The Singular Wisdom of Ty Burrell

Above Image | Duncan, Ty and Richard at Beer Bar in Salt Lake City.

Life lessons from the man who inspired Phil Dunphy, TV’s greatest goofball dad.


By Zach Fowle
Photos by Brian Smith

We could all learn a lot from Phil Dunphy, the oblivious and lovable father figure on ABC’s ratings-crusher “Modern Family.” His avant-garde “peerenting” style, which involves acting like a parent but talking like a peer, seems to work wonders, and he’s even written a book filled with all the wisdom he’s accumulated during his life. Titled “Phil’s-osophies,” it contains profound lessons like “Watch a sunrise at least once a day” and “When life gives you lemonade, make lemons. Life will be all like, ‘Whaaat?’”

But we could probably learn even more from Ty Burrell, who through seven seasons has made Phil the best part of one of the best shows on TV. Burrell’s also a husband (to Holly Burrell, a French Culinary Institute of New York alumna) and the father of two daughters. Additionally, he’s a two-time Emmy winner, star of several movies (most recently the Pixar film “Finding Dory,” in which he voiced Bailey, a Beluga whale), and co-owner of the award-winning Salt Lake City Beer Bar and neighboring cocktail lounge Bar X, which he owns with his brother, Duncan, and Richard Noel. This fall, Burrell will reprise his role as Phil on Modern Family’s eighth season. We caught up with him in Salt Lake City to ply his wisdom on beer, fatherhood and accepting your inner goof. Like his “peerenting” character, he was happy to drop some knowledge, yo.

Drink good beer, but don’t be a jerk about it. “I’m absolutely a beer fan, but with limits. I used to call myself a foodie, and then my wife, who has been to culinary school and is a trained chef, just reminded me that I really don’t know anything about food. I’m just somebody who likes to eat. And I’d probably put myself in that same category with beer. But there are definitely ones I enjoy. Like so many people, Pliny the Elder kind of blew my mind; that’s one that whenever I can come across some, I get pretty excited about it. I also like Oregon beers a lot; I’m a big fan of Ninkasi. And then there’s some local beers that I love. In particular, most of the Uinta stuff—Detour and Hop Nosh and Baba—I think they’re doing a great job.”

Never turn down a job—even a bartending gig at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. You never know where it’ll lead. “I honestly was just looking for a job. I had dropped out of school, and was barely employable, which is true of me in general. It was the simplest bartending job. I still almost screwed it up, but it was very hard to screw up, because it was just pouring draft beers and wine. And that’s actually how I got introduced to acting. We would work pre-show and intermission, and as soon as you were done, you could go in and just sit in the back and watch the plays. So I would watch part of the first act and part of the second act—I’ve seen parts of the first act and parts of the second act of so many plays—and that was really what got me excited about acting, seeing what these people were doing live every night. I went back to school that fall and immediately went to the theater department. I was 22, which for an actor is old to start. And the teacher said, ‘Why don’t you come back later to this graduate-level Shakespeare class so you can sit in on it and see if you’re interested?’ I came back that afternoon and they were improvising characters, and I ended up doing this kind of pompous character—I kind of blacked out in the most blissful way—and I got a laugh. I’ll never forget just how intoxicating that was. I was like, ‘Oh, I guess this is what I’ll be spending all my time on now.’”

When a couple of TV producers present you with a character written with you in mind who happens to be a total goof, accept that it might just be part of who you are. “I’ve always said at a certain point you can’t deny certain qualities about yourself if you see them reflected back at you all the time. Basically, they’ve been writing Phil Dunphy to me for eight years, so at a certain point I have to acknowledge that I have a lot of Phil’s qualities. There’s no pretending I’m not oblivious in some pretty major ways.”

If you love something, set it free. Unless it’s a tiger.”
Phil’s-osophy

Learn from your roles. “Playing Phil has sort of helped to make it clear that the most important part of parenting is just caring. It sounds silly to be taking that deep of a lesson from Phil, but it really is an incredible thing to wake up every morning and play this guy who is just so well-intentioned and is constantly screwing up. But I think that the love that he has from his family and the love he has for them is really earned, and I think our writers are really good at that. The thing you come away with is that the characters are trying, and I love that lesson. I hopefully would’ve gotten that lesson on my own, but it’s nice to have the show as a reinforcer.

