It started in January 2010. One of the temps in my office came up to me early in the morning and said, "Tyler! There’s a guy on TV who looks just like you? Have you seen Modern Family yet?" I hadn’t, and I said that I’d try to watch it based on his recommendation. I didn’t, although I Googled the show and saw that there was a gay character who also had red hair and a beard. "Oh, I can see it, I guess," I thought, and went about my day as normal. The same week, someone on Tumblr reblogged one of my posts with a similar comment. "Tyler reminds me so much of Mitchell," the blogger wrote. "And he looks EXACTLY like him!" Again, I shrugged it off.
People had told me I looked like famous actors before. Once, when I was working at a winery in my hometown the summer after my college graduation, two girls who had bought a bottle of wine came up to me as they were paying their bill and said, "Oh my God, you look so much like Eric Stoltz! But, you know, Some Kind of Wonderful Eric Stoltz, not Mask Eric Stoltz!" "Oh great!," I thought, grateful for the clarification that I did not look like someone with a giant, disfigured face. Right after random people decided to tell me that I looked like a person on a popular TV sitcom, most of my Facebook friends were participating in Doppelgänger Week, when users was encouraged to change their profile picture to an image of the actor or actress that others said they looked like. It was an entertaining time, when one could log in and laugh at their random acquaintances who were convinced they looked like very attractive famous people. (Oh, does she really think she looks like Rachel Weisz? Hmm.) I didn’t change my picture, but I did post one of Stoltz with a half-hearted comment about looking similar to him. The reaction was hilarious, but many of my friends commented, "What about Jesse Tyler Ferguson? You remind me so much of him!!!!"
I was planning to move to New York that fall, and I took a trip to the city in the summer to visit and get a sense of the city. I boarded my flight at Midway, and one of the flight attendants stopped me as I lugged my unweildy suitcase onto the plane. "Have you ever watched Modern Family?" he asked. I sighed and said, "No, but I know.". As we exited at LaGuardia, the same man said, "You should really watch that show! It’s hilarious!" the woman in line behind me interjected, "Modern Family, right? My daughter thought he was him!" I bit my tongue, wanting to respond, "Please explain to your daughter that if I was an actor on TV, I probably wouldn’t be flying Southwest, and would definitely not be in the B group."
I moved to New York in September 2010. I was very excited about living in the city (I was crashing on my friend’s couch on the Lower East Side), especially because, within my first week, I saw tons of celebrities. It’s something that rarely happened in my five years in Chicago–the most famous people I saw were guys who had been rejected from Bravo reality shows—you can imagine how fun it was to be walking around and spot Gary Busey or Adrien Grenier. I had enough sense to not say anything to them—after all, what could I offer—but I still silently relished the fact that a real-life celebrity was in close proximity to me. It’s inherently a new York experience: we like to pretend that living in the same place as famous people, but we still gush with friends about each spotting. "Natasha Lyonne goes to my gym!" a friend once told me. "Yeah, well," I replied, "I bumped into Vanessa Williams at Angus McIndoe last night, and she apologized to me!"
On the second weekend I lived in New York, I got out of a cab near the Delancey/Essex subway stop. My friends and I had been drinking in Brooklyn and were stupidly drunk. As we walked by the train station, I made eye contact with this guy who immediately looked flushed as his eyes darted to the ground. Then, with the same drunken intensity, he shouted, "Are you on Modern Family?!" before I could even respond, my friend threw up his arms and laughed hysterically, and I replied, "No, I’m not him." I tried to ignore the experience, but not before another stranger on the street who had watched the exchange chuckled. "You do look like him," as if I didn’t already know.
