The It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia origin story is basically myth by this point: A trio of twenty-something dudes shoot a short film for under $100, someone realizes it's more like a TV pilot than a short, and then, all of a sudden, they've landed a deal with FX and have a $400,000 budget to reshoot the thing for TV. And then... Danny DeVito! Hundreds of episodes! A rabid, overwhelming outpouring of love from critics and fans that got Mac into Game of Thrones but still, inexplicably, hasn't earned the show an Emmy!
Now, 14 years and 13 seasons later, It's Always Sunny has tied Ozzie and Harriet as the longest-running live-action sitcom ever, and it isn't showing any signs of slowing down. Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, and Glenn Howerton, the three co-creators/writers/stars/general masterminds are all off working on projects of their own—Day and McElhenney have a new series coming to Apple TV+ and Glenn Howerton is starring in A.P. Bio, one of the best network sitcoms in years—but the trio still manages to find new and increasingly bonkers ways to keep It's Always Sunny going. Howerton is even on board to direct a pair of episodes in the upcoming season for the first time.
So in honor of the new season, which premieres September 25 on FXX, we caught up with Glenn Howerton to dive back into the It's Always Sunny archives to unpack the guy's top five favorite episodes of the show. He wound up choosing eight favorites, then six episodes for newcomers to start with, then a few episodes with the most personal meaning to him, and... Look, there are a lot of brilliant episodes of It's Always Sunny out there. He has as much trouble picking favorites as the rest of us, apparently.
Long live It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. May it last as long as Danny DeVito's acting career, which is to say, forever. We'll have to do this interview again in another 13 seasons, since Howerton's picks may have evolved a bit by that point. Until then, though, here are his top five—er, eight—favorite episodes of the series so far.
"The Gang Hits the Road" (Season 5, Episode 2)
VICE: "The Gang Hits the Road" feels like the platonic ideal of an It's Always Sunny episode to me. I know why I like it—but why did you pick it?
Glenn Howerton: Maybe for the same reason. I just love the simplicity of that episode. We're not doing anything crazy—we're literally just trying to drive a car from one place to another, and we can't do it. In some ways, it's picking up where Seinfeld left off.
The subplot about Charlie and the pear reminds me of Seinfeld, too.
That actually came out of a real story that happened in the writers' room. We had a writer at the time—Scott Marder, who wrote many episodes of the show—who had never eaten a blueberry. And then we found out there were, five, six, seven, eight other things that he'd never had. I also love the specificity of that being like, "OK, I know we're trying to get to the Grand Canyon, but we got to stop and get this kid a pear." Then saying, "You know what? Coffee on the road is really bad, I'm going to buy a French press." There is something very funny to me about getting so hung up on the small things along the way that you never reach your destination.
This episode came out almost exactly a decade ago. It originally aired September, 2009. What is it that allows the show to keep going, all these seasons, without getting repetitive?
You might get a different answer from every one of us about what that is, but I think it is about having a very strong point of view. It can be a big thing—like something political, or some sort of a larger issue, like abortion—or just having a really, really strong opinion about the acidity level of your coffee. It's great comedy fodder, but it's also emblematic of our society more and more. The people that we hear about or from the most are the people who have strong opinions. And I think with that, you can just go anywhere.
Also, wait. Why are they bringing an empty trailer to the Grand Canyon in the first place?
Great. Now you're asking logistical questions? There was a reason for it, I think. In the beginning of the episode, we're hitching the trailer. It's just the four of us and we're hitching it to my Range Rover, right? So we have room in the car.
Right. And then you run over that bike and you switch cars.
So... What's in the back of that U-Haul at the beginning?
I don't know. Nothing?
Jesus Christ. Maybe it was just bad writing. It might have just been bad writing, dude.
Well, it turned out alright.
"The Gang Beats Boggs" (Season 10, Episode 1)
This is another classic It’s Always Sunny episode, at least for me. But you guys didn't write it—Dave and John Chernin did. Talk me through how the writers' room works.
We break the stories as a writer's room, and then writers get assigned episodes or we go off and write it. Then the very final part of the process is that me, Rob, and Charlie punch up and rewrite the whole thing. Some require very little rewriting and some require a lot, and I don't remember where that one was. But I know Dave and John are fucking brilliant, so my guess is we didn't rewrite that one all that much.
This episode is just so funny to me. It always makes me laugh. We were deep into the series at that point—I think it was season 10—and this episode felt fresh. It felt new.
Where did the idea of beating Boggs's record come from?
