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February 26, 2010

'Modern Family'

By Philiana Ng

This year's PaleyFest started off without a hitch Friday night at Beverly Hills' Saban Theatre with the cast, co-creator and director of ABC's breakout comedy "Modern Family."

After news broke that the entire cast -- yes, you read that right -- was heading off to Maui to shoot a vacation episode that happens to have a May airdate, everyone was buzzing about the acclaimed reincarnation (and reinvention) of the family comedy.

Moderator Billy Bush, who flew in from the Vancouver Olympics to take part, accurately defined the half-hour series when he said: " 'Modern Family' nails our culture." That statement might as well be engraved into stone. After a screening of the upcoming "Fears" episode, Bush asked the cast whether it was odd seeing themselves onscreen, especially among fans. Ty Burrell, who plays the "militantly positive"-yet-unhip father Phil Dunphy, jokingly replied, "I don't ever like to see my Franken-brow onscreen." Or a "pimple that keeps popping up," Eric Stonestreet, Cameron Tucker's alter-ego, said.

The premise for "Modern Family" came about like many television shows do: through conversation. "My partner Christopher Lloyd, we just started talking about what was happening in our lives," co-creator Steve Levitan said, who didn't foresee the show to be a hit. It was created strictly for survival purposes, a way "not to get kicked off the lot," Levitan joked. (Levitan and Lloyd's "Back to You" was canned shortly before "Modern Family.")

When it came down to casting the parts, it was kismet for many of the actors. Ed O'Neill (patriarch Jay Pritchett), who starred on "Married with Children" as the iconic Al Bundy, wasn't interested in trying half-hour comedy on TV anymore; however, the writing told him otherwise. "When I read the script, I said, 'Oh my god, I'm going to have to go back to work,' " O'Neill said.

His onscreen wife played by Sofia Vergara (Gloria Delgado-Pritchett) had one of the most memorable lines of the night, when she quipped: "I never thought I would be married to Al Bundy!" The two may look like a mismatched couple, but even their work style is in sync. "We work the same way. Let's do this fast and then go home," Vergara said.

Burrell, who likens "Phil to a dog that can talk," described his character's brain like a meadow. "It's like going on vacation," he said. People just like him first annoy you, but then they begin to wear you down, Burrell said.

Unlike 60-minute dramas, which often ask for 14-hour days, six to seven days a week, "Modern Family" dons a fast pace. "We shoot very short hours," Julie Bowen (Claire Dunphy) said. "It stays fresher that way." Director Jason Winer also added that the show's constant forward motion is definitely by design.

And how Stonestreet, a crowd favorite, switches from his real self to Cameron is just as quick. Levitan, Winer and Stonestreet offered the audience a glimpse into a typical day on set. Within moments of Winer's faux "Action!," Stonestreet turned from the straight everyman he is to the flamboyant character he perfects on a week-to-week basis like a flip of the switch. Funnily enough, Stonestreet said he incorporates aspects of his mother ("moments of my mother," he calls it) to his onscreen persona.

When asked if viewers would ever see how the three families came to be, Levitan said they thought they did that with the Clive Bixby storyline between Claire and Phil. The series co-creator did offer an interesting observation, saying Jay and DeDe's children (Claire and Mitchell) could travel to those dark places, so to offset that they chose positive people to marry.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Mitchell Pritchett) and Stonestreet served up an entertaining anecdote. The duo set up a coffee date after they both got their respective parts, and it wasn't until later that they realized it was Valentine's Day. Burrell, who was in New York's Central Park two weeks ago, shared a story about a homeless guy who stopped he and his wife and said, "Not since 'Frasier,' has a show known its tone .."

The two-way street between the cast and the writers is easily the most transparent on "Modern Family." Scenes like butts touching in "Moon Landing," the gas station confrontation -- which happened to O'Neill in real life -- and the Barkley statue were all ideas that stemmed from either the actors' experiences or Levitan and (Christopher) Lloyd's.

And though the show is only in its first season, it has already garnered guest stars like Edward Norton, Elizabeth Banks and Benjamin Bratt. While those actors are not expected to return, the panel did offer a small nugget: Fred Willard will be reprising his role as Phil's father. While they have gotten recognizable names for small arcs, Levitan said that the writers want to "focus largely on the cast as much as possible." Winer agreed, adding that it is "fun to discover new comedic faces," which you can't do with established talent. 

Successful mockumentary-style comedies like "The Office" have made their intentions known in regards to what the camera symbolizes, the ambiguity of the "talking heads" and the role of the camera on "Modern Family" is a style choice. " 'Modern Family' is a family show told documentary-style rather than a show pretending to be a documentary," Levitan said, adding that it's a way to get to the story at hand.

Burrell agreed, saying, "I like that we don't explain it (who is sitting behind the cameras)." He noted that when the characters talk to the camera, it brings the viewer in making them a part of their family too.


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