When It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia returns to FXX for its 14th season on September 25th, it’ll be in the rarest of company. Only one live-action sitcom in TV history has lasted that many seasons, and it’s the spiritual opposite of Sunny: wholesome Fifties family comedy The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet(*).
(*) Ozzie and Harriet produced 435 episodes, where Sunny would need to make another five seasons after this one just to clear 200. The business, it has changed.
TV series are not meant to run this long. And something like Sunny, a scruffy show about five dumb sociopaths (Rob McElhenney’s Mac, Glenn Howerton as Dennis, Charlie Day as Charlie, Kaitlin Olson as Dee, and Danny DeVito as Frank) hanging around a bar and making the worst possible decisions at every turn, would seem particularly ill-suited to longevity. Yet Sunny not only lives, but is still pretty darned great a lot of the time, with the modern-dance number that concluded Season 13 — Mac trying to find a way to express his feelings about being gay and newly out of the closet to his incarcerated father — among the show’s best scenes ever.
How has this DIY series — which McElhenney created on a shoestring budget so that he and buddies Day and Howerton might have better parts than they were being offered — not only survived this long, but thrived? Well, McElhenney has some theories, including his explanation for why, he says, “I truly believe we can do the show forever.”
When you guys first made the pilot, what was your hope for what you might get out of it?
The hope was that we would have a television series that would run for a very long time.
For 14 years?
We get that question a lot: “Were you expecting the show to be as successful as it is, or run as long as it has?” Our knee-jerk reaction used to be that we never anticipated anything like this. But the truth of the matter is, we were pretty confident at the time. I remember really believing that we had something we thought was pretty special. At least it was different than anything else that we had seen on TV. And most important, it was something we wanted to see on TV. So we felt like we had a shot. Now that could have just been the ignorance of youth. And the bravado of having zero experience in that field, and not really realizing how hard it is. But we felt pretty good.
You do shorter seasons than a broadcast network show, but any comedy is running into creative problems by the time it’s half as old as you are now. What have been the keys to Sunny still being so fresh and as funny as it is after all this time?
Definitely the benefit of only doing 10 to 13 episodes a season, and only 10 for the last eight or nine years. That really allows us a tremendous amount of creative freedom. Yes, we’re repeating ourselves to a certain degree in terms of some of the character behavior, but because we’re only doing half the amount, or less, than a broadcast sitcom, there’s just a tremendous amount of territory for us to cover. And then, because the world seems to change so much from a cultural perspective every few years, each year gives us a bunch of new cultural things that have changed that we can mine. That’s always been what we try to do with Sunny: just have the same discussions that people are having in any given year.
Is it helpful or a hindrance at this stage that the Gang is made up of idiots who mostly don’t change?
In some ways, it’s helpful. You don’t have to wind up servicing — what winds up becoming drama or melodrama in so many shows. Just by function of the design, of the storytelling and the characters themselves, [most shows] have to start following those emotional evolutions, which we just don’t have to do. We get a blank slate every episode. That allows us so much more freedom, because we don’t have to service any particular relationship at any given time.
Another problem long-running shows run into is that behavior that was funny in Season One seems sad and lame as the characters get older. But the Gang started out as sad and lame.
That’s exactly right. The older it gets, and the sadder it gets, the funnier it gets. That was something that we were striving to do early. We were very clear. I get this question a lot, too: “Are you guys afraid of tackling any subject, or are there certain places you won’t go?” Because we do seem to get away with a lot that on the surface it seems people are not able to get away with now. And I think there’s a key distinction in what we’re doing, and ultimately our fans recognize [it], in terms of satirizing certain behavior. We’re certainly not lauding characters for their homophobia or misogyny or casual racism. In fact, it’s the complete opposite, where we’re degrading our own characters for holding some of those views. I think that’s abundantly clear from Episode One. So people will watch the show and say, “Well, clearly the characters are homophobic, but the writers and/or creators and/or directors are not.” That’s the most important aspect for us. We’re not taking any political or even social side of things, generally. We’re more just looking at the current cultural climate through the prism of these terrible, terrible people.
