Longtime Community writer Megan Ganz, who joined Modern Family’s writing staff midway through last season, is growing up. Gone are the all-nighters spent staring at the newly-reinstated Dan Harmon’s famed story circles. At her new job, Ganz can clock out at 6pm. She has a social life, side projects, and sleep. And bit by bit, she’s learning to write for ABC’s Emmy darling, which (to no one’s surprise) took home its fourth consecutive Outstanding Comedy Series award Sunday.
I recently caught up with Ganz for a long chat about moving from meta-humor to mockumentary, balancing work with everything else, and why she’ll never stop adoring Community from afar.
How has the transition been from Community to Modern Family? I imagine that’s a pretty big change of pace in terms of…everything.
Yeah. Community definitely always had a feel of being like college, where it’s like, “Let’s band together and stay up all night to do this crazy thing!” And this feels a lot more like a job, like a workplace — where you go in, you start working when you walk in, and you work until lunch, you have a lunch break, you come back and you start working again. There’s a reasonable expectation of when you’re going to be able to get out every day. I can have dinner plans and have some idea of making them. It’s not that they don’t want to work that much. It’s that they understand how important having a life is, and just being able to write for a television show, especially one that’s so based on your own personal experience, so they want you to go have a life and bring stories back to the writers’ room, and be able to use those stories in your writing.
And a lot of the people there have families, and children, and I realized that that’s another really important thing to have on a show — not only showrunners, but to have a staff that has something outside of that work that they have obligations to and need to go to, because it keeps your work life balanced. With Community, people would call their kids at 7 and be like, “Okay, I’m not coming home. I’ll see you…never.” And it was really hard on people.
You’re also working with veteran TV writers over there.
We have writers that have written for Cheers, The Golden Girls, Roseanne, Frasier; classic television shows. And they’ve been doing this for the better portion of their lives, and it’s a job to them, in a good way — in that they know how to come in every morning and deliver, and it’s not as dependent on their emotional state of mind or what happened to them that day. They can come in and write and talk about story and be able to produce content. So in that respect, it’s a good thing for me to experience because this is what writing a television show is like when it’s not full of drama — when it is a good situation, where people are happy, and they like doing their jobs, and you don’t have to demand their weekends and all of their free time from them, and you still have a really good output.
You recently had the table read for your first episode. What was your experience writing it?
It was a totally different experience because I wasn’t terrified the entire time I was doing it. Like on Community, there was a real feeling Dan put out that, “Your writer’s drafts are just a jumping-off point for me to do what I want to do.” On Modern Family, we have outlines, really strong outlines, when we go off to draft, so you have a reasonable expectation that that will be the story of your episode. My story did change in part. We rewrote some parts after I came back with the draft, but the whole of it — the idea of each scene — stayed roughly the same. And the reason that that’s good is if you’re going to take a week of a professional writer’s time to work on a draft, that’s a week when they can be writing really good, solid jokes that they’ve had quiet time to think about.
Not only was that actual week writing a little bit better, but also when I was on set I had Chris Lloyd, who’s one of the showrunners, sitting on set with me the whole week we were shooting and getting exactly what he wanted, which I didn’t have before. On set on Community, it was this thing of just being absolutely scared all the time and getting into arguments with directors, like “We have to do this again, I don’t think that one was good.” So the fact that I had an actual showrunner on set with me that could get what he wanted was fantastic because it took so much of the pressure off me and allowed me to do what a writer is supposed to do on set, which is trying to come up with things for the next scene, trying to make sure that jokes are done correctly, and things like that. Smaller concerns. I also just got to kind of relax and be able to have fun with the actors. It just felt like a very supportive process. Everyone was working together for the same goal.
And I really ended up liking my draft. We had a really great table read, and it was really fun because we shot on location. We were outside, which they never let us do at Community. It’s one of those things that’s so dumb, but we were shooting a car scene — which on Community we rarely shot, and when we did it was greenscreened — and we actually got to shoot on a process trailer with a car rig, where we were actually driving on the actual street, and they were making fun of me because I was so geeked out about it. They were like, “This is just normal TV stuff,” and I was like, “You don’t understand! I’ve been in a box trying to make comedy for the last three years.” They didn’t let us see daylight on Community.
How do you like working with a new cast?
