Dan O’Shannon, award-winning writer and executive producer of the hit ABC sitcom “Modern Family,” will be coming to Ithaca College on Sunday to lecture as a Park Distinguished Visitor. Aside from his work with “Modern Family,” O’Shannon is also known for his contributions to other shows such as “Cheers” and “Frasier.”
Staff Writer Josh Greenfield spoke with O’Shannon on his career in television, advice for people considering the field and what he will be discussing in his upcoming lecture.
Josh Greenfield: What made you choose television as a career path?
Dan O’Shannon: When I was very young I tried to make people laugh so that people would like me more. I had a desperate need for approval. This turned into my eventually doing stand-up comedy and then writing sitcoms. I did it as a way to make a living doing the thing I needed to do to get the attention that I thought I needed to have.
JG: What advice do you give to anyone who wants to go into television?
DO: Get in a time machine and go back to 1970. It’s a different medium than it was 10 years ago, and it’s a different medium than it will be in 10 years. I think that if you want to go into sitcom writing, you should do it because you love the form, as opposed to the idea of wanting to make a good living for many years, because its unlikely that you can just walk into the business.
JG: You also wrote a book. What is it about?
DO: It’s a book about comedy theory that deconstructs comedy to go through all the variables that come into play when we come into contact with what we think of as comedic information. It doesn’t just dissect jokes, it dissects the way we interact with information and why we choose to find some of it funny and some of it not funny. It presents a new and comprehensive model of how comedy works that I think has been missing in comedy theory study until now.
JG: What does winning an award, like the Emmys you have won for “Modern Family,” mean to you?
DO: On one hand, it’s a very nice validation for other people who are in the industry to hand you an award saying you’re doing this better than anybody. On the other hand, it’s not entirely true. There are great TV shows that haven’t been acknowledged by Emmy nominations. I don’t mean to sound like I don’t appreciate the awards, it’s just that I am not sure I believe in them as much as I used to, although it’s always nice to dress up.
JG: What is your process when writing a script for an episode?
DO: It’s always different. Sometimes we come at the story breaking from two roads of thought. One is we bring in a story of something that happened to us, a friend or someone in our family, and then that eventually becomes an episode. The other is a simple game of what if. A lot of times it is a combination of both, what if this thing happened that happened to my friend, only instead of this, that happened — and then you have an episode.
JG: What do you plan on talking about at your lecture?
DO: I am prepared to talk about the television industry, sitcom structure, writing in general or comedy theory. The lecture is going to be a one-on-one with Jack Powers, [assistant professor of television and radio], who is going to be asking me questions, so God knows what he asks is what I will talk about.
JG: What does it feel like to know you’ve been a part of so many influential shows?
DO: It feels good. I never would have believed it when I was a kid, because there were things that I just dreamt about doing, and I turned around and did them. I feel very fortunate and grateful.
Dan O’Shannon’s lecture will begin at 7:30 p.m. Sunday in Emerson Suites. The event is free and open to the public.