The very first episode of Modern Family proves that it is not going to be just another sappy show full of special episodes where the kids all learn something. The show portrays three unique branches of a family; a father newly remarried, a nuclear family of four, and a gay couple adopting for the first time.
Phil and Claire try so hard to be their children’s friends that Phil learns the lyrics and choreography to songs from High School Musical and performs for them. When it comes to discipline, they don’t care about Supernanny’s time-outs. They practice “eye for an eye” discipline. When their son shoots his sister with a BB gun, they shoot him right back.
“I’m a fan of any time that people just call it like it is and say sometimes kids really need to be treated badly,” joked Julie Bowen, who plays Claire. “We definitely discuss parenting and our different parenting techniques as it goes along. We don’t necessarily try to up the ante every episode with how we’ll kill, shoot, stab or maim the children, but we do try to walk the fine line between being parents and being, as Ty [Burrell] calls it, ‘Peerents.’”
Burrell plays Phil. He gets a comic comeuppance when he tries to execute his unorthodox punishment, shooting himself in the process. Series creator Steven Levitan said the BB gun discipline was inspired by real life parenting.
“That came from my life unfortunately,” Levitan said. “That was me. I actually literally have video tape. My son wanted an Airsoft BB gun. I said, ‘Well, okay, I will get you this’ because I always wanted a little target gun when I was a kid. I bought him a target and I said, ‘If you ever shoot anything living, any person, any animal, bird, squirrel, whatever, I will shoot you. That is our deal.’ Sure enough I’m sitting around one day and I hear his cousin scream because my son just shot him. So just like in the pilot, I lined him up and I shot him.”
Don’t judge. Sometimes corporal punishment works. “For the most part,” Levitan said. “There’s still some shooting going on but he’s an 11-year-old boy. These things are going to happen.”
Phil gets more laughs than just the slapstick violence. He also performs “We’re All In This Together” from High School Musical. “I didn't know the dance and I went on YouTube and went over that section many times,” Burrell said. “Then I had to pretend [on set] like I was embarrassed by having to do it when we actually shot it, when deep down I just was having a blast. It was like, ‘This is so weird, High School Musical,' but loving it.”
Claire and Phil are going through what many parents face, being pulled between their love for their children and the need to give them boundaries. “My kids are really little,” Bowen said. “My kids are two and a half and I’ve got two that are four months old but it’s hard. I get that it’s hard. You want your kids to like you. You’re like, ‘Like me, like me, look I’m cool, like me.’ But then you’ve got to drop the hammer. It starts early with sleep training and I think you just keep dropping it through high school.’”
As Phil and Claire try to keep up with the modern influences on their family, Burrell gets the funniest line of the show. Demonstrating his knowledge of internet abbreviations, or lack thereof, he mistranslates WTF as “Why the face?” If you don’t know what WTF actually means, look it up, but be warned, it’s R-rated.
“Thank you very much, that was actually a writer joke,” Burrell admitted. “I can’t claim credit for that one but it’s extremely funny. It was a winner. That one never didn’t work.”
The traditional family sitcom would end with a group hug. Modern Family might make you think it’s going there, but brace yourself for a shock. “I think what works on the show is when the proverbial hug meets the realistic cringe,” Bowen said. “They crash into each other. Every time you relax into a scene and think, ‘I know where this is going.’ There’s a moment where you just tighten up and say, ‘Oh, no, no. that didn’t just happen.’”
Then when you think they’re going for a laugh, that’s when they hit you with a life lesson. “You’ll think a punchline is coming but it’s tears, my friend,” Burrell said. “It’s tears. Actually, I would say that they, by they I mean the writers, really do a very good job of still somehow finding a way to make some scenes poignant without being sort of saccharine.”
In a world where gay couples fight for the right to marry, Modern Family shows one adopting their first child. They can still bicker, the same as traditional married couples on television. Mitchell generally provides rationality while Cameron has the crazy schemes and dramatic presentations. Jesse Tyler Ferguson plays Mitchell and Eric Stonestreet is Cameron.
“I actually auditioned for Eric's part,” Ferguson said. “Chris [Lloyd] and Steve [Levitan] said, ‘Well, you might be a good Mitchell,’ which was the role I was initially drawn to.”
With Ferguson cast, only the role of Cameron was left for Stonestreet. That suits him fine, since Cameron gets scene stealing moments. For example, he presents their adopted child to his family as The Lion King, complete with the “Circle of Life” soundtrack.
