‘I love coming back’: Eric Stonestreet talks Chiefs, Big Slick, his St. Pat’s Day gig

After a long day of filming in southern California, Eric Stonestreet walked about his home as he explained the grueling preparation that goes into being the grand marshal of the Kansas City St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

“Well, I’m slow-smoking a brisket right now,” the two-time Emmy Award-winning actor said over the phone with a laugh.

The truth is, there isn’t much work that goes into being the grand marshal, just a lot of Kansas City honor and pride, two things, one could argue, Stonestreet has shown more of recently than any other homegrown celebrity. A vocal KC ambassador at-large and a fixture at the city’s biggest sporting and philanthropic events, Stonestreet was announced last month as the parade’s celebrity figurehead.

“I love coming back,” Stonestreet says. “I love being there with the people. And the St. Patrick’s Day Parade is the perfect opportunity for me to come back and feel that love and that warmth in the city that’s been nothing but supportive of me and the grounds for my career.”

It’s a career that has seen the Kansas City, Kan., native and Piper High School grad featured in nearly 50 TV shows and movies, punctuated by his defining turn as Cameron Tucker on “Modern Family,” one half of a topsy-turvy same-sex couple raising a family. One of the most celebrated and decorated sitcoms of the last decade, “Modern Family” will begin airing its 11th and final season this fall.

So while Stonestreet waited for his slab to finish, he took some time to talk to The Star about his own St. Patrick’s Day Parade memories, the Chiefs and alma mater Kansas State University, how he’s feeling about the twilight of “Modern Family” and what he wants to do once the show ends. (Hint: It involves the Chiefs.)

A young Eric Stonestreet participated in Kansas City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade during the 1980s dressed as Fizbo the Clown. Fizbo has continued to appear occasionally on “Modern Family.” Wolf-Kasteler Public Relations

(The interview was edited for length and clarity.)

Q: Your connection to the parade goes back nearly 30 years. Tell me about that.

A: Oh, yeah. I think it was ’88 or ’89, I can’t remember which, either my sophomore or junior year of high school. My Uncle Leonard worked for somebody that had something to do with the parade, and, as a lot of people know, I wanted to be a clown when I was a kid. I was Fizbo the Clown. He had asked if I wanted to be in the parade and go visit kids at Children’s Mercy, and I said yes. So I was in the parade that day, handing out balloons and candy and visiting kids. It’s pretty crazy when they ask me to be the grand marshal that I can actually say, “Well, I was actually in the parade a long time ago” and I actually have pictures to prove it.

Q: Do you have a favorite St. Patrick’s Day Parade memory?

A: The day after the parade I was home sleeping, and the phone rings really early in the morning and my mom comes to the base of the stairs and she’s like, “Eric, you’re not going to believe it, Randy Miller is on the phone.” And Randy Miller was this really famous disc jockey, and he was really famous for his pranks. Apparently I had handed out my card to someone at the parade who worked for the Randy Miller Show the day before.

So I pick up the phone and he goes, “Is this Fizbo the Clown?”

I’m like “Yeah!”

And he’s like, “Who’s that that answered the phone?!”

And I’m like, “My mom,” and they all start laughing and saying, “Oh, Fizbo the Clown still lives at home with his mom, huh? Not working too well in the clowning business?”

And I’m like, “Well, I’m 16 years old.” And you just heard the whole studio go, “Oh.” They thought they were calling and giving this middle-aged guy trouble for living with his mom, but I was like, “No, I’m about to get ready to go to school right now actually.”

So that was pretty funny. I was a huge Randy Miller fan. I wanted to be a disc jockey at some point when I was a kid, particularly because of how fun Randy Miller was.

Stonestreet Modern Family 2.jpg
Mitch and Cam (Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson) have five minutes to catch a new flight while fighting the effects of sleeping pills they took prematurely. “There was no doubt that with Mitch and Cam it opened people’s eyes and minds and hearts to the idea that two men were just as qualified and just as unqualified to raise a child,” Stonestreet says. Eric McCandless ABC

Q: After 11 seasons, “Modern Family” is officially coming to an end next year. How does that make you feel?

