When Phil Dunphy asks the always-crafty Luke what his trick is to summon fake tears, Luke solemnly replies, “The Three Stooges are all dead.” So let’s consider last night’s episode of Modern Family, directed by show creator Steven Levitan, an homage to those masters of physical comedy. Here was an episode that unabashedly favored broad humor over any pretense of subtlety, that featured dramatic falls into shrubbery, grocery store capers, and Manny cheering away at a sparklers-wielding, booty-shaking junior high mascot (go Franklin Mustangs!). Oh, and did we mention the actual clowns? Because there were many of them, and not one clown joke went untold. There were pratfalls and spit takes galore, rubber horns a-honking, balloon animals, even a Mini Cooper as a modern-day clown car. If it wasn’t the most inspired show of the season, it was undeniably fun to see the cast — along with two glorious guest stars — be as wacky as they wanted to be.
The goofiness begins immediately, when we learn that Cameron’s clown college professor and mentor has passed away. He and his former classmates, along with professional cringer Mitchell, gather for a funeral ceremony of the silliest sort, complete with the most tender whipped-cream-pie-throwing ever. It’s here we learn that Cam’s clown alter ego hasn’t always been a solo act: He was once 50 percent of the great comic duo, Fizbo & Lewis. They were kinda like the Beatles (“of children’s parties,” Mitchell snarkily interjects throughout the evening) until Cam decided he couldn’t have both a relationship and a clown career, and so he broke up the team. (It turns out that in the world of Modern Family, even a clown can’t juggle a family and a job.)
Bobby Cannavale plays embittered Lewis as a messed up yet charming booze-hound of a clown with a deep voice and some terrible anger issues, who re-teams with his old partner to recapture a bit of their glory days. At first it goes great — Fizbo & Lewis drunkenly teach Lily how to do spit takes (much to Mitchell’s chagrin), and then they even book a weekend performance (yes, Mitchell, we know — it’s a birthday party). We’re back to that familiar issue with Cam and Mitch, where Cam is literally a clown (“If you squeeze me, do I not honk?”) and Mitchell is a nonstop eye roller who spoils all the fun. So let’s give this episode a nice healthy squirt of tequila from a big fake flower for not having some elaborate speech at the end about how they need to be more understanding of each other. It’s enough for Mitchell to see Fizbo onstage doing his thing, making the audience giggle, being a star. He gets it. That is, until Lewis works out his abandonment issues by choking Cam in the most violent scene the duo has ever undertaken.
Even if he doesn’t “white up” in clown makeup, Phil is still a bona fide goofball who carries himself with childlike innocence. Which makes Ellen Barkin’s appearance as Phil’s real estate broker rival, Mitzi Roth, such a nice contrast. Mitzi is clearly a cynical broad who’s been around the block — particularly if that block is Elm Street. She’s a Grade-A bully with a power suit, a helmet of blonde hair, a pretty face that isn’t as expressive as it once might have been, and a voice that sounds startlingly like a drunken Carol Channing’s (seriously, we kept waiting for Mitzi to break out into “Hello, Dolly”). If Barkin’s comic timing is just a bit off, a little slower than what we’re used to seeing on such a fast-paced show, well, then she just commands our attention all the more. Phil is feeling mega-confident that he’s about to land the biggest account of his career until Mitzi swoops in, fakes a Fizbo-worthy fall in the clients’ bushes, accuses Phil of having anger issues (“I do not have anger issues!” he shouts), and steals the clients (oh, and she also calls Phil “Jazz Hands”).
A disillusioned Phil shushes Claire when she tries to impart wisdom, and instead takes Luke’s advice — he needs to play as dirty as Mitzi did. When Mitzi proves too slick to fall for the spy pen ruse, wherein Phil would slyly capture her guilty confession on tape, Phil enlists Luke’s help. Luke corners Mitzi in the grocery store cereal aisle and mentions 1) paying for college 2) balloon payments 3) how great his dad is. Throw in some fake tears, and Mitzi is so moved by Luke’s guilt trip that she agrees to back off and relinquish the clients. Really? The spy pen can’t fool her, but a few fake tears can? If the resolution feels bogus, we at least hope that Barkin will come back one day for a second round against Phil, who could use a tough blonde adversary who isn’t his wife.
At the Pritchett-Delgado household, Jay is acting rather clownish himself. Manny’s new friend happens to be the coolest kid at school, and both Jay and Gloria question Griffin’s motives for hanging out with the stridently uncool Manny. Jay is convinced that Griffin saw him riding around on his motorcycle all cool like the Fonz, and that Griffin is using Manny to get closer to Jay. So when Griffin shows up at the door (cue montage of all the uncool ways Manny has answered the door), Jay enacts a silly Fonzie scheme: He’s decked out in a leather jacket and white T-shirt and shades, ready to talk about how Griffin “lit it up” on the basketball court. But Jay has clearly forgotten how the average teenage boy’s brain works. It becomes clear that Griffin is there for two reasons only: Gloria’s boobs. We don’t get to see a bikini-ed Gloria actually attend the pool party to which Griffin so kindly invited the entire family, but Sofia Vergara’s breasts still make a great impact (SNL probably hopes for the same when she hosts this Saturday). But the last laugh goes to Manny — who doesn’t care about Griffin anyway (“He’s a doorknob”). Manny’s only using him to get close to his sister, Chloe. Touché, Manny. You’re cooler than the rest of them by far.
In a night of over-the-top scenarios and general craziness, it’s refreshing to see Claire, Haley, and Alex deal with one of those pesky concerns that might really affect a modern family. Claire has begun to delve into social media, and although Phil and Mitchell and even Adele have confirmed her as a Facebook friend (Claire has so much to learn about Facebook) Alex and Haley have been ignoring her requests. Claire spends the majority of the show feeling hurt that her own daughters don’t want to be her friends — and of course they don’t. Who knows what sorts of embarrassing family photos she might post, what private things she might see? The joke is on Claire, then, when she innocently checks her wall as the girls look over her shoulder. “Spring Break 1990, New Orleans” is the name of the album some guy from her college has tagged her in, and “Why are you drinking out of a funnel?” is the question Alex asks. “Tear down the wall!” Claire screams, as she frantically closes her laptop. Anything to prevent her daughters from knowing that she was once a drunken clown herself.