09/25/2012 09:25 am ET Updated Nov 25, 2012

The Comedy Detective: An Interview With 'Modern Family''s Dan O'Shannon

There's something dreadfully un-funny about talking comedy with seriously funny people, but Dan O'Shannon is a different breed of comedian. For starters, he's a self-described comedy detective, a title he recently added to his epic (in the Homeric sense of the term) resume, which includes positions as writer and producer of Modern Family, Cheers and Frasier, among other delights of the last three decades. He has written for Newhart, advised on King of Queens, and produced and written everything from Better Off Ted to an Oscar-nominated re-imagining of Little Red Riding Hood (told, appropriately enough, from the perspective of the wolf). Sometimes, I think as I walk up to a Beverly Hills café to meet him, the book jacket just writes itself.

O'Shannon has come straight from the Modern Family writers room, where he spent the day working on season 4 of the hit TV show, which returns to ABC this fall. I expect him to arrive brimming with jokes (or at least feeling the need to be "on" for our interview), but he's wonderfully low-key, warm, measured; a reflection, perhaps, of his autodidactic Midwestern pedigree and his scrappy roots in stand-up comedy. Clad in a beige button-down and a pair of round spectacles, he gives the impression that our interview is more difficult for him than writing a hit TV show. Which is, of course, absurd, until you consider that genius might simply be a lifelong commitment to one's obsession, and O'Shannon is obsessed with one thing: what's funny. What Are You Laughing At?, his new book on the underlying structure of comedy, was born out of that all-consuming love of the laugh, and it might soon become de rigeur in every university course on comedy.

"I was only able to write it," he says with a shy smile, "because I was not born funny." He says this in the un-funny way, so I sober up and listen. "When I was 8 I literally decided that I was going to start being funny, but I had no way to do it, so I had to build Funny from the ground-up. Everything I've learned is in the book."

What Are You Laughing At? is a comedy geek's wet dream. Driven by analytical frameworks and illustrative diagrams ("Lots of triangles," he nods), the book dissects comedy as an event, as a nexus of information, context, vehicles, receptors and sources. It's not just about the joke, he argues -- "My approach is that nothing is always funny and nothing is always not funny" -- but rather all the factors that coalesce to create the comedic experience: the assumptions of the receiver, the voice of the comedic source, the audience's feelings of safety or superiority, even the temperature in the room or distant memories of a strange uncle who talked just like that. By enhancing or inhibiting our response to a joke (here you get a taste of O'Shannon's deft grasp of the psychological as well as the literary), these triggers ultimately determine what we find funny. By breaking it down, the book helps comedians, writers and theorists isolate the variables of successful comedy.

I become aware of something surprising as we talk: I'm not disenchanted. I'm not over comedy. If anything, I'm even more fascinated -- and I've read the book twice. Socrates said that wonder is the beginning of wisdom, and I suspect O'Shannon would say that Socrates got the order wrong. That's part of the joy of his book, and I'm about to tell him so, but he moves to a more vulnerable strawman -- E.B. White, who once compared analyzing humor to dissecting a frog (no one's really interested, and the frog dies.) "I totally disagree with that. I hope the book doesn't demystify comedy. You can enjoy the ride more if you know what goes into it." He sounds like the wise adult who, watching a child play with a balloon, sticks a pin in it to teach him a lesson (namely, that balloons are just filled with helium, but that doesn't make them any less fun). "Comedy is still impressive, and it's still an art. But it's not magic."

That secularism gives O'Shannon a unique perspective on the comedic landscape. "My goal was to take all these ideas you hear about comedy all your life, throw them all off the table, and just start with what is comedy. What do we feel? Why are people laughing? I just kept asking myself why sometimes we laugh and sometimes don't laugh."

I want to point out that it requires someone funny to answer those questions, but that's when I realize there are two Dan O'Shannons: the armchair humorologist of the book (that's the comedy detective who now lectures at universities, including the one he dropped out of at 19 to become a stand-up comic -- "The irony was not lost on me"), and the brilliant storyteller in the trenches of television (that's the 3-time Emmy-winning writer). "The people who are academics look down at the practitioners for not having the academic wherewithal to analyze humor, and the practitioners look down at the academics because they can barely make a joke. I'm both now. Both camps accept me but each slightly turns its nose up at me." That's a hard double-act to pull off: Try doing stand-up from the audience, and you soon realize it's called heckling. Only a hybrid like O'Shannon could write a textbook so grounded in reality.

Still, he's a writer first and an analyst second. "In the writers room I just write comedy, I just write scripts," he insists. "I never think about anything in the book. But I often go back -- it's like I have a record button in my head -- and as I go for a laugh, or I see the right laugh for the wrong reason, I track it back and try to understand what everyone's feeling along the way." If his impact on Modern Family is any indication, it works. But does writing the comprehensive guide to the comedic event shift the politics in the writers room? It must be hard, I tell him, to argue with the guy who wrote the book.

"Once or twice I've pitched a scene that didn't make it in the show, and I'll run and grab the book and find the page that proves that what I'm saying is funny. It says here" -- he's mocking himself now, the seemingly pretentious scholar -- "in this officially published book, that this joke should get in..."

But O'Shannon is eyeing something bigger. "My hope is that in the next 10 years or so this book gets recognized as the beginning of a new way to think about comedy. I'm aiming for young people, not the old guard. I would like if this in some way could further our understanding of how comedy works, rather than become another argument in the pile."

I almost laugh at how humble his vision is. Maybe that's because our conversation was the perfect event. Or maybe because he's already changed the game.

Season 4 of Modern Family airs on September 26th. At the end of October O'Shannon will be speaking at Ithaca College. You can find his collection of hobbies, writings, drawings and dates at