At every PaleyFest panel, there’s always one. The supporting cast member, who may be fun on the show in question, but who ends up taking over the panel with his or her wit, wisdom and general sense of how to play to an audience. And at the opening night panel of PaleyFest ’10 – for ABC’s family comedy savior/genial, agreeable domestic sitcom “Modern Family” – the actor was Eric Stonestreet. Stonestreet, who plays Cameron, one half of the gay couple that makes up one of the three smaller families in the big family at the center of “Modern Family,” offered up funny anecdotes about life on the set, came up with one-liner after one-liner, managed to defuse moderator Billy Bush’s potentially offensive question about whether playing a gay man had impeded his dating life (Stonestreet is straight) and artfully dodged a lesbian fan’s question about when Cameron and Mitchell were finally going to kiss.
It’s not that the rest of the cast was made up of slouches or anything – indeed, the six actors from the show who came, plus co-creator Steven Levitan and director Jason Winer, were all game and ready for anything – but Stonestreet reminded the nearly sold-out audience instantly of just why PaleyFest, for all its occasional lapses into fannish fawning, can be so fun. Sometimes, when you get creative people up in front of a mostly adoring audience, they can be really, really fun to watch. And that applies perfectly well to Stonestreet. Even as Bush’s questions could be a little too general or a little too slavish, the panelists, following Stonestreet’s lead, were able to turn virtually every moment into something fun, right down to an audience member goading Ed O’Neill about how he used to brag about how he’d be a big star someday back in his Ohio hometown. (“I never said that!” O’Neill faux-grumped.)
PaleyFest has moved to the much larger Saban Theatre this year from its previous dwellings of the Arclight Theatre’s Dome, and even as the larger seating area featured two floors that each would have held nearly as many as the Dome held in its entirety, the fans of “Family” packed the theatre, turning the screening of “Fears,” the next original episode, airing Wednesday and barely out of post-production, into a rollicking good time. Even the weakest of punchlines landed with this crowd, and, fortunately, this was a very good episode of “Modern Family,” filled with plenty of very funny gags, including a bit of politically incorrect humor you’ll see coming from a mile away that still absolutely kills.
As always, it was the panel discussion that made for the most interesting part of the evening. Bush mainly asked the six actors – Stonestreet, Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Mitchell), O’Neill (Jay), Sofia Vergara (Gloria), Ty Burrell (Phil) and Julie Bowen (Claire) – Levitan and Winer fairly softball questions about their favorite scenes and what it’s like working with sitcom legend O’Neill, but the panelists turned all of this into an excuse to show off how their onscreen chemistry extends into real life. (Stonestreet and Ferguson, for example, act like an old married couple in reality just as much as they do on screen.) Every PaleyFest panel turns into an excuse for the cast to act like their set is full of perfect harmony and gentle goodwill, but the actors in “Modern Family” all seem to genuinely like each other, and stories of inside jokes shared between them were common.
Levitan, for his part, talked about how the series’ genesis came from the failure of his last sitcom, “Back to You,” a series that was similarly discussed as being the savior of the sitcom but also a series that failed to become a significant hit.
“With our last show, they said we were saving the sitcom, and then, of course, we didn’t,” Levitan said. “We just knocked it down a peg.”
After that series was canceled, Levitan and co-creator Christopher Lloyd (who was unable to attend) sat around and discussed funny things that were happening in their lives. Those personal anecdotes and stories began to coalesce into a larger whole, and the series that would become “Modern Family” began to slowly take shape.
Nearly everything on the show is drawn from real-life experience, Levitan said. Even the famed dog butler of a prior episode was taken from a real life butler figure that stands in a friend’s house and scares anyone who happens across it while visiting, he said.
Winer and Levitan also talked about how the show’s documentary style filming process allows for a lessened length of production time, which, in turn, gives the actors more room to improvise and play around. The shortened hours keep things loose on set, which Winer believes is necessary to keeping a comedy feeling fresh. Most single-camera comedies work very long hours, the director said, and that can lead to problems.
“Everybody gets exhausted, and that’s not a good way to do comedy,” Winer said.
The series’ breakout character has been Burrell’s good-natured but trying-too-hard Phil Dunphy, the dorky dad to end all dorky dads. Burrell described playing the character as taking a vacation from his real life.
