It looked like nothing would ever make Ed O’Neill more famous than Married… with Children. Al Bundy is a TV legend. But now there’s this little show called Modern Family that’s taking the nation by storm. It’s won Emmys and it’s a huge hit, so maybe one day people will remember him as Jay Pritchett instead.
In case you missed out on the first season, Jay is married to Gloria (Sofia Vergara) and taking care of her son Manny (Rico Rodriguez). His son Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) lives with his partner Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) and their adopted daughter. His daughter Claire (Julie Bowen) is married to Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell) and they have three kids.
Going into the second season of the hit show, O’Neill hung out with the Television Critics Association for a coffee break this summer. The accomplished actor has been there and done that on TV sitcoms, cop shows and movies. Now he’s just enjoying watching Modern Family break new ground. The show returns September 22 on ABC.
Q: What’s our chances of seeing a gay wedding on the show?
EO: Oh Jesus Christ you’d have to ask them. I have no idea.
Q: Actually, we’re still waiting for them to kiss.
EO: I say I want to see a blow job. Why kiss? Why stop at a kiss? Put him on his knees.
Q: Would Jay come around to that?
EO: I don't know. He’s not the best. He’s not at his best with Jesse’s character. He’s made a lot of mistakes with Jesse which he’s well aware of from the first season. We had that wonderful scene where we were looking at the stars at night and I was on the back of the station wagon. I wanted him to talk to Manny because Manny had some problems. That scene with Jesse and I, I really liked. It was kind of touching, and then it ended the scene he had the dress on. I said, “You know, you’ve got the legs for it.” That was kind of insensitive but he thought it was a sincere compliment. He just doesn’t get it.
Q: Hasn’t he come a long way on the gay issue though?
EO: He’s come a long way but he also says things like, “Listen, I know how it is. I bunked with a guy in the army.” He says, “Dad, I’m not bunking with Cam. I don’t bunk with him. There’s a difference.”
Q: Could you tell the pilot was one of the best of last season while working on it?
EO: Well, when I read it, before I got cast, I had probably turned down since Married… With Children went off the air, 50 half hours. I never wanted to do a half hour. I said I did it. Do something else. But when I read this, I thought oh, damn, this is good. And I thought it had a lot of comedic potential. The three families, you can go to a lot of different sources. I thought boy, if they cast this thing right, this is going to be a hell of a show. So I had early on, before it was even cast, they may have had some people but I didn’t know. I just thought this show has legs. If it goes, it’s going to be one of those good shows.
Q: As the series played out, what’s surprised you?
EO: What surprised me was how good everybody is in the show. I didn’t know these guys, I had never heard of any of them really. I go to work and I watch them and I think, “Who are these people?” And the kids amaze me. I just thought these kids are amazing. I was happy. It was a happy surprise.
Q: After the pilot, did you focus more on Jay’s personality than his age?
EO: Again, that’s not me. I just show up. I guess the writers were doing some things there. I would like to say one thing. I think if the writers had given me a little more of a [twist], like I could’ve been a cross-dresser part time, maybe I would’ve been nominated [for an Emmy]. You know, a garter belt, some hose, some rouge.
Q: How do you like the way your relationship with Sofia has progressed?
EO: You know, when I first saw her and I thought, “This is going to be my wife on the show,” I thought oh, this is going to be a disaster. I thought if this doesn’t work, this may not work. She’s so beautiful. Then again, the writers took care of that and I think just the way we don’t push it much. It’s just two people that are trying to get through each day. I think the money does help in a way. That he’s successful and there’s a certain attraction to her because of the Manny situation, he can look out for them. I think it probably maybe started out more of a sexual gold digger thing and then it progressed into something more substantial.
Q: Do you think you blazed a trail for interracial couples on television?
EO: I hope so. Anybody can do that. That doesn’t impress me. What I want is to get it right. When you do that, I mean that they should be human. They should be like humans and they should react. Just to get them talking right to each other. Like I think with our gay couple for example, people can identify with that. In many ways, they’re the most conservative of the families, the stay at home mom and the lawyer. So to get it right, then it’s more fun to watch.
