Since debuting in August 2005, the FX series It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia has developed a devoted fan base, drawn to the sitcom's grubby style, zippy pace, deadpan absurdity, and willingness to risk tastelessness in the name of following through on a gag. The show, about amoral, bar-owning bums, launches its fourth season on September 18. Recently, the three men who created, write, and star in It's Always Sunny spoke with The A.V. Club about collaborating on comedy, determining how far is too far, and modifying their career paths in the wake of the news that FX has ordered 39 more episodes on top of the 13 set to air this season.
The A.V. Club: How far along into the new season are you?
Glenn Howerton: About halfway. We're pulling triple-duty right now, which is a little bit insane. We're in the middle of writing and shooting and editing all at once. So there's a little bit of insanity over here. But it's all good, man. It's all really good stuff. The season's coming together, and it's lookin' great.
Rob McElhenney: This is definitely the hardest fuckin' year we've ever had to do of the show.
AVC: Why is everything so compressed? Because of the strike?
RM: It was a perfect storm. The strike definitely condensed us, so we started later. And we're also up against Thursday-night football this year, which is kind of our core audience, you know. Males in their 20s and 30s. So we had to hit a certain airdate, before football started. But we couldn't make September 4, and September 11 was the next date, and… yeah, that's not a very good date to première a comedy. [Laughs.] September 18 was the last day that we could start airing before we started butting up against football. So we had this brief window of opportunity to get the season started. Plus Danny DeVito is directing and producing this huge Morgan Freeman and Pierce Brosnan movie, and our co-star Kaitlin [Olson] broke a bone in her lower vertebrae, so we had to shut down for a couple weeks. And here we are.
AVC: Have you had any conflicts with DeVito's schedule before?
RM: No, this is the first year where we've come into an issue, because it usually doesn't take very long for us to shoot. We're kind of in and out.
AVC: Does DeVito play any kind of creative role, aside from showing up on the set and doing his part?
RM: No. That's pretty much it. He's just an actor on the show.
AVC: Do the three of you tend to come into the writers' room with fully fleshed-out ideas, or do you just kick around premises and see where they take you?
Charlie Day: A lot of times, we go into the room cold and talk about what we could do an episode about, and start putting up note cards. Other times, someone might have a particular idea that they came to work with that day, and they'll say, "Hey, I want to riff on this for a little while." Sometimes I'll be just listening to NPR in the morning, and they'll be talking about North Korea, or the gas crisis, and I'll say, "We should work this into one of our episodes." Other times, we'll be sitting in a room and saying, "You know, poop's funny." [Laughs.]
GH: Sometimes there will be a million note cards on the board that we never end up using, because we can never seem to fit them into a story. And sometimes we go as far as to write the first draft of a story and then realize that the entire storyline isn't working. Then we have to re-break it and rewrite the whole thing. Then when we get down on the stage and actually start shooting, we do a tremendous amount of rewriting on the day we shoot. [Laughs.] Which should be obvious if you watch the show.
AVC: The dialogue does seem pretty off-the-cuff.
GH: It is. We try to put a lot of focus on making sure that every character has a strong force that's driving them to do the things that they do. When you have a clear idea of what your character is trying to accomplish, it makes it a lot easier to riff on things.
AVC: Are you responsible for your own character, or do you all write for each other? CD: We all write for each other. You're responsible for your own character to a degree, because when it comes to the final draft of the script, you might say, "Well, I think maybe I could add this here, add that there." But I find that I write just as well for the other characters as I do for myself. I think. AVC: As the show's gone along, the characters have gotten more and more well-defined. You've added backstory and character traits, like the way Charlie's character isn't just the dumb guy who does all the hard work, but also some kind of strange musical savant.
CD: Well, you know, I don't think anyone who writes a television series has a master plan from the beginning, and knows all the character traits, and everything that's going to happen. We wanted to do an episode where we write music, or have a band, and so we said, "Well, what's the best way to service that? One of the characters should have some musical ability. Wouldn't it be funny if, maybe the guy who seems the most hopeless actually has a ray of light, a talent?" Although not much of a talent. [Laughs.]
AVC: Oh, come on. Don't sell yourself short.
CD: Wait 'til this season. There'll be some more music coming. There's a musical on the way. Charlie's opus. And the gang performs it.
RM: I think the more depth you build into the characters, and the more you see where they came from, the more fun you can have. Setting up different characters in different relationships is always helpful as you move forward.
AVC: Which characters do you think play best off each other?
RM: Dennis and Charlie, really.
RM: I don't know. [Day and Howerton are] just unbelievable actors, and they're also really good friends. They have great chemistry onscreen. It's really fun to write a scene for them and watch what they do to it.
AVC: Have you been surprised by the way your careers have evolved, going from actors to writer-actors? And not only that, but comic writer-actors?
CD: Oh, very surprised. Maybe in the back of my head I had aspirations, but no immediate goals. When it started happening, it was a little bit of a shock to the system. Now I find that the majority of the year, I don't spend acting. I spend it either writing or editing or producing, or putting things together. So it's as shocking as it is tragic. [Laughs.] No, it's good. I really enjoy it. And you know, it's a valuable skill set. I certainly feel like more of a grownup.
