Piše: Sven Mikulec
Roughly a year ago I met a couple of friends for drinks and soon regretted it. Instead of shooting shit like usual and chatting about things we had in common (PES, movies, football… that’s about it), two of my friends started talking about shit they had in common. Since I had no idea what they were yapping about, all I could do was sit there and listen to them talking about some homeless guy jerking off behind a dumpster in front of a bar in Philadelphia. One friend was choking with laughter, the other made the noise, I presumed, of a homeless guy jerking off behind a dumpster in front of a bar in Philadelphia. You have to start watchin’ it, the choking friend said.
Two weeks later, I was addicted to It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.
Since Rob McElhenney, the show’s creator and one of the main actors, and I actually had at least two things in common – the love and respect for the film blog Cinephilia & Beyond which brought us together and the opinion that shameless homeless people are hilarious – the interview went on in a relaxed tone, and McElhenney turned out to be a very open and nice person who didn’t mind answering the most personal questions. Some stuff perhaps didn’t make it to the final cut of the interview, but I’m left with a rather pleasant idea that, at least for a short time and via phone, I sat at the always hospitable bar of “the worst pub in Philadephia”.
Let’s start with the basics. How did the story of ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ actually start? Did you know Glenn and Charlie before you teamed up for this blue collar, white trash absurdly captivating little masterpiece?
I met Charlie on an airplane. We were both flying from New York to L.A. to test for the same character in a television pilot. I knew by the time we landed that I would not be getting that role. He was easily the funniest actor that I had ever met and we became fast friends. Glenn and I met in New York, but we didn’t really become close until we all moved out to Los Angeles. He was another guy whose skill impressed me a great deal. I would watch him work and think, “Well, I’ll never get any role that guy’s up for.” I knew that I needed to figure out a way to work with these guys instead of competing against them for the same roles.
How did you guys – and I say guys because you often emphasized you created the show with Glenn and Charlie – come up with these surprisingly, delightfully awful characters?
I had a little bit of experience writing in the past. While I was living in New York, I wasn’t working as much as I would’ve liked and my manager suggested that I try to write something. I didn’t know how, so I bought all of the requisite screenwriting manuals. Books from Syd Field, Robert McKee, William Goldman, anything written by screenwriters. And I watched everything I could possibly watch. Let me stress this: I watched everything. Good movies. Bad movies. Good TV. Bad TV. Tons of ‘Behind the Scenes’ and “Making ofs, “Director’s commentaries”. Anything and everything. I wrote my first screenplay, a really dark thriller, and it went pretty well. We ended up optioning it with a production company and to my amazement, a director (Paul Schrader) signed on to it. Paul and I spent the better part of the year rewriting it with a partner, trying to shape it into a draft that he, the production company and the studio would all be happy with. We wrote, and wrote, and wrote. Slowly but surely the script started turning into something I didn’t like. To be honest, that would’ve been fine if I was being paid well for my efforts. I was not. I learned very quickly that “optioning” is not the same as “selling” and that everyone will always try to get you to write for as little as they can for as long as they can. I couldn’t even quit my job at a restaurant during the process and yet here I was working with one of the most revered people in my new field. It was very strange.
Anyway, I learned a very valuable lesson because by the end of it, Paul moved on to another movie, the production company went bankrupt and the studio let the option run out on the script. So after a year and a half of work, I had a screenplay I didn’t like anymore, a process I didn’t enjoy and a movie that never got made. I decided to never go through that again. And it was around this time that I moved to L.A. Shortly thereafter I was knocking around a few ideas for acting scenes to workshop and
came up with a very simple for a scene between two of the most horrible people I could think of. I wrote this thing and the next day I brought it to Glenn and Charlie and said, “Hey, I really wanna shoot this scene. Would you guys like to do it?” Glenn said, “Yeah, I think this is funny, why don’t you try to write a full short film based on characters like these and then we’ll go make it.” So that’s what I did, I went home, I wrote the script in a day or so. I was working at night (in yet another restaurant), and I just needed something to do during the day to stay out of trouble and stay focused. A few months later we had written, shot, fully produced and edited what would become the pilot episode of ‘It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’.