A: I think all the emotions will start to hit as we get ready to gear up and go back to work next August. It’s crazy that’s its lasted 11 years. I think everyone involved has this feeling of “happy that it happened” instead of “sad that it’s ending.” I mean, you never dream of having this kind of run on a TV show as an actor. Being on a sitcom for 11 years definitely exceeded all my expectations. But it’s going to be sad. We became a family. And when I say “we,” I mean the cast, obviously, but also the people we work with.

I mean I’ve had the same person touching my face every morning at 7 o’clock for the last 10 years. The same guy doing my hair and putting the microphone on me, so you become close with these people and inevitably hear about their lives and struggles, the ups and downs, and you become invested in people’s lives. Then you realize you’re maybe not going to see some of these people ever again in your life.

Q: What do you hope “Modern Family’s” legacy is as a show? What do you hope the legacy is of Cam and Mitch?

A: There had obviously been gay couples on TV before us, not necessarily this kind of couple on this level of network television at this particular time, when opinions were really starting to be reformed on what it is to be a loving family and a loving couple raising a child. Steve (Levitan) and Chris (Loyd) created the show. They always wanted Mitch and Cam’s sexuality and who they were to not be the thing that they led with. That they were always just having the same struggles as every conventional mom and dad you’d ever seen.

There was no doubt that with Mitch and Cam it opened people’s eyes and minds and hearts to the idea that two men were just as qualified and just as unqualified to raise a child. We showed we could be just as lost as a mom and a dad, and that’s what I always thought was so good about the show. We were never trying to change people’s minds, we were trying to do what entertainers do, and that’s make people laugh. And through laughter there’s no doubt that hearts and minds are changed and hearts are opened to new thoughts and ideas. And that’s what comedians and comedy are supposed to do.

As far as the legacy of the show goes, think about when you sit down and watch something that’s in syndication. When I was a kid I would come home and I would see episodes of “The Brady Bunch” or “Happy Days” or “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” So think about “Married With Children” or any of those shows you’ve seen that are constantly on, that you can always check in with. What I want is for people to be as entertained by “Modern Family” when episodes air for the 300th time as they were its first time.

Q: What do you want to do next when “Modern Family” is over?

A: Well, I want to be a slot receiver in the Pat Mahomes offense (laughs). I want to catch some TDs from “15,” man. I’ve already told Brett Veach that I either need to drop 40 and become a Sherminator full back or I need to put on 50 and become an offensive lineman or defensive nose tackle. I’m in between right now. I’m a tweener.

There’s obviously humor in that answer, but there’s some truth to it. And that is, I don’t know what’s next for me. You know how much I love the city of Kansas City. I can see myself being split between KC and LA and finding something to do in both areas and continue to work in this business.

Former K-State head football coach Bill Snyder met with K-State alum Eric Stonestreet on the sidelines before the Chiefs played the Oakland Raiders in December at Arrowhead Stadium. John Sleezer The Kansas City Star

Q: If I had to guess, that brisket you’ve got on is for the Sunflower Showdown? (The basketball game between K-State and KU was airing that night.)

A: You’re exactly right. My smoker’s made outside of Wichita, Kansas, and I got the big screen on, getting ready to put on my purple and root for my K-State Wildcats.

Q: How excited are you for K-State basketball right now?

A: Oh, I’m excited. Listen, my first love is football. I love football. Basketball, I don’t have as strong of a connection to because I was just terrible at it. But I’m so happy for the guys and I’m so happy for Bruce Weber and the athletic department to have this season.

Q: Chiefs 2019-2020, what’s your prediction?

A: Oh my God (laughs). My prediction is that I will be at a lot of games. Look, man, I start every Chiefs football season off the exact same way for the last 35 years, which is freaking stoked and excited, like, “We’re going to the Super Bowl this year.” The only difference now is that I feel like I’m justified feeling that way. That’s what’s new. It’s like thinking you’ve tasted the best food of your life and then all of sudden somebody has taken you to a whole other level of restaurant and thinking like what in the heck have I been eating all these years?

