INTERVIEW BY JESSE PEARSON
PHOTOGRAPHS BY SARAH SOQUEL MORHAIM
Charlie Day, along with his friends Glenn Howerton and Rob McElhenney, created and stars in the comedic television series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Though it’s just entered its sixth season, the show still somehow feels like a cult phenomenon. Or, rather, its rabid fans, us included, can’t figure out why it isn’t the number one sitcom in the country. Maybe it’s that too many people are offended by jokes about glue huffing, dumpster babies, pedophilia, alcoholism, sadness, dry heaving, violence, selfishness, power bottoms, and stalking. And maybe everyone who is offended by such things is, as a result, missing out on one of the funniest things currently happening. Which is this show.
Every performer on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is great. Howerton’s Dennis, McElhenney’s Mac, Kaitlin Olson’s Sweet Dee, and Danny DeVito’s Frank Reynolds—which is the pinnacle of his already legendary comedy career—are all finely honed and hilarious. But Charlie Day, who plays a character named Charlie Kelly, is the heart of Sunny in Philly. He’s an intensely manic yet deeply nuanced comedian, and he can make one piss oneself with a simple flick of his eyes. Let’s chat with him now.
Vice: I started looking you up on YouTube the other day and I found a clip of you on Law & Order from a while back.
Charlie Day: [laughs]
It made me wonder what sort of an actor you initially set out to be. Was it always going to be comedic, with things like Law & Order to pay the bills, or were you open to anything?
Like most young actors starting out, I really just wanted to act. Whether you find yourself stumbling into a drama or a comedy, you’re going to jump on whatever you can. I started out doing plays. When I moved to New York, I was as enthusiastic about the possibility of doing what I’m doing now as I was about the possibility of becoming Al Pacino or something. And I still want to do both. Anyone who really likes acting likes all of it. But I don’t consider myself a comedian, if that makes sense.
You’re a performer in a more general sense.
I think so, or I’m just a funny guy who knows how to act.
How much do you and the rest of the Sunny cast feel like a part of a larger comedic community? It seems that you don’t get talked about at the same time as a lot of the other well-known groups of young comedians.
No, we don’t. We don’t. And I don’t know why that is. I don’t know if it’s because we didn’t come up in a sketch-comedy group, or we’re not stand-up comedians. I’d hate to say anything too cynical in terms of why that might be because I don’t want to sound like a bitter person…
It’s just always surprising when people talk about what the best comedies out there are now and our show isn’t mentioned among those other shows.
It’s kind of shocking.
To our credit, I think that our fans enjoy the fact that they’re not subject to the onslaught of media that other shows sometimes receive, where you sort of feel like, “Why is this show being shoved down my throat?” So maybe it’s a blessing in disguise.
Yeah. Having promos for a show in your face all the time can cause burnout.
Definitely. When it comes to comedy, I think there’s a burnout factor. For years, we were upset that the show wasn’t getting the media recognition or the acknowledgement of how popular and, I think, good it is. But then I really do start to wonder if in some ways we dodged a bullet. We get to reap all the benefits of the show being successful and having great fans. We don’t have any little golden trophies, but I think that’s not really the point.
When you guys sit down to begin writing a new season of the show, do you have the worry of comedy burnout in mind?
If only to not burn ourselves out, yeah. We’re always trying to keep it fresh but not trying to overreach or overextend ourselves. We don’t say, “Oh, we have to make it more shocking.” We just want to find different behaviors for these characters, and different scenarios. I think that we’re always excited by the challenge of seeing where these characters can go and what we can do as performers. You know, one thing that we thought was going to be an issue going into this year was Kaitlin Olson’s pregnancy. But once we decided to embrace it and write to it, it really kind of opened up a series of episodes for us—all these great avenues for story lines.
I’m really looking forward to seeing how her character, Dee, deals with being pregnant.
We have an episode where we try to figure out who got her pregnant, and then obviously an episode where she has the baby. We just don’t do it in the usual sitcom way. We find great ways for these characters to care—or not care—about her pregnancy. [laughs]
Any other teasers you can give me for the new season?