In ‘Pretty Woman’, a handsome guy meets a beautiful, STD-free prostitute, cleans her up and marries her. In your show, Danny DeVito wants to clean up and marry a shabby old hooker who dies from a cocaine overdose. Would you say this basically sums up the underlying idea of ‘Philadelphia’, reversing the tropes, deliberately failing the audience’s expectations, deconstructing genre conventions?
That wasn’t necessarily our intention at the beginning. Originally, it wasn’t even a TV show. It was a short film. But then we made a second short and that’s when we started seeing the potential. But if we were going to do a TV show we wanted it to feel fresh. Not just recycled tropes and canned laughter. We wanted to look at television comedy through a skewed prism. Consequently through the evolution of the first and the second season we sort of became, whether it was purposely or not, the anti-sit-com. We wanted to literally deconstruct what was being done on TV and see, if we looked at not only television, but American culture through this very specific, subversive prism, what would come out of it. And what came out of it was, well, you see.
When you started creating the world of the show, did you think it would become this popular?
The humble answer is no, we could have never foreseen this level of success, and there is truth to that in terms of the specifics. But I don’t think that anybody goes – or should go – into any creative endeavor assuming it’s gonna fail. Our feeling all the way through the process has been that we really like the content that we’re creating. We’re not sure if everybody else is going to, but either way it’s a win. Because we removed this unfortunate reliance on other people to give us work as actors. We were excited, and continue to be excited, about creating our own work and seeing it through from conception to final cut.
In 2004, right before the breakthrough with the show, you waited tables. If I may ask, and I apologize if this question is too direct or rude, does the show’s success allow you to live a bit more comfortably now?
Yes. (silence) (laughs) I don’t have to wait tables anymore. But I’m glad that I did. I’m glad that I had to work my way through those seven years. It humbled me. It fostered my work ethic. And the struggle itself informs almost everything I write in one way or another. I meet so many people that just expect things to happen for them. As if someone is going to walk up to them and give them an opportunity and if that doesn’t happen then there’s been some injustice perpetrated. It just doesn’t work that way. Stop being a little bitch and make it happen yourself. It’s possible.
Mac, Dennis, Dee, Charlie… they are all underachievers, uneducated losers with no talents or perspective, cheating, gambling and screwing each other on their way to their own inevitable demise. How much do the characters have in common with the guys who created them? No offense, of course.
Well, first off, I don’t think they’re underachievers. I think they are overachievers. Their vision far exceeds their ability to execute that vision. They’re not the brightest bulbs, but they are certainly motivated. They work really, really hard to destroy whatever is in their path to get what they want and often times they succeed more than their faculties should allow.
They are definitely not a reflection of who we are wholly as people. But there are aspects not only of us, the five of us, but aspects of ALL of humanity that we like to pretend don’t exist. But they’re there. Lying somewhere in the darkest caverns of our psyche beaten down by years of evolution, cooperation, etiquette. It’s just a matter of whether or not we choose to indulge them. These characters not only indulge them, they seem to revel in them, to cultivate them. To cherish them as weapons to be used in their pursuit of annihilating their own insecurities. But maybe that’s reading into it took much. Maybe they’re just assholes.
Dead babies and fake funerals, crack addiction in order to get welfare, incest, abortion, euthanasia… You touch upon the most disturbing subjects, don’t you think? Do you ever get hate mail from someone offended by your approach to themes like these?
We get asked that question a lot and the truth is I cannot remember EVER in the nine years our show has been on that I received a piece of hate mail. Even tweets or message boards. Not to say that people enjoy every episode, they don’t. But I think that on the whole, people understand what we’re trying to do. They understand that it’s satire, they understand that it’s subversive by nature. It’s the same with Southpark. Nobody wants to be the person who says, oh, Southpark is too fill in the blank, because it’s Southpark. Everybody knows what Southpark is, and everybody knows what Sunny is. We’re looking at the reflection of the human condition in a side show carnival mirror, and then exhibiting that reflection through the 22 minutes of a traditional American sit-com. If you’re taking it seriously you’re an idiot and I don’t give a fuck what you think.
