Ty Burrell and three castmates from Modern Family bring hit TV show to Clearwater stage tonight
Before Modern Family became the meteoric comedy hit that scorches TV screens every Wednesday, Ty Burrell was the guy you often saw doing great work in not-so-great acting situations.
He was, to this critic's eye, the only funny character in Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton's unfortunate 2008 Fox sitcom Back to You. And he was the bound-for-irrelevance rebound boyfriend for Liv Tyler in the ambitious comic book movie The Incredible Hulk.
But now, Burrell's skill at looking clueless is put to good use playing Phil Dunphy, the dorkiest member of the hilariously dysfunctional extended clan on Modern Family.
And he has joined three of the show's most popular co-stars — you know, except Sofia Vergara and that guy who once played Ed Bundy — in a stage show offering some special video clips, discussion with the cast and an audience Q&A.
"It's essentially, I guess, like a live talk show," said Burrell, who will appear tonight with castmates Eric Stonestreet (Cameron Tucker), Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Mitchell Pritchett) and Julie Bowen (Claire Dunphy) at Ruth Eckerd Hall.
"It's basically like, if we were in your living room," he added. "You know, if you wanted four idiots in your living room."
It's also part of a growing trend in which enterprising theater owners and booking agents are turning TV shows into live stage experiences.
Burrell said the cast members got the idea for their current appearances after he, Stonestreet and Ferguson did a similar gig at Ohio State University.
Their reception was so strong — the words "treated like rock stars" have been thrown about — the cast decided to try it in a few more venues while the show is on hiatus from filming.
"The affection for the characters has been so strong, it was a really fun night," Burrell said. "It's a silly, silly show, but we really value the heartfelt elements, too. And that's one of the aspects we enjoy talking to the fans about."
Bobby Rossi, director of entertainment at Ruth Eckerd Hall, explained that the Modern Family show is a new evolution of a longtime trend.
The hall has hosted special meet-the-star appearances for many years, featuring everyone from Carol Burnett and Cary Grant to, more recently, Goldie Hawn and Al Pacino (at right, with Times film critic Steve Persall).
And "reality TV" stars such as Dinner: Impossible host Robert Irvine have learned that stage shows can help them make more money off their TV fame.
But the Modern Family show is a rarity: the cast from a show in its creative and ratings prime hitting stages to greet fans.
"I think it really helps spread the word about what they do. . . . It's building the brand," said Rossi, noting press reports that the four cast members and Vergara are renegotiating their salaries with ABC (according to The Hollywood Reporter, they earn just $65,000 an episode and are seeking a bump to $200,000).
But with VIP tickets priced at $200 each (including dinner, prime seats and a meet-and-greet with the stars), along with regular seats going from $49 to $75, there's lots of revenue coming in.
"It's easily the most lucrative part of what I do," chef Anthony Bourdain said back in 2009 to the Wall Street Journal, which noted that superstar chefs could earn anywhere from $10,000 to $75,000 per appearance at high-profile events.
In a way, it seems a bit odd that in the era of Twitter and Facebook, where fans can watch their favorite stars converse with each other online as if they were overhearing banter at a cocktail party, such in-person shows are so popular.
But they also draw the most intense fans, turning the evening into an ego-boosting encounter for the stars and a pep rally of sorts for a community of enthusiasts.
"It's easy money," Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of the touring industry trade magazine Pollstar, told the Chicago Tribune last year. "It costs next to nothing to promote these shows because the fans are already there, and production costs could be cheap as a microphone. . . . They're like the world's largest meet-and-greets without pressing much flesh."
Rossi, at Ruth Eckerd Hall, said the venue even considered booking Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler for a evening called "Talk This Way," featuring obscure video clips and stories from the band's history.
But that was before Tyler started working on a little show called American Idol.
"Back in the days when we only had three TV networks, celebrities became these incredible culture heroes, bigger than life," he said. "This is bringing back that feeling, across multiple demographics."
Burrell expects to share backstage stories, such as the way writers will hijack details from the actors' real lives for storylines on the show.
"When I get excited . . . either excited or stressed, I blink really heavily," he said. "And Jesse always makes fun of me for it, as he should. So the writers wrote a storyline for Mitch and Phil where Phil basically has to break some really bad news to Mitch and I go on this blinking binge. It's like my poker tell, but it's more like a wind farm."
At age 44, Burrell won an Emmy last year playing Dunphy, the high point of a successful run for the show that has included an Emmy for best TV comedy, a Golden Globe and a Peabody award.
"I don't have much to compare this experience to, because I had a handful of film and TV experiences that were really rewarding . . . (but) the audience wasn't there for them," he said.
"This is the first time that I've ever had this combination where all of us feel so creatively rewarded and the audience is really responding to what we're doing so strongly."