The comedy legend Jerry Lewis perhaps put it best when he offered up his theory of what makes people laugh: "Funny had better be sad somewhere."
As the cast of Modern Family gallops into their third season on their high horse, literally, for a summer-vacation taste of the cowboy life at a Dude Ranch, it's obvious they have bigger hearts than their nags and no shortage of relationship pain to work through - spinning laugh-out-loud results that competing comedy shows can only envy.
In the verdant valley of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, ringed by the steep Rocky Mountains, the three families at the hub of this sitcom not only experience the quintessential American vacation, they draw upon their "funny" to lay bare bits of their emotional core as they bridge generational, cultural and social gaps to cleanse their underlying "sad".
"It's an episode where everybody finds a little part of themselves that they didn't know was there," says Ariel Winter, who portrays the teenager Alex Dunphy. "It's just a really cool 'changing' episode for everybody in the family. You get to see different sides of them."
With a Golden Globe and 11 Emmys to date, more accolades are most assuredly on the way for this ABC series that instantly healed the hearts of millions of comedy lovers upon its premiere on September 23, 2009, when it brought back actor Ed O'Neill - belovedly known to a generation as the crazy Al Bundy in Fox's long-running sitcom Married ... with Children - to take up patriarch duty anew as the no-nonsense dad, Jay Pritchett.
Jay strikes sparks off his wife, a much younger, fiercely loyal Colombian beauty named Gloria (Sofia Vergara), whose oh-so-nasal Hispanic vocal stylings could make Fran Drescher cry out for mercy. Her young son Manny (Rico Rodriguez) marches to the beat of his own drum, usually while donning a burgundy dinner jacket.
Two other families sparkle up the marquee with Jay's lot.
First, there's Jay's son-in-law, the real-estate agent Phil (Ty Burrell), who tries desperately hard to win Jay's respect; his slightly uptight wife, Claire (Julie Bowen); and their three wildly different kids: Haley (Sarah Hyland), the rebellious eye-rolling teen; the wise-beyond-her-years middle child Alex (Ariel Winter); and their mischievous little brother Luke (Nolan Gould).
And then there's Jay's self-doubting lawyer son, Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and his artsy free-spirit partner, Cameron (Eric Stonestreet), who find themselves flustered as they learn the parenting ropes, having adopted a Vietnamese baby girl, Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons).
While vacationing at Lost Creek Ranch in Jackson Hole, our three families try their hands at a little cattle herding, skeet shooting and horseback riding. There are also some big firsts, a huge surprise, and an actual face-off between Jay and a drawling, axe-hurling cowboy named Hank (Tim Blake Nelson) who dares to hit on Gloria.
But son-in-law Phil rides to the rescue. "Only we touch our women when they don't want us to," he barks, as he commands Hank to clean up his act, or, "I will only be checking 'somewhat satisfied' on our comment card".
Stylistically, Modern Family also loves to break down the "fourth wall" - its characters often speak directly to the camera à la Ferris Bueller.
Says a proud Phil: "I've been practising like crazy all my cowboy skills: shooting, roping and pancake-eating. Why? Jay doesn't respect me as a man ... I'm not asking for a hug. I just want to get that new-found look of respect."
And O'Neill, as Jay, still zings the one-liners with the best of them. Around the campfire, under the stars, as Gloria screeches and murders her version of She'll Be "Running" Down the Mountain - he can but ask: "Did you notice the crickets left?"
For those tempted to scoff or turn up their nose at all this monumental mockumentary silliness, be advised that Modern Family has won powerful friends in high places. The antics of the extended Pritchett family is considered must-see TV in the White House. As President Barack Obama told People magazine last December: "For the girls (Sasha, Malia) and me, Modern Family, that's our favourite show," while also admitting that he's "a little darker" in his personal TV habits with a fondness for Boardwalk Empire and Homeland.
"Yes," the US First Lady Michelle Obama tosses in with a smile, "we don't watch TV with him."
• Modern Family begins its third season on Friday and is broadcast Fridays and Saturdays on OSN Comedy and OSN Comedy +2. Reruns of previous seasons also air on Fox Series on Fridays and Saturdays
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