Modern Family Heads to the Emmys
Talking with producer Abraham Higginbotham (CFA’92)
In the Modern Family episode “Aunt Mommy,” gay parents Mitchell and Cameron struggle to find a surrogate mother to carry their second child. After a drunken family dinner with Mitch’s sister, Claire, and her husband, the solution surfaces: Claire will serve as the surrogate.
The next day, the two couples are horrified at what had transpired. “What are we supposed to tell the baby?” asks Mitchell. “Say hi to your Aunt Mommy?”
The episode was written by Abraham Higginbotham (CFA’92) and Dan O’Shannon, co–executive producers of what has become one of television’s most popular shows, with Nielsen reporting an average 12 million viewers each week. This episode’s central drama was born out of Higginbotham’s own life: he and his partner wrestled with the question of surrogacy. In that case, Higginbotham’s sister graciously offered to help.
“I was finally the one who said, ‘I can’t do this, it makes me uncomfortable,’ and called it off,” Higginbotham says. “It was tough and difficult in life, but fun and interesting on camera.”
“Aunt Mommy” won a 2012 Humanitas Prize, an award honoring film and television writers whose work explores the human condition in a nuanced, meaningful way. It was the second win for Higginbotham, whose work on Modern Family won in 2011. “Aunt Mommy” is one of six episodes that the Modern Family writers and producers submitted in the Outstanding Comedy Series category at the 64th Primetime Emmy Awards, airing on Sunday, September 23. The show was nominated for 14 Emmys this year.
The 42-year-old Higginbotham, who has written for Will & Grace, Arrested Development, and Ugly Betty, is one of the most sought-after writers in Los Angeles, and Sunday night will be his third time attending the Emmys. BU Today spoke with him about Modern Family (which has already won eight Emmys), his convictions, and his advice to students.
BU Today: Tell us where you come from and how you got to Hollywood.
Higginbotham: I grew up in Washington, Pa. I wanted to be an actor, and I got into BU’s acting program. I was actually almost cut from the program, but one of my professors stood up for me and they reinstated me two days later. When I finished, I went to New York and my agent sent me on a bunch of musical theater auditions because I had been a dancer my whole life. There was no part of me that wanted to be doing musical theater. I can’t sing a lick.
So I quit acting and worked in Democratic political fundraising and for gay, lesbian, and AIDS organizations. Then a friend suggested I audition for a play he was in and I did, and out of that I got a second job. Then I moved to Los Angeles, because that was what I had always wanted to do. I got a couple of jobs as ambiguously ethnic bad guys on Aaron Spelling shows, like 90210 and 7th Heaven, and got my SAG card.
I started writing so I could act in theater, here in LA, to get myself seen. And often the reaction was, ‘Why aren’t you a writer? You’re such a good writer.’ And I would get so offended, because I just acted for them for two hours and all they would say is that I should be a writer. Eventually I became tired of eating croutons and salad dressing every night for dinner, because I was that broke. I was a personal assistant to a television comedy writer. I asked if there was a chance he would read my scripts. He read them, told me to cut them by a few pages, and then gave them to his agent. I instantly got an agent at William Morris Agency, a great agency I am still with today. Within four months I had a job, my acting career started going better, and I was getting interviews with showrunners and executives at the studios.
Rich Appell, who was a King of the Hill writer, was creating his own show. When A.U.S.A. got picked up, I was one of his first writers. I got to write two out of eight scripts, which made the studio pay a little more attention to me. When the scripts for Arrested Development came along, I fell in love with the pilot, and felt I had to be on that show. I called everyone I knew at 20th Century Fox, and showrunner Mitch Hurwitz gave me the job. It was the best learning experience in the world. Two years on that show taught me more about writing than any course could have taught me.
Arrested Development is famous for its absurd and wacky storylines. Were you used to writing things like that or did you have to learn?
Absolutely. The writers made a joke that I was the moral compass in the room, that they would pitch something, and I would say, ‘Wait, what planet are we living on, that doesn’t really happen.’ I like when characters are real people who live in absurd circumstances, but when they stop being real people and become insane people living in absurd circumstances, I think you just care less. I was made fun of, believe me. Comedy rooms don’t love the guy who says, ‘What are we feeling right now?’ I was, especially in that room, trying to keep the family grounded.
But I learned from all these genius comedy writers how to maintain that level of comedy, how to pitch outside the box, and pitch whatever you want to pitch. There are terrible writers, but just pitch it, throw it out there, and we’ll see what happens. It could inspire something else. It forced me to be braver, because you have to talk. When you’re in a room with very talented, verbal, and quick writers, you have to talk and hold your own.
What’s a typical workday like at Modern Family?
Most of it is room work. Most of a comedy writing job is sitting in a room with 7 to 11 people, pitching, talking, and figuring out which stories you want to tell, how you want to tell them, and then assigning someone to write the outline. That person brings the outline back, the room decides what works, what doesn’t work, what needs to be punched up, and you go off again and turn that into a script. That’s the “written by” credit, because you have basically written the first draft. But once you bring it back to the room, you all rewrite it together, for the table read and then for shooting.
But a typical day is me hanging out with these people that I adore, laughing my face off, and occasionally getting into tense squabbles about politics.
