It’s okay to laugh at It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s musical trainwreck

It’s okay to laugh at It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s musical trainwreck

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that deal with a central theme. The next four installments focus on episodes with musical sequences.

“The Nightman Cometh” (It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia; season four, episode 13, originally aired 11/20/08)

In which Charlie directs two flops

Donna Bowman: We’re five picks into this musical Roundtable, and categories are starting to develop in the episodes we’re watching. Noel started us off with a snob who gets his comeuppance when his performance falls apart. Phil’s pick, “’Tis The Season” from Ally McBeal, features (among others) a songstress who is similarly convinced of her superior talent, but who is given the chance to shine instead of being taken down a peg. The other two selections—from Daria and 7th Heaven—fall into a completely different category. Their characters awkwardly, apologetically, sometimes gamely, bluff their way through songs without pretending to have any particular expertise.

So it felt extra-refreshing to return to a show that encourages viewers to laugh at the characters and their musical pretensions. The underlying joke of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia has always been the utter confidence of the gang as they embark on schemes not only harebrained, but usually reprehensible and sometimes criminal. Their moral compasses seem to be like stopped watches, accidentally pointing them in the right direction on irregular occasions. With unfailing gullibility and a misplaced belief in their own competence, however, they bumble on. No, bumble implies a certain stately pace. These idiots always sprint toward disaster, and that breakneck velocity is part of the reason Sunny can pile up the laughs so effectively.

Take the way “The Nightman Cometh” cuts right from its cold open, which establishes and casts doubt on the premise that Charlie has written a musical for the hell of it (“Whose face are we shoving this into?” asks Dee; “Who versus? Who is this versus?” Mac insists), to the rehearsal where Mac and Dennis fight over who has the biggest and baddest-ass part. The comedy rests in how convinced they are that this will be awesome—and in how Charlie, usually the unpredictable and awkwardly destructive “wildcard,” is the only one who sees the epic trainwreck approaching. His songs about a princess in love with the innocent child inside the man, and about evil forces of darkness scheming to take that innocent soul, come out pervy when his friends get a hold of them. (Although to be fair, while Frank’s inability to sing the lyric “boy’s soul” without it sounding like “You want this baby boy’s hole / You gotta pay the troll toll” isn’t Charlie’s fault, “Tiny boy / Little boy / Want to make love to you” never had a chance at being the metaphor Charlie claimed.)

While Dennis and Mac live out their fantasies of stardom onstage, breaking character and muttering as they try to upstage each other (“I’m gonna kick your ass, bro!” “I am the Dayman!” “Whatever, bro!”), Charlie is the one who commits fully to the performance—because it’s actually an elaborate and clearly doomed proposal to his stalkee, The Waitress, whom he has lured to the theater by promising to stop bothering her. He’s the Frasier of this episode, gamely soldiering on through epic disaster. But his failure is only partly his responsibility; it’s his wacky plan, certainly, but the people to whom he entrusts it substitute their own egos and interpretations for his well-intentioned (but actually super-creepy) message.

So the question before us, midway through this slate of music-filled television, is this: Into what position do we want to be placed as an audience? When it comes to watching characters sing or play music, displaying their talent or lack thereof, deluding themselves or earning applause, how do we want to feel? I’m clearly more comfortable pointing and sniggering at arrogant jerks whom I can see aren’t as good as they think they are than I am giving the benefit of the doubt to poor slobs just doing their best. But some of you expressed reservations about the whole “laughing at” thing, about humiliation comedy. Does it make a difference that these jerks deserve it more than Frasier? Or do you prefer being asked to give the show and its characters the courtesy of a friendly listen, even when they’re way outside their comfort zone or ability level?

Ryan McGee: I’m not the biggest It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia fan in the world, though it’s hardly a love-or-hate thing. It’s really a hit-or-miss thing, with the show’s manic energy sometimes laser-like in focus and other times devolving into 22 minutes of screaming. The musical isn’t different from most of the schemes ineffectually executed on the show, but it does provide an emotional throughline that makes this iteration hang together. Talking about “emotional throughlines” when it comes to It’s Always Sunny seems ridiculous, but Charlie’s arc in this episode does keep the endeavor from spinning into utter anarchy.

As to your questions, Donna: What I found funniest in this episode is how skilled the actors are at portraying onstage incompetence. It’s really hard to nail those cringe-worthy moments that we’ve all seen in amateur theater, but the moment where Dennis “subtly” reaches for the gun is a pitch-perfect re-creation of that all too real occurrence. Cringe comedy isn’t entirely in my wheelhouse, and I generally enjoy watching this crew fail at every scheme they concoct. But there are plenty of times within the play itself that I found myself wishing these people, for once, would actually run away from their primary impulses and actually succeed. I’m not sure Charlie deserves to have The Waitress accept his proposal, nor should Mac’s karate moves actually inspire awe. But this specific trainwreck in this specific instance made me hope for some modicum of success.

