IC's Modern Family Connection

By Elizabeth Stoltz '13

For the past year, Jack Powers, an assistant professor in the Department of Television-Radio, has made multiple trips to Hollywood to experience first-hand the process of how ABC’s Modern Family--one of last season’s breakout TV hits--is written and produced.

Powers became involved with the Emmy-winning show last spring when he was invited to Hollywood by one of the shows executive producers.

Dan O’Shannon, a longtime Hollywood producer whose hits include Newhart, Cheers, and Frasier had previously sought Powers’ advice for a book he is writing about humor. Powers’ insights into the social and behavioral aspects of the television viewing process so impressed the producer that he invited him out to the 20th Century Fox Studio Lot, where Modern Family is filmed.

During that first week-long visit, Powers was afforded the opportunity to meet with the show’s creators and writers, be at a table read (when the actors of the show come to the writers’ room to read the script), observe the writers, meet the cast and crew, and be on set for the production of an episode. He was even given a chance in the limelight when he was cast as a non-speaking usher for a scene with Kobe Bryant in last spring’s season finale.

“I was so great in my role that most of my work ended up on the cutting room floor,” Powers joked, “I kept waiting for a call from the Academy for a best actor nomination, but, alas, it never came.”

Powers suspected the show would be a hit and told the producers as much after screening the show’s pilot episode for students in his Introduction to Mass Media class. He knew that if the show resonated with college students, its humor would resonate with larger audiences as well. He credits the show’s success to its family-based humor and universal appeal, saying, “We all know what its like to have a sibling rivalry, to do things that embarrass us, to get in arguments with a significant other or our parents; it’s the combination of excellent writing and wittiness with heartfelt emotion that makes the show a hit.”

Co-Executive Producer Dan O’Shannon said, “Jack knows more about how television really works than any college instructor I’ve ever met. He’s experienced the process first hand; we like having him here.”

While in Los Angeles, Powers arranged for O’Shannon to visit Ithaca College’s James B. Pendleton Center to talk with Park students about the elements necessary to succeed in Hollywood as a writer.

During his latest trip to Modern Family, Powers was given the chance to sit in with O’Shannon and Bill Wrubel, another top writer/producer, as they put together an episode from the initial story idea to first draft of a finished script.

Powers hopes to return to Los Angeles in the spring and continue his involvement with the show. “Chris Lloyd and Steve Levitan--the creators of Modern Family--and Dan O’Shannon--the co-executive producer--have given me a wonderful opportunity to have unprecedented access to everything about the making of the show – from the writing process, to observing the meetings with network and studio executives, to the filming of the episodes--everything--and I am forever grateful,” Powers said.

According to Powers, visiting with Modern Family “is a fantastic opportunity to be exposed to every part of producing a hit TV show so that I can bring that knowledge back to Ithaca College and share it with our students.”

Professor Jack Powers on the set of Modern Family during the filming of its Halloween episode.