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Things You Never Noticed In Modern Family's First Episode

For 11 years, from 2009 to 2020, America's favorite fictional surrogate household was the one shown on "Modern Family." Created by Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan for ABC, the show followed the lives of three interlinked families, the Pritchetts, the Dunphys, and the Tucker-Pritchetts. The series poked fun at and celebrated the relationships between the three families in the face of their different and often contrasting lifestyles.  

The first episode of "Modern Family," simply titled "Pilot," was an excellent primer for what the series wanted to be and the impact it would have on pop culture. The writing is sharply-observed and laugh-out-loud hilarious, each actor perfectly embodies their characters, and we even get a surprise twist when, after following the three families separately from the start, it is revealed in the end that they are all related through Jay Pritchett (Ed O'Neill) and his grown-up kids Claire (Julie Bowen) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson).

"Pilot" was considered such a strong opening for "Modern Family" that it won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series. Jason Winer, the director of the episode, also won the Directors Guild of America award for Outstanding Directing in a Comedy Series. Here are 14 details about the now-iconic episode that you might have missed.

Jay reflected the network's worries

A major character arc for old-fashioned old-timer Jay Pritchett throughout the length of "Modern Family" is coming to terms with the fact that his son Mitchell is gay and in a relationship with another man. As the series progressed Jay grew increasingly more accepting of his son's lifestyle. He even came to view Mitchell's partner Cameron Tucker (Eric Stonestreet) as a son.  

But in the first episode of the show, Jay's tolerance level was still dialed quite low. So much so that it is a running joke that Jay always knocks loudly before entering the home of Mitchell and Cameron, because he is terrified of accidentally catching them being intimate. While Jay's attitude is clearly shown in a negative light, it is actually a pretty accurate reflection of how the show's producers also felt about Cam and Mitch.

While other couples on the show are frequently shown kissing and even getting it on between the sheets, the most affection Cam and Mitch got to express towards each other in the first season was in the form of chaste hugs and some delicate cuddling. Things got so bad that fans started an online campaign to have Cam and Mitch kiss onscreen. In response the makers of the series spent the whole of the second episode of Season 2 exploring why Mitch is uncomfortable with kissing Cam in public, ending with the two finally locking lips on-camera.

Julie Bowen was heavily pregnant

The very first family we meet in the "Pilot" episode of "Modern Family" are the Dunphys, mother Claire, father Phil (Ty Burrell), and their adolescent kids Haley (Sarah Hyland), Alex (Ariel Winter), and Luke (Nolan Gould). Within minutes we get a firm idea of the dynamics of the family, particularly with regards to the parents and how they manage their kids. 

While Phil laughs and jokes with his children and openly admits to being a "cool dad," Claire is seen in a constantly busy state. She folds laundry, she makes food, and sharply cautions her eldest daughter against wearing too-short skirts or spending alone time with a male friend. It is an excellent method of establishing Claire as the disciplinary force in the Dunphy household, the person in charge of getting things done and keeping the kids in check. 

As it turns out, Claire's continuously busy behavior was not entirely due to the storyline. Julie Bowen told Access Hollywood that she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant with twins during the shoot for the episode. Her prominent baby bump was hidden with the help of bulky clothing, and props like the laundry basket and kitchen table. A few scenes even had Luke standing in front of her to act as a visual shield.   

The documentary style had an actual purpose

Ever since the success of "The Office," the mockumentary style of comedy shows has seen great popularity world-wide. But while such shows are generally set in offices, "Modern Family" did things differently by bringing a fake documentary-making team to observe the lives of the three main families in their own homes. 

Even though "Modern Family" went all-in on the fake documentary concept right from the pilot episode, viewers were never given an explanation as to who is making the documentary and for what purpose. But it was not always planned that way. The co-creator of the show, Steve Levitan, told NJ.com that the original idea was that the families are being interviewed by a Dutch filmmaker named Geert Floorjte. 

The character was supposed to have lived with Jay as a teen exchange student, during which time he developed a crush on Claire. In the end, the makers of the show decided that the addition of Floorjte would unnecessarily take time away from exploring the lives of the three main families. The character was cut, but the mockumentary style of the show remained as a way to add commentary to the lives of the central cast.  

Lily was played by more than one baby

The central storyline of the pilot episode revolves around Cameron and Mitchell bringing their freshly-adopted toddler daughter Lily home from Vietnam. Along the way, the duo deal with society's perceptions of gay couples, their own issues with being new parents, and the uncertainty of how their extended family would react to Lily. 

Amidst all the confusion, Lily herself can be seen lying placidly in her bundle of warm clothing. The infant was played by not one but two baby actors. For seasons 1 and 2, twin girls Ella and Jaden Hiller were chosen to take turns playing Lily in a single episode in light of child labor laws which forbids actors beneath a certain age from working full-time on a day's shoot. 

