Father Knows Jack: ‘Modern Family’s’ Ty Burrell

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Photograph by Emily Shur

There’s something inspiring about the way Ty Burrell cleans a toilet. The actor is at his house in the hills of Salt Lake City, boots firmly planted in the guesthouse bathroom, eyeing a gnarly ring of grime encircling the bowl. “Yeah,” he says, holding a can of heavy-duty cleanser and a Brillo pad, “this is not acceptable.” There’s a toilet brush nearby, but brushes are for easier jobs – and prissier dudes. Burrell rolls his sleeves up and plunges a hand in deep. “When I saw how dirty this was,” he says, grinning, “I vividly heard my wife’s voice yelling at me to clean it.”

If this were a scene on ‘Modern Family,’ the sitcom in which Burrell costars as the endearingly inept, wannabe “down” father-of-three Phil Dunphy, the toilet would win. Phil would accidentally flush his wedding ring, and by act two he’d be neck-deep in a septic tank, bobbing for it. The show has enjoyed the kind of success that tends to fuse actors and their roles in the public imagination. But Ty Burrell is no Phil Dunphy. Porcelain sparkling, he runs his hand under some hot water, rolls his sleeves back down, and flicks off the light. Pro.

Burrell, 43, lives in Salt Lake City with his wife, an actress-turned-banker-turned-pastry chef, and their adopted year-old daughter, Frankie. “I can’t have kids,” Burrell says. “I have apathetic sperm.” The Burrells split their time between Los Angeles, where ‘Modern Family’ tapes, and Salt Lake, partly because Ty’s wife, Holly, has family here, and partly because they don’t want Frankie to grow up thinking Hollywood is a normal place.

Ty’s younger brother, Duncan (he has an older brother and sister, too), lives here as well. Last year, partnering with some friends and family, the two bought a beloved SLC watering hole called Bar-X, which they renovated into an haute dive with a cocktail menu – hand-mashed ginger ale, a topiary of garnishes – designed to introduce Salt Lake City to artisanal boozing.

The grand opening is tonight, and Burrell’s ‘Modern Family’ wife, actress Julie Bowen, is flying in and staying in his guesthouse. He promised to pick her up at the airport. After lunch, Burrell drives me to his house – a sunny one-story with minimalist wood furniture and stuffed bookshelves – so he can straighten up for Bowen and check on his basement freezer. He and a friend have gone in on a cow, and he’s waiting for his portion to be delivered. The cow hasn’t shown yet. “This is like Christmas morning for me,” he says.

Burrell stands in his kitchen, drinking coffee. He’s wearing scuffed Red Wing boots, Levi’s, and a slim gray blazer over a plaid shirt, some mildly roguish stubble sprouting from his chin. He gets a text. “Now Julie’s saying she’ll take a cab from the airport,” he says, reading it. “We’re in a politeness war, seeing who can out-nice the other one.”

But you’ve got to start scrubbing toilets pretty early in the morning to out-nice Ty Burrell. He grabs the keys to his Subaru Forester. “OK. Airport,” he says. “But first let me take you back to your car. It’s totally on the way.”
To hear Burrell tell it, his life has been one long struggle between a burning desire for attention on one hand, and fear of failure on the other. He was born in southern Oregon, the son of a social-worker dad and a teacher mom who for a stretch ran the local country store together. In high school, Burrell was on the football team, but he says he wasn’t a jock so much as “a repressed class clown.” He’d try his best to crack up his family, either solo or in improv routines with Duncan, who recalls, “Ty liked to play the naive, ill-informed guy – essentially, the idiot. That gave him the most fun.”

After high school, Ty suffered an extremely mellow life crisis. “I guess I’d figured maybe I was gonna play in the NFL, but it’s ridiculous that that was actually something I thought.” Instead he went to the University of Oregon and withdrew into a thick marijuana haze. “I drained the state of weed,” he recalls, smiling. “It was like a thatch hut, constantly on fire, and I was living inside. I remember going out to buy weed in my underwear once. Like it was too much work to pull on my pants.” He dropped out of school, spent a clearheaded summer as a forest fire–fighter, and wandered.