“But there are some aspects of Phil I don’t have to learn from, because they’re already who I am. Like, I’m constantly trying to make my kids laugh, to the point at which they’re annoyed at me like teenagers would be, only they’re 6 and 4. So much so that, when I took them to a screener of “Finding Dory” and my character came on the screen, my kids looked at me annoyed, like I was interrupting their movie to try to make them laugh. Like, ‘Get off the screen so we can finish our story!’”

Safety first. “My daughters are 6 and 4, so most of the challenges at this point, aside from showing up and caring and trying to be as loving as possible, have more to do with safety at this age. You’re constantly running around trying to prevent an accident. I think the bigger challenges with raising two girls for me are going to come when they’re 13 and 14. Right now it’s mostly like in the old cartoons, grabbing them and turning them around just as they near the edge of a cliff.”

Learn to face your fears, like Phil’s terror of clowns. “I have a crazy fear of heights, but I’m starting to overcome it a little bit. You know the bridge climb in Sydney, Australia? That was a big deal for me. For somebody who has a fear of heights, I was incredibly nervous, but that helped me to get over it. Though if you put me on top of a skyscraper right now, I might say something different.”

Don’t sleep on the Beehive State. “I came out to Utah in 1997 while acting at the Utah Shakespeare Festival and fell in love with southern Utah, with the land. So much so that I came back out to do another season. The festival’s great and the job was great, but I also was doing it for the hiking. And then I met my wife in Washington, D.C., and found out she was from Utah. We fell in love and I actually did a play in Salt Lake City to be closer to her, and then I really fell hard for the city.

“At the time, I was living in New York City. New York has its strengths and weaknesses, and Salt Lake has its strengths and weaknesses, but their strengths and weaknesses are completely opposite of one another on all levels. The strengths of Salt Lake are the immediacy to the outdoors like no other city I’ve ever been in. There are lots of great cities with access to the outdoors, but no place that has the Rockies five minutes up the hill. And it’s incredibly affordable. When we moved here, I was unemployed. We were able to buy a home with what wouldn’t even get us one room of one apartment in New York City.”

Have a philosophy. “My favorite Phil’s-osophy is, ‘Always look people in the eye. Even if they’re blind. Just say, ‘I’m looking you in the eye.’’ I wish I were together enough to have any philosophies of my own. My dad’s philosophy was, ‘Don’t hurt anybody.’ I think that’s a pretty good one. It can get deep.”

Dance until your feet hurt. Sing until your lungs hurt. Act until you’re William Hurt.”
Duncan, Ty and Richard at Beer Bar in Salt Lake City.
 

Raising the Beer Bar

When Ty Burrell's brother Duncan Burrell and Richard Noel began welcoming Salt Lake City’s beer fans to Beer Bar in early 2014, the pair presented customers with almost every beer available in the city, plus more than 20 bottles and drafts from breweries never before seen in Utah. “New stuff sometimes came to the state, but it was rare, and here are all these new beers showing up at once,” Noel says. “People were like, ‘How did this happen?’”

Good question. No strangers to introducing new concepts to SLC’s more progressive drinkers (they’ve owned and operated Bar X, the city’s first craft cocktail bar, since 2010), the brothers-in-law made it a priority to stock Beer Bar with out-of-state brews. “One of our first acts before we even opened was to go to Oregon and pretty much cold-call a lot of breweries and get them on board for, essentially, a special order,” Duncan says. Their tour brought them to the doors of Ninkasi Brewing Co., Hopworks Urban Brewery and others. They convinced owners to send beer to the Beehive State by sharing their plan to ensure the beer would be in good hands from brewery doors to pint glass: They contracted refrigerated trucks to bring it to Utah, installed a massive cooler behind the bar to store it and hired a staff of Cicerone-certified beer servers who’d be selling it.

The plan worked. “It’s blown the doors open to the state of Utah,” says Noel. “Since Beer Bar’s been open, we’ve seen tons of breweries coming in, because they saw what Hopworks, Ninkasi, Oakshire, 10 Barrel, etc. did at our bar, and they were like, ‘Oh man, we gotta get to Utah, because these guys are beating us to the punch.’ Now, there are a lot of breweries coming into the state trying to get here before it’s too late. It’s kind of cool to see.”