Making his name as superhumanly embarrassing dad Phil Dunphy in Modern Family, Ty Burrell has become the unlikely hero for men everywhere – clumsy, cringe-inducing and downright hilarious. Hitting the big time after a string of lesser-known roles before he turned 40, Burrell now has a cabinet full of awards and Hollywood knocking at his door. Over the phone to ShortList, he opened up about facial topiary, comedy heroes and hot mommas…
It only began four years ago, but Modern Family is currently the most watched comedy on US TV. What was it like for you to hit such a huge career peak at 40?
Yeah, 40-plus. I feel very lucky it happened to me at this stage. I was not a grounded young man. I think the wheels would have come off.
Were you pretty wild, then?
No, I was wimpy. So I would have done something very boring but killed myself doing it. I’d probably have been sat in front of the internet, with prescription painkillers or something.
So Phil saved your life?
No, I would just say that I am lucky I didn’t have success early. Modern Family came at a point where I have a wife and kids, and am extremely happy and aware of the good fortune.
What’s your favourite moment on Modern Family?
I love playing Clive Bixby [Phil’s amorous alter-ego]. Any time I do it, Chris Lloyd – who directs those episodes – will dress up as Clive as well and we both walk around as him all day. So it’s a fun week whenever I’m doing Clive.
When was the last time you thought, “Oh God, I’m Phil”?
That’s a better question for my wife because, much like Phil, I don’t realise. There are more links [between me and him] than I would like to admit. My wife will say every couple of days, “Oh, that was so Phil.” And luckily my kids are too young for me to be making most of Phil’s mistakes. I’m inevitably going to try to be cooler than I am, but at the moment the mistakes are just clumsiness – dropping them and that kind of thing.
Do you have a gymnastic background like Phil?
No. I delusionally thought that I could make it through college as an athlete. But I’ve always taken mental notes about male cheerleaders – I always found them really funny.
Is your real-life wife similar to your onscreen wife, Claire?
To a degree. I suppose we are the same sort of characters. She is more organised. She is certainly keeping our family headed in the right direction.
Who is hotter on the show: your mother-in-law or wife?
Shelley Long [who plays Phil’s ex-mother-in-law, DeDe]? [Laughs] Oh, right, Sofia Vergara [Phil’s current mother-in-law, Gloria]. I mean they [Vergara and Julie Bowen, who plays Claire] are both equally awesome: down-to-earth and hilarious.
You’re currently in London filming The Muppets… Again! Are you living the dream?
Oh yeah. It’s a sort of daydream. Like everybody, I grew up with The Muppets.
Tell us about your character, Jean Pierre Napoleon…
He’s an amalgam of French investigators over the centuries: Clouseau or, even though he’s Belgian, Poirot. People really could draw this character if you just said ‘French inspector’. The hair and make-up is very The Artist. Extra-wafer-thin moustache and a wardrobe of cool Sixties French suits. It’s a blast.
Will you keep the ’tache?
Oh yeah, I will wear the fake moustache all the time.
It might suit Clive Bixby, actually…
Oh my God. That is a truly inspired idea. Clive must have a moustache. I promise you will get credit for this.
Much appreciated. Back to The Muppets, you’re working with Ricky Gervais and Tina Fey, but are most of your scenes with felt creatures?
The three humans have a few lines with each other, then we pair off with a Muppet or two. I’m with Sam The Eagle. It’s fun working with him, and Eric who operates them all. Sam’s such a funny character: so pompous and arrogant.
Both Phil and David Brent are masters of the ‘look to camera’. Have you discussed that with Ricky?
I haven’t. I think [in The Office] they always wanted Ricky to look to camera, but on Modern Family we didn’t talk about that. Phil’s ‘obliviousness’ is borrowed from Fred Willard, which is why it’s amazing to have him play my dad.
Any other comedy heroes?
I was raised on Steve Martin. He explained irony to me. I was very inspired by many people that did sort of long-form character work, such as Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg and Jonathan Winters.
Finally, where do you keep your Emmy and Screen Actors Guild awards?
In the basement. My wife would like me to move them up, but…
Yeah. If I could screw them in sideways and turn them into coat hangers, then maybe…
Modern Family: Season 4 is on Sky1, Fridays at 8.30pm
(Image: Rex Features)