I’m getting to know the Modern Family cast, and they are very sweet. They are very nice and supportive and game for things. I miss the Community people, obviously. You become quite a family on that show over the years. But it’s fun to write for new characters too, and just be able to explore which ones I like of the new breed, I guess.
What’s it like writing for a totally different comedic sensibility?
It’s much more naturalistic. On Community, you could do things that were a little bit more written; you could have setups that determined certain punchlines. And on this show, it’s more conversational, which is a new challenge — to make people make jokes just the way people talk normally, instead of having a joke be like, a meta-gag that happens in the background. For instance, a joke like the Beetlejuice runner is a joke that requires an audience that will freeze-frame those scenes and look in the background and sort of pick out every little tiny thing. This show just feels more like a real family talking to each other, so not doing a lot of self-reflexive things. The easiest way to describe it is that the camera in Community is one of the characters, and in Modern Family, it’s not. It is a documentary, but it doesn’t make its own choices; it doesn’t change the style.
But I didn’t find it hard to write jokes. I’ve been learning a lot about these characters — I watched all the seasons of the show before I started working on it — so I’ve been really trying to take a crash course in the character voice, because that’s always really important to me, trying to write specific character voices. Ty Burrell’s character, for instance: he will classically do things like he’ll say something about Claire that he thinks is a compliment, but it’s actually really an insult. So being able to hone in on certain character traits and write new types of jokes for those characters was really fun.
I bet writing for both shows is equally challenging, just in different ways.
Yeah, you’re also working with characters that you don’t want to be unlikable. Like on Community, we had Pierce and Chang that you could make into total assholes, and a lot of stories you look at are driven by Pierce being a dick to the group. It’s just Pierce having an agenda, and everyone else reeling from it. In Modern Family, you don’t have one person that’s an asshole, so you’re coming up with things that are more natural conflicts — that are just two people having a disagreement where you can see each person’s side of it. But it’s hard to write conflict that way.
Was it hard to adjust to writing for a mockumentary-style show?
I’ve written a couple of documentary episodes [for Community], so that was nice that I’d already had some experience doing that. Which, by the way, they totally knew about before I started on the show and thought it was funny — that I had basically parodied the show before I started writing for it. But it’s a good format in the sense that you can put a lot of jokes in. You can just do certain types of stories with talking heads that you couldn’t do without them; that’s why we chose to do some Community episodes as documentaries, because you could have Pierce tell the camera, “Hey, I’m not really sick, I’m just torturing these people.” Like, how else would we know that if we were just shooting that as a regular episode? So it creates a malleability that I really like.
How did the Modern Family family receive you?
I came in last year in January. They were on their last six episodes, which is a total time crunch for people, and so they were doing kind of late days for them, which is like, 7:30. Which was mostly the joke when I started. “You brought this from Community. You brought these late nights!” And I was like, “Guys, this is so early.” If I ever got out at 7:30 at Community, I would’ve kissed the ground outside. But they were really great, and honestly, it was the perfect entry for me because they were doing a lot of rewrites, and I always like being able to pitch jokes. They really liked some of the jokes, and I got things into scripts — so much so that by the end of the season, they let me write part of the finale. I wrote a couple scenes from the finale, which was really nice of them to let me do because I was so new.
I was a little intimidated because like I said, so many people that I was working with had been writing for TV for so long, and I was so new. A lot of people in the room had written for shows that I grew up watching. But they just couldn’t have been nicer and warmer about welcoming me and making me feel like part of the fold immediately. There wasn’t quite as steep of a learning curve. On Community, we were really strict with the story circle thing, and so you had to learn that first before you could even do anything. But yeah, they were very, very kind. Back in my interview with Steve [Levitan] and Chris, they asked me, “Are you much of a talker in the room?” and I said, “Well, someday you’re gonna laugh that you asked me that question.” So I just kind of jumped right in. It was a really smooth transition.
I was really nervous because they have this group of core writers that’s been writing with the show since Season 1, but since they hired that group, they’ve cycled in and out a bunch of other writers that have only stayed for half a season and then not worked out. So I was fully prepared to do six episodes and out, and that would be it for me and Modern Family. When they brought me back the next season, it was really surprising and very exciting because I had really liked my experience there.
Do you feel limited on Modern Family at all, having left such an unconventional, wildly experimental show?
My sensibilities tend to be a little more weird and experimental, but I grew up watching shows like Modern Family that are more based on relatability and common, shared experience. And actually, part of what drew me to Community was that they had such a nice blend of this experimental thing with also having resolutions where people hug each other at the end and tell people that they love each other. I wouldn’t be able to write for a show that’s totally all experimental with no heart in it whatsoever because I really like that, and I think that’s honestly what keeps people showing up to Community: the characters and the character dynamics. It’s not, “What are they going to do this week, a Wild West thing?” No, it’s, “I want to see Britta, I want to see Jeff.” So it’s not like I’m doing less on this show. It’s just a different tone. It’s a fun challenge to be able to write jokes that don’t rely on references and strange sci-fi behavior — that are just things like, what would one sister say to the other? Personally, if I’m ever so lucky to write a show of my own, it might trend a little more toward a weirder, experimental taste. But no, I don’t feel at all limited in what I’m doing currently. It’s just a great challenge for me to be able to flex those muscles, so hopefully then one day I’ll have that down — how to write relatable characters that feel grounded and real. Which will help you on any show that you will write for.
My mom, for instance — she watched every one of my episodes of Community and didn’t understand what was going on. And she watches Modern Family, and she loves it. And I’m not saying that to say it’s for like, moms or adults. But it is something that a lot of different types of people can connect with, which is why it’s obviously been successful. And that’s not bad. When you get into comedy writing, you should be trying to make people laugh and you should be trying to bring joy to people’s hearts. So having it be accessible doesn’t necessarily need to be like a dirty word.
Community was really hard in a lot of ways, and I’ve appreciated having a little bit of a break where my life was not so totally embroiled in what I do for a living. Because on Community, I had no outside life, and so I’m slowly starting to develop one, which I really do think is important. If I had stayed on Community for six seasons, what would I have done after I left? I’d be like, 32, I would have a mattress on the floor, and it would’ve been like I was starting over again because all I had was that show. And this one is one that I can sort of grow with. I can pursue my own interests and do personal writing and things while also making a really great show.
So what are you doing with all that new free time?
I’m actually working on a movie with Karey Dornetto, who wrote for Season 2 [of Community]. We’ve been sort of casually writing something for a couple years now, and we just never had time to work on it together because I was always busy and she’s been writing for Portlandia. But we’re ready to start writing and pitching a movie together, and I’m also working on a pilot, which I’ve been doing for a little while. Next year, I’ll be able to start developing a show, hopefully. And also trying to date. [Laughs] Trying to see if my friends still remember who I am from years ago. I’ve been calling up people who are like, “I thought you were dead!”
What’s your pilot about?
It’s sort of based on experiences I had right at the beginning of my career when I was writing for The Onion. I was also temping at this advertising company answering phones once a week, and it’s kind of about that period in your life where you don’t want to commit to any one thing because you’re worried about what if this great thing rolls in the door tomorrow and I’ve just committed to this thing? So I took a lot of jobs that I didn’t care about because I was so focused on just being a comedy writer. There was the thought of, “What if I’m too overly committed, and I’m not paying attention to my real passion?” So it’s kind of about being in temporary spaces because you’re waiting for the next thing to follow, and whether that’s a good or bad thing. Thankfully for me, it worked out — I got a job at The Onion — but a lot of times I feel like people are wasting their lives not committing to any one thing because they’re thinking about the next thing that’s coming around the corner — and what if you spend your whole life waiting for that thing? And it stars a girl, which I know is going to shake up Hollywood. [Laughs]
Is Community still your favorite show?
Oh, yeah, definitely. Always will be. I hope a few years from now that I can start talking to Dan again and have there not be any weird feelings. I want to be able to go to things like CommuniCon and show my fandom because I am such a fan. And I will watch every single episode. I still watch Community episodes, and I’m excited to be able to see episodes that I haven’t worked on, so I get that experience of just seeing them all come together and not know the process that led up to it. I think that that’ll be really fun. I’m trying to realize that you can really miss something, but it can still be a happy thought to miss it, as opposed to a sad thing.
Modern Family’s new season premieres tonight at 9 on ABC.
Meera Jagannathan is a freelance writer and grad student living in Syracuse, N.Y.