We’re going to do a Lethal Weapon spoof. You’ll see the home-video version of Lethal Weapon that Dennis and Mac made with Frank and Charlie. They actually show it to a bunch of high school kids to settle an argument over blackface. It’s pretty out-there.
A lot of TV series, once they see what’s hitting with the audience, play that aspect up until it becomes self-parody. Sunny in Philly doesn’t do that.
Yeah, and in fact we make an effort to not repeat ourselves. It’s a slight limitation as the years go on, but we’ll sometimes say, “We can’t do that joke because basically we’ve done it already.” After 70-something episodes, that gets tricky because we’ve done a lot. But we do have the liberty of only doing 12 or 13 episodes a season.
How is that different from other sitcoms?
The American Office or The Big Bang Theory or something like that are cranking out maybe 22 a year.
But things like our show or South Park or Curb Your Enthusiasm have shorter runs—and we have basically a whole year to prepare each season. We use that time to really carefully craft the comedy and make sure we’re coming up with original stuff.
How many people are in the writing room besides you, Glenn Howerton, and Rob McElhenney?
About five, sometimes eight people are throwing ideas around. Then we have three other producers—David Hornsby, who plays Rickety Cricket on the show, and a writing team by the name of Scott Marder and Rob Rosell. They are our kind of go-to other writers. Rob, Glenn, and I make a pass through everything before it goes to air.
Is it the traditional sitcom writing process with everyone in a room tossing riffs around and writing on index cards?
I couldn’t tell you because I’ve never worked on another sitcom, but we do all get together in a room and write down ideas on note cards. Maybe what we are doing is traditional. [laughs]
Do you guys do that weird thing that lots of comedians and comedic writers do when they’re throwing ideas around, where they don’t laugh at something that’s hilarious? They’ll just kind of say “That’s funny” in a clinical way.
Well, that’s probably why all those shows are so painfully unfunny. [laughs] If you’re not laughing your ass off in the writers’ room, then it’s probably not that funny.
So there are chuckles in your writers’ room?
Oh my God. When we strike on a funny riff, we’re on the floor dying. There was an episode last season called “The Waitress Is Getting Married,” where the guys try and set my character up for a dating service.
Oh man, I love that one. It has some of the best lines in the show’s history.
And we were just going through my list of likes and dislikes…
I think I know what you’re going to say.
That was a run that, in the writers’ room, everyone was coming up with different suggestions, and we were all uproariously laughing. And then someone threw out “milk steak,” and people were on the floor.
I really want to see a milk steak in real life one day. And it’s good to know that Sunny’s writing staff isn’t all po-faced.
It should be funny. I can’t imagine someone saying “That’s funny” and checking it off like it’s some sort of math equation.
There’s also this stereotype about funny people being kind of damaged or fucked up. You guys don’t seem damaged at all.
The truth is that everybody’s a little bit damaged in some way or another. But I know what you’re referring to. There are a lot of angry comedians. I think we made a reference to that in the Sinbad episode, where we said, “Sinbad, like most comedians, is a really, really angry man on the inside.” [laughs] Which, by the way, he may or may not be. I don’t know him that well. We just shot with him for two days. Anyway, yeah, there are a lot of angry comedians but definitely not the three of us. We’re pretty well-rounded guys and we’re also businessmen who are running a [laughs] business, so we have to sort of have our heads on our shoulders. I was never that bitter, angry guy, and neither were Glenn or Rob. I feel like that angry personality usually lends itself more to stand-up comedy.
Yeah. There’s something kind of aggressive about stand-up in the first place.
And they hate each other, and they hate themselves, and the audience hates them until everyone loves them. Acting is a different thing. Rob and Glenn and I were never in that comedy world and we don’t particularly care for it. We weren’t sketch-comedy guys, we weren’t stand-ups. We’re not desperate to make people laugh. I mean, Glenn went to Juilliard for acting and I was equally ambitious about it. Rob was pretty serious about writing as well as acting. That might be the difference, and that might be why we’re not in those circles.
Have many comics gone out of their way to tell you guys that they like your show?
I don’t run in a bunch of comedy circles, but I should hope that people who do comedy for a living find the show funny. I ran into Dave Foley at a charity thing that we were both doing and he said that he was a big fan. And of course I enjoyed The Kids in the Hall growing up.
