Jesse Tyler Ferguson gets comfortable with tech

He uses a Nest, tells Alexa to record his grocery list and is a major force behind two online sites. Even so, the actor says he's just a regular guy living in a modern world.
Mark Mann

Jesse Tyler Ferguson is slightly surprised when I tell him he's a successful internet entrepreneur. After all, Tie The Knot, the online bow tie brand he and his husband created to fund LGBTQ rights, has pulled in $1 million over its first five years.

But Ferguson, 42, best known for playing gay lawyer Mitchell Pritchett on ABC's "Modern Family," insists he's not all that tech savvy. 

"I'm in awe of it and I love to experience it, but I really get nervous when I have to actually touch the switch," Ferguson says when I ask about the tech he uses. 

Even so, he's embraced some of the smartest stuff out there today. That includes his phone (an iPhone X), his car (a Tesla), a digital butler (Amazon's Echo smart speaker) and the high-tech kitchen gadgets he relies on to cook his favorite dishes, some of which he shares on Julie & Jesse, the food blog he writes with his friend Julie Tanous.

Ferguson knows tech can help him save time, make his life more convenient and even help him promote what he cares about. But he also finds tech a little scary because of how quickly it evolves. And that makes him like most of us — trying to get a handle on this digital world we live in.

"The minute you get used to a platform, it's completely changed because they update it so frequently," he says, with a laugh. "It's like you're always having to relearn. It sounds like I'm 95."

Ferguson and I talked about why he thinks the Instant Pot is a "game changer," how his Tesla makes him more productive and why he's put aside privacy concerns to talk with Amazon's Alexa-powered speaker. Here's an edited version of our conversations.

What's your definition of a modern family?
Actually, the original title of "Modern Family" was "My American Family," and we switched it to "Modern Family" before the pilot even aired. We were a more inclusive family and a more accurate representation of what the American family is today.

I think it embraced a lot of the modern complications that families are experiencing, whether that means being new parents or accepting the child who is gay and accepting his partner, accepting your daughter's wacky husband. We wanted to show what it is to be more relevant today and more inclusive. 

We just did an episode where Gloria talks to her Google...mushroom? Or whatever it's called. I'm so not a tech guy.

You're not a techie? But you use so much tech in your life and you've got a blog and a site that sells bow ties.
I feel like I'm one of those tech guys who is really excited about the tech element but then needs a millennial to teach him how to do it. [laughs]

I'm fortunate to be married to someone who is 10 years younger than me and has a lot more patience with the tech elements of our home. I sort of hand off my phone to him and tell him to fix things and make my apps work. I'm not that old, but I feel like I turned 40 and all of a sudden I can't even turn on my television anymore. 

A lot of people can relate to that.
Yeah, seems like it happened overnight. But I love playing with the new opportunities tech offers. We have an Amazon [Echo] and I'll be in the kitchen cooking and tell Alexa I'm out of something and all of a sudden it's on a shopping list. Super convenient. Beyond that, I'm in awe of it and I love to experience it, but I really get nervous when I have to actually touch the switch.

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Mark Mann

But don't you live in an old home that has smart touches? 
Yeah, we have a Nest [thermostat]. It's still one of those things I feel I'm not using to its full potential but love having. We live in an old Spanish home built in the '20s, and it has these old light fixtures with the push buttons and the dials to turn on the lights and dim them. We had the option of turning everything into a smart system where everything is connected and we turn on lights with our phone. I had to draw the line there. [But] I do love the elements of having a Nest system where I can turn on the air conditioning before I get home. And I have a Tesla I can turn on and have it cooling before I get into the car in the summer.

Why did you pick the Tesla? Are you a car person?
I'm not a car person. I just use it to get from one place to another.

You would think a Tesla would be the wrong thing for someone like me. But because you can do so much without having your attention drawn away from the road, it's actually a supersafe vehicle for me, specifically. I've been in Los Angeles for 12 years, but I still feel like I'm navigating the streets for the first time. It has a great GPS system. It seems to do a lot of the things that would take my attention away from the road — like taking phone calls. I do a lot of work in my car driving to work. I can press a number in my calendar and be connected [to meetings]. So it seems to keep my attention on the road a lot more. And just having an electric car was really appealing to me.

You write a cooking blog with your friend Julie Tanous called Julie & Jesse. How much tech do you use in the kitchen?
I always shied away from the shortcuts in the kitchen because I thought that was cheating, but they really do make food preparation so easy. And I use my Instant Pot once a week even if it's just to make some chicken that I can shred into salads and other healthy dishes throughout the week. Anything that takes time away from the prep, I think is great. I love really tasty food. I love putting the effort into it. I love putting the love into it. But I also love not being in the kitchen for eight hours doing it.

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Mark Mann

I have things like a pasta maker that you put all the ingredients into and it turns out perfectly made pasta. I have an ice cream machine from Breville that I use all the time and it's like one of those secret things that lets you wow your guests. You literally put in all the ingredients and walk away from it for 30 minutes and it's done. I have thermometers for my grill that are connected to my phone and let me know when meat is at a certain temperature. It's super helpful.

Having an Instant Pot is very on trend these days.
The Instant Pot really is a game changer. It's not just a pressure cooker. You can sauté in it and you can brown meat. It's much more versatile than pressure cookers used to be. And you know how there were a slew of pressure cookers exploding? These new machines, they're so fantastic, you don't have to be afraid of them.

It's always nerve-wracking trying anything new for the first time, whether it be a new iPhone or a pressure cooker. But once you learn what it does, it becomes less scary. And it's a time-saver. I find myself much more ambitious when I don't have to worry about being in the kitchen all day.

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Mark Mann

How does your Amazon Echo fit into the kitchen?
I use Amazon Alexa for music when I'm in the kitchen but also for keeping my grocery list updated. So if I find that I'm running out of, I don't know, Mexican oregano. I say "Alexa, please add Mexican oregano to my shopping list," and she keeps a running tab.

Some are scared of smart home assistants because they're always listening. Any privacy concerns with Alexa?
I suppose I should be more concerned about privacy, but I don't know, I trust her. It seems like we have a good relationship. She hasn't done me wrong yet.

What piece of tech would you like invented just for you?
I would like something to help me memorize my lines. I feel like it might involve some surgery, though. Some sort of chip in my brain. I kinda just want to download the script into my brain. It's probably not the safest thing [laughs], but it's worth a try.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson Spring 2018 Cover

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Mark Mann

How do you suggest the average family approach tech in their daily lives?
I don't know, but I have found my Alexa to be extremely helpful keeping me organized. I'm always thinking of things I need to do when I'm busy doing something else — specifically when I'm cooking. When I think about other things that I need to do — instead of having to stop, wipe off my hands, find a paper and pen, and write it down — I can just remind Alexa to add it to my reminders or my shopping list. I have found that Alexa has made me more efficient just in my day to day.

You've been on "Modern Family" since 2009 and it's been renewed for a 10th season. What comes after that?
When I started "Modern Family," streaming wasn't really a thing. But now it's this whole other platform. The shows on Netflix or Amazon or Hulu are a lot more bold and they're not tethered to network restrictions. I'm actually excited to be a part of that landscape when "Modern Family" does eventually end. 

This story appears in the spring 2017 edition of CNET Magazine. Click here for more magazine stories.