When his dad died of cancer, Burrell took it as a wake-up call. He kicked weed and enrolled at Southern Oregon University, intent on becoming an actor. He later got his MFA at Penn State. Then he moved to New York, rented an apartment in Queens, and was stunned to find work. “I had low enough self-esteem that I was always shocked when I’d get something. Like, ‘Wow, I got another movie, and it’s gonna pay me $400!’ I didn’t turn down anything.”

The result is one of those journeyman IMDb pages packed with movies you’ve never seen outside of a transcontinental flight or in Laundromats (the non–Ang Lee ‘Incredible Hulk,’ ‘National Treasure: Book of Secrets’); one-off bit parts on ‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’ and ‘The West Wing’; and roles in short-lived sitcoms with short-lived-sitcom names, like ‘Back to You’ and ‘Out of Practice.’ “I’ve never had a career strategy,” Burrell says. “It was just, ‘Keep it going for as long as I can, because I don’t have anything to fall back on.'” Was it satisfying? “I was happy to make a living and help pay the bills. My wife was working at Credit Suisse at the time and really floating us.” Today he wants to fill the ‘Modern Family’ breaks with other work. (He’ll soon appear in ‘Butter,’ a feature comedy about competitive butter carving.) “I’ve spent the vast majority of my career unemployed. So now it’s the whole make-hay-while-the-sun-shines thing.”

In 2008, Burrell got a call from the screenwriting-producing team of Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan, both of whom he’d worked with before. They were developing a sitcom about a large, offbeat American clan, and they’d written a role with Burrell in mind. He wouldn’t even need to audition: Lloyd remembered Burrell from the CBS lot where ‘Out of Practice’ taped, how cast and crew would gather after shooting was done for inebriated powwows called mingles. “They devolved into everyone rolling on the floor at 1 am while Ty held court,” Lloyd says. “It’s a small subset of people who are as funny and as fun to be around as Ty. The big dimension he adds is that he’s not just funny; he also plays heart moments so well. We did an episode of ‘Modern Family’ early on where we cut to a quick scene of Ty in a bathrobe, waving goodbye to his kids on the first day of school. He doesn’t want to let them know he’s upset to see them go, but we get it. It’s three seconds, but it’s heartbreaking.”
‘Modern Family,’ which is reaping 12.3 million viewers per episode and won an Emmy last year for Outstanding Comedy Series, relies on a deep bench of funny people and rapid-fire punchline-slinging, but also, crucially, on its squareness. “It’s like one of those warm, old-fashioned, laugh-track sitcoms,” Burrell says, “written really precisely and put in this different format.” In Burrell’s hands, Phil Dunphy is an amalgam of two gold-plated comedic types: the overgrown man-child – one who drops hip-hop malapropisms and learns all the ‘High School Musical’ dance steps in a quixotic quest to be the cool dad – and the pushover patriarch, in thrall to his wife and regularly outsmarted by his wiseass offspring. He is a new breed of dorky dad, anxious about losing touch with his kids (those Bieber-fevered creatures who communicate inscrutably in LOLspeak), still resisting his own maturity, and failing hilariously at both. Burrell insists Dunphy isn’t dumb so much as a practitioner of a sort of zen obliviousness: “His brain is like one of those long stretches in a Terrence Malick film,” he explains. “Just grain waving back and forth, a slight breeze, some footsteps off in the distance, and that’s it. For a neurotic like me, playing him is almost therapeutic.”

For Burrell, there’s no shame in a joke that ends with a hug. “Ty has the rarest ability to make people laugh without being mean,” Julie Bowen, his costar, says at the Bar-X opening. “I always thought you had to get people on their back foot to be funny, but not him.” Duncan is behind the bar slinging Sazeracs and Pimm’s Cups, and the place is packed. Burrell works the room, full of people he knows or convincingly pretends to know. A few hours in, he swings my way and asks how I’m doing. He notes that he’s only on his second drink. “I’ve been doing a lot of hand-shaking,” he explains without complaint.

I ask Burrell if he’s naturally nice or if his niceness is a feat of sustained effort and self-consciousness – if maybe he’s suppressing some inner prick. “Both,” he says. “Like a lot of people in comedy, I learned how to do it by making fun of people, by being a mean kid at times. By being an asshole. But I hate that.”

By 2 AM the party is winding down. People stare at their phones; casualties of the open bar stumble out. Bowen is in the parking lot out back, shivering and smoking a cigarette. Burrell, though, is aglow. “My cow half finally showed up,” he says. “Do you want to come over and try some?”

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