“His brain is a sort of a meadow,” Burrell said. “And I’m a neurotic mess.” He also added that he’s based Phil on some of his good friends in real life, who may not appeal to people who meet them just once but will eventually worm their way into their good graces. “They annoy the crap out of you, but they wear you down.”
While talking about how the series’ fans come up to the actors to tell them about how the show is one they can watch with their own families, Burrell also recounted a story of a recent trip to New York City. While walking in Central Park with his wife, the two came across what appeared to be a homeless man scraping away on a two-stringed fiddle. As Burrell approached, however, the actor says, the man looked up at him to say, “Not since ‘Frasier’ has a show come on the air knowing its tone so completely,” only to go on to a lengthy discussion of why the show worked, leading to Burrell doing an elaborate pantomime of giving the man everything he owned. (Broad physical comedy was surprisingly plentiful at the session, which also featured Stonestreet going from himself to his character at the drop of a hat in hilarious fashion.)
The cast was also fond of giving O’Neill a hard time and he giving his fellow actors a hard time (including an elaborate running gag with Ferguson about how Ferguson had to endure auditions and screen tests to get the part, while O’Neill was just offered it). Indeed, the Paley Center itself seemed to get in on the joke by playing an opening clip from the “Married With Children” pilot. O’Neill said that while he had sworn never to do another half-hour show after spending so long as Al Bundy, that changed when he got the “Modern Family” pilot script.
“When I read it, I thought, oh my God, I have to go back to work,” he said.
But it was Stonestreet – with his stories of telling his Kansan parents about going out for coffee with his husband and inviting friends down to the set only to see him “touch asses with a television icon” – who stole the show and provided a PaleyFest performance that kicked off this year’s series of panels in high fashion. And even when asked by a fan about when Cameron and Mitchell are finally going to express some physical affection – a rather touchy subject, given what seems to be a network mandate to not show the two men (who were described as “married” in the original pilot script) kiss – Stonestreet deflected the question like a pro.
“You’re going to see everything you can imagine from Cameron and Mitchell,” Stonestreet said, putting all the lascivious emphasis he could on “everything” and making the room laugh so much that it was easy to just skip past the fact that no one on the panel had really dealt with the central issue at all. It wasn’t ideal, but it was fun, and that’s what PaleyFest is all about.
— Reminder of just why I love PaleyFest so much: The fan questions are unmoderated, which means that the fans will often ask tougher questions than the moderator. Indeed, several fans challenged Levitan on some of the central assumptions of the show, including just why it’s filmed in documentary style. Levitan suggested that the series is not a true mockumentary but, rather, a family sitcom that’s filmed in documentary style (which doesn’t really make sense but the show’s funny enough that it doesn’t matter just yet). Winer further complicated things by saying that he goes out of his way to film things in such a way that the audience can figure out how the camera got access to such private moments (by, say, following a character into their bedroom). And Burrell pointed out that the day players on the show don’t acknowledge the camera, while the regular cast members do, which suggests to him that the camera is meant to represent the audience as an unseen, additional family member.
— More interesting bits of Levitan wisdom: He and Lloyd consciously set out to make Cameron and Mitchell the most conservative family on the show – since Cameron’s a stay-at-home dad and the two have a very traditional bond – which may have led to just how little complaining there has been about the couple from even the sorts of groups that are normally irritated by that sort of thing. Also, he got into some of the series’ subtext, when he talks about why Claire and Mitchell both ended up with fairly similar partners. “Left to their own devices, they would go to a dark place,” he said, “so they both chose positive people to balance themselves out.”
— Levitan also seemed to embarrass his family members by making them stand up so he could talk about which series’ plotlines were based on them.
— Weirdest audience question: A girl asking Vergara and Bowen how they were going to let women know it was OK to be funny (or something), which ended up leading to a riff on Vergara saying you have to allow yourself to act like a fool and Bowen scoffing that Vergara had never acted like a fool in her life.
— If it’s PaleyFest, that must mean it’s time for the audience applause-o-meter on the introductory clip reel showing that year’s selections. The winners? In order of audience enthusiasm, probably “Glee,” then “Lost,” then “Dexter.” Though one guy behind me got REALLY excited about “Men of a Certain Age.”