All of this calls into question why I feel this way, and I wonder if it has something to do with musical theater itself. The titular play is a debacle, but it’s an earnest debacle. Does the fact that Charlie puts his feelings into musical form somehow excuse his stalker behavior? Absolutely not. And yet, while I knew The Waitress was going to say “no,” I kept willing Charlie to just… stop… singing already. Affecting the outcome of a TV episode that aired five years ago is pretty much the definition of insanity, but there I was. It makes me think about the power of music in general, and why we’ve had such a varied response to the types of episodes we’ve discussed this far. Music isn’t a perfect expression of self, but it’s an expression that’s so nakedly emotional that I think we want to root for the person singing to hit that perfect note. Even if that note lasts for a fleeting moment, we still get to hang on to it for far longer. There’s a lot of dissonance in “The Nightman Cometh” (and in It’s Always Sunny in general), but there’s an occasionally pure note that keeps me from dismissing these horrible people outright.

Noel Murray: One of my most vivid memories from high-school drama class is the time that we were trying to rehearse a scene that was being directed by one of our classmates, and were being held up by a lead actress who was overly emotional due to some recent romantic woes. The director first tried being sympathetic, like a peer, but when the actress (who wasn’t friendly with the director in everyday high-school life) spurned the open-arms approach, the director hardened up and said, “Then get your personal shit off my stage!”

My point is that that it’s hard to put on a show, and even harder when the people you’re working with have completely different priorities from yours. One of the reasons I think It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia has maintained such a consistently high comic level for so many years—and I say this as someone who thinks that this most recent season was one of the show’s funniest—is because the show has a setup as classic as Krazy Kat. Each episode brings a new wacky adventure, which each character throws him or herself into fully—until said adventure either conflicts with what they really want to be doing or until their natural laziness takes over. That’s what makes this episode work: Charlie is playing the part of the writer-director to the hilt, using all of the lingo (“Take a five!”) while his buddies play along only inasmuch as it strokes their egos or allows them ample goofing-off time. (“Technically, that wasn’t five minutes,” Dennis complains.)

The MVP of “The Nightman Cometh,” in my estimation, is Danny DeVito, who gamely belts out Frank’s songs, while wearing heavy troll makeup. (Because who else would be the troll?) Frank actually embodies the spirit of what Charlie is looking for: a guy who does what he’s asked, eagerly, if somewhat sloppily. And actually, that’s a good way to describe the appeal of It’s Always Sunny, too: eager and sloppy. The show itself has a “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!” origin story, thrown together by some actor buddies looking to create their own opportunities rather than waiting for Hollywood to cough up the perfect parts for them, and while It’s Always Sunny has gotten tighter and slicker over the years, it’s never fully lost its DIY quality. Just think about “The Nightman Cometh,” which features an original score, costumes, sets, and a room full of extras, far beyond what the average low-budget cable sitcom would attempt. Sure it’s all kind of shoddy; but that only adds to the can-do charm of it all.

Phil Dyess-Nugent: I think I might be the only person in the world who actively dislikes this show. It can be an alienating viewing experience if you don’t find every minute of it hilarious. The cast members give you the feeling that they think they’re so hilarious that it’s all they can do to make it through a take without breaking up, in spite of the fact that their comic resources are limited to calling each other idiots, repeating what someone just said, reiterating whatever they themselves just said, and becoming incredulous at how weird things seem to be getting. And although there’s a centuries-old tradition of building comedy around despicable characters, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia seems so blissfully unaware of this that the show can’t get over its own daring at presenting the exploits of a bunch of cretins. It would be nice if they had scripts, too, but I get the impression it’s supposed to just be funny that they’re such cretins. There’s actually no better motto for this show that Mac’s line here as he’s about to go onstage: “Laughs are cheap. I’m going for gasps.”