I just watched their pilot episode again recently on DVD. It’s still amazing.
It’s great. And we ended up having him guest-star on the sixth season of Sunny. He was hysterical in his role.
What were your favorite comedy shows when you were a kid?
Like everyone else, I was a fan of The Cosby Show.
Everyone but me, I guess. But there aren’t that many direct precursors to Sunny, are there?
I think you can make comparisons to Seinfeld in terms of some of the structure of stories—how things that get set in motion at the beginning of an episode might come back around to bite you in the ass at the end. That’s purely from a structural standpoint. But, to our benefit, we weren’t sitcom writers working on ten different shows before we started this one. We were three guys who had a unique sense of humor and a unique vision who didn’t really know another way to make a television show, so we just made it our way. We found our own voice. If anything was an influence, I’d say the British Office was. We thought it was so funny and so conversational. And we liked the look of Curb Your Enthusiasm—handheld cameras, no fancy lighting. Those two shows made us realize that we could probably do this ourselves. We didn’t need a giant Hollywood crew—though we have that now. But to do the initial thing, we knew that we could just do fly-on-the-wall shooting and make something funny.
One of my favorite moments ever on the show is from the episode where you and Dee switch lives.
Uh huh, right.
Well, actually my favorite moment ever on the show is a tiny bit in that episode where Dee is trying to do stand-up but she keeps dry heaving. I could watch that on a loop for an hour.
[laughs] Kaitlin Olson is brilliant in that scene.
Incredible. But the scene I’m thinking of now is the one where you bring Dee back to your apartment and show her your nightly ritual: huff glue, eat a can of cat food as quickly as possible, and pass out before the neighborhood’s stray cats start shrieking outside your window.
[laughs] In that season, we had a few scripts that were on the longer side. That episode, “Dennis Reynolds: An Erotic Life,” was one of them. It ended up seven minutes long, and we cut so much out of it. There are major story-line things about Charlie’s life that had to go. I think there was a paper route at night. We really had to lose the majority of walking in each other’s shoes. But that scene you’re talking about is a testament to Rob and Scott, our writers, who dreamed up the pissing-in-a-can thing when Danny comes running in.
That scene is also great because it reveals a lot about the character of Charlie. How much do you think about backstory for the characters on the show?
Well, that episode was one of those things where we said, “Let’s get a glimpse into these two men and their strange night rituals.” And I think it’s always funny in the series how we can delve deeper and deeper into these people’s lives. You get to know and love these characters and yet there’s so much you don’t know about them because you only get them for 22 minutes a week. It’s like, you look back on something like Cheers, where eight seasons in you finally went to Carla’s house and saw how she lived.
Yeah, I remember getting jazzed about things like that as a kid. Like when you got to see the world outside of a sitcom’s usual weekly set.
That’s right. And so getting to dive into the warped and sad life of Charlie Kelly and Frank Reynolds in that episode was a lot of fun.
Do you think about the character of Charlie at random times when you’re not actively working on the show?
Yeah. I don’t go around with a little notepad in my pocket—I’m not one of those guys. But certainly if something pops up that stands out, I’ll try to remember it and bring it to the show. But my actual life is pretty different from the character’s life. [laughs]
I’d hope so.
There isn’t an evening where I think, “Well, this particular brand of cat food is really quite delicious, and I think I should add it into the show.”
The show is about a group of morally bankrupt people, but they’re still totally lovable. Charlie is so endearing.
It’s about morally bankrupt people who are super-enthusiastic go-getters. I think you sympathize with them because you always know what their want or desire is, even though it’s something that’s purely in the moment. And they might do the wrong thing, but their intentions are usually not that wrong. Like, they might just want to get into the World Series. They might wind up doing some terrible things to do that, but it’s not such a terrible thing to want to go to the World Series.
Their motivations are pure, but the way they go about things is a little bit skewed. Or a lot skewed.
Exactly. I mean, if it were a show about people doing nasty things because they wanted to be nasty, then you wouldn’t like them.
Do you know how many seasons you want to do, or are you going to just keep going until it feels like the right time to stop?
