The TV biz cocked its collective head when ABC announced a Wednesday lineup loaded with brand-new laffers. Yet ‘Modern Family’ immediately emerged as a breakout hit and was christened “best new comedy” by many a critic. Ty Burrell shared his take on the winning ‘Family’ dynamic and why “reckless” Phil is worthy of “super-hot” Julie Bowen’s love. Also: What outtakes have landed on the cutting-room floor?
When did you first suspect that ‘Modern Family’ was going to be something special?
When we were getting into the actual filming of the pilot, there was such an electric feeling. The cast was getting to do minor amounts of improv, while both [series creators] Chris [Lloyd] and Steve [Levitan] were getting to do some stuff that they’d never gotten to do as far as writing on a more intimate scale versus a multi-camera [sitcom].
What do you like most about Phil?
I like his good, giant heart, and how well-intentioned he is. It would be one thing if he was this oblivious and, for lack of a better term, mean-spirited, but he really wants to be a great husband and dad. He’s reckless, obviously, but I love how he’s constantly so optimistic and loyal.
Phil’s a bit of a goof and Claire is, well, rather hot. How do you think they wound up together?
It’s pretty easy to see what Phil saw in Claire – she’s obviously super-hot and also she’s got her stuff together. You’ll have to ask Julie [Bowen about Claire's take on Phil], but the one thing about people like Phil – and I know some, including sadly myself! – is that they bring a lot of life into a house. There’s a sense of energy and excitement. That’s about as good as I can put it. Phil is a complete “glass half-full” guy.
Despite his flirtatiousness with Gloria and the neighborhood divorcee, do you agree he’s strictly a “look-but-don’t-touch” guy?
Yeah, I do, and I think that’s why it’s funny. He has no real intentions, but it’s just out of his control. It’s like an animal that sees something shiny. Throughout time there have been other television characters – going back to Ralph Kramden – who would “make eyes at women,” but we would laugh at it because you knew deep down that he was in love with his wife.
Tell me about this week’s episode and how guest star Edward Norton fits into it.
[Laughs] It’s Phil and Claire’s anniversary. Claire is a famously bad gift-giver, so she decides to make up for it by hiring my favorite band – which she thinks is Spandau Ballet – to play a private concert for us. Unfortunately she can only hire the former bassist, played by Edward, and he of course only plays the bass and sings backup vocals.
Is Edward’s character based on Spandau Ballet’s actual bassist?
No, but what is incredibly authentic is his rendering of this character. In fact we Photoshopped him into a Spandau Ballet photo, and you can see how accurate he was.
How did ‘Modern Family’ land Edward Norton? Who knew somebody?
Edward and I have been pals since we did a revival of ‘Burn This’ in New York City in 2002. He sent me an email saying he loved the show, I mentioned it to the writers, and that’s where it started.
Have anything you’ve done on ‘Modern Family’ wound up on the cutting room floor, perhaps because it was simply too outrageous?
A lot of interview segments for whatever reason don’t make it on the show – probably because through improvising, they grow too abstract. In the episode “Come Fly with Me,” for example, there was an interview where Phil describes Jay as the silverback primate protecting the female. We got to building on that and when we were finished there was this whole bit about cavemen – in caveman talk. It got really abstract and weird. [Laughs] I don’t know if that will ever see the light of day, but that’s an example of how fun this is for us.