'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia'

A depraved, in-your-face television hit does Philly proud.

By Brian McManus 
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted Sep. 8, 2009

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Special FX: Rob McElhenney (from left), Kaitlin Olson, Charlie Day, Danny DeVito and Glenn Howerton.

Photo by Image courtesy of FX

McElhenney is the show’s only Philadelphia native, growing up in a tiny home on 1404 E. Moyamensing in South Philly. They chose a bar as the main locale to free up the characters’ days, and give them ample room to fall trap to various hijinks and shenanigans. Originally called It’s Always Sunny on TV for the pilot, McElhenney thought the show’s permanent location should reflect its rough-edged, blue-collar appeal. 


It’s Always Sunny in Detroit would ring too false. It’s Always Sunny in L.A. would be, essentially, a less privileged version of HBO’s Entourage. So McElhenney decided on his hometown. 


“I think it definitely takes on a different tone when you take it outside of a working-class, blue-collar city,” says McElhenney. “I think if you set it in Brooklyn or set it in South Boston you could maybe have the same feel to it. Obviously it wouldn’t be exactly the same, but I think tonally it would ring the same.”


That tone is unlike anything else on TV right now. 


“We knew starting out—or hoped anyway—that there would be an audience that would watch the show because, before we created the show, we were that audience,” says McElhenney. “They’re not interested in watching the same old boring bullshit. Neither were we.”


And so It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia broke through the wall of boring bullshit, diving head first and with gusto into xenophobia, homophobia, chicks with dicks, jihad and racism. The characters—backstabbing, crass, insipid, shallow, petty—are used as a wedge to unearth the underside of these issues for all their unpleasantness, exposing the maggots underneath; the dark, putrid underbelly of topics most shows can’t and won’t touch. And they do it, surprisingly, week in and week out, while remaining likable. 


“We’re really careful. It’s really important to us that the characters themselves can come across as racist and prejudiced and bigoted and homophobic and angry, but that the show itself does not,” says McElhenney. “We think there’s a really big distinction between them.”


The point is never, according to McElhenney, to be controversial for controversy’s sake. 


“Another show that does that massively well is South Park ,” says Howerton, also in L.A. “Those jokes that they make are incredibly childish, but yet there’s a real intelligence in it all. I like that kind of writing—I like that style. It’s just very funny. It just makes me laugh.


“Tackling larger issues and viewing human behavior through these microcosms of incredibly ignorant characters dealing with things that are much larger than themselves,” continues Howerton. “That’s what we strive for.”


Call it “The Gang Shoots a TV Pilot”: The story of how Always Sunny came to be is now a do-it-yourself legend. After living hand-to-mouth as a struggling actor doing bit parts, commercial and voiceover work in New York City for close to seven years, McElhenney packed his bags and moved out to Los Angeles. Though the weather was nicer and rent was cheaper, things still weren’t going as planned. “I was running up debt, not paying rent. I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something.’”

That “something” was putting pen to paper and writing the pilot for Sunny with partners Howerton and Day. “I started writing out of desperation,” says McElhenney. 


Then they shot it.


“Instead of coming to producers with a script in hand, we wanted to come to them with more,” says Howerton. “The way technology is today, there’s no reason to wait around for someone else. Shoot it yourself.”


Only there is a reason: money. So the real-life gang shot their pilot without any, from what’s been reported as anywhere between $85 and $200. 


“It was cheap,” McElhenney confirms with a laugh. 


When Sunny first aired it sputtered for a while, struggling to find an audience. So FX president John Landgraf, who brought the show aboard the network, had a suggestion for season two. He’d worked with a guy in New Jersey years ago he thought could provide some intrigue and a kick. Maybe he could join the cast.


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1. Jenny said... on Sep 14, 2009 at 12:28PM

“Uh...where the fuck is Sweet Dee? You stupid, misogynist fuckers.”

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2. Anonymous said... on Sep 14, 2009 at 04:17PM

“Uh...read the story, dipshit. She's quoted in it.”

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