“Modern Family” Star Ty Burrell on Changing Minds, Feeding Souls

"Comedy isn’t a cure-all, of course, but it can be like comfort food."

Some families are chosen—every week, same time, same channel.

Modern Family, ABC’s hit sitcom about a lovable suburban Los Angeles clan, is ending after 11 seasons and 250 episodes. The series broke ground in primetime with Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet as Mitch and Cam, a gay couple raising an adopted child. Another modern daddy? Ty Burrell as Phil Dunphy, TV’s dorkiest queer ally.

The two-time Emmy winner, who also voices a cool dad on the animated Fox comedy Duncanville, tells NewNowNext why he’s always been a friend of the family.

Modern Family/Raymond Liu/ABC via Getty Images

I first saw you, Ty, when you made your Broadway debut in a 2000 revival of Macbeth starring Kelsey Grammer.

You saw that? Wow. I love it.

It only ran two weeks. One might call it a flop.

All might call it a flop! But it was still an amazing experience. We probably should’ve never gone to Broadway. We did not get good press in Boston, where the show started, but Kelsey Grammer put up a bunch of money to get all of us on Broadway. We knew we were running on bonus time, so we just enjoyed it.

You haven’t been back. I’d love to see you in a musical.

Thank you, but I don’t anticipate that happening anytime soon. Those hours aren’t great when you have young kids.

You’re dealing with the coronavirus crisis as a father, an actor, and a small business owner. People may not know you co-own some bars and eateries in Utah.

Everyone’s going through this ordeal of COVID-19, obviously, but Salt Lake City, where we live, was also hit with a series of earthquakes a few weeks ago, which did enough structural damage to keep some restaurants from even doing takeout. So we started a grant program called Tip Your Server to raise money for unemployed food and beverage workers in Salt Lake City. We’re trying to get these workers as much cash as we can, as fast as we can.

Did you ever work in the service industry?

I was a uniquely terrible waiter and bartender for many years, like a lot of actors, so I know how difficult unemployment is.

I hope your program inspires similar relief efforts in other cities.

Yeah, I encourage people to take the Tip Your Server model and run with it. I recommend reaching out to your city government and connecting with a local nonprofit entity—I’m working with the Downtown Alliance—so you can cut through some red tape and expedite the grant process.

Modern Family’s final season wrapped before shutdowns. These past few weeks, I’ve never been so appreciative of a good sitcom. How does it feel to be bringing joy to people during this rough time?

Well, I hope that’s the case. Comedy isn’t a cure-all, of course, but it can be like comfort food. I do hope that our show is, in some way, a helpful diversion. TV has certainly been comforting for me, my wife, and our daughters. I’ve been watching more comedies than ever.

Any recommendations?

I’m really enjoying Sex Education, which is very funny. We’ve also been going back to old movies. We just watched All of Me with Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin.

Modern Family/Tony Rivetti via Getty Images

Long-running sitcom families become our families. Like Mike Brady or Ward Cleaver, Phil Dunphy became America’s dad. Has that come with any pressure or responsibility?

For the most part, no. Because the public assumes I’m Phil, and they really do, their expectations are very low. But I’m always greeted with a smile, because the character is so pleasant. I feel for actors who play villains or serial killers on TV.

Is there a downside to that public perception?

The only downside, really, is that when I trip and fall in public—which I’m prone to do, because I’m a clumsy person—people think I’m doing it on purpose. They point and laugh because they think I’m doing a bit. I’m not exaggerating. I have to tell my kids it’s impolite to laugh at people.

What do you hope will be Modern Family’s legacy?

I think the show represents people who aren’t perfect but are really trying, and I feel like that’s part of what people responded to. That’s the hallmark of what Christopher Lloyd, Steven Levitan, and our writing staff created. There’s comedy out there that’s very funny but ultimately isn’t nourishing, because the characters aren’t necessarily trying to be good people. Modern Family may not be as slick as some shows, but there’s a warmth there that I’ll always be proud of.

The show was also groundbreaking in 2009 for putting gay parents at the forefront. Mitch and Cam became cultural touchstones in the fight for marriage equality.

I couldn’t be prouder to be associated with that. Jesse and Eric dealt with a lot of online scrutiny, but they handled it so well. Our writing staff deserves credit for creating this couple with the exact same issues as any other household, which was the genius of the writing and those performances. Normalizing that relationship is what made the most progress.

Modern Family/Peter "Hopper" Stone/Disney via Getty Images

Their wedding predated the Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide. Do you think the show changed conservative minds on gay rights?

I do. I think that’s one of the show’s greatest’s accomplishments. I also give credit to the LGBTQ-inclusive shows that came before us, so we could take it from there and have that relationship be less controversial than it could’ve been. I’ve had multiple people, who may have not looked kindly on gay marriage before the show, talk to me about that couple like any other couple—about plotlines, not their sexuality. That was the brilliant thing about Mitch and Cam. They really made people see that love is love.

Phil loves his brothers-in-law. He even officiated their wedding. With so much toxic masculinity on TV, it was good to see that acceptance from a straight man.

Yeah, I’m grateful for getting to portray that. That was typical Phil. Rather than erring on the side of exclusion, he made his mistakes by trying too hard to connect with and relate to them, which I thought was a lovely quality.

My favorite Phil moment is when he realized he was on a date with a gay guy played by Matthew Broderick. Most straight sitcom dads would have freaked out.

That’s one of my favorite episodes, actually, and largely because of that perspective. There were missed cues, and they were essentially on a gay date, but there was no scrambling to cover up the misunderstanding or to regain masculinity.

When Phil gets kissed, his reaction is perfect.

It was a sweet resolution. I’m also a massive Matthew Broderick fan, so that was truly one of the best experiences of my life.

Modern Family/Peter "Hopper" Stone/Disney via Getty Images

What was your introduction to the LGBTQ community?

I grew up in a really small town in Oregon, so I didn’t have a lot of exposure to the LGBTQ community. By the time I got to college, when I started doing theater, I met a lot of LGBTQ people. I had a lot to learn, but I was grateful that I’d been raised by lovely, compassionate people who primed me to be open to everyone.

You played Rich, a closeted former teacher of Bill Hader’s character, in The Skeleton Twins. How did you approach that role?

I was basically trying to be as sympathetic as possible. My acting teacher in grad school was always adamant that we try to find the good in a character, even if they’re messing up. That character was manipulative, but in some ways he felt like he was doing the right thing.

Didn’t you and Bill shoot a steamy make-out scene that got cut?

Yeah, which was a shame, because we really went for it. But that passion was just for him and me.

During your first Emmy acceptance speech in 2011, you called yourself “a very masculine lady.” Is that still an apt description?

[Laughs] Yep, that still covers it.

The Modern Family series finale event airs Wednesday, April 8 at 8/7c on ABC.

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