At certain points Lily did not need to be played by a real infant, and that was when the makers used a doll made-up to resemble Lily. You can see Sarah Hyland interacting with the prop baby in a hilariously careless manner in behind-the-scenes footage from the show. After the second season ended, Lilly was aged up and the Hiller twins were replaced by Aubrey Anderson-Emmons.

An iconic fresco with a twist

Being first-time parents, there is a lot that Cameron and Mitchell need to adjust to while learning to take care of their new daughter Lily. But both are excited to embark on this new journey, Cameron perhaps too much so. It is hinted that he has been stress-eating for quite some time during Lily's entire adoption process.

Once Lily is brought home, Cameron celebrates by having a friend paint a mural on the wall opposite Lily's cot. The mural depicts Cameron and Mitchell being barely covered in diaphanous robes while lounging atop a bunch of clouds. According to Cameron, the intent of the mural is to assure Lily that her new dads are always watching over her like a couple of nudist guardian angels. 

The mural itself is a parody of the iconic "The Creation of Adam" fresco painted by Michelangelo that adorns the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. "I thought it was a reference Cameron would know," explained the show's production designer Richard Berg to Architectural Digest. "As well as one that many viewers would relate to. The reference is so hyperbolic I thought it would be funny."  

The houses look a lot different

When the first episode of "Modern Family" was being shot, the show was still finding its feet. The makers had already hit home runs with regards to the writing and actors, but the backdrops to the lives of the three main families were still being tuned and then retuned.

That is why the houses that show up in "Pilot" have many differences from the houses that show up in later episodes of "Modern Family." For instance, the Dunphy household has a solid wall next to the stairway in the first episode, but later episodes show an office space where the wall used to be.  

Similarly, the house that Jay and Gloria live in during the first episode has a different architecture and furniture in later episodes. While real houses were used for exterior shots on the show, the bulk of filming was done on sound stages with sets built from scratch to represent the homes of the Dunphys, the Pritchetts, and the Tucker-Pritchetts.    

The secret cameraman

With the first episode, the filming crew of "Modern Family" was still figuring out the logistics of filming the episodes. The show was shot in a single-camera format. That means instead of the sitcom tradition of filming on a stage in front of a live audience, "Modern Family" was shot like a movie on location, with the camera allowed to change its position to follow the action freely. 

The advantage to this sort of filming is that it allows for greater flexibility in terms of the places where you can shoot, since you are not beholden to the one or two set pieces that can be built in front of a live audience. The camera can also zoom in on an actor's face to capture the nuances of their expressions, something that happens frequently on "Modern Family."

But the downside to filming in "single-camera" in crowded houses filled with actors and technicians is that you sometimes end up recording something that was not intended. This happens in "Pilot," where we catch a glimpse of a cameraman reflected in the mirror during a shot of Claire talking to Haley's new boyfriend on the stairs.    

The Westjet flight

The first time viewers meet Cameron and Mitchell, they are shown sitting in a plane, coming back to their home with their new infant daughter Lily. The couple get some strange looks, which prompts Mitchell to assume everyone on the plane is homophobic. He launches into a lecture on tolerance, only to realize he had misread the situation, and then awkwardly sits down again while Cameron looks around apologetically.

It's an excellent primer on the challenges faced by Cam and Mitch as a couple, as well as showcasing how differently the two address such problems. There are not a lot of indicators for which airline company is being depicted in the scene, but eagle-eyed viewers noticed some details and surmised that Cam and Mitch and Lily were aboard a WestJet flight.

The surmise proved to be correct. When a viewer asked the official WestJet account on Twitter whether it really was their airline that was used in the scene, WestJet replied, "We weren't approached [by the makers of the show] — we only learned of our cameo when we saw it ourselves!"   

Many future references

The first episode of "Modern Family" was special by a lot of standards. It sent the series off to a flying start, won a bunch of awards, and is still considered by many to be the best episode of the entire series. Naturally, the show itself found reasons to reference the episode many times in future storylines. 

The most important scene in the episode, the whole family meeting Lily for the first time, is later revisited in Season 10 when the family meets Haley's babies for the first time, complete with "The Lion King" theme music. Another hilarious scene from the pilot episode was when Claire barged into Haley's room looking for dirty clothes to put in the laundry, but really to allay her suspicions that her daughter was getting frisky with her controversial boyfriend Dylan (Reid Ewing). 

Later on, Haley mimicked Claire's behavior with Luke when she barged into his room talking about doing laundry, but really to stop her little brother from getting with a girl. Finally, we see Alex being concerned at one point that Haley might get pregnant with Dylan. This actually does end up happening in later seasons, although the circumstances are a lot happier than what Claire had feared would be the result of leaving Dylan alone with Haley.    

Luke is Excalibur

The pilot episode of "Modern Family" is filled with little moments that helped define characters and let audiences instantly know their base traits. For Luke, the youngest child in the Dunphy clan, that moment comes when Alex informs Claire and Phil that "Luke got his head stuck in the banister again."

