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Though Community was an early favorite for funniest new show of the 2009 TV season, it’s had heated, unexpected competition from ABC’s Modern Family. The show is a single-camera, mock-documentary sitcom about three families, all related: The patriarch (Ed O’Neill) is in a May-December marriage, his son (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and the son’s partner (Eric Stonestreet) have a new adopted baby, his daughter (Julie Bowen) is married with three kids. The show’s loose, rambunctious style earns plenty of unexpected laughs—it feels improvised, but the majority of each episode is scripted—and Ty Burrell, who plays Bowen’s hapless husband, has proven a consistent standout. His character Phil is obsessed with being friends with his kids, and constantly winds up covering for blunders with the rest of the family. The finest moments come when he gets defensive, like in the pilot, when he shows off his “I’m down with the cool kids” text-lingo by interpreting “WTF” as “Why the face?” Burrell got a late start in acting, appearing as characters both seedy (The Incredible Hulk) and light-hearted (Back To You), though his turn on Modern Family has the makings of a comedy-career definer. The A.V. Club called Burrell and chatted about performing improv as a child, his thoughts on audiences’ desire for something “new,” and his struggle with his Franken-brow.
The A.V. Club: How did you get the job on Modern Family?
Ty Burrell: It was a fairly involved process. As I understand it, the part was written with me in mind, but I still had to go through the audition process. And, being good business people, ABC and Fox wanted to make sure they covered all their bases, so it took a while.
AVC: What was it like to audition for something that was written for you?
TB: Well, it’s humbling, because it was a guy who has literally no self-awareness whatsoever and thinks he’s a lot cooler than he is, so that was definitely a hilarious realization. I’m not saying this just to be self-deprecating, but I have always taken delight in playing people who are oblivious, because I do think I have giant, giant blind spots. It’s a very comfortable place to be.
AVC: How did you come to enjoy playing those types of characters?
TB: My younger brother and I have been writing together, mainly for fun, for years, but we’ve been improvising together since we were kids. Literally. We generally assumed similar parts. He’s younger than me, but the things that gave us the biggest laughs were him being more of the disciplinarian. He would be more of the guy who knew what was going on and correcting me, trying to keep me on task. And I was always playing the guy who didn’t get it, who couldn’t figure out what it was that he was trying to get me to do, or exactly how I was being insulting. Just trying to get each other to crack up, we’ve assumed a million different roles, but I always feel like that’s the one we’ve gotten the biggest kicks out of.
AVC: How old were you when you started doing these improv shows?
TB: We were young. I mean, young. And it was mainly for family, like around the dinner table and stuff. I remember doing that even in—I guess I would say the beginning of junior high. But yeah, we’ve been basically idiots since we were extremely young.
AVC: You told a story in another interview about a defining moment cracking your family up at the dinner table. Care to elaborate?
TB: It was the first time that I felt the reward—it sealed my fate forever as a big ham. I remember sitting at the table, and I told some lame joke. My aunt was telling a story about being in a bathroom stall, and they were laughing because this person next to her was taking toilet paper constantly off of this roll. There was no stopping this person. And I made a really dumb joke about how there was probably a prize at the end of the roll, which was really, really—
AVC: Savvy for a 4-year-old.
TB: [Laughs.] I don’t know, but it got a laugh, and I guess you’ve got to start with bathroom humor, really… I’ve always called it, to myself, the “love bath.” I felt like I was scrubbing myself down in love from the laughs, and I swear to you, it’s like any drug in the world, I chase it all the time.
AVC: Was your family pretty encouraging of your desire for laughs?
TB: Very. My dad passed away in ’89, actually, before I even started acting. There’s nobody in my family that’s in performance or in the business in any way, so it was not something that was encouraged as a profession. It was more just encouraged as a personality trait. My dad was a fiercely funny guy, and he and his brother would get on runs. So my younger brother and I were basically mimicking them when we started goofing off. But it doesn’t say much for the family dignity that everybody was just like, “Yeah! More silliness!”
AVC: How did you decide to get into acting? You started fairly late, in 2001.
TB: Yeah, I got a late start. After my dad passed away, that was the first time. I was very busy up until then doing nothing. When he passed away, it shook things up, and I went back to school within a few months, and was immediately in an acting class. There was an improv section of that class—it was actually a Shakespeare class, believe it or not—but we had to improvise as a Renaissance character or some silly thing. And I, shockingly as it was, improvised as a character that thought he was much cooler than he really was. [Laughs.] I’ve carried that for years.
I just like comedy in general. My film work, which has been at times more dramatic, has been satisfying. But I never feel quite as good and as light and blissful as when I’m doing comedy. I guess I’ve always enjoyed being on any angle of the relationships that get a laugh—whether it’s the guy who’s on top, or the guy who is struggling to get people to pay attention to him, or whatever it is. Somehow it feels really mischievous, and it always has. If you’re trying to make something funny, and it doesn’t feel like you’re always getting something, it doesn’t have quite the same amount of joy. That’s one of the things that’s been so lucky about [Modern Family], is there’s a lot of room to play. It doesn’t feel like writers and directors that we’ve worked with are making it to be successful, if you know what I mean. We’re not necessarily making like, “This would be a good thing to do to make it appeal to a lot of people.” It has felt kind of mischievous in that you’re just like, “What the hell could we do here that would just be absurd and funny?” That has always appealed to me, and probably to a fault. I’m sure my wife gets extremely tired of it.
