This week, the hit television show Modern Family won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series for the third consecutive year. Since it first premiered three years ago, Modern Family has garnered a total of 12 Emmys for categories that include acting, directing and — perhaps most importantly — for writing. Without a doubt, Modern Family is firing on all cylinders, which is great news for the Los Angeles economy. Each year, more than 200 cast and crew owe their jobs to the success of Modern Family, a production that rains $20 million on L.A. each production season.
But before any of this good news can happen, it all has to start with a script. Without a team of great writers crafting stories audiences want to see, the jobs and spending would not exist. We thought it was time for Film Works to get an inside look at the life of a screenwriter working on a L.A.-based television production. Modern Family was an obvious choice.
The team at 20th Century Fox Television, where Modern Family is based, recognize the economic importance television production has on the local economy and share Film Works’ commitment to educating Californians about the importance of keeping TV in the state. Earlier this year, the production team at the studio incorporated the Film Works logo into their “Made in L.A.” messaging (pictured here) that adorns the Modern Family production trucks.
Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, the creators and executive producers of Modern Family liked our idea for a story and graciously arranged for Film Works to visit the writers’ offices on the 20th Century Fox Studios. There, we met with Bill Wrubel, one of the “Modern Writers” and a co-executive producer on the show.
Wrubel’s career as a Hollywood screenwriter spans more than 15 years and includes writing and producing credits on critically acclaimed shows like Modern Family, Ugly Betty, Will & Grace and Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night. Wrubel, who was born and raised in New Jersey, earned a degree in English from Wesleyan University in Connecticut. After college, Wrubel moved to New York and worked as a playwright and backstage at the Atlantic Theater Company. While Wrubel’s time in New York did little to prepare him for television, he proudly notes that New York City is where he “learned the craft of writing” by working with great writers like David Mamet and Spalding Gray.
Wrubel said it “was very hard to earn a living” as a New York playwright. At the same time, he never gave much thought to writing for television. But then things started to change. Wrubel said shows that came along in the early 1990s like Frasier, Seinfeld, Friends and NYPD Blue (which is one of Wrubel’s favorites) began to change his mind. “I started to feel that the quality of the writing on television was as good, if not better, than for plays produced on Broadway,” Wrubal told Film Works.
After making the big decision to come to Los Angeles, one of the first jobs he landed was as a writer’s assistant in 1995. Starting off as a writer’s assistant allowed Wrubel to observe the process of writing for television and see how a show gets made. “Being a writer’s assistant was one of the best things that could have happened,” said Wrubel.
The writing process for television is completely different than what I was used to, and I was intimidated because I didn’t know if it was something that I could be good at doing. The whole idea of thinking out loud in a room full of talented and funny people, when you know so much of what you say will be bad, is an intimidating reality you have to get comfortable with.
Watching prominent comedy writers pitch material that nobody laughed at taught Wrubel an important lesson. “Great writers pitch story ideas all the time, and the stuff they say usually isn’t funny almost 100% of the time.”
Before Modern Family, Wrubel said his best experience on a show was the four years he spent on Will & Grace. “It was a wonderful experience to get to work on that show, but it would have been even better had I been on the show from the start,” said Wrubel. Many writers want to work from the beginning on shows that go on to become one of the greats like Seinfeld or Frasier. With that in mind, Wrubel told Film Works about how he landed his job on Modern Family.
Wrubel recalled going to the studio for an interview with Steven Levitan and Chris Lloyd:
Right off the bat, I was a little nervous. Back when I was living in New York, I spent a lot of time sitting in my apartment watching television because I was, as a struggling playwright, oftentimes out of work. I would see their names [Levitan & Lloyd] all the time because I loved shows they worked on like Wings and Frasier. And now all of the sudden, I am sitting in an office waiting to meet them.
As he waited for his interview, Wrubel was shown the pilot episode for Modern Family. Watching the pilot only added to his nervous energy, but also his excitement:
I remember sitting there watching the pilot and thinking to myself, ‘oh my God, this thing is fantastic!’ It was just so good, so funny and I started to think this could be one of those great shows everyone wants the chance to be a part of and I could be there from day one.
Given the show’s popularity and numerous accolades, as Modern Family begins its fourth season, Wrubel’s dream of working on one of the “great shows from day one” has come true. Wrubel said writing for Modern Family has been a wonderful experience from the beginning:
Steve [Levitan] and Chris [Lloyd] are amazing showrunners who know how to operate a show like clockwork. They really do give everyone who is part of the show a feeling of ownership, especially for the episodes we are assigned to write the script for. At the same time, Steve and Chris always have a vision for what they want the show to be and were terrific at running interference for us [the writing team] in the first season when the studio was giving notes that [Levitan and Lloyd] wanted us [the writers] to ignore.