Sure enough, Luke is shown with his head caught between the railings of the banister. While Claire is exasperated that this keeps happening to Luke, Phil is a lot more positive about the whole thing. He goes off to find baby oil to grease Luke's head as a preliminary to setting him free, also indicating that this is not the first time he's had to do such a thing. 

When Luke is finally freed from his staircase prison, Phil exclaims "Be Free, Excalibur!" This is a reference to the iconic sword from "King Arthur" mythology, which underlines Phil's nerdy nature, as well as his habit of trying to introduce a more magical reality into the most mundane events. This trait grew to be one of the best things about his character in later episodes.   

The missing title card

At the start of the episode, we see each of the three main couples in separate interviews with the invisible documentary maker. In proper documentary fashion, the couples get title cards identifying their names, and the number of years that they have been together — except for Cameron and Mitchell. 

While Jay and Gloria and Claire and Phil got title cards, Cam and Mitch did not get one, and had to verbally tell the audience that they had been together for five years up to that point. Some fans thought this was an oversight on the part of the show's makers. But it was actually a deliberate choice, and a subtle clue about the challenges facing Cam and Mitch.

Back then, gay marriage was still illegal in the area where the entire extended family lived. And so while Jay, Phil, Claire, and Gloria could flaunt their married status in the title cards, Cam and Mitch could not, since they were not technically married. Fortunately, fans did not have to wait forever for the two lovebirds to be legally allowed to make things official. Cam and Mitch get hitched in the finale of the fifth season of the show.  

Phil had many unscripted moments

Arguably the breakout character from the show was Ty Burrell as Phil Dunphy. The actor put a new spin on the "laid-back dad" character type by being genuinely well-meaning and unintentionally hilarious in every "Modern Family" scene he was a part of. 

The pilot episode gives Phil plenty of room to shine, and Burrell takes full advantage of that. In fact, there are at least three known instances of the actor improvising jokes in the pilot that have since become iconic. As mentioned in the book, "Modern Family: The Untold Oral History of One of Television's Groundbreaking Sitcoms", while running down the stairs, Burrell stumbled on a step. Without missing a beat, the actor muttered, "Gotta fix that step," and kept on going. The makers of the show liked the line so much it was kept in the shot, and became one of the most famous running gags on "Modern Family." Similarly, Burrell was simply given the dictum that his character will dance awkwardly in front of his children while trying to prove his coolness. 

The actor then improvised dances to a number of songs before settling on "We're all in this together" from "High School Musical" as looking the most ridiculous. Finally, the part where Phil smugly explains to the camera that "WTF" means "What the face" was something that Alan Tudyk had improvised while auditioning for the role. Tudyk didn't get the role, but he was gracious enough to allow the makers to use his line in the episode. 

The Vietnamese kimono

At a time when gay couples were still very much not the norm in the media landscape, "Modern Family" chose to kick things off by making Cam and Mitch and their new daughter Lily the center of the storyline for the first episode in the series. That risk paid off with one of the most heartwarming final scenes in television history.

It is revealed near the end that the three main families are related when they all gather at Cam and Mitch's home in expectation of some big news. Everyone is wondering what the big news will be, and Jay has already surmised that Cam and Mitch have broken up, much to Mitchell's indignation. That is when Cameron enters, holding Lily up in a dramatic spotlight while "Circle of Life" plays from "The Lion King."  

As over-the-top as the scene is, a lot of thought was put into it. Cameron is shown wearing something resembling a red gown. That dress is actually a traditional Vietnamese kimono, according to "Modern Family: The Untold Oral History of One of Television's Groundbreaking Sitcoms." "For Lily's introduction, I asked Marissa Borsetto, our first wardrobe designer, for something with a Vietnamese feeling." Eric Stonestreet explains in the book. "I said Cam's a performer, and he'd definitely have brought back a souvenir from Vietnam. Marissa came up with a kimono."

The plane that wasn't there

"Modern Family" was a single-camera show that eschewed sound stages in favor of more naturalistic filming locations. While this allowed for a more cinematic feel with many closeups and inventive camera angles, it was also a more expensive way of shooting an episode. 

Thus, the makers had to find other ways to cut back on costs. One way they did so was keeping the different filming locations tightly packed together. In fact, the plane that Cam and Mitch were on was not a real plane, but a prop model that was parked right outside the Tucker-Pritchett house. 

This allowed for the camera crew to shift their equipment quickly between sets, and also allowed the director to make changes to the layout of the inside of the "plane" to get the best shots. As Jesse Tyler Ferguson stated in the book, "Modern Family: The Untold Oral History of One of Television's Groundbreaking Sitcoms," "We ended up having to erect half an airplane in front of the house we were shooting at for Mitch and Cam. It was wild for everyone."