On the 11th anniversary of the legendary sitcom's premiere, find out which famous actor not named Ty Burrell came up with the biggest laugh of the episode.

By Lacey Vorrasi-Banis
September 23, 2020 at 03:05 PM EDT
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"I’m the cool dad. That’s my thang. I’m hip. I surf the Web. I text. LOL: Laugh Out Loud. OMG: Oh My God. WTF: Why the Face?" —Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell) in Modern Family's "Pilot" (2009)

What better way to introduce viewers to the verbal pratfalls of self-proclaimed “cool dad” Phil Dunphy than a line where he artlessly mangles the text abbreviation WTF as “Why the Face?” But the quintessential punchline wasn’t actually penned by Modern Family creators Christopher Lloyd or Steven Levitan, who wrote that first episode of ABC's Emmy-winning comedy. “A very, very funny actor came in to read for the part, but he ad-libbed a change to the line," Lloyd tells EW. "He spoke the words ‘WTF, Why the Face’ for the first time."

The very, very funny actor? Firefly alum and Disney voice talent Alan Tudyk, who remembers Lloyd calling to tell him that the show had been cast (with Ty Burrell Philling the role), but that they still wanted to use his line for the pilot. “It’s very flattering to me,” Tudyk says earnestly. “They’re super funny guys and they wanted to write one that they liked as much or better, but they decided mine was the funniest.”

Tudyk had originally scored an audition for the role of Phil’s gay brother-in-law, Mitchell — a part that later went to Jesse Tyler Ferguson. “Jesse wasn’t attached yet," he recalls, "and I had just done a Max Mutchnick pilot with Ty Burrell where he and I played a married gay couple.” After the pilot wasn’t picked up, though, Tudyk wanted to avoid similar characters moving forward, so he inquired about the Dunphy patriarch role. “I got the sense that they wrote that for Ty," says Tudyk, "but they were generous enough to let me audition.”

In an effort to set himself apart, Tudyk re-wrote the punchline. “Especially in comedy there’s room for improv, if the creators are those types of guys. You can say, ‘Can I loosen it up a little bit?’ I find it’s the loosen up part that gets me my jobs,” Tudyk says, laughing. And even though he didn’t get this job, he’s still proud of his addition 11 years later: “Being an actor and auditioning, there’s not a lot of affirmation surrounding jobs you don’t get, so this is truly a standout.”

So famed was Tudyk’s contribution to the pilot that even Eric Stonestreet, who played Mitchell’s paisley-er half, Cam, mentioned it to him during a movie reading that the two did together shortly after Modern Family took off. “I was gushing over his show,” Tudyk shares, “and he said, ‘You’re the one who wrote that line.’ It wasn’t even Eric’s line, but he knew that it came from me, so that was cool.”

But even a hilarious joke can find new life in delivery. When Burrell put his own stamp on this perfect punchline by changing “That’s my thing” to “That’s my thang,” one could argue that was the real birth of Philip Humphrey Dunphy. “Every funny part of this speech was contributed by people other than the people who were given credit for this script,” quips Lloyd.

OMG, guys, thanks for kicking off 11 seasons with an LOL right from the start.

For more surprising joke origins, check out the full "30 Perfect Punchlines" feature here.

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Modern Family

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  • Wednesdays at 09:00 PM
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