GH: I was entirely wrapped up in the idea of becoming an actor. I learned how to write on the job, basically out of necessity. I always thought it'd be fun to write something, but it never was an ambition of mine, per se. I just thought, "Well, maybe I'll do it one day just for the hell of it and see if it works." And the other sort of weird thing about this is that the three of us, being actors, of course had done comedy before, but none of us primarily came from comedic backgrounds. One of Charlie's biggest jobs, prior to doing [It's Always Sunny], was playing the drug-addict brother on Third Watch. I'd done a bunch of episodes of ER. Rob was doing primarily dramatic movies. I had done a sitcom prior to the show, and so had Charlie, so our backgrounds had a pretty good mix of dramatic and comedic things. But none of us were in Groundlings or Second City or anything like that. [Laughs.] I don't know how we ended up doing this.
AVC: Is the partnership between the three of you fairly even?
RM: I take lead in the show-running responsibilities, in terms of being the liaison to the network, and dealing with the creative team over there, and working with the marketing and publicity departments. I'm sort of manning the ship as far as that goes. But from a creative standpoint, we all work together equally and have a sort of two-against-one rule, which makes things very easy. We work so closely together that we had to figure out a way to communicate with each other, because otherwise we'd just be at each other's throats all the time. When you're dealing with subjective matters, there's no wrong or right answer, it's just, "What do we think is best for the show?" So we could get into hourlong conversations about why somebody thinks something's funny and waste tons and tons of time, but the good thing about having the triumvirate is if Charlie and Glenn both agree that something works and I say, "It doesn't work," then I just have to trust their opinion, and we move past it. And that doesn't mean that they won't hear me out. I'll get a chance to talk it over and say, "This is why I feel this could work." We're pretty honest with each other, and open-minded. Most of the time we're able to take our egos out of it, and say, "Okay, why do I feel this way? What's the right thing to do in this given situation?" Then once we can separate that and figure out, "Okay, this is what it's really about," we can have a conversation creatively. In any situation, it's going to be either A or B, and if there's three of us, every single time, there's going to be somebody siding with another. Then we move forward.
AVC: FX has renewed you for two more years?
GH: They renewed us for 52 episodes. That includes this year. So however many years it takes us to make that amount of episodes is what they've essentially committed themselves to. It's pretty damn exciting. I don't know too many shows that can boast of a 52-episode pick-up. It's really, really exciting.
AVC: Is that going to limit your ability to do other things?
GH: Not anymore than it already has. The three of us, because we write, produce, and act on the show, don't have time to do anything else anyway. Luckily I was able to pop out a little while back and do that movie The Strangers. I kind of jumped out one day and did another part in Crank 2, with my buddies who wrote and directed that, and the first one. Personally, I've gotten to slip out and do small things. But it's tough for us to get out and do anything else, as the schedule is now. We really pour our hearts and souls into this show. We really care about it and want it to be special. We do, however, have another pilot that we're working on for Fox. We're trying to figure that out. It's tough, but we're motivated, and we're excited, and the new pilot is super, super funny. We are going to put that together.
AVC: This is your science-fiction parody Boldly Going Nowhere? Are you going to perform in that as well as write?
RM: Well, we can't. We have a commitment to Sunny. We just got picked up for 52 episodes! That's where all of our time and energy is being spent. However, we are developing it. We've already written the pilot, and we're mapping out the next six episodes on paper, and we're hiring a show-runner who's going to man the ship. We are going to be heavily involved in the first season. But we won't be acting in it, because of our commitment to Sunny.
AVC: Is knowing that you'll be doing this for three more years exciting, or stressful?
RM: It's terrifying. I mean, look, it's the greatest job in the world, and it's super, super fun, we love doing it. That being said, it is a lot of work, and it can be really, really stressful, and difficult at times. When it's working, when all pistons are firing, it is the greatest job on the planet. So I look forward to those moments when we're just having a blast on set, and in the editing room, and in the writer's room.
CD: It's a little bit confining, but you know, this is a good problem to have. So we just try and look on the bright side, and hope that when it's all done, people will still work with us.
AVC: Can you reveal anything about what you're going to be doing this season?
GH: We have a very exciting episode called, "Mac and Charlie Die." I'm excited about that one. Pretty epic episode. We've also got an entire episode where we try and sell Paddy's [Pub] as a historical monument in Philadelphia. And so, in order to prove that Paddy's has a tremendous amount of historical significance for the birth of our nation, we actually flash back to the year 1776. Almost the entire episode takes place in the year 1776. So it'll basically be our characters in corsets, and baggy half-pants, and flowing shirts. [Laughs.] Pointy hats, and things like that.
CD: We haven't shot it yet, but despite that, it's a favorite. Hopefully we won't ruin it.
AVC: Don't the episodes usually come out as you planned them?
CD: You never know. There are certain episodes that on the page we thought, "Oh boy, this is going to be the funniest episode." And there are other ones that went in, fingers crossed, saying, "Oh well, let's hope something good comes out of it." Oftentimes, those ones wind up being the best ones.
