TV dads just aren’t what they used to be. There was a time—more or less the entire second half of the 20th century—when television was dominated by father figures who acted as beacons of strength and moral certitude for their families. From Ward Cleaver and Andy Taylor to Dr. Cliff Huxtable and Howard Cunningham, they were the patriarchs we all thought we deserved and were occasionally surprised didn’t actually exist in reality. But these days, our choices in TV dads have become increasingly crappy. There’s… who exactly? Jack Bauer? Peter Griffin? Don Draper? Charlie Sheen?
And then there’s Phil Dunphy. As arguably the least capable of four fathers on the ABC sitcom Modern Family, Dunphy (played by Ty Burrell, an actor whose previous work includes such movies you didn’t see as The Incredible Hulk and National Treasure: Book of Secrets) might appear at first to be just another clueless TV dad who should probably be expecting a visit from child protective services any day now. But watch enough episodes—and full disclosure, this was one of those sitcoms that I watched only begrudgingly in the beginning—and you could easily develop a daddy crush on Dunphy. He’s a moron, sure, but he’s such a well-intentioned moron. Every time he tries to relate to his kids, saying jaw-droppingly unironic lines like “Wow, things with Mom got pretty intense down there. East Coast-West Coast, ya feel me?,” it’s hard not to cringe. But you don’t cringe because he’s a jackass. You cringe because he just cares so fucking much.
I called Burrell to talk about Modern Family’s Hawaii special—part one aired a few days ago, and part two is coming next Wednesday, May 12th, on ABC. Burrell seemed fatigued and scattered, which may have something to do with his becoming an actual parent (he recently adopted a baby girl), an experience he described as “wonderful and bizarre.” This weary confession made me instantly like him. I guess I’m just more willing to believe a parent when he uses an adjective like “bizarre” to talk about his children.
Eric Spitznagel: I never got an advance screener of the Modern Family Hawaii shows, so if it’s O.K. with you, I’m just gonna assume it follows the same basic plotline of The Brady Bunch Hawaii episode.
Ty Burrell: (Laughs.) Please do. And you’d be entirely correct. It’s a word-for-word reenactment. We’re dressed in full Brady Bunch costumes, and it’s basically a frame-by-frame remake.
So who finds the Tiki idol that causes a curse? Is that your character?
No, no, it’s Jay (played by Ed O’Neill). I don’t think Phil is smart or cunning enough to find any idols.
Are we finally gonna find out what’s up with the smoke monster?
No. (Long pause.) Was that from the Brady Bunch?
Wait, I’m sorry, I’m thinking of Lost.
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I don’t know anything about what’s happening on Lost. I’m really late to the game.
I didn’t think I was making an obscure reference. Thanks for making me feel like the Comic Book Guy.
I keep intending to grab a big stack of DVDs and start from the beginning. It seems so complicated that I don’t want to pick up in the middle.
Julie Bowen, your Modern Family wife, was on Lost a few years ago, right? I’m sure she could hook you up.
Or maybe she could reenact the entire series for me. I’ve got the time. Just talk me through from the beginning. (Laughs.)
Lost also shoots in Hawaii, which would’ve made it awfully easy for Bowen to double-dip when you were shooting the Modern Family Hawaii episodes. Were there any signs that she was moonlighting?
Hmm. (Long pause.) Well, she was gone a lot at nights, and then she came back covered in smudge makeup. So, I don’t know how much you can read into that.
That doesn’t necessarily mean anything. She could’ve been mud-wrestling.
That’s true. Or taking part in some really creepy, ancient ritual. I have no idea.
A sitcom family vacationing in Hawaii seems like such a dated TV cliché, and not just because of the Brady Bunch. Didn’t every sitcom in the 70s and 80s have at least one Hawaii episode? I know Growing Pains did, and I vaguely recall The Jeffersons going to Hawaii.
It’s funny, we actually got the idea of going to Hawaii because we didn’t want to be a sitcom cliché. The original plan was to film an episode at LAX, with the family going to Hawaii. And then we’d basically jump to the next week and assume we’d all come back from Hawaii. There’s that old-fashioned sitcom notion of trips, where you come back and you walk through the front door with all your luggage and your face is covered with all that bad tan makeup. Our show isn’t completely realistic, but it’s a lot more realistic than some sitcoms. (Modern Family co-creator) Steve Levitan thought about it, and he said, “Look, audiences are going to expect us to go to Hawaii, so I think we should do it.”
Sure, that’s a reasonable argument. “We’re not going to Hawaii for us. We’re doing it for the fans.”
(Laughs.) We were all pretty excited.
Mike Brady was the ultimate TV dad. How does Phil Dunphy hold up to his legacy?
Ummm. Gosh, I don’t know if I remember Mike Brady well enough to compare the two.
Come on, it’s gotta be somewhere in your muscle memory. How are Phil and Mike Brady similar, and how are they different?
Well… (long pause.) I think Mike Brady probably had more of his wits about him.
He was definitely the most smugly superior of TV patriarchs.
It seemed like Mike Brady was a really in-control, sensible guy. Phil envisions himself as a hipper version of Mike Brady, but he’s probably not even close. He isn’t that sage voice of wisdom that Mike Brady represented to his family. (Long pause.) Am I remembering Mike Brady accurately?
You are. I don’t think Phil’s kids respect him nearly as much as the Brady kids revered their dad.
I’m pretty sure if Phil sat down and tried to lecture his kids like Mike Brady did, they’d walk right out of the room.
And Mr. Brady would never use a parenting style called “Peerenting.”
Absolutely not, no.
And Phil is actually sleeping with this wife, unlike Mr. Brady, who I think had most of his sex in gay bathhouses.
I may be confusing him with Robert Reed.
(Laughs.) Could be, yeah.