When you have this kind of trouble getting on a show’s wavelength, watching an episode can become like studying a documentary about the social rites of some distant tribe. What the hell do they think they’re doing? This is an especially fruitful episode to watch in this spirit, because the mechanics of deciphering Charlie’s twisted love poem—a grisly act of self-exposure that he thinks he’s rendered into a romantic, fairy-tale enchantment—and how it gets further butchered at the hands of his friends is mixed up with the process of deciphering what the writer-actors think they’re doing. For instance, there’s the scene where Frank can’t sing about offering access to “the boy’s soul”: There’s a solid comic idea here, based on the common observation that we’ve all misheard song lyrics at some point. (I spent 20 years thinking that Handsome Kevin, the drug dealer in David & David’s “Welcome To The Boomtown,” who “always listens to the ground,” was a Foreigner fan who was always listening to Lou Gramm.) And it would make sense if poor, semi-literate Charlie couldn’t help but write lyrics that are almost impossible to deliver clearly. But what we hear is DeVito clearly pronouncing the word “hole” instead of “soul,” there being no real way to sing the line as written so that it sounds like the other thing. It opens up all kinds of questions of motivation: Is Frank, in spite of his show of wanting to do right by Charlie, deliberately sabotaging the work? Or is he such a perv that he cannot help but go to the dark side? I suspect that it’s just that nobody felt like spending 10 minutes trying to come up with a different line Frank could mangle.

Genevieve Koski: What I’ve always loved about Charlie as a character is how his incoherence hovers just on the edge of coherence; his ideas and schemes are just a few misfired neurons away from being almost reasonable, or at least explicable, which is why it’s so funny to see how they devolve into madness. The idea of winning The Waitress’ affections through a grand gesture is theoretically very romantic—in a very childlike, naïve sense—but it becomes psychotic when taking into consideration Charlie’s history of stalking her, as well as how utterly distasteful and inept the gesture turns out to be. And the building blocks of his musical are familiar ones—a princess, star-crossed lovers, evil personified, and, uh, trolls?—but Charlie’s mind has arranged those blocks into a crude, misshapen phallus. Even through all the lunacy and offensiveness, we can always kinda see what Charlie intended, which is why Charlie is so often the funniest, and most sympathetic, character on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.

The Nightman Cometh, the play-within-the-episode, is an extension of two songs Charlie wrote in the first-season episode “Sweet Dee’s Dating A Retarded Person,” called, appropriately, “The Nightman” and “The Dayman.” Extrapolating the lyrics of those songs—the former of which heavily implies that Charlie was molested as a child, a recurring “gag” on It’s Always Sunny—it’s not hard to see the autobiographical impetus behind Charlie’s musical. (This is why everyone assumes the Nightman in fact rapes the “little boy,” in spite of Charlie’s protestations.) It’s so easy to pinpoint the real motivation behind Charlie’s schemes, it’s extra absurd that he thinks he’s fooling anyone other than himself, and the conviction with which he argues otherwise is hilarious, as in that opening scene where he repeatedly rejects the idea that his musical is in fact a con.

Charlie’s continually escalating aggravation with the rest of the gang as they systematically torpedo his project is very funny, and allows Charlie Day plenty of opportunity to indulge in some signature yell-comedy. (His freakout at Dee’s suggestion that she won’t sing one of his songs is a terrifying highlight.) But it’s also just a little sad to watch his dream go down in flames, however nightmarishly conceived it may have been. Despite his claims to the contrary, this musical isn’t just a lark for Charlie; it’s personal, and he has a lot riding on it. And the fact that the rest of the gang either doesn’t recognize that, or, more accurately, doesn’t care, is a little bit heartbreaking.

Just a little bit heartbreaking, mind you; Charlie’s intentions and actions are twisted enough that he’ll never be a fully sympathetic character. But It’s Always Sunny has been reliably good about doling out the formative tragedies that have influenced its characters’ reprehensible behavior, keeping them from fully being the garish cartoons they sometimes threaten to become (and which you apparently see them as, Phil). In the end, we laugh at Charlie as he makes a fool of himself in front of his friends, his audience, and The Waitress, but we laugh because we understand.

Erik Adams: Though the mid-performance scenes merely require Mary Elizabeth Ellis to sustain a mask of disbelief, it’s so, so important to “The Nightman Cometh” to strand The Waitress among the braying masses. On one count, the twist depends on her attendance. (Charlie’s accelerated ungluing throughout the rehearsal process makes a time-delayed comedic impact when the musical’s intentions come to light.) On another, she’s there as straightwoman and audience surrogate, the grounding force that knows The Nightman Cometh wasn’t intended as comedy (or a star vehicle for any of its cast members), all too familiar with the loose screws responsible for this fiasco. She’s horrified so that we don’t have to be.

But one of the facets that I most enjoyed about this episode is that the discomfort stems only from the content of the play and the way the gang mishandles it. Ryan praised the cast’s “skilled incompetence”; I’d add that it’s much easier to get swept up in Charlie’s waking nightmare because the actors playing his cast can actually carry a tune. This isn’t a question of the unprepared and the untalented hacking their way through the American songbook: The music’s catchy and Glenn Howerton and Kaitlin Olson have passable singing voices. There’s solid ground beneath the gang’s undue confidence—and “The Nightman Cometh” is most certainly a comedy of undue confidence. Charlie’s musical puts his friends in the opposite position of the one Frasier finds himself in during “Look Before You Leap”: The bluster doesn’t deflate once the piano cues up. It carries through in Mac’s karate chops and Dennis’ glam-rock pomp, and the space between what they think they’re doing and what’s actually coming across is where the comedy lives. It’s fitting that the only person aside from The Waitress who can see through all that bullshit is Charlie. Maybe they are meant to be together. (Note: They are not meant to be together.)

