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Paley Festival: "Modern Family" Cast and Crew Faces Fears, Offers Laughs

I've been raving about Modern Family since I first saw the pilot episode last May, but there's something to be said about watching a truly great comedy with a crowd. Especially when that crowd is 1,600 in number.

Friday night's Modern Family panel, part of the 2010 Paley Festival and the annual television festival's opening event, offered one hell of an evening, due to the genial charms of the ABC comedy series' cast, co-creator Steve Levitan, and director Jason Winer.

Throw in the advance screening of an upcoming episode, this Wednesday's "Fears," (perhaps one of the most hysterical and amazing installments of the series to date) and even Clive Bixby would be proud of this evening.

Joining moderator Billy Bush on stage were cast members Eric Stonestreet, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Ed O'Neill, Sofia Vergara, Ty Burrell, and Julie Bowen, as well as director Jason Winer and co-creator Steve Levitan. (Sadly, no Christopher Lloyd--who pled a fear of crowds--nor the amazing Rico Rodriguez, who plays Manny.)

I had very low expectations about Bush hosting the event so perhaps that led to the feeling that he wasn't quite as bad as I thought he would be as a moderator. I'm still scratching my head as to why the folks at the Paley Center thought that Access Hollywood's Billy Bush would be a suitable moderator for their opening event and, though he purports to be a huge fan of Modern Family, Bush spent most of the evening quoting other journalists and parroting their observations rather than making any of his own.

Having said that, his moderation wasn't as much of a trainwreck as I had feared (there have, after all, been far worse moderators over the years) and Bush kept things affably warm and kept the pace moving along briskly. I'd sincerely hope that the Paley Festival organizers think more outside the television personality box next time around but, all things considered, it wasn't nearly as bad as I had envisioned. (Nor the rest of the audience apparently, though an audible groan went out through the crowd when Bush was introduced.)

As for "Fears," it's a brilliant gem of an episode and one that will win the favor of Modern Family's devoted army of fans, possibly becoming one of the series' funniest and winsome episodes to date. (You can look for a full review of the episode later this week.)

It's clear that this is a tight-knit group. Not in the way that some casts are--playing practical jokes on each other, etc.--but rather as a lovey-dovey family, one that only comes together every now and then for table reads, given that most of the series' storylines keep the cast separated for the most part.

Nearly everyone loves to imitate Sofia Vergara's Colombian accent. Ed O'Neill, I have to say, does the best rendition, as he teased Sofia for her confession that she always knew she was beautiful. (Julie Bowen also adorably offered a Sofia rendition as well.)

Another fantastically funny bit from the evening: Eric Stonestreet demonstrating his transformation from his privates-scratching self into the serenely gliding Cameron. Cameron, as we've heard in the past, is partially based on Stonestreet's mother as the heterosexual Stonestreet didn't want to play Cam as stereotypically over-the-top or flamboyant. ("I'm appreciative of all my fans, no matter how much hair they have on their back or their chests," said Stonestreet.)

"Basically, we were just looking not to get kicked off the lot," said Levitan about the impetus for creating Modern Family with co-creator Chris Lloyd. "[We] would come in the morning and just look at each other for a while and then started telling stories about what was happening in our lives. I think it started from the pure place of there were a lot of good things happening in our lives right now, a lot of interesting stories every day [and we thought], 'why don't we just write about that?' I think when you start from a place like that, real and honest, good things tend to happen."

Many of the series' storylines come from events that have actually happened to the cast and the writing staff or their family and friends. One of Modern Family's most memorable and hysterical moments--the so-called "moon landing" experienced by Stonestreet's Cam and O'Neill's Jay--was inspired by an actual occurrence of the phenomenon by writer Bill Wrubel. Barkley, Jay's dog butler statue, was also based on a real story as was Claire's inability to work the entertainment center remote control, a point of major contention in the Levitan household, apparently.

Levitan also revealed that such similarities to life extend all the way back to the pilot. He introduced his son--whom he shot with a BB gun--and his daughter, whose room he walked into wearing his underwear while she was on a video chat. Lloyd's son Owen, meanwhile, owns a burgundy dinner jacket, just like Manny's.

While the cast and crew were tight-lipped about what's coming up on the series, Julie Bowen did tease that an upcoming episode will find Claire in an all-out brawl with a mall security guard, a sequence that was shot at Los Angeles outdoor shopping center, The Grove. And we did learn, definitively, that Fred Willard will be back later this season to reprise his role as Phil's father.

And, allegedly, we will see Mitchell and Cameron be more physically intimate with each other as the series progresses. "Chris and Steve have an arc to this show," said Stonestreet. "You're going to see everything you can ever imagine for Cam and Mitchell. We're going to have sex." (That last bit, obviously, is not entirely true.)

While the series has become known for its guest star, Levitan, Lloyd, and director Winer want to keep the focus on the cast rather than the celebrities who happen to be dropping in. Winer said that otherwise you would have to take away screen time from one of the series' talented ensemble and you wouldn't have the chance to discover new acting talent, such as the guy who played the Skinny Santa in the series' Christmas episode.

And Modern Family fans seem to be coming out of the woodwork. Levitan recounted a story in which a friend of his went to an event in Washington D.C. and saw a man wearing a Clive Bixby name tag. (HA!) Burrell said that a homeless man in Central Park stopped playing a two-stringed fiddle to say that "Not since Frasier has a show come on the air so completely confident about its tone as Modern Family."

Prompted by a question from an audience member about the series' mockumentary structure, Levitan clarified the series' documentary/mockumentary format again.

"Modern Family is a family show told documentary-style, rather than a show that is pretending to be a real documentary," said Levitan. "The simple reason is that I love these characters. I'm very protective of these characters and, if these characters allowed cameras into their homes and into their children's rooms and into their bathroom, I wouldn't like them."

"It's just a way of telling a story that has a little grit and edge," he continued. "The documentary form... allows you to cut to the chase in such a nice way. They have a pacing that gets through the exposition. So that's the main reason we do it."

However, Burrell offered another take on the series' documentary structure, via a theory that his wife came up with. She believes that the camera is in fact the audience. The result is that the viewer takes the part of an unseen member of the family, privy to their thoughts and confessions. After all, it's only the series' central family members who turn to, notice, or interact with the unseen camera.

It's a theory that I would like to agree with. After all, who wouldn't want to be a part of the extended Pritchett clan?

Modern Family airs Wednesdays at 9 pm ET/PT on ABC.


Anonymous said…
This was a great recap on the Paley event. For those of us who could not attend, it was great to get a sense of the evening and how the cast interacts with each other. Their fondness and chemistry with each other is evident and along with incredible writers/creators it's a winning combination we hope that will run long time.
Anonymous said…
Jace, Steve Levitan doesn't have a brother. Who was in D. C.?
Jace Lacob said…

I had written down brother but have now corrected to read a friend of his after double-checking. Thanks!
Alexis said…
Thanks for the great write up! Modern Family is my favorite comedy and I would have loved to have gone to this event but at least I got to live vicariously through you. Thanks again!!!

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