Also, Mike Brady could pull off a mustache in ways Phil never came close.
Wait, what? No, no, no! I totally disagree! I think Phil really, really rocked that mustache. A mustache has never looked better on a man.
I’ve apparently touched a nerve. Are you lobbying to grow another ‘stache?
I’ve been lobbying for a mustache for years. Not just for the show, but for me personally. But my wife won’t have it. I emailed a picture of myself with a mustache to (Modern Family creators) Chris (Lloyd) and Steve last summer, before we started filming, and I told them “Just think about it. I think it’d be really funny and awesome if Phil had a mustache.” But they wrote back and said, “Get that thing off your face as soon as you can!”
And yet they let Phil embrace his mustache fetish in at least one episode.
I’m pretty sure that was based on me. My deep, unironic desire to have a mustache is the one thing I’ve actually contributed to the plotlines of this season.
I see this weird mustache obsession becoming a guiding influence in your career. After Modern Family, are you only going to take those roles that allow you to grow a flavor saver?
Honestly, I don’t think that’s much of a stretch. Everything I do from now on, I’ll have a mustache. I can promise you that. I don’t care who I have to convince. If you see me with a mustache in a movie or on stage in the future, you’ll know that I pitched the idea.
Why are you so drawn to mustaches? Do you think they frame your face in a way that makes you seem more attractive?
I find them appealing because I can grow them. (Laughs.) Seriously. I’m not kidding. That’s it. It’s the only facial hair I can grow. I can’t grow a beard.
So you think a mustache is proof of your masculinity?
It’s the only proof of my masculinity. Otherwise, I’m out of ideas. There are no other clear signs that I’m in any way masculine. I’m not handy. I’m not taciturn and stoic. I’m far too expressive and feminine. All I’ve got is my mustache. On that point, I think my wife would agree.
You recently became an actual dad, isn’t that right?
Yeah, I adopted a baby girl.
Do you look to TV dads for inspiration? Do you ever think, “What would Howard Cunningham do?”
Not yet. But it’s still so new for me. I haven’t experienced enough yet. I think once I fail enough as a dad, I’ll be looking for help wherever I can get it. I just need enough time to screw things up and then I’ll start looking to TV dads for advice.
Isn’t failure the whole point of parenting? I thought your job was basically to cause as much emotional damage to a child as possible.
(Laughs.) Well, I certainly hope so. If that’s true, I’ll be O.K.
Could somebody watch Modern Family and study Phil’s parenting technique and pretty much learn everything they ever needed to know to fuck up a child?
(Laughs.) Yeah, I think so. But it’s a half and half kind of thing with Phil. The negative lesson from Phil is that it’s possible to try too hard. Phil is constantly screwing things up because he has ambitions bigger than his talents. But the positive lesson is that it’s still better to try too hard than to not try at all. I think Phil is ultimately a good dad. At least he cares, and there are lots of parents who don’t care at all. When I reflect back on this first season, I really like Phil and the way he’s written, because his heart is always in the right place. He always does the wrong thing and he thinks he’s much cooler than he actually is, but none of it is motivated by apathy.
Modern Family has been called a conservative show. Is that an adjective you’d use?
Well yeah, I think so.
What makes it conservative? Because Phil doesn’t cheat on his wife? Because Ed O’Neill isn’t doing a motorboat on his Colombian wife’s ginormous breasts?
The show looks like a very, very modern show, but it’s really telling these old-fashioned, universal stories. One of the cool things about the show, at least for me, is that it’s a mixture of older and newer comedy. I think some people watch those old family sitcoms, like from the 60s and 70s, and it’s hard to go along with them, because you can see the jokes coming a mile away and the laughter sounds so canned. A lot of modern comedies are difficult to watch too, because they’re so ironic and so detached and so quote-unquote clever. They kind of keep you at arm’s length. They can be really funny, but they’re not really nourishing. You know what I mean? But on Modern Family, I feel like they struck the perfect balance between those two worlds. It’s got the sweetness of older sitcoms, but it’s also got a gritty, modern edge to it.
It is kind of surreal to see Ed O’Neill in a loving relationship. I keep waiting for the toilet flushing sound effects.
(Laughs.) Yeah, right, exactly. It’s true, it’s really true. I like how our show has that old-fashioned quality to it. It wears its heart on its sleeve, but it can also be a little challenging and edgy. It’s like the perfect storm. I feel like the writers took a really big risk by doing that. It’s not an easy thing to get away with. When I think about the shows that I loved, the ones that really stuck with me, like The Cosby Show and things like that, I think it’s because they were willing to open themselves up and let the audience get a little closer than arm’s length.
You could argue that Modern Family is about family values. But it’s the kind of family values that terrify most people who use terms like “family values.”
I totally agree, yeah, yeah. I think that’s part of why the show works so well. We’re telling very universal stories that almost anybody could relate to, and it just so happens that one of these stories is told through the prism of a gay couple. I think, in a way, that’s one of the great lessons of this show. Maybe it could help us to slowly understand that same sex marriage is just like any other marriage. It’s a pretty cool lesson on the universality of marriage.
You want to change the way Americans think about homosexuality and marriage? I don’t know, Ty, that’s asking a lot from a sitcom.
Maybe it’s too ambitious.
If I were you, I’d just be happy if Modern Family turns you into America’s favorite DILF.
(Laughs.) As in “Father I’d Like To…”
Don’t tell me it hasn’t crossed your mind.
(Laughs.) I’d have to get a lot of work done to be a DILF. I’d need to go the Joan Rivers route. I need surgery and muscle implants, the whole deal. It’d be too much work.
Or just grow another mustache.
(Abruptly stops laughing, followed by a long, thoughtful pause.) Y’know, you could be on to something.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com