, they’re watching it, too.

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