AVC: What specifically do you think the show gets away with? Certain jokes?
TB: No, not specific jokes. I don’t mean getting past the censors or anything, it’s more the spirit of the show. And far be it from me to try to analyze comedy, because certainly that’s the fastest way to make something unfunny. When things are good, it feels like it’s autonomous—like it’s just a bunch of people in a room trying to come up with the funniest thing they can. It feels like you shouldn’t be getting paid for having that much fun. We’re not actually out here trying to make sure we adhere to some sort of formula that will make sure we are a commercial success. It feels like really we’re just trying to make the funniest thing we can, and we’re getting paid. It’s crazy.
AVC: It almost seems like the show is funny in spite of its commercial-ness, its formulaic-ness.
TB: I totally agree with that. We have sort of built a brilliant machine. It’s always interesting when I hear people say they want a new story or new characters. I’m not really sure there is such a thing. Maybe it has more to do more with the quality with which they’re depicted or illustrated.
AVC: Are you saying that people talk about that in regards to Modern Family?
TB: No, it hasn’t come up with Modern Family. I’ve spoken to people about—in movies, even. Like going to see a movie and having that conversation afterward, like, “I just want to see a new story, a new character or whatever.” I’ve always been curious about whether that actually exists, or if it’s more about how it’s crafted. I do feel that way about Modern Family, that you could find precedent not just in the fake documentary style, but in the characters and structure… It’s a cool discussion. Is there such a thing as a new character or a new plotline or a new anything? Or is it the way in which certain personalities express themselves in those archetypes?
AVC: It sounds like you’re in the latter camp.
TB: Yeah, but I don’t know that to be true. That’s my instinct, though. Like, you could find characters that are in Modern Family [elsewhere], and you could find these storylines. But the show is like the perfect vehicle for storylines. It’s an infinite combination of people and situations, built for the long haul. When you get to the actual script, it’s really subtle, and the writers are having as much fun as they can, writing in this particular style.
AVC: A lot of reviews of the show, even positive ones, start with the writer being skeptical about the show before seeing it—thinking it sounds too cliché. What did you think about the concept when you first heard about it?
TB: My first thought was “Chris [Lloyd] and Steve [Levitan] wrote it, so I’m really into it.” And it was just a really funny script. I was struck by the structure of it, honestly. It was written by two guys who have been around and know how difficult it is to write a successful show on a network. It’s a unique set of skills, to have some precedent for writing multiple years.
AVC: How have you been taking to the single-camera format?
TB: I generally have always admired single-camera, but it was never as much of, like, comfort food as multi-camera was. I tended more toward the multi-camera to warm me up on a winter’s night. [Laughs.] But these guys have somehow pulled off this coup: made the single camera really warm. And plus the opportunity—there’s a little bit more room for movement in the single cam. The multi-camera form is extremely precise. That’s a particularly fun way to work; it’s much more like working on a play.
AVC: You’ve said in the past that you enjoy playing Phil because he’s such a well-intentioned guy. What specifically makes that so much fun?
TB: I find it’s very easy to recharge, playing a character like that—maybe in the same way that Phil is so quick to get up after falling over, by the same token, it’s just as easy for me to go home and go back to work, frankly. When you are playing somebody that is defeated or defeatist, it’s a tougher go. I don’t know why. It’s probably not the most flattering thing to say about myself. It is true.
AVC: Do you have any specific examples in mind?
TB: I’ve played a lot of really smarmy people in film, and it can be real fun, don’t get me wrong. But it can be characters I’m not as excited to explore. That probably has something to do with the fact that the characters I’ve played have been smaller, so they’re sketched in. It would be a different story, probably, to play someone that is smarmy, but has a full arc and a lot more nuance.
AVC: But do you feel that way about small comedy parts?
TB: Comedy can be fun no matter what you’re playing. It always has the potential to be a blast. But if I had to do one of those parts in the same way that I’m doing this part, week-in week-out, I suspect it would be tough.
AVC: You’d have to, like, go grab some puppies, make the world a better place.
TB: Yeah, exactly. Just go do some Meals On Wheels.
AVC: Have you found it tougher to get comedy parts, given your physical features? You’ve mentioned that your “look” is a lot more suited for evil guys.
TB: It was definitely not an easy sell. I’m really hoping that Modern Family will help me change some of that, but my Franken-brow had not always made it easy for people to think of me as anybody who has good intentions. [Laughs.]
AVC: What about the family dynamic still works on TV?
TB: We all got enamored for a while—it was almost exciting for all of us to finally acknowledge just how screwed-up our families were. We were trying to pretend that our families were more together than they were. So the zeitgeist may have been ready for us to go back to realizing that we still love our families… and that it’s not the worst thing in the world to acknowledge it.
AVC: Do you think about your dad a lot, playing this character?
TB: A lot. Every day. It’s been incredible. He was a super-well-intended guy. He’s really at the heart of the—not, obviously, the bumbling part, but as far as the well-intended portion of my inspiration for this character, it’s my dad. My mom was visiting the set recently, and noticed that on the stairwell, they had collected individual family photos from all of us, and there’s a picture of my dad up there. It’s at the very top. He’s up there, checking us out when we work every day. It’s pretty cool.