Talking Ten Years of 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia' with Two of Its Stars
Catching up with Glenn Howerton and Charlie Day ahead of the show's eleventh season.
If you've never watched It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, you should. Hey, maybe you already have and I'm just being presumptuous and condescending – but if you live in the UK and don't have Netflix, chances are you're only aware of it in a "yes I know it exists" kind of way. Because despite its brilliance, it's never really taken off here in the same way it has in the States.
For those who have no idea what I'm on about, here's a brief rundown: taking the familiar "put a bunch of friends in a place together" format (a grotty Irish bar in downtown Philadelphia), Sunny flipped the set-up on its head. Gone is the cute one, the bossy one, the kooky one, and so on, with a taste for coffee and shit jokes, and in are five equally selfish, barely functioning alcoholics, all trying to fuck each over in myriad ways every season.
The likability factor, painful earnestness and gooey sentimentality that exists at the core of many American sitcoms is reversed entirely here, and what you're left with is often five innately disastrous people screaming bloody murder at one another.
That said, "the gang" – comprising of Charlie Kelly (Charlie Day), Deandra "Sweet Dee" Reynolds (Kaitlin Olson), Ronald "Mac" McDonald (Rob McElhenny), Frank Reynolds (Danny Devito) and Dennis Reynolds (Glenn Howerton) – are also used as a mirror, reflecting the push-pull extremities of American society and politics, and the personalities at either end of the spectrum. They are also, for all their awful qualities, pretty endearing characters, even if you'd never want to hang out with them in real life.
A new teaser trailer for the upcoming 11th season came out earlier this week, so I took the opportunity to get in touch with Glenn and Charlie for a chat about the past 10 years.
VICE: Hi guys. Congratulations on ten years of the show. Can you tell me about starting out and some of your memories from the early days?
Glenn Howerton: Thanks. It's pretty hard to believe. It's hard not to get nostalgic about the very beginnings of the show considering none of us were writers. We were all just actors, and when the show got picked up we knew we wanted to write, but we didn't really know how to write. We just figured if the show got picked up we'd figure it out.
And how did you figure it out?
You can see the evolution in the first series; mine and Rob's characters didn't change all that much, but we wanted the character of Sweet Dee to [change]. We didn't want a typical "the girl is the straight guy and the guys are the crazy ones who the girl doesn't get to be as funny as" show. We knew we didn't want to do that, but we didn't know how. When we cast Kaitlin she brought so much to it in the first season that we were able to figure it out, and figure out what was funny about her. I have to give her a tremendous amount of credit because she really pushed us. I think in season two we started to bring the social commentary into the comedy. I'm particularly fond of the episode "Mac Bangs Dennis' Mom" because that's the first time we really figured out the internal dynamics between the characters; it was this web of deceit and fucking each other over that became a turning point for the show.
Did you guys have a mission statement for the show? And did you ever have any rules about going too far?
We decided from quite early on that we weren't going be bound by the normal laws of television. By the time we got to season three, I remember having a specific conversation with the guys where we were like – we didn't have a lot riding on it; none of us had mortgages or kids at the time – our attitude was like, "Any minute the show's gonna get cancelled, so fuck it, let's see how far we can go with these characters – let's see how far we can push them." I also think that no matter how far we take a story or a character, we always wanted to make sure it was based on a realistic desire from the character or a desire you could understand. So if the character did something crazy then you as an audience member – even though you would never do this – you have to understand that the character would do it.
Charlie Day: We really strive to make sure the characters don't change very much. Sort of the heart of the show is their unflappable ignorance and lack of self-awareness that allows us to laugh at some of the despicable things they do.
The teaser trailer for season 11
Did you have any influences when starting out? Any other shows that were touching points?
Howerton: As a fan of British shows, one of the initial inspirations behind our show was The Office, which I was absolutely blown away by – like, wow, you can get away with that? Just walking around an office with a camera? It's about people. I've always been a little bit surprised [Sunny] didn't take off bigger and quicker in England.
Are there any episodes that stand out for you over the show's ten years, or any particular highlights?
One that pops into my head is an episode called "Who Pooped the Bed". I remember thinking 'this is really fun,' because when we read articles about the show and critics talk about the show, even when they talk about loving it, they talk about how crass it is. And even though they are talking about it in glowing terms – the characters are so despicable and the show is pushing the limits of decency and all that stuff – to us it's like, that's not what we're trying to do. Sure, we do gross things and the characters are despicable, but it's a social commentary – our characters really are supposed to be the worst versions of you. The worst impulses that you all have, that we all have as people, that you're getting to see these characters act out, there's a wish fulfilment to it. If the show was just awful people being crass all the time I don't think it would have lasted. I don't think it would be funny. I think it's funny because you understand the reasons behind it. Even though you wouldn't behave that way, you can relate to it in some deep, dark, awful level. So that poop episode stood out to me because it's us basically saying can we do an episode about poop, while also saying this shouldn't be funny, but then doing it and making it funny at the same time.
Day: At some point we went around and toured with the "Nightman Commeth" [based on a musical performed in the show] and we did a live show. That was a big highlight for me because we got to have a direct interaction with the fans. You got the immediacy of the laughing or clapping, and when you do television you just don't get that – you're on a stage somewhere, only performing between action and cut. That's what I found really exciting. You bump into a guy in the street and they tell you they love the show, but until you do something like that you really don't realise the reach and power of it. That was a real highlight.
