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15 Surprising Facts About Modern Family

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ABC

In the fall of 2009, ABC debuted a new sitcom called Modern Family. Except for TV veteran Ed O’Neill, it had no huge stars. And apart from its trendy mockumentary style, it promised no gimmicks. Yet this simple story of three families became a ratings hit and unbeatable Emmy winner for ABC.

1. THERE WAS AN EXPLANATION FOR THE MOCKUMENTARY STYLE.

Why are the Dunphys and Pritchetts always talking to the camera? There’s no reason, but originally, the show had one. Modern Family was initially conceived as a documentary shot by Geert Floorjte, a Dutch filmmaker who had lived with the Pritchetts years ago as a teenage exchange student and came back to the U.S. as an adult to film them. But Geert got cut before Modern Family entered production because show creators Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd (no, not the actor) decided he was unnecessary. The show was simply shot “documentary-style,” without the fictitious camera crew.

2. CRAIG T. NELSON WAS OFFERED THE ROLE OF JAY PRITCHETT.

Like many things in Hollywood, Nelson's decision to pass on the project came down to money. "I really wanted to do Modern Family," Nelson said. "I really liked the script and I liked the people. I just said, ‘You know what? I’ve been doing this too long.’ We’re in the middle of a cutback here, ladies and gentlemen, in Hollywood and salaries have gone way, way down ... I just felt disrespected to tell you the truth." The next year, Nelson signed on for Parenthood.

3. ROB HUEBEL "AGGRESSIVELY TURNED DOWN" THE PART OF PHIL DUNPHY.

Rob Huebel was being considered for the part of Phil Dunphy, but "When I read the script for it, I just hated it," he told Splitsider. "That’s what an idiot I am. It’s the most popular show in the country, and I love that show now ... I’m just a f***in’ idiot because I read the script for it, and I didn’t even go into the audition because I just hated it so much. I told my agent I didn’t just wanna pass on it. I wanted him to call them and aggressively pass, which is not even a real thing." Clearly there were no hard feelings, as Huebel went on to play Glen Whipple, Phil’s nemesis, in one episode—fittingly titled “The One That Got Away."

4. JULIE BOWEN WAS VERY PREGNANT DURING THE FIRST EPISODE.

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When Julie Bowen auditioned for the role of Claire Dunphy, she was heavily pregnant with her twin sons Gus and John. Although she was convinced this would take her out of the running, she won the part anyway. But she still hadn’t reached her due date when it came time to shoot the pilot, so she masked her belly with strategic cereal boxes.

5. A SET OF TWINS PLAYED BABY LILY, AND THEY HATED IT.

Speaking of twins: Mitch and Cam’s adopted daughter Lily was initially played by twin sisters Ella and Jaden Hiller. The baby girls appeared in the series for the first two seasons, but acting quickly wore them out. As their mom Michelle explained to Woman’s Day, “Halfway through season two their personalities had started to develop, and it was really clear to us that they weren’t enjoying their time on set. So we told the producers the girls wouldn’t be coming back.” Those producers apparently tried to sway the Hillers with more money, but they wouldn’t budge. So Aubrey Anderson-Emmons was chosen as a replacement. She has played Lily ever since.

6. ERIC STONESTREET WAS FIZBO THE CLOWN AS A KID.

Stonestreet began dressing up as Fizbo when he was nine years old (his dream was to be a clown in the circus). By the time he was 11, he was performing at kids' birthday parties. "It was my way then as a young man to express my desire to entertain and perform," he told The Kansas City Star. "I didn’t know what I was saying then was that I wanted to be an actor. I had parents, fortunately, who didn’t think I was weird. They thought it was funny and cute and encouraged me to do it. And I had a grandma who would make my costumes." He's not sure where the name Fizbo came from.

7. THE WRITERS WROTE JESSE TYLER FERGUSON’S ATTEMPT AT COMING OUT INTO THE SHOW.

In real life, Jesse Tyler Ferguson (who producers initially wanted for the role of Cameron) had to come out to his father three times in order for him to accept it. So the writers made that part of Mitchell’s story on Modern Family.

8. SOFIA VERGARA THOUGHT ED O’NEILL SPOKE SPANISH.

Sofia Vergara watched Married ... with Children growing up in Colombia, where the voices were dubbed into Spanish. She didn’t realize that it wasn't Ed O’Neill saying Al Bundy’s lines in Spanish, and was surprised to find that he couldn’t speak her native language when they first met. “He had a very sexy Antonio Banderas voice, the guy who was dubbing him,” according to Vergara.

