Portraying well meaning but bumbling patriarch Phil Dunphy on ABC’s hot new sitcom Modern Family (which debuts tonight at 9 PM Eastern), the funny Ty Burrell gets to ham it up every week as a delusional dad who thinks he’s as hip and current as his kids. But as we learn, particularly during his awful attempt at recreating a High School Musical number, he’s not. (And knowing what OMG and LOL mean doesn’t mean you’re down, homes. Err, see what I mean? Why The Face?)
Modern Family focuses on three families: Burrell’s somewhat normal but harried clan; a cross-generational unit with an older husband, younger wife and her preteen son from another marriage; and a gay couple who have adopted a child. Burrell’s parental situation is part of a larger comic tapestry woven from a wide range of hilarious shenanigans. For the veteran actor, who has appeared in a range of movies (Dawn of the Dead, The Incredible Hulk and National Treasure: Book of Secrets) and television series (Out Of Practice and Back To You), the role is new and challenging.
ADD caught up with Ty Burrell at the New York Television Festival this week and asked him about his new role and how it breaks the mold for him. His current comedic character could be the one to take his career to the next level. (For an interview with his Modern Family co-star Julie Bowen, click here.)
Are you a father in real life?
So what kind of research have you been doing for this role?
I have no experience with children, but I have a huge amount of experience with being oblivious and deluded about myself. This part is not a stretch for me. I’m an idiot every day. I just get to put on different clothes and do it at work.
That doesn’t look very good on a resume, does it?
Nope. My resume, although it’s a thick resume of idiocy, is just not beneficial. Luckily I’m not burdened with any other skill set either. Keeps it simple.
How did you get involved with the show, and is this the character you really wanted to play?
This is absolutely the character I wanted. This is my third show with [co-creator/writer] Chris Lloyd and my second with [co-creator/writer] Steve Levitan. As soon as I heard about the show I was excited about it. I haven’t ever played anybody this well intended in my life. I’ve played a lot of guys who were mean and/or bitter, and this is one of the few times that I’ve gotten to play somebody who is a really well intended guy. He really means well even though he’s making a mess out of everything. It’s a great character to play. It’s amazingly fun and refreshing to play somebody who’s endlessly positive. In the episode we shot last week, he’s trying to help his son to become the best at something – it’s baseball. Phil is unflappably positive, even as things are going wrong. He’s constantly thinking the next one is going to be the strike.
Where did the inspiration for the air gun shooting scene come from?
Believe it or not, that comes from a true story. And the kid died. Seriously, Steve Levitan [wrote it] almost word for word. He videotaped it, and both he and his son were laughing so hard. His son was wearing all that stuff and loaded up because he made a promise that if he were to shoot any living thing then he was going to be shot, and his [Steve’s] wife held him to it. That kid had safety goggles and all that stuff.
Following the air gun incident, have you been inspired to come up with any more unusual punishments for your son on the show?
Nothing new yet. I think once you’ve been shot with an air gun you probably stay in line for a while.
This is a groundbreaking show in some ways, particularly the fact that it features the first network representation of a gay couple with a child. How do you think the public is going to react to it?
I hope what they’ll notice is that the situations are universal, and that’s what’s been funny from the beginning. The writing is good, and the performing is incredible. Their situations aren’t any different than ours, and I think it’s a great thing for television. To this date I haven’t seen a monogamous [gay] couple [on television], especially with a child, and I think it’s going to be really good for all of us to see that their lives are no different. They’re dealing with being new parents – that’s really the main thrust of the hilarity. All three [family] storylines are really funny in all of the episodes so far.
So if you ever become a father, hopefully you’ll have learned some valuable parenting lessons here?
Yeah, exactly. This will be a corrective show for me.