There’s been a lot of talk about your weight gain between seasons 6 and 7. Unlike most of us who get fatter with time because of a surplus of appetite and a lack of will power, you actually did it on purpose, for a specific reason.
To me, one of the commonalities among successful shows was that the actors tend to get better looking as the series progresses. Maybe it’s just by nature of them recognizing they are more in the public eye, or because they have more money to spend on new clothing or personal trainers, a private chef, new teeth, new hair, new breasts. I always found this fascinating. As the character is getting older, he/she is getting better looking. Huh? On Sunny, these people spend all day in a bar scheming against each other, drinking voraciously, smoking cigarettes, doing drugs, treating their bodies and their brains horrifically. There would be real consequences to that. Adding to that, there was something about the lack of vanity that has always been integral to our show. I thought it would be interesting to embrace that and ride it as far as I could. I tried to make myself as unattractive as possible.
And what did Kaitlin think about that?
(laughs) From an artistic and creative level, she recognized it as being really fun and interesting. But on a personal level, I think she was a little grossed out.
Despite the quality of the humor – or, perhaps, thanks to its nature – the show has never won an Emmy. How important are such awards for you? Are you worried what the critics might think of the show?
It’s actually very strange – we’re a pretty well-respected show in terms of popular and journalistic criticism. But the Academy of TV Arts and Sciences doesn’t seem to be a fan of Sunny or maybe we’re just not on their radar, I don’t really know. I know that I can’t get boggled down with that. I don’t read anything that’s written about the show – positive or negative – people are always sending me positive reviews of the show and I stopped reading about five years ago. Mostly because I can’t do anything about it, it kinda is what it is. And if you believe the positive ones, then you have to believe the negative ones. I just try to keep the blinders on, keep my nose to the ground, just keep working as hard as I can.
Charlie Day used the show to kickstart his movie career. How proud are you? Do you have any plans and ambitions to do the same, or you perhaps see yourself on the other side of the camera, creating shows like this one?
I’m so proud of Charlie. He started to hit in the movies, what, three years ago, and people would always say, what do you think about Charlie in the movies. My only comment would always be, I can’t believe that it took this long. I knew Charlie was one of the funniest and most gifted actors in Hollywood when I met him on an airplane thirteen years ago. It’s kinda surprised me that it has taken this long. And that goes for everybody, my wife included, Glenn… to me, this is such an amazingly talented group of actors, writers and producers that I can’t wait to see what they all do next.
One critic called the show ‘Seinfeld on crack’. What do you make of this comparison?
Like I said, it’s not really up to me to have an opinion on what other people’s opinions are. I can only continue to make the show we make and hope that people like it.
But if you could compare ‘Philadelphia’ to any show ever filmed, maybe a role model of sorts?
Well, I don’t know in terms of comparison, but I know that there have been a lot of shows that influenced me. Seinfeld, The Cosby Show, Cheers, Family Ties, the British Office…all come to mind. In terms of comedy those are amongst my favorites.
Recently, there’s been some talk about calling it quits after season 10, later denied by Glenn. Personally, what do you think about continuing making the show? Do you have a plan, or a goal, or you’re basically having a good time, not worrying about what the future has in store?
I think creatively this is probably one of, if not our best season. Most importantly, we still love the show. We’re still having a lot of fun, we’re still willing to come in and work really hard on it, and because we’re both writers and actors on the show, we don’t take any episodes off. We’re never checked out. We’re engaged on every single episode. If there are episodes we’ve made that don’t quite work, it’s not because we got lazy. It’s just that you sometimes take a big swing and you miss. But I really think we’ll keep making the show as long as we feel we have something to say and I think we still do. That’s also a product of doing only ten episodes a season; we’re just now, this year, hitting our 100th episode and we’re nine years in, while most shows hit that number in season 4. I think people just get burned out, doing 22 to 24 episodes a season, and we’re only doing ten. To me, it’s like one of these dream jobs that it would be really, really hard to walk away from and I would only do so if I felt like we were tapped out creatively. I don’t think we’re anywhere close to that.