9. O’NEILL’S CHARACTERS HAVE BEEN READING THE SAME NEWSPAPER FOR ALMOST 30 YEARS.

Eagle-eyed viewers noticed that O'Neill's Jay reads the same prop newspaper on Modern Family that O’Neill’s Al Bundy read on Married...with Children.

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Many shows use the same prop newspaper because all of the photos and text have been cleared, legally. 

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10. THERE WAS A SECRET DOG SWITCH.

Jay and Gloria’s dog Stella was played by a French bulldog named Brigitte in seasons two and three, then replaced by another dog named Beatrice. The animal acting agency in charge of subleasing Brigitte dropped her as a client for unknown reasons.

11. LUKE DUNPHY IS ACTUALLY A GENIUS.

Nolan Gould’s character may not be bright, but Gould has been a member of Mensa since he was four years old. He has an IQ of 150 and graduated from high school when he was 13 years old.

12. THE SHOW IS ESPECIALLY POPULAR WITH RICH PEOPLE.

Each year, Nielsen tracks data on TV viewership to find out who’s watching which shows. After the company released its 2015 stats, Vulture discovered this interesting fact: rich people love Modern Family. It was the second most popular show among viewers in the 18-49 age bracket whose households earned an average annual income over $200,000. (The Walking Dead was number one.)

13. THERE’S AN INSIDE JOKE ABOUT ED O’NEILL’S JIU JITSU SKILLS.

In season one, Jay shows off his Brazilian jiu jitsu chops when he puts Mitchell in a sleeper hold. “I learned this choke from the Gracie brothers,” he tells Mitch. Jay is referencing the legendary Gracie martial arts family. The Brazilian clan has produced several generations of competitive fighters, who have passed on their techniques through the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy in California. O’Neill is actually a student there. He’s a black belt now, but it took him a while to earn that status. Watch him recap his very first lesson here.

14. THERE WAS A FACEBOOK PETITION FOR MITCHELL AND CAMERON TO KISS.

In 2010, the “Let Cam & Mitchell Kiss on Modern Family!” Facebook petition was launched. In September of that year, the characters kissed on camera for the first time in the background of a scene.

15. LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA HAD A PRE-HAMILTON CAMEO.

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A full four years before Hamilton became the hottest Broadway ticket in town, the Modern Family casting team decided to tap Lin-Manuel Miranda for an episode. Miranda, who was little-known at the time, won casting director Jeff Greenberg over with his impressive knowledge of the show. “He came in and quoted episode after episode, line after line, joke after joke, and we loved him,” Greenberg told The Observer. He gave Miranda a part as Gloria’s dog trainer, and was rewarded handsomely. “Thank God we did [cast him] because now he gets me Hamilton tickets,” Greenberg said. “Lin remembered!”

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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Pop Culture
Epic Gremlins Poster Contains More Than 80 References to Classic Movies
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Ape Meets Girl

It’s easy to see why Gremlins (1984) appeals to movie nerds. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Chris Columbus, the film has horror, humor, and awesome 1980s special effects that strike a balance between campy and creepy. Perhaps it’s the movie’s status as a pop culture treasure that inspired artist Kevin Wilson to make it the center of his epic hidden-image puzzle of movie references.

According to io9, Wilson, who works under the pseudonym Ape Meets Girl, has hidden 84 nods to different movies in this Gremlins poster. The scene is taken from the movie’s opening, when Randall enters a shop in Chinatown looking for a gift for his son and leaves with a mysterious creature. Like in the film, Mr. Wing’s shop in the poster is filled with mysterious artifacts, but look closely and you’ll find some objects that look familiar. Tucked onto the bottom shelf is a Chucky doll from Child’s Play (1988); above Randall’s head is a plank of wood from the Orca ship made famous by Jaws (1975); behind Mr. Wing’s counter, which is draped with a rug from The Shining’s (1980) Overlook Hotel, is the painting of Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II (1989). The poster was released by the Hero Complex Gallery at New York Comic Con earlier this month.

“Early on, myself and HCG had talked about having a few '80s Easter Eggs, but as we started making a list it got longer and longer,” Wilson told Mental Floss. “It soon expanded from '80s to any prop or McGuffin that would fit the curio shop setting. I had to stop somewhere so I stopped at 84, the year Gremlins was released. Since then I’ve thought of dozens more I wish I’d included.”

The ambitious artwork has already sold out, but fortunately cinema buffs can take as much time as they like scouring the poster from their computers. Once you think you’ve found all the references you can possibly find, you can check out Wilson’s key below to see what you missed (and yes, he already knows No. 1 should be Clash of the Titans [1981], not Jason and the Argonauts [1963]). For more pop culture-inspired art, follow Ape Meets Girl on Facebook and Instagram.

Key for hidden image puzzle.
Ape Meets Girl

[h/t io9]

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