Does Modern Family’s use of a documentary-style camera help or hinder you when you write? Have you come to think of it almost as another character?
The way that we talk about it is that Modern Family is a television show shot in a documentary style, but it’s not a true documentary. There are certain moments on all those shows, like The Office and Parks & Recreation, when someone is trapped in a moment, where you ask, ‘Why aren’t the camera people helping them?’ In my next episode, Phil is trapped, but because we don’t really employ the camera as a true character standing there to help him, it can’t be done.
Here’s how it helps us—we shoot so much faster. Because it’s a documentary style, there are only two cameras in the room at any time, there are no insert shots or crazy lighting like so much of network television. We shoot so much faster than other shows, you can’t believe it. A friend of mine, Michaela Watkins (CFA’94) is in an upcoming episode this season. She couldn’t believe that she shot 80 percent of her storyline and she was leaving at 11:30 in the morning. The documentary format helps us do that.
Who is your favorite Modern Family character to write for?
I can’t lie. Mitch probably comes easiest to me. I guess that will surprise no one. I love writing Jay because so much of my personality resides in that disgruntled old man place—somehow I got there at 42. I love his reluctance to do anything, his misanthropic tendencies. Phil is a challenge, and I like him for that reason. He is a dopey, straight-guy dad who is kind of innocent, and that’s a fun challenge. Claire I can write easily because she is type-A and high maintenance and I am very much that. Gloria is fun because anything can come out of her mouth.
The best thing about this show is that I love writing all of the characters, which wasn’t true with other shows I’ve worked on. With this show, there is no scene or character that I don’t want to write. They are all fun to inhabit.
What episode or scene you wrote is your favorite?
I think the favorite episode I’ve written is a tie between “Baby on Board” and “The Kiss.” “Baby on Board” was the season finale last year, when they had the Spanish soap opera and Gloria found out she was pregnant. I was invested in that because my boyfriend and I had called off a baby quest that we were on. I wanted to write the Mitch and Cam version of that story. I also loved cowriting “Aunt Mommy.”
So Modern Family’s writers do lift storylines from their own lives?
So, so many. More than any show I’ve ever been on. Arrested Development was such a heightened, rarified world that was so much broader than real life. This show is truly built on the lives of the writers, and occasionally the actors. If we’re searching for something to write about, we come in with stories and dig through our past. Like, ‘When this fight happens in my house, this is how it plays out,’ and often we can find a comic point of view based on something idiotic one of us said. And Mitch and Cam have a lot of my relationship in their relationship, probably more so than my boyfriend would want.
The show has been hailed for its positive and normal portrayal of a gay family. A lot of network television shows are now following suit. Did you expect that to happen?
I guess you always expect that when something is working; every network is going to try to do the same show. Then they’ll discover something brand-new and out of the box, and everyone will start to copy that. So yes, I expected it, and I definitely like it because there are more gay relationships on television.
I wish they were a little more varied than they are. I hope that they can be as flawed and broken as straight relationships. I think that’s what is fun about Mitch and Cam, and sometimes we get shit about that from the gay community, that they quarrel too much, that they’re not affectionate enough. But what I want to say is that true equality is that we, the gay community, are just like straight people. That’s the point we’re making—that gay relationships are just as flawed, just as broken, just as loving, nurturing, and winning as straight relationships.
Why do you think Modern Family has been such a success?
It is that magic that happens sometimes when a cast gets together and the writers know how to write for them; there is a great marriage there. It’s inexplicable, but our actors are so talented, and I do believe the writing is good and solid and consistent. I also think the family is so varied that there are a lot of ways in for an audience. You have your liberal gay guys, your traditional straight couple with three kids, and this older man married to a young Latina who is hot as shit; it’s like every old man’s fantasy.
When it came out, it was a fresh take on a family show. And weirdly, and simultaneously, it’s traditional. A simple family show about relationships, instead of all the high-concept stuff that we had kind of been doing for a while on television. People can relate to Modern Family.
Any hints about the upcoming season?
Shelley Long is coming back as DeDe when she discovers that Gloria is pregnant, we are going to deal with Cam finally going back to work, now that they are not having the baby and Lily in kindergarten. We are going to discover a hidden talent of Gloria’s from her days in Colombia. She is extremely funny with it. And Michaela Watkins and Wendi McLendon from Bridesmaids play a lesbian couple who become Mitch and Cam’s rivals. We’re doing a God of Carnage episode with the lesbian couple.
What do you think of your chances of taking home the Emmy?
I think we have an OK chance. I wonder if people are a little tired of us, frankly. People are still watching the show, which helps. There’s a lot of talk about HBO’s new shows like Girls and Veep—that they’re going to knock us off the block. So it’s hard not to buy into that a little bit and think maybe we won’t win.
I’ve been really lucky. I’ve been to the Emmys twice, once for Arrested Development, when we won, and then for Modern Family, when we won, so I’ve never had to go and lose. If I have to go and lose, I promise you I won’t stay so long at the parties. It’s a long day, and winning helps you get through it.
The 64th Primetime Emmy Awards air Sunday, September 23, on ABC. Modern Family returns Wednesday, September 26, on ABC. Check your local listings for times.7 Comments