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Modern Family: Ty Burrell on How the Show Stays Fresh Even After Eight Seasons

Ty Burrell tells us what's coming up in Season 8, his favorite nonprofit and why he was late to the Emmys

Liam Mathews

Modern Family starts its eighth season Wednesday, Sept. 21, and got the man behind Phil Dunphy, Ty Burrell, on the phone to tell us about what's coming up on the show, as well as his favorite nonprofit, Kids In the Spotlight, which gives teens in group homes the opportunity to make their own short films. Find out all about that and more, like why he was late to the Emmys, in the interview below.

Can you tell me a little bit about what Kids In the Spotlight is and what it does?
It was founded by a woman named, appropriately, Tige Charity. It's an organization that gives kids in group homes -- which is a new phrase for orphanage -- the skills and the ability and the material to make their own short films and tell their own stories. It's about five years old, and in that time they've done 40 short films. The kids write the scripts with the help of a professional screenwriter and they cast their films and then they perform in them. It's an amazing thing to watch on a lot of different levels.

Do they draw from their own lives in the scripts they write?
The real gift that they give these kids is they let them tell whatever story they want, which for a kid who is really marginalized by society, I think that's a cool thing. It doesn't have to be autobiographical. Some of them are silly and really fun and funny. And some of them can be pretty dark. Some of the kids need to express some of the stuff that they've been through, and this gives them the opportunity to purge some of that. But really, they're just letting the kids express themselves. And I think that letting these kids tell their story is a big part of it, just them being heard. On a larger scale, they're not really seen or heard by the world. And whatever they want to say is kind of secondary.

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I feel like there are three levels. The second level, after giving these kids a voice, is these kids are given a huge project that they have to finish and I just feel like that's an incredible thing for any kid, let alone a kid in this situation. It's a really big project, and that's such a good thing for self-esteem. I really could have used something like that. And as they've grown they've added editing, so the kids go all the way from writing it to editing it. And that's the last level of it, is the vocational side to it. I think it's the third most important thing. The other things are more important for the kids, some of these kids have taken to it as a possible way to make a living. And I think we'll start to see more of that.

How did you get involved?
I met one of the women on the board, Tamesha Scott, and we got to talking about how my father had worked in the foster care system as a caseworker and it was an important area for me. He passed away when he was relatively young, so I always felt like his work wasn't quite done. She said she was working with this organization, and it resonated with me. It didn't take much of a pitch.

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What's coming up in Season 8 of Modern Family?
We pick up where we left off. The Dunphys are in New York. The kids and the parents are going home separately, and they each decide to stay in New York and extend their vacation, without telling the other group. So there's a what I think of as a [Modern Family creator] Chris Lloyd farce -- he ran Frasier for forever and he's masterful at that kind of stuff. It's a really fun season premiere.

I imagine that by the eighth season there are challenges in keeping it fresh. Are there any new character combinations happening this season?
We're doing some groupings we haven't done a whole lot of -- I have an episode coming up where Gloria (Sofia Vergara) and Phil are taking Manny (Rico Rodriguez) and Luke (Nolan Gold) on a college tour to go check out a school. I don't think we've really done that before. We also have a bunch of fun guest stars. I just recently spent a day working with Martin Short, which was kind of a dream come true for me. He's one of my heroes.

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Were you at the Emmys?
Actually, up until about halfway through the fourth quarter I was at the Rams game and I changed in the car and got to the Emmys just in time for my category. Just in time to lose. But the Rams won, so that's the important thing.

Louie Anderson took it, but maybe next year.
I was very happy about that, by the way. I think he's so great. I've been finding him hilarious for years and years. It couldn't have gone to a better guy. I love when awards go to somebody like that because for whatever reason I didn't think that the Academy would necessarily notice that performance or that show [Baskets]. And I'm saying this at my own detriment -- sometimes it can feel like a popularity contest, and I was probably the beneficiary of that. I loved that choice and I loved the Rami Malek choice and Sterling K. Brown for O.J. It was very cool. My wife and I spent the whole night going "oh, that person deserves it."

And for you, there's always next year. I'm sure you'll be there again.
If not, we've all felt really lucky for the run we've been on. It's been an incredible run. We know that wave has to crest at some point.

Modern Family at this is point is the grandaddy of the ABC shows that have come after it.
It's interesting to be in that position, where we're sort of the elder statesman of those shows, but it's also fun. It's really cool to look back and feel proud of what we've done and also feel proud of the shows we're making now. I don't know how they do it after all these years. I really don't. They're still just writing such good stuff.

Modern Family Season 8 premieres Wednesday, Sept. 21 at 9/8c on ABC. Season 7 is available on DVD Sept. 20, loaded up with exclusive bonus features.