Q: Did you work on that with Sofia?
EO: No. I guess you work on it without being so aware you’re working on it. You have to have a certain generosity of give and take between actors. When that’s honored, and the writing of course is there, then we’re okay.
Q: Looking at Married and Modern, what’s the common factor?
EO: Luck. Well, they’re both funny. Married... with Children had two creators, producers, Michael Moye and Ron Leavitt. Both guys in a way had a bit of genius, both of them, and a little madness. Levitan and Lloyd are also brilliant guys. So those creators of both shows were extremely talented.
Q: Were both risk takers?
EO: Yeah, I’d say. Leavitt and Moye for sure. And Levitan and Lloyd as well. They have pretty good track records.
Q: Is there a scene in the first season that stands out that you can’t believe it went there?
EO: No, I think it’s a fairly conservative show. I think that it’s not offensive. It may be offensive to people who are far, far right wing who don’t like any sort of gay situation anyway, but I think it’s fairly conservative. I’m trying to think if there’s a scene … I can’t think of any. There’s not much I could say that about anyway personally.
Q: How difficult is it to do heartfelt moments?
EO: Well, it’s tricky because you don’t want to be schmaltzy. You want to make sure it’s earned. You have to earn those moments and so far I think they do a great job with that.
Q: How do they earn that?
EO: Well, there’s a build to a dramatic conclusion so that you don’t just in the first four minutes of the show say, “I love you and I’ll never…” That’s not going to work. In the case, for example, where I decide to scrap that trip to Napa and I’m going to take the kid to Disneyland because his dad didn’t show up, you sort of see it coming but it’s sort of earned. He’s not happy about it.
Q: Is there a rule for the amount of time between a zany moment and a heartfelt one?
EO: Usually you’ll have a zany moment, a heartfelt moment and a zany right behind it. It sort of evens them out a little bit and reminds you well, it’s comedy after all. I don't know how that works really. That’s what the writers do but I think they use that well with the monologues too. A lot of times there’s a voiceover and sometimes in the voiceover they’ll express something. Oftentimes we’re seeing the other characters doing something and the voice is over it so it’s less in your face.
Q: How many takes did you do of the mud slinging?
EO: Well, the mud slinging was actually one take because we didn’t have [copies of] those white suits. We rehearsed it a lot without the mud, got all the cameras in line. I’ll tell you the one I couldn’t hold for was Ty and I in the hammock in Hawaii. That one took a bunch of takes because I was laughing so hard at him. That was hard.
Q: Variety promised Sofia or another cast member would walk naked on Sunset if they won the Emmy. Would you do it in her place?
EO: No, no, no. Nobody wants to see me naked, trust me. Maybe Sofia for sure. Sofia might do it.
Q: Is it a real family atmosphere on set?
EO: Yeah, so far everybody really gets along. I know it’s a cliché. It’s still the honeymoon too but I think it’s going to be okay. I hope so. Everybody seems to get along pretty well because we’re all enjoying it. It makes a big difference when you’re having fun. When you’re not having fun it’s…
Q: Is there someone you’d like to have more scenes with?
EO: I enjoy working with every one of them. Honestly, every one of them I get a big kick out of. Nolan, I had a great little scene with him last year when he was doing his project, the barbershop thing. Ariel, I had my hand over her face when we were watching the ball game and that was fun. When Sarah tried to get out of the house and I wouldn’t let her go to the party.
Q: Who’s the hardest person to keep a straight face with?
EO: Well, probably Ty but I’m saying that because we’ve had a couple scenes together where we just couldn’t hold it. The hammock in Hawaii, honestly. That didn’t start out that way. We improvised a lot of that scene. We were in the hammock but a quite different outcome and different lines. The fact that he slowly couldn’t hold the position, was coming closer to me, that wasn’t there. Finally he just says, “I’m sorry” when he comes down on top of me. I couldn’t hold it. Then there was another scene where he comes to my house to hang out. He brings a six pack and I’m working on my plane, I don’t want him there and he’s over my shoulder hovering. There’s no dialogue and I just start laughing.