Modern Family’s Ty Burrell on Identifying With His Hapless, Cool-Guy Character

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On ABC’s Modern Family (airing tonight), Ty Burrell plays Phil, a husband and father of three who’s obsessed with being a cool dad. He attempts to learn the dance from High School Musical, addresses his daughter’s boyfriend as "dude," and claims to know all the popular IM abbreviations: “WTF — why the face!” Burrell, who starred in a number of aborted sitcoms before landing this role, nails the delusional Phil, a character he says is unsettlingly close to his own personality. We spoke with Burrell about improvising, working with Ed O’Neil, and not knowing what a Grup is.

The show has been getting great reviews and feedback.
It never gets old.

Were you worried about a letdown after all the positive buzz about the pilot?
Yeah, I was nervous about it. I was like, damn, that pilot is so good. I got really nervous that we couldn't all keep it up, but after the first episode back, everybody sort of relaxed. The construct of the show is really cool, it’s kind of a brilliant machine of the three families, being so open-ended.

Are you a fan of single-camera comedies?
My issue with single-camera shows in the past — and most of them I’ve genuinely liked — is that they’re not from the heart, you know? They’re very ironic. So I’ve kind of kept them at arm’s length. I may be misquoting, but I think there’s actually a Paul Simon quote about trying to write a love song, and that if you aim too high it's sentimental, and if you aim too low you’re too cool, too clever, but if you hit the right note there’s nothing like it. And I feel like these guys hit it right on.

How much of the show is improvisation?
I would say it’s like 90/10 as far as scripted to improvisation. But then the on-camera interviews are a little bit more improv, and that’s been really fun and that’s also incredibly collaborative. I’ll improvise and then usually somebody like [co-creators] Chris [Lloyd] or Steve [Levitan] will come around from behind the camera and say, "you know, keep that, and maybe throw in this joke or throw in that."

You have a lot of those interviews. Do you have more than the other cast members?
Uh, I don’t know. I think there’s a possibility that maybe that, much like myself, Phil is just a vain ham.

How are you like Phil?
Obviously, for comic reasons, our similarities are magnified, but the magnification is times 1.2, or whatever those weird reading glasses are. It’s thick; it’s a magnification of myself. And Chris and Steve had written the part with me in mind, which gives you another indication of how ridiculously oblivious I am in person.

Can you give me an example?
Recently, after talking myself up, I went to play basketball with Chris, who is a very good basketball player. I then proceeded to humiliate myself like, I mean, in epic, epic proportions, dribbling off my feet, throwing passes to nobody out of bounds. So I was shooting longer and longer three pointers until basically, people just weren’t giving me the ball anymore.

So do you think Phil is you, but with only the bad characteristics?
No! What I like about Phil — and what I hope is true about myself — is that he’s really well intended, and he cares a lot about being a good dad and a good husband. I’ve played bitter people, many, many bitter people in my past, and it’s really a very different thing, I’ve found, to play somebody who’s really very happy to stick his chin back out right after getting it punched.

Do you realize that our magazine coined the term ‘Grup,’ about hipster dads, and Phil is the first Grup on TV?
Oh, really? Say it again?

Grups, it’s a contraction of “grown-ups.”
Oh, I love that, that’s hilarious. I just saw some, I think. I was walking in and out of a building and guys yelled, ‘Phil Dunphy!’ and I’m pretty sure they’re unaware that I’m probably playing them.