Christopher Lloyd’s award-winning funny bones
Calculating the odds of a television program winning a series Emmy five years running is an exercise best left to a mathematician. “Frasier” pulled off that feat from 1994 to 1998, and show runner Christopher Lloyd remembers thoroughly enjoying the streak — and, because he is “snarly” and “competitive,” not taking kindly to “Ally McBeal” ending it. He knew it would never happen again.
Except, this year “Modern Family,” the warm, funny, relatable comedy Lloyd created with Steve Levitan, might just repeat the accomplishment. “Modern Family” has won the comedy series Emmy for the last four years, and even with strong competition from the likes of “Louie” and newcomer “Orange Is the New Black,” it remains the favorite to prevail this year, which would raise Lloyd’s record total of Emmys as a producer to 10.
Those series trophies, along with two other Emmys that Lloyd won as a writer for “Modern Family” and “Frasier,” rest on shelves in his Westwood home, in a modest office just to the left of the grand piano and drum kit in the living room. There doesn’t appear to be an available spot for another Emmy, to which Lloyd, adopting a privileged accent vaguely reminiscent of Kelsey Grammer’s haughty Frasier Crane, bemoans, “Isn’t that a horrible problem?”
Television excellence runs in the family. Lloyd’s father, David, was one of the most celebrated writers in the medium, the author of dozens of superb episodes of classic sitcoms like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Taxi” and “Cheers.” David Lloyd wrote “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” the landmark 1975 “Mary Tyler Moore” episode often cited as the greatest half-hour in television history. The younger Lloyd, then 15, sat in the front row of the CBS Studio Center bleachers when that episode filmed. He often went to the set with his dad, though he rarely ventured beyond his assigned seat in the studio audience. (“We were a nervous, rule-following Catholic family,” Lloyd says.)
Nineteen years later, father and son worked together on “Frasier,” with David coming in two days a week as a consultant and writing 15 episodes over eight seasons. The younger Lloyd, an introvert like his father, calls their collaboration a “fruitful experience,” particularly in the ways they could explore their own relationship within the dynamic between Frasier and his down-to-earth dad, Martin.
“They came from different worlds, which is not true for my dad and me,” Lloyd says. “But there was a stiltedness in their willingness to talk about emotions and their actual relationship, as well as a generational rift and a clear yearning on Frasier’s part for some approval from his dad. To be a father and son exploring that dynamic was interesting.”
Family ties have always been a central part of Lloyd’s work. He’s mining them on “Modern Family” with his younger brother, Stephen, a television veteran who joined the writing staff this year after his own show, “How I Met Your Mother,” ended. Lloyd jokes that he and Levitan encourage the “Modern Family” staff to devote as much time as possible with their own broods during weekends and the off-season, “embarrassing each other and utterly shaming themselves publicly so we have something to write about next year.”
Lloyd’s own contributions come from his 19-year marriage to Arleen Sorkin (no relation to Aaron) and the time spent raising two sons, both now teenagers, tall young men able to school him on the basketball court behind the house. Echoes of his family life can be seen throughout the various “Modern Family” clans but most directly within the relationship between mild-mannered Mitchell and the flamboyant Cameron.
“Arleen loves a party,” says Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who plays Mitchell on the show. “Chris is very even-keeled. He doesn’t waste breaths. Every sentence that comes out of his mouth has a purpose.”
Lloyd recalls sometimes coming home after work, hoping to unwind quietly and maybe watch a little “Monday Night Football,” only to find valet parkers in front of the house for reasons unknown.
“A guy’s handing me a ticket and I’m staring through the drapes trying to figure out what’s going on and what cause it’s for,” Lloyd says of the mystery event at home. “So, yes, she’s the Cam. It’s hard for her to say no to anyone with a sad story. I’m the sort of closed-off, let’s-bar-the-doors character like Mitchell. And I’m aware, having grown up in that kind of household, that it’s not always good to bar the door. It’s good to have the chaotic world swirl through your house once in awhile. And it’s good for our kids. They get a mix.”
But Lloyd prefers to remain behind the scenes, calling his natural habitat a “dark, quiet room with a pencil and legal pad.” He “sweated through a couple of tuxedos” at the Emmys during the heyday of “Frasier” but has never attended the ceremony during the streak of “Modern Family.” At first, Ferguson found Lloyd’s absence puzzling. Even when Lloyd bites the bullet and goes to the Golden Globes, Ferguson catches him mysteriously disappearing just before the show’s category is announced.
“He doesn’t feel comfortable in front of the camera,” Ferguson says, “so he just removes himself from that situation. I respect that. He does what he does so well that you accept the little quirks along the way. But he’s also the one always driving it home after we win, telling us we need to pause and take stock of this moment because it’s a big deal.”
And it would be a big deal again — even if Lloyd isn’t on hand to see it.
“I should hasten to add that I feel nothing but gratitude toward the Emmys, which have treated me very generously over the years,” Lloyd says. “I will add, further, that my favorite genre of acceptance speech is the one where a person who is already well-paid and well-acknowledged — a person who wakes up in the morning feeling pretty good about himself — wins an award and then proclaims that the experience has ‘humbled’ him. I am interested in the math behind this equation.”
From the Emmys to the Oscars.
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