Have there been times over the course of these 14 years where you came to the end of a season and wondered if you still had more material? Or have you been ready to go each time?
We had that anxiety at the beginning of every season at least for the first two or three years. And once we realized the story engine was this tool we could use and pump culture through and see what came out the other side, we realized we could probably do it forever. I truly believe we can do the show forever. And, yes, at certain points, with Dee and Frank to a certain extent, we have to change a little bit. And certainly, the episodes are not exactly the same. That’s important to us, too: that we consistently deliver on the promise of the show. And the promise of the show is more of a tonal thing than anything else. It certainly isn’t a format. We have a lot of episodes that are completely different than the episode in the preceding week. Sometimes, fans would get really upset about that: “We want to see the same episode over and over again, because we love the characters.” Our argument to that is, “You don’t want to see the same thing over and over again.” Part of the thing that people like about Sunny is they don’t really know what to expect. That’s part of the charm.
It’s been fascinating over the last 15 to 20 years to see how much audiences come to like terrible characters who are the leads of shows, even when the shows are constantly saying, “No, these are really terrible people.” Are you ever surprised by how much affection there continues to be for the Gang?
No. When people come up and say, “Hey, you guys remind me so much of my friends,” that used to terrify me to some extent. But what I realized is that the friends they’re talking about aren’t really anything like the sociopaths on our show. What people are getting out of it is they’re recognizing that the human beings behind the characters are having a blast making the show, and we enjoy hanging out with each other, and they enjoy hanging out with their friends, and they enjoy watching the show, because it’s a group of people having fun together, even though on the surface, the characters do not like each other. You hear a lot in network, “Why are these people friends? Can you explain why they’re friends?” A show like Sunny completely subverts that paradigm. These people are the opposite of Friends. Their theme song was, “I’ll Be There For You,” that’s the thematic foundation of that show. Our show is people who will never be there for each other. So why are they friends? The solution we came up with was that no one else would be friends with them. They found each other in this sad environment. On the surface, you’re like, “These are miserable people. Why would I want to watch miserable people being miserable?” But I think there’s something you’re gaining subconsciously in watching it, that it’s clear that we are all friends in real life, we’re family members, we have children with each other. We hang out on the weekends with each other. We vacation with each other. There’s something that’s just a part of the chemistry of us that I think people identify with.
At what point did you guys start discussing the idea that Mac was gay?
It was actually born more out of his intense, ultraconservative, right-leaning principals. We always take whatever viewpoint any character has to the extreme. We have certainly mined plenty of comedy out of the extreme right and the extreme left. We were looking at Mac at one point, and I was like, “He is such an arch-arch Catholic conservative when it suits him, and when it doesn’t, he drops that.” And most of the people I know in that camp tend to be fairly homophobic. So we began going down that road: Let’s satirize that hard Christian conservative who is also intensely homophobic. OK, so what’s the next step from there? And that’s when I thought, “Let’s just make him gay.” What we realized is, if you look back over the seasons, it almost worked retroactively.
And when did you realize you not only had to make the subtext into text, but have him come out?
Very rarely do we pander to our audience. Very often, we’ll hear a lot of the fan base over the years say, “Hey, we really want to see that.” We tend to block that out. It’s not that we don’t care. That’s just such dangerous water to swim in. If you start listening to other people’s opinion of what you’re doing, or their ideas for where you should be headed, you wind up losing your vision for what you’re trying to do. However, what we found was, there was an episode where we had a running gag that Mac was in the closet and refused to come out, and everyone there knew he was gay except for him. The joke wasn’t that Mac was gay, obviously. That would have been demeaning and offensive. The joke was that he was in the closet, and he refused to come out and doubled down on his homophobia. It was just poking fun at the hypocrisy of that. At one point, my character came out and then went back in the closet at the end of the episode.
