Eric Stonestreet had zero interest in hosting a reality show. Then “The Toy Box” came along.
In this new ABC competition series, premiering April 7, kids decide the entrepreneurial fate of grown-up toy inventors. Stonestreet couldn’t resist.
“It’s fun and funny and smart,” Stonestreet says over the phone from L.A. “And being on Friday nights, this is just some old-school, classic family viewing.”
The show, a spin on ABC’s hit “Shark Tank,” will feature Kansas Citians in two of its most important roles. In addition to the Piper High School alum and “Modern Family” star as host, behind the scenes, Shawnee Mission East graduate Susan House is the showrunner.
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Over eight episodes, adult inventors will compete to have their toys bought by toy manufacturing giant Mattel and distributed worldwide through Toys R Us. To have a shot, however, the inventors must impress two very different sets of judges: a panel of adult toy experts and some precocious kiddos who decide whether to pass the contestants along to the season finale, where seven finalists will compete for the ultimate prize.
“Kids will be excited by the toys; parents will be excited at the inspiring ideas,” Stonestreet says. “Watching this show, people will be inspired to come up with their own ideas. There’s something for everybody.”
House, a tennis star at East before graduating in 1997, will serve as one of the show’s three executive producers. She has produced more than 20 network shows, including “The Bachelor,” “The Bachelorette,” “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” Yet “The Toy Box” has been a unique experience:
“Working on this show was really kind of uplifting,” House says over the phone from Los Angeles. “Sometimes shows like these can seem to be just about money, money, money, but this is about passion and creativity and getting that all out into the world. I thought that was really beautiful.”
Stonestreet loves their dogged determination: “Meeting the people that come down those hallways and seeing their passion. Meeting them and knowing that the American Dream is alive and well, it’s amazing,” he says. “And who doesn’t want to like someone who’s trying to figure out how to make a kid’s life more fun and give them something new to play with?”
Here Stonestreet talks about what exactly inspired him to join “The Toy Box,” what his favorite toys were as a child and some other stuff like the annual Big Slick Celebrity Weekend and how much longer “Modern Family” will stick around:
Q: What about “The Toy Box” made you reconsider your stance on hosting?
A: The notion that I would get to work with a mix of inventors and the kids. I’m a passionate person, I enjoy other people’s passion, I like to celebrate people and I love people who have dedicated their lives to something. So that aspect of meeting these people who have put so much into something, that was exciting to me.
And then I loved that I was going to work with kids, given my background of wanting to be a clown as a kid and performing for kids. (His Fizbo the clown on “Modern Family” was actually his alter ego when he was growing up in Kansas City, Kan.) The whole idea that the kids were going to be the ones with the ability to determine these people’s future and whether they got a deal or didn’t get a deal with Mattel, it sounded like drama which made me interested (laughter).
Q: How was it working on a show that put kids in the driver’s seat?
A: They took their jobs very serious. To the point where I had to sort of remind them when they were playing with the toys to have fun. All of a sudden they’re wondering about the safety of the toy, and I’m like, it’s really great that you all are so attentive about it, but you have to understand you’re still kids (laughter). … That was exciting, getting to go work with these kids and see this high drama through their eyes.
Q: Any pros to working with kids as opposed to adults?
A: They work shorter hours than (adults) can, so you know essentially that your day is going to be shorter than it would if you were with adults (laughter). Other than that, it’s nice, as we all get older and life gets more complex, to be reminded of the simple joys and pleasures in life. I can’t say that I get a lot of time to goof around and play, but this show has actually inspired me and helped me remember how much fun it was to play with toys and the good times. Kids remind you that life used to be a bit simpler, and it allows you to revisit that.
Q: What was one of your favorite toys growing up?
A: I liked Hot Wheels and Matchbox Cars. Anything I could build. The toy that I keep coming back to was this toy called the Stomper. It was this AA battery-operated car. I love anything with tracks and cars. I still have a lot of my Hot Wheels from when I was a kid here at my house now. My parents sent them out to me like two years ago when they found them in my toy box upstairs.
Q: Do you think working on “Modern Family,” a show with kids, better equipped you for this show?
A: Yeah, in a way. I had experience to know that when you’re working with kids, that there are certain elements that are out of your control.
Q: Are you working on any other projects?
A: No, just “The Toy Box” now. I’m on break from “Modern Family.” Hopefully we’ll be back into production there in August and start shooting Season 9. I take work sort of how it comes along; I’m not too aggressive with trying to go out and get anything. I really feel like I scored with “Modern Family” (Stonestreet has won two Emmy Awards for his role as Cam Tucker) and really, truly want to enjoy what having a job like that feels like. I’ve spent almost 13 years as an actor without consistent work, so I told my agents, “Let me equal out the fear and anxiety of not having a job first. Then I’ll focus on what I want to do next.” (laughter).
Q: In December you mentioned to People magazine that “Modern Family” was in its twilight. Do you still feel the same way?
A: Yeah. I think we all want to do two more years of the show. Everybody sort of agrees — the network, studio, creators of the show, the cast — we all want that. There’s a few factors involved that don’t have much to do with the actors to determine whether that happens or not, but we’re all hopeful that’s what will happen.
Q: Will we get more Fizbo the clown?
A: I hope so! (laughter). We’ve got one episode with him this year. I’m always up for Fizbo. They say you can calibrate how happy someone is on the “Modern Family” set by if they’re as happy as Eric Stonestreet when he gets to have a Fizbo day (laughter). When I get to put on my make-up, my red nose and shoes I’m a happy camper.
Q: How did you feel about the rash of evil clown stories in the news last year?
A: Didn’t care for it. It bums me out. People that want to be clowns and want to perform for kids and senior citizens and parties and parades, they’re the opposite of those people that think it’s funny to dress up as scary clowns and scare people. Anyone that wants to be a clown just wants to bring joy and happiness to people. And for someone to kind of hijack and kidnap that, I don’t like it.
Q: You’ll be back for Big Slick this year, right?
A: Oh yeah! I think tickets are about to go on sale. We’re looking forward to that! I always tell my friends that I invite that it will be one of the highlights of your year coming home and just meeting the nice people of Kansas City and going to the hospital and meeting those kids and the staff. I always tell them it’ll be something you’ll always carry with you and something you’ll be super proud of doing. I certainly am.
Inside ‘The Toy Box’
“The Toy Box” will debut at 7 p.m. Friday, April 7, on ABC.
Each hourlong episode begins with toy inventors vying for the thumbs up from the experts — Dylan Lauren, CEO of Dylan’s Candy Bar; Jim Silver, CEO and editor-in-chief of toy consumer and market research website Toys, Tots, Pets & More; and Jen Tan, Pixar’s creative director of consumer products. They’ll talk about the toy’s marketability and profitability.
If they get past the experts, the inventors then showcase their toys to a panel of equally impressive tykes: viral sensations and “Ellen Degeneres Show” favorites Sophia Grace Brownlee, 13, and 8-year-old Noah Ritter, plus 7-year-old comedian Toby Grey and 9-year-old actress Aalyrah Caldwell. Together they’ll examine, play around with and exact their (sometimes seering) opinions on each contestant’s toys before deciding at the end of each episode who will move on to the eighth episode, the season finale.
The grand prize: Mattel buys the toy, and Toys R Us distributes it worldwide.