If for no other reason, I’d be grateful to the gang of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia for being on my side in an unendingly contentious argument.
Anything can be funny—if it’s funny.
Of course, I’m assuming that everyone’s funny is my funny, and that’s presumptuous—and ridiculous. But this debate has been one of the central controversies in comedy since people started telling jokes and, as a lifelong comedy fan/geek, there’s never been an issue more important. I maintain that there’s no subject off limits for a joke—as long as it’s funny. Deliberately working on the comedy edge is risky business, fraught with the dangers only an outraged Internet commentariat can muster—so if you’re gonna bring it, you’d better be funny, and smart, and equipped with balls of brass, and an immunity to those with no sense of irony and an Internet connection.
Which is why I’m as impressed as I am with It’s Always Sunny, which continually presents a world populated by the worst people in the world without itself being a haven for the worst, crudest, most yahoo-friendly comedy in the world. Sustaining such a satirical balancing act for eight years should earn creators Rob McElhenney and Glenn Howerton (and their co-stars) a place in the comedy pantheon. Especially since tonight’s ninth-season première, “The Gang Broke Dee,” confidently reasserts that there are real laughs to be earned from the spectacle of committed, heartless cruelty.
As the episode begins, Dee is slouched over a table at Paddy’s, disheveled and tousled, smoking, swilling Wild Turkey, and scarfing down a cake that Charlie asserts he’d thrown in the trash a month earlier. (Dennis’ offhand description of “trash cake,” like that’s a real thing, is the sort of loony specificity the show excels at.) The assembled guys unsurprisingly begin with the mockery, only to be crestfallen when Dee listlessly predicts their every insult, her realization that “the joke is always on me” allowing her near-clairvoyant abuse-anticipation skills. (“You know what you look like?” “Like a bird lady, covered in bird shit, eating cake?” “Wait… slow down.”) Shambling home, Dee leaves the guys baffled and unfulfilled, with the derision equivalent of blue balls. Mac—“Don’t apologize, that’s just sad. Fight back at us!”
Well, all that energy has to go somewhere, and the gang bursts into Dee’s unlocked apartment with a two-pronged plan to help her out. Naturally, there are ignoble elements to the dueling plans (Mac, Frank, and Charlie plan to book her at an open mic night because she’s bumming them out and her complete lack of hope will prevent her from choking onstage, while Dennis wants to find her a man to take her “off [their] hands forever”), but it’s the thought that counts. Dee, utterly without agency at this point, accedes to both plans, thus setting off the expected splintering of self-interests as Dennis seeks to undermine Dee’s confidence in the wake of her inexplicably marginally successful set at a comedy club, urging her instead to settle for the collection of “average, if not below-average” men he rustles up.
As soon as Dee gets her first taste of approbation, she gets that old fire back, meaning she spurns Dennis and his matchmaking plan with maximum contempt (and her new schtick, a series of “funny noises” that would make Michael Winslow imitate the sound of blowing off his own head, then spinning in his grave). This naturally sends Dennis into overdrive trying to foist his chosen “select,” an oafish nonentity named Walt (“Just like Dee, he has no self esteem—they’re perfect for each other”) on her, even as she takes the stage opening for headlining comic Landslide (“He mostly does diarrhea jokes,” explains Frank). And it’s here that the real brilliance of It’s Always Sunny comes into play, as the show shifts our sympathies from one member of the gang to another, only to return to the realization that we were dumbasses for allowing ourselves to feel for any of these characters in the first place. The status quo that is re-established by the end of any episode is that these are truly awful people whose unvarying, insatiable selfishness makes the “no hugging, no learning” crew from Seinfeld seem like the Brady family in comparison.
What makes the It’s Always Sunny gang tolerable, if not delightful, (apart from the fact that they’re played by very funny people) is commitment, their bottomless willingness to follow their selfish, oddball schemes to the last extremity in pursuit of even modest gain. It’s this monomaniacal self-absorption that leads to the episode’s final Sting-worthy twist. [SPOILER!]—Dee’s meteoric rise in the comedy scene, supplanting even Landslide, and getting a fill-in spot on Conan, is completely explicable after all, as Frank, Charlie, and Mac constructed an elaborate scheme (involving a rented jet, bought-out comedy club, customized T-shirts, and dozens of extras, one of whom had sex with Dee as part of the gag), all in order to get Dee out of her funk. Because they were worried about her? Naw, it’s, as Charlie says, because she was “being all mopey and annoying and stuff,” and because, as Mac explains to her, “You were joking about suicide, and there are some things you don’t joke about.”
As the re-energized Dee screeches off, destroying things in her customarily outraged wake, Mac, Frank, and Charlie, alongside their bar-full of accomplices, share a glass of champagne, cheering their success, even as Dennis, equally crushed that he was also the butt of their joke, unleashes a Joker-like cackle, trying to assert he was in on the gag even as he stumbles out into the street. Surmising that the gang “may have broke Dennis,” Mac chuckles, “He might go kill himself!”
Yup. Anything can be funny. It’s good to have the gang back.
- This is really Kaitlin Olson’s episode, with Dee’s rise and fall providing her the opportunity for some outstanding physical comedy. Her dry heaves remain a thing of beauty.
- For anyone looking for a contrast between It’s Always Sunny’s “terrible people doing the worst thing possible” comedy and a show (also starring Kaitlin Olson) which panders to the basest elements of that premise, watch Brickleberry. I can’t explain my argument any more clearly than that.
- Frank’s wealth enables the gang’s usually petty cruelty to cross the line in this episode to something like cartoonish supervillany—and I like it.
- That’s Breaking Bad’s Huell (Lavell Crawford) as Landslide.
- Despite being on the sideline for most of the episode, Charlie Day continues as the show’s secret weapon, his Charlie imbued with an energy that’s from… somewhere else. His reading of the line, “Did you kill yourself, Dee?” has more contradictory levels than I can count.
- Dennis’ desperate, manic attempt to prove he was in on the joke the whole time (“I was and I wasn’t!”) sounds a lot like Charlie.
- Dee’s pattern with men, according to Dennis—“Use, use, use, fail, fail, fail, and then it’s suicide.”
- Trying to convince Dee that she should follow her stand-up comedy dream, Charlie explains, “You’re right in that sweet spot between suicidal and actually dead which—most comedians, they thrive there.”
- Unsuccessfully defending her decision to sleep with a schlubby talent scout (Borat’s Ken Davitian), Dee explains, “Well, he’s got… all of his… skin still.”
- All right, Sunny fans, I’m your new reviewer. Looking forward to many “reasonable discussions” in the comments.