Mahomes is the real deal and obviously a gifted athlete and appears to be a gifted human being, which is what you know Kansas City needs. We’re not the type of city that’s just going to have somebody come in and not feel invested in our city like that. And so it looks like he’s the real deal both on the field and off the field, and I’m just excited for him. I’m excited for the Chiefs, excited for the city, and honestly I’m excited for football fans.

Q: How did you cope after the AFC Championship Game loss?

A: I prepared myself for it from the beginning. I said no matter what happens this year, it’s a giant step forward. We found out we have a franchise quarterback. We know where we’re going. And with Brett and Clark Hunt in charge and with Andy being the coach — people just revere Andy Reid, in Kansas City out of Kansas City, everywhere I go, people are actively rooting for him to get that ring. So with all that, I went into the game prepared and willing to let it go on because I was so excited for the future.

Q: What is your greatest Chiefs memory?

A: Probably getting Joe Delaney’s autograph at Indian Springs Mall once. He was at a signing outside of a jewelry store, him and I think J.T. Smith. I still have his card at my house signed in my game room. I think when I look back at that moment, that’s when I became a Chiefs fan. I connected with one player who we lost obviously way too soon, who was going to be a great, and that’s what got me in.

And then probably being at the 4-H building for my 4-H Club and listening to Derrick Thomas break the sack record on the radio while at the Wyandotte County fairgrounds.

Q: What was your most heartbreaking memory?

A: Probably being in the back of a town car on the way to the airport in Arizona when we lost to the Indianapolis Colts. The one where we were way up. I left my hotel thinking there was no way we were going to lose this game and then I listened to it all fall apart on the way to the airport. That one hurt.

“It feels a little like we’re getting too much credit because we are getting so much in return,” Eric Stonestreet said at a press conference at Children’s Mercy to kick off one of the Big Slick Celebrity Weekends. Shane Keyser The Kansas City Star

Q: Janelle Monae is another KCK native. Have you guys ever tried to get her to come to Big Slick Celebrity Weekend?

A: We would love to. I actually have met Janelle and had a few conversations with her about it. We’ve extended the invite, but she’s a busy busy woman making movies and albums. There are so many people we would love to have at Big Slick, and she would probably love to come, but it’s hard for us to get the people that we want there all the time, because by nature of us wanting them there they are very successful in their careers. So it’s sometimes hard for them to make it work. She’s a beautiful wonderful soul, and obviously we would be so happy if she could ever make it to Big Slick.

Q: You’re moving from the Midland to the Sprint Center for the Big Slick auction. Are there any nerves?

A: There are absolutely nerves. What we know for sure is that we have a great city that will support us. We’re working on getting the show together. We’ve actually got a conference call coming up — me, Paul (Rudd), Jason (Sudeikis), Rob (Riggle), Dave (Koechner) — to figure stuff out and see who’s coming in and who we can invite. You know, it’s exciting and it’s a great way to celebrate 10 years of Big Slick. The Sprint Center has been great to us. We’re super stoked to get over there. What I love about having that bigger platform, it’s going to give people the opportunity to help out with Big Slick because obviously everybody can’t give a thousand bucks or 10 thousand, but with the Sprint Center having more seats and more opportunity for people to get tickets, that’s going to help, too. With just the volume alone, we’re hoping to raise as much money for Children’s Mercy as ever.

Eric Stonestreet

He’ll be the grand marshal of the Kansas City St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which starts at 11 a.m. March 17 at Linwood Boulevard and Broadway and proceeds south on Broadway to 43rd Street.

He’ll return June 7-8 to co-host Big Slick Celebrity Weekend, which raises money for Children’s Mercy. See bigslickkc.org.

He’ll star in the animated comedy “The Secret Life of Pets 2,” scheduled for release on June 7. The movie is a sequel to the 2016 blockbuster about the lives pets lead when their owners go off to work. Stonestreet will play Duke, a lovable, shaggy mongrel.

New episodes of “Modern Family” air at 7 p.m. Wednesdays on ABC. The show is in syndication on the CW and USA Network.

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Aaron Randle is the Star’s “Divided City” enterprise reporter, tasked with exploring the cultural intersections that shape — and divide — Kansas City and Kansas Citians.