That’s sort of what fascinates me about strangers who approach me: yes, I do, in fact, know that I resemble a famous person, yet people I don’t know are extremely aggressive about informing me, as if they’re the only ones to figure it out. What’s more surprising are the folks who think that I actually am Jesse Tyler Ferguson. I was in the Apple store earlier this year to buy a new laptop, and as one of the sales associates was processing my order, one of the other geniuses (that’s the Apple store term, not mine) came up to me and said, "I just want to shake your hand!" "Um, OK," I replied, thinking, "Well, all I’m doing is spending entirely too much money on this computer." I had to break it to the guy when he then said, "I just love you and your show so much!"
What if I had been Jesse Tyler Ferguson? Wouldn’t that have been weird? I can’t speak for him, obviously, but maybe he would like to buy a computer without talking about his job? Or how about the guy who came up to me while I was at a urinal during the intermission of Shakespeare in the Park last summer. Luckily for him, I was just some normal person who happened to look like a celebrity, and he was the crazy person who assumed it was perfectly fine to walk up to someone he thought was famous while peeing to make small talk about something he had seen on TV.
In the spring of last year, my friend Mikala and I created a webseries called Disappointing Gay Best Friend. She’s a comedian, and I’m not—nor am I an actor—but the videos, which averaged about thirty seconds each, required very little from me except to glare at her character’s suggestion that we do typical, stereotypical gay activities like go out to a bar so she can get a drag queen to touch her boobs, suggestions I would always shut down with a disgruntled look. It did well enough that people would occasionally come up to me if they spotted me in a gay bar. It was pretty exciting at first to be recognized as myself, but it still didn’t happen as often as strangers would say the familiar line, "Do you know you look like that guy from Modern Family" Eventually it got to the point where I could recognize the look that some guy would give in a bar when he saw me: a double-take, a few awkward glances, possibly turning to a friend and whisper something to him while he kept his eyes locked on mine. Who the hell did he think I was? Me, or some famous person? It typically wasn’t me, but I could still acknowledge my own narcissism that a stranger was looking at me with some sort of interest in who I was.
I think Jesse Tyler Ferguson is somewhat aware of my existence. Sometimes people will at-reply both of us on Twitter as a joke, and I assume he probably thinks it’s annoying. And who knows, maybe there are other bearded redheads on the internet who get the same thing from their friends—it’s a bit silly to suggest that I have any influence on this stranger’s life in any way; he’s the famous one, not me, and naturally, as a celebrity, he means a lot more to people than they do to him.
I did meet him once, hilariously enough at a taping of Andy Cohen’s talk show on Bravo. It was before I had started our webseries, and Modern Family had just started its second season. I had gone on a date with this guy who found the resemblance hilarious, and he told me that his friend worked on the Cohen’s show and that Ferguson was going to be a guest the following week. On Wednesday I got an email from him: he had gotten us seats at the taping. I was excited and nervous (I also had a huge, dumb crush on Andy Cohen), so naturally I met up with my friend beforehand and drank as many martinis as possible (which, luckily, was only three) and had a beer for good measure. I met the date at the studio in Soho, and when we walked into the small room set up to look like the clubhouse, Cohen immediately welcomed us (the studio audience is super, super small). When Ferguson walked in and sat in his seat under the lights, I noticed how remarkably different we look. The coloring is all off! He had also shaved his beard, so the resemblance wasn’t very strong at all. After the thirty minute show, there was a ten-minute segment that would be played online. That’s when Cohen announced that there was a "JTF look-alike in the audience," which is when I loudly (and drunkenly) shouted, "Oh, no." Cohen beckoned me to come in front of the camera and squat down next to his chair. I sat there for three minutes, rambling and sweating and trying to be cool, but the whole situation was so weird that I was immediately ready to return to my seat. The second guest, the celebrity stylist Brad Goreski, sat in the middle of the set, probably wondering why this sweaty weirdo who needed a haircut had suddenly bum-rushed the stage.
After the taping, we all returned to the green room, and I shook Ferguson’s hand and thanked him. The guy who brought me took our picture, and I said to him right before he hit the little button on my iPhone, "So, I’m sure strangers come up to you and ask if you’re Tyler Coates, huh?" "Oh yeah," he replied. "All the time."