Written by Dylan Callaghan
Rob McElhenney had never even had a recurring role on a TV show, much less been a showrunner, until he and his acting pals Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton, sold their stridently dark comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to FX. In a story far too cookie-cutter for his own show, McElhenney was literally a struggling actor waiting tables at a Westside bistro when he and his mates conspired to shoot two short films based around their idea for a show.
They took those films to every network they could, got rejections and quite a few offers with conditions, and ultimately picked FX. Overnight, McElhenney became not only an actor with a steady gig, but a showrunner.
“I was definitely -- I don’t want to say ready in a technical way -- but I was certainly ready to not wait tables,” he says. “What I lacked in know-how I made up for with the drive that I would do anything, work as hard as I could, to make it work and to not have to go back there,” he adds of his waiting job as if mentioning something so horrific, it shall not be named.
McElhenney spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about the show, which also stars Danny DeVito and Kaitlin Olsen, why much of Sunny’s comedy stems from frustration and anger over what people won’t talk about in today’s culture, and why, to him, a laugh track is offensive.
This show has been described as Curb Your Enthusiasm on crack. How do you describe it to people who’ve never seen it?
I don’t like describing things in terms of other things, you know what I mean?
That’s a bad habit in Hollywood.
It’s certainly a TV show, and it’s a comedy. It’s about five degenerate assholes who own and operate a bar in Philadelphia. But to me it’s as similar to Seinfeld and Curb as it is to South Park or Mary Tyler Moore or The Cosby Show. I don’t see those comparisons as much as some other people do I guess because I spend so much time working on it.
How much did the tone of your original concept change during the pitching and shooting of the show?
The tone has not changed from the original conception when it was just a short film. But some of the specifics have changed. Originally, we shot it with the characters living in Los Angeles because that’s where we were living and we didn’t have any money. But once the show got picked up -- it was a time when a lot of shows were based in Los Angeles... right around the time Entourage came out and the Lisa Kudrow show and Joey -- we just thought we should put it somewhere else. We tried to think of an interesting place to set it that had never been seen before and that was Philly.
Photo: © 2008 FX
Rob McElhenney (l-r), Charlie Day, and Glenn Howerton in It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia.
So you shot this short film independently and that’s how you pitched the show?
Yeah, we actually shot two of them.
So when you say the show is about five assholes, what is that about in terms of comedic tone? Why did you want it to be dark and crude, even in a satiric, absurd way?
We wanted to do something that we weren’t seeing on TV. In the basic format of sitcom television there are certain things that you can’t be too original about: it has to be 22 minutes and fit into a time slot. But we wanted to tell stories that were a little off, something that you weren’t used to seeing and something that my friends and people like us would think was funny.
What is offensive to me is completely different than what’s offensive to you or other people. I don’t look at the show as offensive. I think a lot of people do, and that’s fine. There are tons of shows on different networks I find offensive for various different reasons.
Well, to me, I find anything with fake laughter offensive. You’re basically putting a product out there and you’re lying. Anything that doesn’t face the truth of reality is offensive to me. I find it interesting when people say, “You did an episode making fun of abortion, and that’s offensive.” To me, what’s offensive is acting like abortion isn’t a very real aspect of our society -- pretending it doesn’t exist, not being able to say the word and sweeping it under the rug. I find that offensive.
Ultimately, if people pay attention, we’re not making fun of abortion or people that have abortions, or people who are pro-life or pro-choice, we’re just addressing the fact that this is part of our culture. Anything that’s part of your culture has to be joked about -- there has to be humor found in these situations.
So you feel like there’s something important revealed in that humor?
I don’t know if important is the right word, but certainly cathartic. I spend a lot of time reading the newspapers and getting frustrated and pissed off at the state of our culture. Sometimes I feel like this kind of comedy can help -- not make fun of those situations -- but bring a kind of levity to the subject that can introduce conversation. If we can make light of some of these situations, then we can at least talk about them, which I think is one of the biggest problems in this country -- people aren’t talking about certain things, certain subjects aren’t allowed to be discussed, and I just feel like that’s bullshit.
How much did the process of shooting those two shorts ease and quicken your process as a writer once the show got picked up? How much had you already worked out a lot of foundation issues and tonal issues having written and shot those two short films?
Because we had already executed it, it definitely had answered a lot of questions before the shooting of the pilot. It’s something that we’re wrestling with on our new show [the pilot Boldly Going Nowhere for Fox] because we haven’t fully executed it, there are still a lot of things up in the air. Until you actually see it being acted, you don’t know necessarily if what’s on the page is gonna work. With Sunny, we had the advantage of already knowing it was going to work.
But, at the time, none of us -- I certainly didn’t have any experience writing in television. I was waiting tables at the time, so when I started showrunning, it was a bit of a shock because it happened so fast.