“I think we have a good dynamic between the two of us as far as taking the lead in the relationship, if you will, sort of back and forth,” Stonestreet said. “I think my character would believe he's more reasonable because of who we are and being open and honest about that and not being ashamed of it. Not that Mitchell's ashamed of it, but just being proud. It's like, what's there to hide?”
Between High School Musical and The Lion King, Levitan got the most out of his corporate family. ABC is part of The Walt Disney Corporation. “I mean, if we weren’t doing this show for ABC, we never would have gone for that because we never could have gotten the rights to The Lion King,” Levitan revealed.
The third leg of this Modern Family features the return of a favorite television dad. Ed O’Neill played Al Bundy for 11 years on Married… with Children. One imagines he’s been offered a lot of family comedies in the decade since Married ended its run.
“Quite a few,” O’Neill revealed. “Probably over 10 anyway. Maybe 15, but this is the one I thought was the cleverest and the smartest. The easiest way to say it is that it’s single camera rather than four. It’s not a sitcom. There’s no live audience. It’s more real. There’re no jokes. The comedy comes out of the situations rather than the set-up, joke, punch line.”
Modern Family pairs O’Neill with a spitfire of a wife who can give Peggy Bundy some competition. He plays Jay and Sofia Vergara is Gloria, his second wife who brings her own adolescent son to their marriage. This dynamic hit home for Vergara, who has a teenage son.
“I’ve been divorced for 17 years, since he was one year old so I’ve had my share of boyfriends,” Vergara said. “They’ve always been great with him and I appreciate when somebody genuinely and wisely says something. You appreciate that even if it’s not your partner. Even if it’s the maid, if it’s anyone that is trying to help you raise a kid. You appreciate it. I don’t mind at all if it’s something good.”
Jay might come across as gruff but he means well. He discourages his stepson Manny from writing poems, but only because he thinks the other kids will make fun of him. Gloria, of course, encourages her son’s creativity.
“With Manny, that’s a big problem because [Jay] has a gay son,” O’Neill said. “So the fact that he doesn’t want Manny to have maybe the same similar problems that his son obviously did when he was in school, he’s trying to shield him from that and oftentimes says the wrong things because he’s not really good at being a father. Obviously, he’s not going to win any fatherhood awards but he’s trying and that’s kind of funny.”
Gloria keeps things in perspective as a mother, just like Vergara did in real life. “Of course I worry about my son a lot, but my son came out to be a very good gentleman at 18,” she said. “So I have no worries. I think that’s one of the best jobs I’ve done in my life. But you’ll see in other episodes that she knows exactly what this kid’s limitations are. She just wants to be a good mother and supportive and because nothing is really major. It’s like just kids stuff, so I don't think she’s doing anything major for his life. She’s just trying to be a good mother and appreciative of his things.”
The battle of the sexes remains fertile ground for O’Neill. Even after exploring it for 11 years with the Bundys, he still sees new opportunities for comedy. “For me, it’s very funny that this guy obviously had a failed marriage,” O’Neill said. “We’re going to deal with that. That was an American woman that he could never figure out. Now he’s with this Colombian woman, obviously for obvious reasons when he met her. Now he’s trying to figure out this woman which is good luck. So he’s really over his head.”
O’Neill just alluded to the “obvious” attraction. Vergara is a busty bombshell, so one might guess she is a trophy bride. The actress herself is fine with that.
“I think in a way it’s a trophy wife to Ed which I think is perfectly good,” Vergara said. “I think it’s very normal and it doesn’t have to be taken as something bad I think because it’s a reality of course. Any man that age that has opportunity to marry a woman like her would do it, you know, if she’s a good woman, somebody that is going to do good things for his life. Obviously, this is a couple that they share other things in common and other things not in common. But I think she doesn’t care about that because he’s very good to her and she is good to him.”
Those three couples provide a diverse cross-section of families that Levitan hopes speaks to the melting pot of the viewing public. One of those three has to relate to you somehow.
“We just wanted to show three different types of families,” Levitan said. “The idea here was one traditional family and two non-traditional families, so we were searching for interesting, different forms of family because I think the family in America is changing. It comes in lots of different shapes and sizes now that it perhaps didn't used to, and I think that's what's fun about exploring the differences between them. It just seemed like a natural that there would be a lot of comedy in the challenges that they face.”
Modern Family premieres Wednesday,September 23 at 9pm et/pt on ABC.