Charlie, you write a lot of the music in the show, too, so was it fun to be able to perform it live?
Yeah, I got to play rock star for a few days. When you hear people singing the songs you wrote, as silly as they may be, that's an experience I thought I'd never get to have. It was just a rush. I can see why people want to become rock stars.
Glenn, it's been implied and often demonstrated that your character, Dennis, is a psychopath. Do you feel that's the case?
Howerton: I'm sure we've all got our different theories on Dennis, but my theory – and what I write towards the character – is that he's not a psychopath. He does have feelings; he has very deep and strong feelings, and he's actually a very fragile person, so a lot of his psychopathic behaviour comes from a deep-seated insecurity. That's what I think. If [his behaviour didn't come from that insecurity] I don't think it would be that funny. I think, on some level, you can oddly relate to my character because you sense his insecurity. Otherwise, I think we'd be too troubled by the character to laugh.
Charlie, what would you say the ultimate Charlie moment is in the show over the past ten years? Something that captures the real essence of the character?
Day: There are a couple. In the third season when we're on steroids and I got to go through the rage of every emotion while eating a sandwich – I think you get to see the depth of the character's joy and madness. That was a fun moment. There's a scene when Mac and Dennis are trying to set me up on a dating website and they're going through my likes and dislikes – I feel like you got a nice little window into this character there. [The episode] "Charlie Work" in season 10, you really get to see what he's doing a lot of the time to keep the bar running.
READ ON THUMP: Is This Really the Worst Boiler Room of All Time?
Drink and drugs are a common theme – how many of those storylines come from personal experiences?
Howerton: I would say the way things play out when we do drugs or drink alcohol, not a lot of that is coming from our personal experiences. I think people just assume we sit around getting stoned and getting drunk all the time; that's just not the case, but certainly we all have experiences with those things. I've never done crack, but I've done other things, so certainly we've got experiences in those areas.
Day: Yeah, I think all of us had our partying days, for sure. Now we all have kids the partying days are... our lives are over! We're all pretty open minded... look, we've had our fun.
In the show you make reference to the fact that Sunny is ignored at awards shows. Why do you think that is?
Howerton: I think, if I had to say, it's because of how inauspicious our beginnings were. When we first started it was so not glossy and so ugly to look at. It was shot on low quality film, all of which was a purposeful choice – we wanted it to feel lo-fi and garage. I think, as a result of that, it got mostly ignored. At that time, comedy cable shows weren't winning awards. Cable shows in general were just starting to win awards, bar HBO. I think it's hard to change a show's perception, and I think that's why. Also the way the show is talked about, this crass, gross show – he's a rapist and they're all psychopaths and they're mean to everybody. I think the fact that the show has not had success on a huge level of winning awards has actually helped it, because people as individuals like to champion the show, they feel precious about it.
Can you talk a little about political viewpoints in the show?
Day: It's funny – even our episodes that someone might look at as having a liberal point of view, someone who is uber-conservative will probably also like that episode because our characters are often super conservative, and through that comes the satire. It's either a genius way to make a show, or we just stumbled onto it, or we lack the courage to make any real statements. When we do an episode that brings up issues, we like to throw questions to them rather than answering them for people – I don't think that's really our job. We'll get people talking and asking questions and thinking, and then the next episode we'll be talking about poop.
Howerton: Sometimes our political views might find their way into the show, but usually what we find funny about it is that regardless of where you stand on one particular issue, like the gun episode, it's more about watching the characters take both arguments to their most extreme. What I think is funny is satirising both sides of the argument. Usually the answer to any extreme political viewpoint is somewhere in the middle, but that's just not the way we operate. That's kind of how we are now, two opposing sides screaming at each other and never backing down. It's horrible for our country, but it's really fun for our show.
Charlie, I read somewhere that you've tried rum ham. What was it like?
Day: I was in a bar in North Carolina and the bartender sent me over a glass of rum with some slices of ham in it. I had a little bit of it. I couldn't finish it. I would not order it again.
Could you be friends with any of the gang in real life?
Howerton: You have those friends in your life that you've just had for many, many years that are just total fuck ups, but you love them and you care about them in a way... that sounds like awful, but I guess on some level... actually, no – the truth is I could not be friends with those people; they're horrible. It would be miserable. You can't trust them, and I can't be friends with people that I can't trust.
Day: I think I could tolerate a relationship with them at a safe arm's length. I got plenty of friends who I don't know what they do when they go home at night. I think it would be pretty entertaining, but maybe I would try to keep my kid away from them.
Good idea. Finally, what can we expect from season 11?
There are some really great, strong episodes. We bring back Chardee McDennis [a made-up board game from an earlier series] and that's a very strong episode. We have a scene underwater. There are some big and small episodes. I'm feeling pretty great about all of them. Then, next winter, we'll face the music and write 12.
Howerton: We're definitely continuing to take some pretty big swings this year. We're finding another gear in this season. It becomes difficult as we go on to try to find new ways to tell stories, and I don't want to give too much away, but one episode takes place on a mountain; we're doing a ski episode. We're doing an entire episode that takes place from Frank's point of view; you never see Frank's face, apart from in the mirror. So we're doing what we always do; we're experimenting.
More on VICE: