Cleveland native Dan O’Shannon will be departing the writing room and executive producing role for Modern Family at the end of this year after five seasons on the show. O’Shannon has previously written for Cheers, Newhart, Frasier, and others. He’s heading to CBS studios to work on some new projects, but for now, he’s trying to wrap up the final three episodes of the ABC sitcom’s fifth season with his fellow writers. (They’re writers, so yes, they are behind schedule.) He’s also doing a million other things, but he graciously took a break from all of them to chat with us about the industry, Cleveland and free ginger ale.
Vince Grzegorek: So, the last time we talked, back in October, we asked you to do something for our comedy issue and you politely apologized and said you had too much going on. Specifically, you said, “Unfortunately, I can’t write anything at the moment without being wracked by guilt about the fact that I have a script and 45 more pages on a book due, and I haven’t started them yet and at work people ask me how the script is going and I say it’s fine and then I sneak out and see a movie which I don’t enjoy because I’m too aware I have a deadline bearing down on me like a truck and I wonder if the 20-year-old usher who mispronounced ‘bullock’ knows I’m a fraud and why am I shoveling fistfuls of Raisinettes down my gullet when I’m not hungry? Just writing this email when I should be writing a Dunphy kitchen scene makes me want to jump out a window.” First of all, we can tell you’re a professional writer because that’s exactly how professional writers act. Secondly, so, uh, are things looking better?
Dan O’Shannon: Yeah, that sounds like me. I did get that scene written. It’s in one of the upcoming episodes.
VG: Where are you guys at with the season?
DO: We’re figuring out the last three episodes of the season. We start months ahead, but then we start producing episodes and we lose our lead time. And then it comes down to the last minute and we’re scrambling for stories. It could take a few days to break a story, or sometimes it takes three or four weeks. Sometimes you throw everything out. We’re all scrambling, but we know basically what we want to do and where we want the characters to end up. It’s just a matter of finding an interesting way to get them there.
VG: What about the book? Is it as much about geometry as the first one? [What Are You Laughing At? A Comprehensive Guide to the Comedic Event was O’Shannon’s first book, a kind of scientific look at comedy and jokes.]
DO: It’s a collection of cartoons. They’re sort of cut-and-paste cartoons from over the past year. I’m almost done. It’s a series of cartoons about the mythical, well, presumably mythical wife of Jesus, what her life would have been like. There’s a lot of metaphor and symbolism. I was actually working on it this morning. If you find my Facebook page, I put up a picture of what the cover looks like.
VG: The story of Mrs. Jesus. With everything else going on, why the hell did you start another book and why this kind of book?
DO: I really don’t have time, but I do it. Mrs. Jesus saved me. At first, it was a doodle I did at work, and they loved it. I was going through a divorce, I was anxious, and I couldn’t sit there alone for one more night looking at the wall. I thought of that cartoon, and I draw slowly, so I found some public domain pictures and did word bubbles, and some people liked it. I made another, and another, and now I’m just about done with a book.
VG: I suppose we already know the ending.
DO: Well, unfortunately Jesus dies on the cross. But hopefully they have come a long way before that happens. I’m sure some people will really, really hate it and really, really hate me for it, but I like it and think it’s funny.
VG: Do you make it back to Cleveland much? And how un-Hollywood do you try and make your life once you’re here?
DO: I really am low key when I get back there. I have a condo in Lakewood, which I just bought this past year. I try to get back for an entire month, like I’ll be spending almost all of April there. I just hang out with friends, go to the places I used to go. The last few times I was working on the book so I didn’t do much, but besides a couple of speaking things, I kind of have nothing to do this April.
VG: Doing nothing is fabulous. Is this just time for you to move on?
DO: I’ve been there five years. I’ve done what I can with the characters. I’m ready to do other things. I have some half ideas, and maybe some of those half ideas will connect into a whole.
VG: TV still, though?
DO: Yeah, I’m not really qualified to do anything else. It’s tricky. TV has been extremely good to me, but I’m also aware that it’s not like I deserve to make a good living because I worked on TV.
VG: Is this where I tell you some friends and I have an idea for a great pilot? ,p>DO: I think legally I’m not supposed to listen. I’m going to CBS Productions in June. They stop me from hearing people’s ideas. Like, if I meet a guy in a grocery store and he says he and his coworkers have an idea for a show about working in a grocery store but it’s about more than working in a grocery store, and I say, “Uh, no thanks,” and then somebody at my studio I’ve never even talked to does a grocery store idea, it opens it up for a lawsuit. So, I have to say stop, don’t tell me about it. When someone asks, “Should I pursue a job in TV writing,” I say yes if you love TV writing but not if you love money. The money is going away.
VG: Are there more Cleveland easter eggs in Modern Family than I’ve caught? I caught the reference to Noodlecat.
DO: Yeah, there’s a place called Noodlecat. I ate there one time, and a year later, I walked in and said, “Hey, you guys were mentioned on TV on Modern Family. That was me!” And they gave me a free ginger ale.
VG: A free ginger ale?
DO: Well, I had only stopped in for a ginger ale. I should just randomly sponsor them and talk about them all the time even though I don’t eat there. Put Noodlecat in this article.
VG: Noodlecat. There. Done. I don’t know if you watch the show, but I don’t particularly like how How I Met Your Mother treats Cleveland. Like a bunch of yokels, like people who actually decorate their weddings in Cleveland Browns motifs.
DO: I don’t watch nearly as much TV as I should. I just sort of really don’t. I do my work and I go home. I also collect Cleveland radio airchecks. I got tons of stuff, all Northeast Ohio radio recordings dating back to the late 1950s. I’ve got hours and hours, and I sell a collection of old radio jingles at the Cleveland store in Tower City. The Cleveland Memory Grenade.
VG: What’s your favorite old jingle?
DO: Oh, there’s a bunch. There’s Garfield 1-23-23, an old place called Uncle Bill’s. Half the money goes to the Jimmy Malone charity. I still collect old tapes. If anyone has some old reel-to-reels or cassettes from back in the day, tell them to get in touch, I’m buying.
VG: Can you get Sofia Vergara to leave my fiancee a voicemail?
DO: I’m actually writing notes to the cast now that I’m leaving, so I’ll be working on hers soon. I kind of have to let her down gently, let her know the sexual tension is just too much.
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