MODERN FAMILY lives and dies by its dramatic irony. The show’s mockumentary format allows characters to confess their wrongdoings and motives to the audience in confidentiality, and the camera captures their every move. We laugh when the characters fail to see what we see — that they will not get away with their deception, that their behavior is more harmful or silly than they think it is, and that they are so very wrong.

The sitcom began airing in 2009, and audiences haven’t grown tired of its ingeniously diverse and ever-changing family dynamic just yet. The premise of a family comprising different cultures, levels of intelligence, sexual orientations, and maturities, with no single person acting as the main character, allows for almost unlimited stories. But the characters themselves have remained relatively static. Always learning their lessons at the end of the episode, they somehow rebound back to their original selves in the beginning of the next. This allows for each character’s jokes and plotlines to group around consistent themes: Claire’s bossiness, Phil’s innocence, Cam’s hypocrisy, Alex’s rage, Luke’s stupidity, Haley’s underachievement, and so on. MODERN FAMILY forces us to see their unchanging flaws when the characters themselves can’t.

That probably sounds more angsty than side-splittingly hilarious. A show with 22 Emmy awards and 77 nominations might be onto something, though. E.B. White once said, “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”

So, let’s kill a frog, shall we? Why we find certain things funny is still debatable, but three theories have prevailed, none of which is entirely accurate or agreed upon. These are the incongruity, superiority, and relief theories. With examples from “Snow Ball” (season 8 episode 9) and “A Stereotypical Day” (season 8 episode 2), we’re going to break down the recurring themes in MODERN FAMILY’s comedy and see how they match up with the leading theories of humor.

READ: ComicsVerse’s list of best films of 2016 is here!

Selfishness

The incongruity theory, supported by the philosophers Immanuel Kant and Aristotle, says that incongruous things are funny to us. We expect one thing to happen, but something else does, disrupting our sense of logic and patterns. Hilarious, right?

If we dig deeper, we can find examples of this everywhere.

The person who just answered honestly:

Comedians employ it frequently by setting up a story, guiding us to expect a certain outcome, and delivering a punchline that shatters our expectation.

A sitcom like MODERN FAMILY doesn’t have the time to tell stories before each joke, of course, so the viewer’s past experiences and familiarity with the characters become the setup. When a character says or does something that we find socially inappropriate given our knowledge, we laugh.

The twist can’t be something completely unrelated to the setup, though, because that’s just random.

So let’s add some modifications: when the character says or does something that we find socially inappropriate, but fitting to their personality, we laugh.

Each individual has their unique, overarching flaws, but the most common reason that MODERN FAMILY’s characters act inappropriately is because they are selfish. Their selfishness is incongruous with what how we would expect them to act (based off of the people we know in real life) — as people who strive to be mature, responsible, and altruistic.

In “A Stereotypical Day,” Alex is sick with mono and can’t go back to CalTech yet. Haley confesses to the camera, “Her being sick is coming at a really bad time for me.” Throughout the episode, the Dunphys realize that they can use Alex’s illness to their advantage. Claire is tired of being the “bummer” at work and at home, so she drops oranges on Alex to wake her up from a nap, provoking her to start screaming at her family and become the new “bummer.” Luke takes her laptop to steal her past homework assignments, and Phil starts treating Alex as his therapy dog after his traumatic experience of being locked in a closet.

Aw, hope you feel better, Alex. Now PUT YOUR MASK BACK ON!

These create incongruous, humorous moments in the episode because we would expect Alex’s family to be concerned for her health, not to exploit her misery for egotistical reasons. We would expect Claire, the loving, hard-working mom, to take care of her daughter and not want her to stay home and miss too much school. Instead, she is downright gleeful about her chance to finally not be the household’s Debbie Downer, and she desperately pushes Alex to take her place. But, then again, Claire has shown herself to be controlling and self-conscious in previous episodes, so what she did is not completely out of line for her.

The show subsists on selfishness; the family members are constantly lying to each other, hiding their mistakes, and using one another to further their own interests — unlike the moral behavior you learned in school. The writers center a good number of jokes on this character flaw.