AVC: Do you pay much attention to the fan reaction after the fact?
CD: A little bit. From time to time. I try not to take too much of it to heart, 'cause everyone's got an opinion. And obviously, comedy, or art in general, or television, or whatever you want to call it… it's all subjective. But I do like to know what people are thinking. I don't know how long I'll keep doing that. [Laughs.] As it goes on and on, I might become more fearful of it. For the time being, I'm not opposed to reading what people write.
AVC: Glenn, do you and Charlie have the same Philadelphia connection that Rob does?
GH: No. I'm from Alabama. And when we originally started talking about doing the show, it took place in L.A. and had something to do with the industry. But then we started talking about going to Philly and shooting a bunch of Rob's old friends from high school, who were just these really funny dudes living in Philly. When we brought the show to FX, they were not that excited about a show that took place in L.A., because at the time, a lot of shows were being developed like that. So Rob pitched the idea of making them more blue-collar and setting it in Philly, which was a sort of combination of the two ideas we initially had. And they loved it. So that's where we went with that.
AVC: Why is your character the only one of three main men on the show who doesn't share a first name with the actor who plays him?
GH: Initially, when this project was a home movie, the three characters' names were Rob, Glenn, and Charlie. When we decided to make it in Philly, and when the show became a reality for me personally, I knew that if the show became a hit, I didn't want to be known as Glenn, the guy who played himself on a television show for six years. You know what I mean? I wanted to distance myself a little bit from the character. To try and make it just a little bit clear that I'm not this actual person in real life. Rob kind of did the same thing, even though his nickname is Mac. And Charlie, we pretty much just talked him into it. [Laughs.] We just felt like it was such a strong name for the character. And he didn't have any problem with it.
AVC: Is there a limit in the show to how redeemable you can make your characters? Or how outrageous you can make the action?
CD: Yeah. I think so. I think so. I think the limit is when it's not funny. I think it's such a gray area, that you really just have to stick to your gut with when it's funny and when it's not funny. You know, if it seems like our characters are doing malicious things with malicious intent, then maybe it's not funny. When you sort of see their twisted motivations behind it, or how they justify it in their minds, then I think you can still find the humor in it. But we'll see. As society changes, the show will change.
AVC: In what way? More twisted, or less twisted?
CD: We'll all get more twisted and more cynical.
AVC: Is there anything you've come up with for the show that you've ultimately nixed as being too extreme, too far out of character, or too repellent?
RM: I know we've changed a couple of things, but I can't think of anything where we've flat-out said, "No, that's not going to work." Generally, we tend to stay away from things that are just gross, or shocking for the sake of being shocking. We don't want to do that. We tend to stay in the arena of, "Okay, what's going on in the world?" and see where we can go with it. See if we can make it funny. If it just seems cruel, we'll nix it right away. Although in the first year, the gym teacher that molested Charlie was going to be a priest, and we didn't nix that; that was nixed for us. Which sucks, but what are you going to do?
GH: The only time we ever say, "We can't go this extreme" is if it's not funny. We'll never stop ourselves from going to a really bizarre, strange, or taboo place if it's funny. It just so happens that we all have pretty demented senses of humor. So what we tend to find funny are things that are a little bit fucked-up. [Laughs.]
AVC: You also don't seem to spare the squalor, at least in terms of the sets on the show. Everything looks very dank.
RM: Yeah, I turn on the TV and I see everything lookin' so glossy and pretty. You know, those people with their apartments in New York City that are the size of airplane hangers, and decorated from Williams-Sonoma, and yet they're all in their early 20s and haven't figured out what to do with their lives. I don't understand that. What planet are people living on? So we wanted to do something that, while it's heightened, and the situations are ridiculous, at least the world the people live in is a little more believable.
AVC: It's strange to see a show in which the home viewer doesn't necessarily have an active rooting interest in the people they're watching. The audience doesn't necessarily want any of you to succeed at any of your schemes, and yet we don't dislike you either. It's an odd balance to strike.
GH: I think maybe on some level, it's a heightened version of rooting for the underdog, even though you know the underdog is going to fail, and even though you know they probably should. But I think you do in some way find yourself rooting for these characters, because for all the crazy, messed-up things they do, in a weird way, they're very optimistic. I think you'll notice that at the beginning of most episodes, our characters tend to have a lot of hope, and a lot of ideas on how to achieve their dreams. Even though we do a lot of dark, heavy things, we usually start every episode like, "Hey, I found out a way in which we can make our lives better." And then boom, we set out to do that, and the way in which we do that ends up being a little fucked-up.
AVC: And then boom, the title comes up.
GH: [Laughs.] The title comes up, and you realize, "Oh boy. This is not going to go well."
AVC: Do you have a favorite episode title?
GH: Oh God. "Mac Bangs Dennis' Mom" is pretty tough to beat. [Laughs.] I think that's a good one. I have a personal favorite from this year, "Dennis Reynolds: An Erotic Life."
RM: I would say "Who Pooped The Bed?" might be up there.
CD: I think probably "Charlie Goes America All Over Everybody's Ass." I don't know how I got away with that.