"Modern Family" star Ty Burrell voices a brainiac mutt in "Mr. Peabody & Sherman." Credit: Getty Images
Since 2009, Ty Burrell’s face has been a fixture of televisions, as the bumbling but well-meaning paterfamilias on “Modern Family.” But with “Mr. Peabody & Sherman,” Burrell disappears behind the titular cartoon mutt who, as on the history-themed segments on “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” is an anthropomorphic brainiac with an adopted son (voice of Max Charles). It’s not always an easy transition.
Was “Peabody & Sherman” your favorite bit on “Rocky and Bullwinkle”?
It was probably a dead heat with the Rocky and Bullwinkle bits. I don’t really remember the "Fractured Fairy Tales." I didn’t see them when they were in their original airing, of course. But my older bother, who’s about 7 years older than I am, he loved them, and I remember him watching and laughing.
Bill Scott, who originally voiced Mr. Peabody, had a very distinctive delivery. How closely did you try to mimic him?
Initially a lot. I was really trying to keep as many of his cadences as I could. We kind of discovered that it didn’t work for the more heart-to-heart stuff between Peabody and Sherman. If you remember the originals, they’re very witty and very glib. It’s five minutes and it’s a history lesson, and it’s very funny. But we had to ground the voice so that when those scenes came along, it didn’t seem like they came out of nowhere. It became a balance between paying respect to Bill Scott and sounding a little bit human. Even though it’s a dog.
You have a lot of scientific terms to rattle off here. Were you a nerd?
No, no. That’s why I deserve an Oscar — three Oscars. Just being able to pretend that I’m a genius for two minutes is the greatest stretch ever captured on film. I lost to the words more than I won. Usually I’d get one take where I could get “synchronic fundibulator” without messing it up. Luckily they hit record on the few occasions I got it right.
Usually you’re working with your fellow actors. But voicework tends to be recorded individually. You never even meet, even though you’re communicating on screen.
That’s an unusual part of it for sure. Although Max [Charles] and I did have a day where we worked together. We tried to hit the scenes that were the most heart-to-heart. They usually prefer to keep you separated, so they can cut cleanly. You do the scenes 30 different ways, so they have enough to choose from. [Animation isn’t] about the actors. It’s about the directors and animators. They’re the stars of the movie. It really is the most humbling thing you can do, because you realize what a small part of an animated film a voice really is.
“Modern Family” is one of many shows made to look like it’s part improvised. How overstated is its reliance on ad-libbing?
We certainly don’t improvise as much as people think we do. That’s a product of the style — it makes us seem like we’re improvising. It’s more of an editors’ field. The editors get to contribute more, because it has looser ends to it. The editor gets to shape our show more than old comedies used to. But if you can beat a joke, which is hard with our writers, because our writers are very good — if you can beat, they use it. I love thinking maybe one of my hundred stupid jokes will make it to air.