I didn’t expect it, but there was a massive outpouring from our LGBTQ fans, who were really upset. They felt like, “Oh, wow, he finally came out. We feel represented. This is a really fun and cool character.” That made them feel like it was a chance for us to do something different, and we put him back in the closet. We thought about it over the off-season, and I realized, “Man, that is a bummer. We had an opportunity there, and we screwed it up.” And we ameliorated that in the season after, where Mac winds up coming out and staying out, and the response was so overwhelmingly positive, certainly from the people that we cared about, though of course there was a negative response from a segment of the audience we didn’t care about. It felt good that we were recognizing a part of our audience in a way that was not pandering, that wasn’t offensive or upsetting or a caricature. We weren’t creating a gay character for comedic effect, that was there just to be gay and to be funny because he was gay, but a very complex, very disturbed, very fucked-up and awful character, who happens to be gay. And we ran with that.
That, in turn, allowed you to do the dance number in last season’s finale.
That was born out of a couple of things. One, always trying to surprise people and do something different. One area we tend to stay away from, because it’s such a tonal shift on the show, is really tapping into emotional resonance. It just doesn’t traditionally feel like what we’re doing thematically with the show. So we wanted to stretch and do something different. The other aspect of it was more personal. I can’t dance, have never been able to. It’s very scary to me, the thought of dancing in front of other people, and I thought it might be cool to learn how to do that. This was a great opportunity to do it. It would take a lot of work to get there. It was four months of training myself how to do that, and working with the best people in town to learn, and [getting] an incredible dancer to dance with me, and an incredible production team to light it and shoot it the way that they did. It was really just a massive challenge for all of us involved. And that, in and of itself, speaks to what we’re trying to do with Sunny every year.
It’s hard to look back at those first-season episodes and imagine this would be a show with room for that dance number or for the Nightman Cometh musical, for a lot of the crazier things you’ve done.
That’s also a question of, why are we still doing this? What’s the point of this anymore? How long can this really go? That is something we talk about with each other all the time: At what point would we stop? If we’re not forced to stop, and the network continues to order more seasons of the show, at what point do we say we’re finished? I’ve talked to a lot of creators and actors who stop shows of their own volition, and it’s mostly because, creatively, they’re tapped, or they want to move on to other things. We’ve always felt, if the audience is there, the network desire is there, and we’re still having fun and challenging ourselves and challenging the audience, then why would we ever stop? This is why I got into the business in the first place: to write and create things that are important to me. This is that opportunity. I wouldn’t want to walk away from that.
Besides Mac temporarily going back into the closet, are there any things you look back on and wish you could have done differently?
That’s tricky. Our intentions were always coming from a good place. Our intentions are never to be cruel, to be dismissive, to be mean or negative or anything like that. The nature of the show, we wanted to be positive, and oddly optimistic. And there are certain times, certain terminology we were using, that we didn’t realize at the time was derogatory or inflammatory, in a way that made us seem like bullies as a television series. Whether or not that was the intent is irrelevant to the person who is sitting there watching it and saying, “Oh, my favorite TV show is making fun of me.” Those are the kinds of wrongs we try to right retroactively. And there’s a few of those. But beyond that, I think every mistake we made, it’s hard to say I would have done anything different.
At the time Season 12 ended, it seemed unclear whether Glenn would return to the show at all, given his new role on A.P. Bio. Instead, he wound up being in nearly all of Season 13. Can you do this show if all five of you aren’t in it for a long stretch?
What we learned in that season is that it’s either all of us, or it’s over. We tried to make it work, but save for that final episode, which was a bit of an outlier because of the five-minute contemporary dance at the end, the show just doesn’t work as well. Yes, we can get away with it, but that is when it becomes us doing it for the wrong reasons. And the wrong reason would be if we’re not all in. The second that one person says, “I’m done,” then it really is done. We haven’t hit that point. Glenn’s scheduling thing, we were able to work out to some extent, but in so many ways, the episodes he was not in were, to us, creative failures.
How do you feel about the possibility of passing Ozzie and Harriet in a year?
