Saturday, March 14th (8:00pm)
Panelists: Ty Burrell, Julie Bowen, Ed O’Neill, Sofia Vergara, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet, Sarah Hyland, Ariel Winter, Nolan Gould; Co-creator & Executive Producer: Steve Levitan
Modern Family was the most stacked panel at this year’s Paley — there were 13 people on stage, not counting moderator Andy Daly, as the previously announced panelists were joined by writers Danny Zucker and Abraham Higginbotham and actor Rico Rodriguez. A week ago, the Scandal panel, with a mere eight members, had problems with some people not getting to speak much, and to a degree, Modern Family fell into the same trap; in particular, the younger actors, Sarah Hyland, Ariel Winter, Nolan Gould, and Rico Rodriguez, were quieter than their older co-stars. But Daly largely avoided the problem by going down the line, asking one question of each panelist. And by the time that was over, it was time for audience questions.
Luckily for me, this makes the whole thing easy to sum up. Daly asked Steve Levitan about Cam and Mitchell’s wedding at the end of season five; Levitan revealed that the creative team had been planning the wedding from the previous year, and therefore didn’t know, at the beginning, whether gay marriage would actually be legal when the time came. He did say, though, that they’d always planned to do the story as soon as California legalized it. Ed O’Neill answered a question about Jay’s evolution toward kindness and tolerance by saying that Jay is in constant flux: “Every time I thought I had my mind wrapped around this problem, something else would come up.”
The panel peaked early, with Sofia Vergara’s question. Daly asked her about her comedy influences, specifically calling out Lucille Ball and asking about Colombian comedians. Vergara agreed that Ball is an icon of hers, but the answer digressed wildly when Julie Bowen related a story about Vergara’s family that she’d heard from a relative at a party. Apparently, Vergara’s family once owned a number of circus animals, including an elephant and a tiger. “The circus went to Barranquilla,” Vergara said, “and the circus ran out of money. My grandfather had money, so he saved all the animals.” Once her grandfather mistook a friend’s tiger for his own tiger, and nearly got a limb ripped off. My notes on this question, by the say, say simply, “THIS STORY IS EXCELLENT.”
Bowen had her own question next, about how Claire avoids falling into the “scolding wife” archetype. She credited the writers, but also said, “Sometimes it’s our job to take care of the characters on set … I try to make Claire a little less of a ‘Punch and Judy.'” Her on-screen husband, Ty Burrell, expanded on the answer, saying that the key is to keep expanding the characters. “I don’t really believe that characters grow on a sitcom, but doing new things,” he said. Burrell’s answer to his own question, which asked how the show has impacted his own parenting, was shorter: “I actually learn more from [Mitch and Cam’s] episodes, because my kids are around that age.”
Jesse Tyler Ferguson answered a question about how the characters stay likeable despite their flaws. Partially, he said, it’s their job as actors to keep the characters likeable — after all, “We’re really good-looking, cute people.” Eric Stonestreet chimed in with an assist: “We are all flawed human beings. That doesn’t make us bad people, it just makes us human people.” Stonestreet’s own question was about the origins of his Fizbo the clown persona. Stonestreet said that he decided he wanted to be a clown as a child, when he realized, “Clowns are just regular people in makeup.” He said that he believes the desire to clown was an aspect of his desire to be a performer. His parents, were supportive — Fizbo was named by Stonestreet’s father. “I’m glad my parents let me be weird, because it led to me being an actor and being here and getting made fun of for being a clown.”
Daly asked Sarah Hyland about her character’s new will they/won’t they romance. “Yes, I’m a girl, I love romance,” Hyland said, comparing the relationship to Rachel/Ross on Friends, an apparent favorite of hers. It’s also satisfying to her as an actor: “It gives me more stuff to do. I’m not texting on my phone and rolling my eyes anymore.” Ariel Winter’s question asked about her similarities to Alex, and how the character has changed. “I kind of love getting to grow up playing Alex,” Winter said. “I get to learn from what Alex learns.” The final Dunphy child, Nolan Gould, answered a question about whether Phil or Luke has more sense — apparently, they have equal sense, but Luke still has time to grow. Rodriguez, like Winters, got a question about where his character is going. “He’s kind of wise beyond his years,” Rodriguez said. “He knows what he wants, but not really.”
After Zuker’s question — about his Twitter fight with Donald Trump — Higginbotham answered a question about what he would do differently if he ran the show. “I loved the way we shot the show in the beginning,” Higginbotham said. “I miss the old look.”
The audience questions opened up the subjects to this season’s iPhone episode, “Connection Lost.” The tricky part, Levitan said, was finding a story that could be sustained on a computer screen, that involved all the characters. Ferguson noted that filming was also tricky — the actors had to hold onto the cameramen’s wrists as they filmed.
Other questions involved guest star Fred Willard (“I, like many other actors, have been ripping off Fred Willard,” said Burrell.); how much of Bowen there is in her character (“I compartmentalize really heavily,” Bowen said. “By the time I get home, I’m Mom, Mom, Mom, and that’s it, and my kids are so unimpressed.”); and Jay’s relationship with his dog, Stella (Stonestreet compared it to his own father’s relationship with his cat, Socks: “Where was that when I was 10!?”) Vergara even fielded a question in Spanish, asking whether she’d ever tried to drop her accent. Apparently, she tried at first, but it was very difficult, and made her conscious only of her accent in auditions — so eventually, she gave up, and hoped someone would take her as she was.
Madelyn Glymour | Contributor