Dec. 5, 2009— -- The first person I meet when I walk into soundstage five on the Fox lot in Los Angeles is Jesse Tyler Ferguson. He's wearing red-and-black flannel pajamas. (Watch next Wednesday and that will make sense.)
Ferguson -- who plays one-half of the gay couple on "Modern Family" -- is welcoming, witty and self-deprecating. He's also part of a larger cast that is based on one extended family on the ABC sitcom.
If you haven't caught up with the show, critics have almost universally praised it as one of the hottest new comedies this fall. Ferguson's character, Mitchell, is the son of the family patriarch, Jay, who's played by Ed O'Neill, better known as Al Bundy from long-running comedy "Married With Children." Jay is married to a much younger Colombian woman, played by Sofia Vergara.
Chaos ensues weekly.
Ferguson tells me he was up late before we meet searching the Internet for stories about himself.
"I've got to stop drinking wine after seven because I just get drunk and get online to start Googling. ... Bad news," he jokes.
Last night he came across a viewer who said his character should be killed off because he's such a "downer." But the mix of characters and true-to-life plotlines is what every actor in the cast says is key to the show's success.
That and great writing.
"We are trying to sort of capture slices of life," Ferguson says. "The writers really write from their own families, and they are incorporating a lot of our stories as well. And they wanted to feel very real. Not farcical. I think they are doing a pretty good job of balancing that real wackiness with that really subtle sweet humor."
His partner on television, Eric Stonestreet, agress with the assessment and describes himself in real life as "openly straight."
"People like to laugh. That resonates first. But I think also we are holding up a little bit of a mirror each week for people to take a look at. Because so oftentimes in life we just breeze past [moments] and don't acknowledge them, we just sweep them under the rug. ... On this set we celebrate them. We celebrate the awkwardness. We celebrate the dysfunction," Stonestreet says.
On Set and Off, High Jinks Ensue Every Day, Every Week
Colombian actress Sofia Vergara says she feels at home on ABC sitcom.
"For me being a stereotype of a Latino woman, I love it. I don't care. Yeah, I'm loud. I'm crazy. I'm passionate," Vergara says, with a laugh.
On the show, she has a son named Manny (Rico Rodriguez), who is wise beyond his 11 years and drinks coffee in nearly every episode.
"They had to put like tons of milk in it so I would actually drink it," Rodriguez tells me. "I just let it touch my lips so that it will leave a little mark. And I just lick it off."
On the day we visit, they're shooting scenes that take place on and around Christmas Day.
Ed O'Neill does at least a dozen takes of a bit that revolves around Colombian pastries called bunuelos. Each time he ends the shot with a different punchline about what the round dough looks like -- some of which are unprintable here. The producers, writers and directors listening on headsets just off-set roar with laughter.
Patriarch Jay also has a grown daughter, a mother of three named Claire, played by Julie Bowen. During the taping of the pilot, Bowen was actually pregnant with twins.
"My husband watches the show and says this is a little too familiar," she says. "I definitely have a thing at home where I say if you are standing still you are doing something wrong. I am constantly assessing."
Claire is married to Phil, the perennially trying-to-be-cool father of three, played by Ty Burrell.
"So much of it is luck of the draw as far as chemistry and stuff like that. We got so lucky," Burrell says. "A lot of shows say this, all I can say this one is actually true. We have so much fun together."
With one possible exception (I won't reveal who but if you watch "Chelsea Lately" you might already know), you might almost be excused for thinking the cast of "Modern Family" truly was a family. I hear Ty Burrell and Eric Stonestreet making plans to get together outside work.
In real life Burrell is married with no children. He's been praised as one of the funniest characters on the show.
"I think Phil really thinks he's a good parent and really wants to be a great parent. And I love that about playing him -- that he really wants to be a great, the coolest and the best dad. I think if it were a tournament he'd want to be the champion of the world of dads. But he is a little reckless," Burrell says.
On last week's episode he was wacked in the head by zip-lining children at a birthday party.
'Modern Family' Cast Happy to Be Part of Sitcom
Burrell says he never reads the reviews.
"Even if [someone] wrote more than one good review about me, which nobody ever has, if I read one that was slightly negative I would be locked in a room with curtains drawn," he says.
But they know they have a good thing going.
"I have been told over and over that no one watches TV anymore, and no one watches comedies. But someone is watching," Bowen says.
"This show is a lot of fun. And rare," O'Neill says, knowingly. "They don't come a long like this often. Now we have to keep this up. That is our job. And [it's] stressful. When you come out of the gate like this you have expectations. Can we keep this up? But it is better to come out like this than to come out limping."