It’s tough to say. I know that we definitely have another season, the seventh season, after the one that just started airing, which is the sixth season. We’re contractually bound to do that. After that, a lot depends on what the network wants, but ultimately we’ll know before we start writing the seventh season whether they’ll want more because if they don’t, then we have to write to the show ending. But I imagine that they and we are going to want to continue it, just a little bit longer at the very least.
I wouldn’t want to keep making it if people weren’t into it anymore, if the jokes felt stale and the audience wasn’t enjoying it.
Has there been much talk of doing a Sunny in Philly movie?
People are starting to ask that a lot. I don’t see any reason why not, if the time was right and we had the right idea.
OK, there have been a few sort of famous things from the show that I’d like to run by you to see if there’s anything interesting behind their origins.
We already did milk steak.
You know, that literally might have been someone saying “milkshake” and the rest of us hearing “milk steak.”
I guess the top of the heap so far for most fans is the Dayman/Nightman thing, the episode with the musical that Charlie wrote—which you guys then turned into a real stage show that sold out every performance it had.
We wanted to do an episode with music in it, where the guys started a band. This started in the episode that had the guy where you couldn’t tell if he was a hip-hop guy or if he was slightly mentally retarded.
Right, the rapper that Dee dated.
Who was sort of based on someone I knew. [laughs] So we broke down a really funny episode, and we sent the writers I mentioned before, Marder and Rosell, to work on that. I think it might have been the first script that they did with us. It was the third season, but it was their first season on the show. They came back, and we liked the script. They had these lyrics for the “Dayman” song that Charlie and Dennis would do. “Dayman, fighter of the Nightman, champion of the sun, you’re a master of karate and friendship for everyone.” And I thought, yeah, this could be funny. There was a keyboard in the writer’s room—actually the same one that we use in the episode—and we started to write a little melody to the lyrics. And then Glenn, who plays Dennis and has a fascination with the Flash Gordon soundtrack by Queen—you know, “Flash—Ah! Ah!”…
Oh my God, that’s what it is! The “ah-ah” in “Dayman” is totally from Flash Gordon.
Totally. So, almost like it happens in the episode, Glenn starts adding these falsetto ah-ahs to the melody that I’m writing. [laughs] We’re in the writer’s room, and we’re starting to laugh our heads off. So that actual discovery of the ah-ahs got kind of re-created in the episode. I think that was the first scene that we shot for season 3. The following week, the whole crew was still singing the song. So we were thinking, “Gosh, I guess that’s a catchy song.” But then in the editing room, we weren’t loving the episode even though that scene was really funny. We sent it to the network and they said, “This is one of the funniest ones we’ve ever seen!” So we kind of stepped back from it and looked at it from the outside in and said, “You know what? This is funny.” Maybe we had one thing in our head and what we ended up with was different, but it was funny on its own terms. We truly didn’t know that that episode or that song would be as popular as it was.
What about the Dick Towel? I bought one online when that episode aired.
Chad Ochocinco twittered a picture of himself wearing a dick towel.
Nice. Did he use the big side or the little bird side?
He used both. [laughs] Anyway, I think the dick-towel idea was all Rob McElhenney.
It’s so good. For those who don’t know, it’s a huge beach towel with a drawing of a man’s lower half with a gigantic dick on one side, and the same thing with a tiny dick on the other side. Wrap it around your waist and hilarity ensues.
We said, “That’s really funny, but how are we going to put it on the air?” Then we realized we could just put a big black square over the dick when it aired on TV. Ninety percent of our audience is online half the time anyway. Of course the network said, “We can’t sell this on our website.” So we asked if we could sell them ourselves, and we became the dick-towel guys.
In real life.
There was an initial wave of about 20,000 or 30,000 dick towels.
And what about Green Man, where you don the skintight green Lycra suit that covers your whole body and face? Where does he come from?
I think it was one of Rob’s buddies who did Green Man in real life first. Apparently he wore that suit to all the Eagles games. That was another one where we thought, “Yeah, it’s kind of funny…” But you never really know what’s going to resonate with people. It turned out that everyone really got a kick out of it and now you see that Green Man everywhere.
Did you initially have reservations about putting that thing on? It’s pretty revealing.
It’s revealing for sure. And I can’t see a thing when I’m wearing it. I truly can’t see a thing.