Ty Burrell: “Modern Family”, Improvising and Single-Camera Comedies
What did you first think of the show’s concept?
It’s funny because I have worked with Chris Lloyd on three shows and for Steve Levitan, this is my second. I loved the concept, but they could’ve told me it was about two guys who sit in the same room for 20 years, and I would’ve loved it. I have so much faith in their writing, but I mean I loved the idea and thought it was something totally new, using this style for a family comedy. I was really excited about that.
How was this experience with Chris and Steve different?
I think everybody’s getting to do new stuff, which is exciting for the writers and us. I’ve never gotten to do a show that give us some things that are more intimate, that get into the nooks and crannies of the character, and allow more room for movement as far as minor amounts of improvising and stuff. For them, I sense that it’s similar, that they’re getting a chance to write in a way that allows for some humor that doesn’t always work well in multi-camera comedy. You know, it’s such a precise medium, multi-camera. This one really allows for movement, for lack of a better word, a lateral movement. The longer silences, awkwardness, and also just some humor that’s a little bit more abstract. The good thing about it is an old-fashioned comedy still works in this medium. You can still do slapstick too.
Modern Family seems to stand out even among single-camera comedies. How would you categorize it?
I think it’s different from a lot of single-camera comedy in that Chris and Steve are writing it with heart, and it’s not so much so that it’s schmaltzy or saccharine, but it’s also not keeping you at arm’s length with irony. It makes it different from single-camera comedy that way. And it’s different from multi-camera in that we take some of the pressure off the jokes; the precision is gone, and you can’t see the punchlines coming as much as you can with most multi-camera.
Phil’s obliviousness is almost astounding. Where did he come from? Who’s the inspiration?
I know him now, to this day, because, uh, he’s me. He is just a hair away from me. I know that Chris and Steve wrote this part with me in mind, even though I still had to go through the audition process and everything. So that’s a combination of being flattering and also, you know, terrifying. The guy is so oblivious. The good news for me as far as not feeling alone in my delusional life is that the writers all have plenty of experience. Most are dads are moms, and they have plenty of experiences of their own to draw on.
In what episodes have you related to Phil most?
Well, in the pilot, he thinks he’s a great dancer. How about that? I have always thought I was a great dancer, and I am just not very good. I’ve also always thought I was a great athlete, and then every time I get put in a situation where — in fact, I went and played basketball with Chris Lloyd once after talking such a big game about my abilities. I don’t think I was overtly bragging, but I definitely hinted that I know how to play some basketball. I went and played with him at the Staples Center, because he’s in the NBA Entertainment League, and I proceeded to shoot 35 three-pointers, one of which may have hit the rim. I had passes to nobody. I had passes to the front row. It was so embarrassing, but probably just more telling than anything about me.
Phil seems very locked into his nuclear family unit, but the show is about a quirky extended family. Will the in-laws come to teach Phil a lot? Or will we see him evolve mostly through his immediate family?
It’s going to be both, and that’s one of the things we’ve really done since the pilot. We’re developing the relationships with the extended family as well. Obviously, I guess all of us are more shaped by our immediate family, so I think Phil is definitely go to be shaped by the kids and his wife Claire [Julie Bowen], but I’ve also been excited by the development of his relationship with Jay, his father-in-law [Ed O’Neill]. And he tries to step in and negotiate an argument with Gloria [Jay’s wife, played by Sofia Vergara] and Claire, so he’s developing a relationship with Gloria. It’s really cool, this family crisscrossing, it’s a brilliant open-ended machine.
How often does the cast improvise? Is much of the show improvisation?
It is. I really enjoy improvising. The show is written brilliantly, but we will shoot the scenes until we get the scripted stuff right, and then usually, Jason [Winer] or whoever the guest-director is will double-check that we got what we need, and then we improvise different things in the scene — not a lot, but little things here or there, and we’ll see what sticks on the wall. The interviews have been particularly improvisational and open-ended, where we will shoot the scripted one maybe once or twice, and then we can improvise. I notice that off whatever silliness I end up spitting from my mouth, it starts a really fun collaboration with Jason, Chris, or Steve where we figure out to extend it, or shorten it, or add something funny. That’s been an amazing treat.
Who is funniest on set?
So far it’s been the kids. All the kids I think are just like, well, first of all, they’re ten times more experienced than all of us. They teach me about union rules. “Oh, we get a hard-out in twenty minutes?” They crack me up onstage and off.
Do you have an ideal role? You’ve really played everything in your career, from theater to Black Hawk Down to The Incredible Hulk.
I genuinely enjoy and feel kind of energized by parts where the character is really well-intended. It’s kind of our job to see that the character is well-intended, even if he’s killing puppies. You have to figure out even if the character is misled, what it is about that that the person thinks is the right thing to do. It can also be an exhausting thing. I really love this person who’s willing to get up again after getting punched in the face, whether it’s serious or comic.
Tell us about your role in Fair Game, the Valerie Plame CIA thriller with Naomi Watts and Sean Penn.
I’m doing what’s essentially a cameo in that. I found out I had two scenes, and I was like, “Gosh, two scenes, doesn’t seem like a lot of dialogue,” but I found out that it’s an incredible collection of actors. I knew it was going to be a great experience to be there, and it was. It was a fun couple of days of shooting. The feeling on that movie is certainly up to any buzz. Both of my scenes were with Sean Penn and Naomi [Watts]. It’s always nerve-racking to go up with any of the people I admire that much, but to be totally honest, I admired everyone in that room. It was just a whole collection of actors I’ve admired, especially being in New York for as long as I have.
This comedy Morning Glory, about a ratings-struggling news program, sounds like a spin on Network. How was working on that?
That’s a little bit more than a cameo. It’s a smarmy anchorman who gets his comeuppance. I’m sure you’ve heard this a bunch of times, but Rachel McAdams is just an incredibly easy person to work with. It kind of is like [Network], the script of it and the performances in it. It’s… well, it’s really, really charming.