A writer’s hours, which can be notoriously long on many shows, are reasonable on Modern Family. On most days, Wrubel works from about 10 in the morning to 6:30 in the evening. “The reason Steve and Chris are able to pull off those kind of hours is because they are such seasoned showrunners,” said Wrubel. “We don’t waste hours in the writers room joking around or watch funny clips on YouTube all day. When we are in that room, we work.”
Wrubel said writing each episode is a group endeavor. For the writer assigned to write a specific episode, the task is to interpret what Levitan and Lloyd want and find a way to finesse it all into a polished script. While this may sound difficult, Wrubel said they get the job done because the team sticks to the fundamentals of storytelling. “The focus is always on telling a story, not to tell a joke. We let the jokes come out of the story rather than concoct a story just to keep telling jokes.”
According to Wrubel, each episode is effectively “written” three different times: first with the script, then during the shoot and last in the editing room. Shooting the script means adding a whole host of collaborators that are not in the writing room. When it comes to the cast, Wrubel said the actors on Modern Family are very respectful of the writer’s words, but “they also get to play with them. A good found moment on the stage can make a comedy soar.”
A typical timeline for a Modern Family episode appears at right. Wrubel said that when the script is ready to shoot, the writer wears the hat of a co-executive producer. Levitan and Lloyd oversee as the showrunners, but the writers will cast the episode and be involved with every phase of the shoot.
When not writing a designated episode, a writer’s focus shifts from concentrating on one episode to juggling tasks and collaborating on multiple episodes in a single day. “On any given day I could be working on story breaking for one episode, reading someone’s script for another, looking at outlines and giving notes for as many as five different episodes,” said Wrubel.
For a show with more than ten distinct characters from three equally distinct families, the obvious question many people have is: where do the writers get their material, and how have they been able to keep it up? Short answer: they draw from their own lives and experiences.
Every day after lunch, many of the writers take a long walk around the lot and kick around stories from their lives and explore whether there is something they can use for a story. Wrubel is constantly hoping his daily life as a father will yield an experience he can write into the show. “When I go to coach my daughter’s softball team, I secretly hope that something humorous or unusual will happen that I can put into a story,” said Wrubel with a chuckle.
Even though Modern Family is clearly filmed around Los Angeles, the show is not is not set in L.A. Wrubel said the show is set in a nameless suburban location to keep it “relatable”:
The story takes place in a nameless Southern California suburban environment. We don’t hide the fact they seem to live close to Los Angeles — [characters] went to a Lakers game or Dodger Stadium in past episodes — but we don’t specifically mention any towns or L.A. because we want the show to be relatable. It’s not about them going to a Dodgers game, it’s about them going to baseball game.
As a group, film and television screenwriters in Los Angeles are more insulated from runaway production than other segments of the industry. When Wrubel was a writer on Ugly Betty, he and the rest of the writing team stayed in L.A. even after the production moved to New York. The writers would only go to New York when their episode(s) were being shot. Runaway production bothers Wrubel for creative reasons, however. The Modern Family writer’s offices are right next to Stage 5, where much of the show is filmed:
It’s much more rewarding for me to be near the stage, because I think it allows for a more collaborative environment. I can walk down and spend time on the sets and talk to the cast and maybe get a new insight I can use to write into their character. The more time you spend with the cast, the more things you notice. That’s not something you get when they shoot 3,000 miles away.
Wrubel admits that being close to set is his preference, but he said other writers might be indifferent. “Look, they wrote every episode of LOST in Burbank and filmed in Hawaii and that was a phenomenal show,” said Wrubel.
Actor Micheal J. Fox once joked that if you ask anyone walking down the street in Los Angeles about their screenplay, they’ll have an answer for you about it. For the many aspiring writers living in Los Angeles, Film Works asked Wrubel what advice he would give them. Wrubel said it’s important to “be patient about what you are doing” and pointed out that he did not get his first staff writing position on a show until he was 34. Writers should know their movies, television shows, books and plays and participate in writing workshops.
Wrubel said even after he moved to Los Angeles he was constantly taking writing classes and workshops at places like the extension program at UCLA. According to Wrubel, writing workshops are the closest approximation of what it’s like to be on a writing team and will help aspiring television writers learn skills, like giving notes, by interacting with other writers. “Those kinds of skills are just as important in a writer’s room as writing itself,” said Wrubel.
Perhaps most important, Wrubal advises aspiring writers to deliver good work on every job they do:
Whether you are working as a PA [production assistant] or as a writer’s assistant or anything… whatever you are doing, do it well. At some point, someone important is going to notice and ask what it is you really want to do… and then you should have a writing sample, like a spec script, ready to go.
When asked what television shows the writers on Modern Family are watching, Wrubel said 30 Rock was probably at the top of everyone’s list. And while he has never seen it, Wrubel said most of the writers are huge fans of Breaking Bad. Other shows they like to watch include Mad Men, Community, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Girls.
“Basically” said Wrubel, “we are fans of the medium.”