In the beginning of “Snow Ball,” Claire and Gloria are about to chaperone their sons’ (Luke and Manny’s) school dance. An annoying mom named Marjorie constantly hounds them to volunteer, and they have run out of excuses. Claire’s husband Phil wants to go to the dance, but Jay knew his wife Gloria would force him to go if Phil went. Jay convinces Phil to stay home by promising a boys’ night, which makes Phil extremely excited. Claire and Gloria leave, and Jay reveals he had lied to Phil to stop him from going to the dance, disappointing him.

Phil Dunphy:

Well, if you’re not up for doing anything, I think I’ll just go to the dance.

Jay Pritchett:

What? No! You can’t do that. Makes me look like a jerk!

At the dance, Claire is dramatically sniffing the drinks of teenagers walking by her.

Claire to Gloria:

We’ve got to keep our eyes peeled for kids trying to bring alcohol in here. I cannot make it through this thing without a drink!

Majorie comes by to ask them if they will volunteer to call parents to collect items for the school auction.

Gloria, with a fake heavy accent:

My phone English not so good.

Like Claire’s treatment of sick Alex, the characters’ selfishness and deception here are funny because we wouldn’t approve of them in real life, but we can relate to the characters’ motives. Jay wants a peaceful night to himself, Claire does not want to be chaperoning a high school dance, and Gloria has no desire to work a six-hour volunteer shift. In the sitcom universe, their actions are harmless and even quite clever. In real life, Jay would be a jerk, Claire would be an immoral chaperone, and Gloria would be a manipulative liar. But instead of condemning their behavior, we find humor in their egregious social wrongdoings and feel sympathetic toward their desires.

The disparity between how we believe they should act and how they do act — and get away with it — is what makes us laugh, or at least push air really quickly out of our noses.

Ignorance

Plato and Thomas Hobbes argued that humor comes from our sense of superiority. In Hobbes’ words, “The passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.” In other words, when we see someone on TV slip on a banana peel or call Africa a country, we think it’s funny because they seem inferior to us, but not so much that we feel sorry for them.

In MODERN FAMILY, Haley and Luke offer the audience the most prominent examples of ignorance and inferiority.

Back at the dance, when the school reporter asks Luke, as school president, if he has anything to say about the event, he takes all the credit for its success. Manny becomes angry at him because he had done all the hard work.

Manny, furious:

You are unbelievable.

Luke, flattered:

Stahhp, I can’t keep hearing this.

Manny mentions that he spent eight thousand dollars on the dance, and Luke tells him the budget was actually eight hundred. Alarmed, Manny blames Luke for giving him the wrong amount earlier and asks Principal Brown how hard it would be to get more money if they went over the budget.

Principal Brown:

No problem, we would just sell the Rembrandt in the faculty lounge.

Luke:

See, problem solved.

Image result for modern family snow ball
“We’re not panicking at all.”

READ: What would a non-stereotyped TV show look like? CLICK HERE to find out!

Both Haley and Luke frequently confuse cultural terms, misinterpret sarcasm, and ask dumb questions. But MODERN FAMILY goes beyond stupidity and gets laughs by having relatively smarter characters ignorantly say things that are untrue. In “A Stereotypical Day,” Jay tells Gloria, his Latina wife who emigrated from Colombia, “Gloria, Gloria, Gloria, you’ll never understand the stereotypes old white men face.” Later on, Mitchell uses the word “hick” in a conversation. His husband Cam says, “Oh, the H-bomb! Possibly the most offensive slur ever thrown around the South!”

According to the superiority theory, these jokes are funny because we laugh at the characters’ lack of knowledge and utter wrongness. The key is that their beliefs are harmless in the context of a sitcom; the jokes are acutely self-aware. It’s not like, say, a woman in an interview claiming that vaccinations are dangerous and that she saved her kids from autism with her courageous choice. Her ignorance poses a real threat to our society, while MODERN FAMILY’s ignorance is planned, well-delivered, and sometimes even meaningful.