I find it wonderfully ironic. Now, to be fair to all the good people involved in the Ozzie and Harriet show, they did so many more episodes! I mean, hundreds more episodes than we did. That said, they did an entire episode of buying a new coffee table, and that filled up 30 minutes. We’re just not that kind of show. I’m proud — not compared to other shows — I’m proud of the work that we do, and that we are able to continue it year after year. And I’m humbled that people are still willing to come on that journey with us.
At some point, do you feel you have to more directly confront the question of whether Dennis is a serial killer? Or have you gone as close as you’re comfortable?
I think we’re about as close to it as we all feel comfortable. We’re probably toeing a line that we have to be really careful about. Again, we recognize, I don’t think you can have Episode One or Season One of a TV series where you can introduce a character like that for laughs. The audience just isn’t in a place where they feel comfortable enough. It’s like somebody walks into a party, and you’ve never met them, and they walk up to you and tell you a joke. You’re going to get an uncomfortable laugh, but it’s going to feel like a bizarre situation. Whereas someone you’ve known for 10 years tells you the same joke, there’s just more context and you’re more ready to receive it. That’s kind of where we are with these characters. As long as we stay true to the tone of the show and don’t sell the characters out, the audience will go along with us. Again, because they trust us, and they trust where we’ve taken them before and where we take them in the future.
When do you feel you reached the point where you could start even hinting that some of the Gang’s problems went much deeper than they at first seemed?
It was a feedback loop that we started getting. It’s hard to wrap our heads around it now, because social media is so prevalent in the culture. When the show first came out, for the first five or six years, there was no way to tell how people felt about it. There were a couple of message boards, but no one did that en masse. You could kind of tell from the Nielsen ratings, but even that is really flawed. And you could tell anecdotally when people would scream at you from their car or approach you on the street. Also, remember that people didn’t have cameras in their phones, so they weren’t trying to take photos with you. Occasionally, you’d have somebody come up to you drunk in a bar, but you couldn’t really tell what people’s true responses to the show were. And then, to launch Season Five, we did a live show where we performed The Nightman Cometh. First we did it at the Troubador, this small theater in L.A. for two nights, and the first night, we walk out on stage, and people are reciting the lines of dialogue from beginning to end. People had memorized the entire episode. That was the first time that people were like, “What the fuck is going on?” And at the afterparty, people said they had seen the episode 25 times. And we began to realize it was a weird Rocky Horror Picture Show-type cult following we had. And that was year five. By that point, we realized we were starting to get some feedback that people were excited about us going in certain directions. And then what we found was, certain things would catch on that we didn’t intend, that we just thought were throwaway jokes, and those were the things people would latch onto.
I can’t go a day on social media without someone posting a GIF from the scene where Charlie is talking about Pepe Silvia and Carol. Are there particular jokes where you’re surprised by the afterlife they’ve had?
Without a doubt. Certainly, as meme culture started to become prevalent, I don’t go a week without somebody forwarding something where somebody used a meme of one of us to express themselves about any given hot-button issue of the rage cycle. When you realize you hit the zeitgeist is when you have someone who’s never heard of Sunny using those memes. They know the meme, but they don’t know where it came from. There’s a bunch of those. Certainly, the Pepe Silvia thing with Charlie, that’s a big one. I was just dealing with this last night — the Cats trailer came out, I must have had 400 or 500, a thousand people contacting me with various things from The Nightman Cometh, with me wearing these cat eyes. I don’t know why certain things catch on, but they do.
Finally, without getting into spoilers, what should viewers expect from Season 14?
It’s more of the same! And by more of the same, hopefully there’s a lot of episodes that will satisfy exactly what people like about the show, and will also enrage some people. I really do think that’s part of my job. I am subverting the expectation of our core base on a consistent basis. Whether they want to believe it or not, that’s part of what they like about the show, is that they might turn it on, and instead of laughing, they might have to watch a four-and-a-half-minute-long contemporary dance scene in which Mac expresses himself. You might scream at the TV in anger and rage, because it’s ruining your show, but I promise that that is why you like the show. Because you don’t know what you’re going to get.