Eye on Emmy: Ty Burrell and the Modern Art of Oblivious Bliss

If you’re going to so often get things wrong, at least let it be for the right reasons. And that’s the philosophy Ty Burrell uses to create his character on ABC’s acclaimed hit, Modern Family. With a heart as big as his goofy grin, Phil Dunphy is the counterpoint to a genre full of finger-wagging parents, a dad who chooses to wag his tail instead. “He has a level of obliviousness that is, to me, more akin to a dog personality,” says Burrell. “He’s so excited in general.” Will this be the year that Emmy voters throw this dog a golden bone? Burrell took us inside the serious business of making funny.

TVLINE | What did it mean to you to receive your first Emmy nomination last year?
It was kind of surreal, because I certainly never thought that I would be in that position, to be on a show that was so strong and so well made that we would all be benefiting from it. I’m not superstitious, but I felt like it was kind of hubristic, so I tried to pay not too much attention to it. This is ultimately just a great thing for the show – which I think Eric [Stonestreet, who plays Cameron] said so well when he won [in 2010]. We feel really lucky that we are a completely even ensemble.

TVLINE | How is it that the entire adult cast came to submit themselves in the supporting races? Is that something you all decided one day at the craft services table? Or did agents hammer it out at a high-powered lunch?
If memory serves, it was just a series of little conversations on set, about how there’s no real lead on this show. To me, Ed [O’Neill] is sort of the lead, because he [plays the Pritchett family] patriarch, [but] I wouldn’t be shocked if eventually we split [it] up in some way or another. If anybody is left out [of receiving a nomination] again [as O’Neill was in 2010], we’re going to come back next year going, “There are four men on our show in this one category – maybe we should do something.”

TVLINE | What’s something an onlooker might not appreciate about the process of creating comedy?
One of the very important things is keeping things on set really light all day long, and a good director will consciously craft that experience because you don’t want to deflate the mood. But underneath that there’s a lot of very precise thinking happening on both sides of the camera. So to an outsider it might look like we’re at recess – which in a sense we are! – but some of that is because the people we’re working with have meticulously created the right atmosphere.

TVLINE | Do you have any back and forth with your TV son, Nolan Gould (who is 12), about what you’re going to do in a scene together? Does he ever seek counsel from the wizened one…?
Well, no, actually he is the wizened one – he’s an actual Mensa member, and he’s playing this “head in the clouds” type. You’d have to be that smart to be able to play someone that loopy. It’s been great to see all three of the [Dunphy] kids get written to more this season, because we got really lucky, across the board, with the [young actors]. It seems pretty rare.

TVLINE | Speaking of pigeonholing Luke as “dumb”… What are some things Phil is, and what are some things Phil really isn’t?
I said “head in the clouds” about Luke, and I feel the same way about Phil. Because I don’t think Phil is dumb. He has a level of obliviousness that is, to me, more akin to a dog personality. He’s mainly just easily distracted and excited in general.

TVLINE | He’s an idealistic, glass half-full guy.
Completely. I love playing someone who is constantly screwing up positively… because he’s so excited about being a great dad or something he’s doing for Claire. And then there’s always the backtracking to cover up [the mistake], and playing that can be just as fun.

TVLINE | Is there a particular moment that you feel crystallizes Phil?
[In the Season 1 episode “Starry Night”] Phil was supposed to go to the garage to get a tool and he ends up getting distracted when he sees his old sunglasses on the top of a high shelf. That was very, very telling about how he ends up in trouble.

TVLINE | Right, he practically does gymnastics to get to the sunglasses…
When it would’ve been so much easier if he had just taken a moment to grab a stepladder. But he gets so excited, he doesn’t stop to think about practicalities.

TVLINE | Obviously the scripts are gold, but do you ever have to tweak something to keep Phil from veering into caricature territory?
Yes, but it’s a collaborative thing. I had only done multi-camera comedy before, where it all gets hammered out as you rehearse throughout the week, and then when you go to perform you deliver a very precise result with maybe a couple of alternate jokes. With this show, if you have concerns, I don’t even bring them up until we get to set. Then, if something is lending itself towards caricature, or it’s too easy a joke, [the writers] are usually the first ones saying, “OK, we need to mess with that a bit” – and that’s a fun process, one where we get to be a part of the conversation. Most of the time as an actor you are the low person on the totem pole and you don’t get to contribute, but we have great showrunners and writers who encourage it.

TVLINE | Because there is a fine line between, for example, Phil using Gloria to stir envy in a rival, and him seeming unappreciative of what he has in Claire…
That’s very astute to say, and those are very often the sort of scenes you’re talking about, where they’ll come out and say, “We’ve got to pull back on that.” You never want Phil to seem lecherous; it has to be that dog-brained thing where he’s attracted to a shiny object. He has no plan!

TVLINE | Who were your comedic inspirations as a kid, and now?
My earliest inspirations were Jonathan Winters and Bob Newhart, and as I started to get a bit older it was Steve Martin and Richard Pryor, who even now I think is probably the funniest person I’ve ever seen. And Bill Cosby is maybe the most effortless actor I’ve seen, making that transition [from stand-up comic]. In I Spy, he and Robert Culp gave performances that were so far ahead of their time, they’d be revelatory if the show came out now.

TVLINE | You yourself have been a father for a little over a year. Is it your ambition to surpass Phil in some measures?
[Laughs] That’s a mixed bag, because as a dad in some ways he has really set the bar high. He’s very involved, very supportive, and very engaged in his kids’ lives. But in other ways, I hope I’m a little more aware. I’m sure my daughter will be making fun of me in no time!