Todd VanDerWerff: It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is never one of my favorite shows, except for the four or five weeks per season when it becomes my favorite show on TV. I share a lot of Phil’s concerns: I have trouble with wacky comedies about complete shits, and I agree with Ryan’s “hit-or-miss” assessment. But I keep watching because, when the show hits, there are few shows I find as funny. And for me, “The Nightman Cometh” is a big, big hit.

I think what’s key here is something that Genevieve mentioned: There’s a certain core of human emotion at the center of every one of these characters, a real-life trauma that fucked them up but good, and when the show keeps that in its sights, I find it easier to laugh at the show, because I know it wants me to laugh with (people who are spiraling as quickly as they can away from that trauma) rather than at (people who have had these things happen to them). Which is a high-falutin’ way to look at a very funny episode of television—but, hey, that’s what I get paid for.

“The Nightman Cometh” ultimately works for me because it’s a hyper-personal cry from somewhere inside of Charlie’s psyche that suggests a version of this guy that might be able to get past whatever happened to him in childhood, if he’d just put his nose to the grindstone and do the tough work of getting to the core of what’s made him so damaged. I’m not recommending the show actually do this, because that would ruin everything that’s funny about it. But in comedy, at least for me, there needs to be the suggestion of a world where this person is a functional human being. I get that in spades in “The Nightman Cometh,” for all of the characters, and that makes it one of my favorite It’s Always Sunny episodes.

Stray observations:

I can’t tell if the elderly audience is being polite, or simply doesn’t understand 90 percent of what it sees. [RM]

Of course Frank knows a guy who can obtain feline contact lenses. [RM]

One of my favorite recurring It’s Always Sunny motifs is the idea that Charlie is something of an idiot savant: a guy who’s functionally illiterate, yet capable of writing songs that are appealingly Sondheim-esque, married to high-falutin’ dialogue like, “Confound your toll!” [NM]

Best line of the episode? I’m going with: “I will slap your face off of your face.” [NM]

Am I right in thinking that the repressed-gay subtext attached to Mac’s character is a fairly recent development? Because I think it might have started with his onstage entrance here. His hand movements in particular seem to reveal a thorough knowledge of the work of Bob Fosse. [PDN]

With the obvious exception of Danny DeVito, none of the people involved in Sunny really seem to have careers outside the show, and I have my own, Occam’s Razor-style theory about why this may be so. I have seen Charlie Day in a couple of movie roles, where he did pretty much the same hysterical-strangled-voice shtick he pile-drivers into the ground here. But I missed it when he hosted Saturday Night Live. Anybody know if he talked any differently then, or, in fact, anyplace? I’d love to hear that, when he’s not being “funny,” he sounds like Basil Rathbone or Teddy Pendergrass. [PDN]

Considering how the rest of the gang just goes ahead and does what they want with their characters in spite of Charlie’s direction, I’m kind of surprised Frank didn’t end up naked onstage. [GK]

Two bits of physical comedy in this episode that I will never not crack up at: Charlie backwards-jumping from behind the SUV to startle The Waitress, and Dee trying and failing to raise her arms in her too-tight costume during the final musical number. I have a shirt with too-small armholes that I still wear because it gives me the opportunity to re-enact the latter moment every time I put it on. [GK]

“Oh, a free ticket to a play I don’t want to see?” As someone with a lot of struggling-actor friends and a theater-critic roommate, I’ve found myself sharing The Waitress’ non-enthusiasm here many times. [GK]

I dunno, Phil. I watched this on Netflix with the captions on, and even though they said “boy’s hole” every time Frank sang, I heard DeVito slur the words together just enough to suggest that the sounds at the end and beginning of the two got blended together into one unintelligible mush. It worked for me. [TV]

It’s kind of cool to me that we’re going to have two musical moments featuring Danny DeVito, two weeks in a row. [TV]

Next week: DeVito takes off the troll makeup and joins The Sunshine Cab Company Men’s Choir in Erik Adams’ pick, Taxi’s “Substitute Father.” After that, Ryan McGee directs the Sacred Heart Singers as they learn “Everything Comes Down To Poo” (and other important life lessons) in Scrubs’ “My Musical.” (The first is available on YouTube; the second can be found on Netflix and Amazon.)