Tragedy

The relief theory of humor, supported by Herbert Spencer and Freud, speculates that the release of nervous energy causes us to laugh. Films occasionally employ this by adding comic relief during a high-stakes moment to deflate the tension. MODERN FAMILY practices it by having one character say or do something dark and the others over- or underreact to it.

Manny continues his conversation with Principal Brown, who asks Manny what’s wrong.

Manny, nervously laughing:

Nothing, just playing what if all the money got spent!

Principal Brown:

Oh, can you imagine? We’d have to cancel every other school event, starting with the wrestling banquet, and those hopped-up psychos would rip your heads off! And then you’d bleed to death because we can’t afford a school nurse anymore.

He is kidding about them getting seriously injured, but Manny and Luke look truly horrified of the prospect and desperately start raising money.

Later at the dance, the principal is talking to Cam and Mitchell about the prank planned for the new wrestling coach.

PB:

They’re gonna do that thing where you spin a guy around a bunch of times, get him good and dizzy, and then you tie him to a tree for the weekend.

Mitchell:

Oh, God, shouldn’t you stop them?

PB:

I would, but he’s been parking in my spot lately.

Here, Principal Brown is entirely serious, but Cam and Mitchell are barely concerned.

As Principal Brown says his dark predictions, the nervous energy builds up. Then when we see that his listeners don’t react the way we would expect them too, we release it by laughing.

Another example is in the episode “A Tale of Three Cities.” Gloria’s estranged sister Sonya, who tried to kill her, is attending the same wedding as the Pritchetts, and she stops by to talk to Jay. She holds up the present she brought to show him: a knife. Tension builds. A man walks by in the background, also holding a gift-wrapped knife. Sonya mutters, “Great.” Tension releases.

Uncomfortable or undesirable situations are funny in MODERN FAMILY because none of it is serious. It’s safe to laugh at. We are certain that the characters will be just fine, and everything will return to normal in twenty-two minutes, max.

READ: Why HANNIBAL is the greatest show

Ridiculousness

Back at Jay’s house, Jay finally gives in to Phil’s demand that they hang out for real. They relax in the backyard pool, and Phil forces a reluctant Jay to start singing “In the Jungle” with him, loudly and out-of-tune.

In his never-ending quest to be a cool dad and unapologetically himself, Phil by far dominates this category. In “The Alliance,” he dresses in an elf costume and hides a reindeer in Jay’s garage without him knowing. In “Halloween IV: Revenge of Rod Skyhook,” he wears a clunky beaver costume and dances at Luke’s Halloween party in an attempt to crank up the energy.

This brings us back to the incongruity theory. It dictates that we laugh at things that surprise us, like two aging men sonorously breaking out into a song from THE LION KING at night while half-naked. We expect Phil to be a tough, manly dad, making his ridiculous acts — like ordering a reindeer and hiding it from his wife — funny under this theory.

In reverse, Manny garners punchlines by acting older than he really is.

Especially in earlier seasons when Manny was younger, most of his jokes touched on how he was like an adult stuck in a child’s body. The adorableness of Rico Rodriguez starkly contrasts with his solemn, mature comments. Now that he’s in his senior year of high school, the writers have started to pass the hat to his cute toddler brother Joe. In the premiere of season eight, Joe gives Jay an ice bucket for Father’s Day.

He says to the camera, in a squeaky voice and with his doe eyes wide open, “I saw Manny taking shampoos from the hotel, so I took some things, too. Then some bigger things. I like stealing. It makes my heart go fast.” Not what you expected, huh?

MODERN FAMILY finds humor in the character flaws and quirks that we all exhibit to some extent. We’re all trying to do our best, but no one’s perfect. The people in the show have good intentions; they want to be good parents, loving children, and kind spouses, just like us. The comedy arises from the tug-of-war between what is right and what is wrong, and it hits close to home. Perhaps MODERN FAMILY is showing us the grim, yet humorous, reality: we do not change much.

Even though the show sweeps the Emmy awards each year, not everyone is a fan of MODERN FAMILY’s resulting consistency. After seven seasons, the jokes play the same few themes over and over, and the plotlines feel rehashed. But there are still millions of viewers who enjoy MODERN FAMILY, and that’s because humor never gets old.

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