I think somebody was talking about the legend of Wade Boggs and how he drank 126 beers on a cross-country flight, and we realized it would be a great episode to try and break that record. Interestingly enough, another episode where we're just trying to get from here to there. It's all the shit in between that's so interesting and fascinating to me.
How'd you get Boggs involved?
I don't remember exactly. But what usually happens is that Rob reaches out to these people, because he's just the most persuasive of us. He's just a good salesman. A lot of times, when something like that goes through it's because, like, Wade Boggs' kids were fans of the show. I feel like that's how it's been a lot for us. We can never get the person—but it's always their kid who's like, "Dad, you have to do this."
Another thing that stood out to me about this episode are all the extras just sitting on a plane, barely moving. That seems worse than just flying normally.
You could also maybe argue that it's the best job in the world, because you don't have to do anything. You get paid to just sit on an airplane all day! Maybe. I don't know. It could also just be boring as shit.
"The Gang Gets Quarantined" (Season 9, Episode 7)
This episode has some great a capella. You also sing together in "Jihad," "Recycling Trash," and a few others. Where that come from? Did you guys always just hang out as buddies and sing together?
I think the first time it happened was in "The Gang Goes Jihad," when we're singing "More Than Words." I could be wrong about that. But we found it very funny to go down this really extreme path of borderline terrorism and extreme racism, we blow up this guy's building, and then, what's the least expected next beat? I think the least expected thing would be to see the same people who were freaking out five minutes earlier just casually sitting at a bar, drinking beers, singing this beautiful a capella song—and singing it fairly well.
The juxtaposition there was very funny to me, but also it's emblematic of the characters to sort of like feel very strongly about something and then to just immediately switch gears and never feel the full impact or weight of their actions.
How did the Boyz II Men plotline wind up in this episode?
We were trying to come up with a stronger reason why it mattered to us to stay healthy. I think that got combined with a story about Charlie meeting one of the guys from Boyz II Men on an airplane. But I also just remember thinking it was really funny when we latched onto this concept of getting sick, but at the end, finding out that it wasn't the flu—it was because we're all extreme alcoholics.
It's interesting you chose this one, "Boggs," and "The Gang Hits the Road," because they're super contained. They're all bottle episodes.
Oh, good point. All three are bottle episodes, you're right. Charlie and I both come from theater backgrounds and I think I just like sticking these characters in a room, giving them a very strong point of view, and letting them go at it.
"The Gang Sells Out" (Season 3, Episode 7)
I was surprised to see this one on the list. It doesn't really stand out in my mind much. But watching it again, I realized how strong the dialogue is—you have so many classic bits in this episode.
To me, this episode encapsulates a lot of what I love about the show. It shows the characters' extreme selfishness, their willingness to switch on a dime—their willingness to sell themselves at any given moment for the right price, and to cut each other out of the deal when it suits them. This episode might have also been the first time we did what has become a recurring joke on the show, where you're paying attention of the three of us having a very intense conversation, only to reveal that there's somebody else in the room with us. We're so self-involved we don't even realize that we're ignoring the other person in the room.
I just always felt like this episode is one of the most well structured episodes we’ve ever done. I think it's also weirdly one that you never hear about. And I never understood why, because I think it's one of our best, I really do.
It holds up. It's good!
That's the one where Hawky dies in the end? That storyline's stupid as shit, but it's funny, man. And then that song at the end makes me laugh.
"Mac and Charlie Die," Pt. 1 and 2 (Season 4, Episodes 5 and 6)
The only two-parter on the list! All three of you wrote this one together. You've talked a little bit about how the writers' room works, but how do the three of you write a script together?
That episode in particular is weird, because it was not a two-parter at first. It was one episode that was just super long. We had an early cut that was like 35 minutes. During the hiatus between shooting blocks, we took what we had and wrote more scenes and story and expanded it into a two-part episode. Probably what happened with that one is two of us wrote the original episode, and then the third guy helped write the second part.
But when the three of us do write together, one person is sitting at the keys, typing, while the three of us make jokes about the scene and improvise in character as Frank, Dee, Charlie, Mac, and Dennis. When it's two of us writing, it's the same thing.
Is there improv on set or do you keep it mostly reserved for the writing stage?
It's not really improvising. It's more ad libbing. I'm going to say the line the way it wants to come out of my mouth in any given moment, and that's the case with all of us. We don't consider ourselves Tennessee Williams—it doesn't need to be word-for-word. Sometimes you improvise and you're like, eh, the scripted line's just better, it's just better. And then there are other times you get on set and you just go and you go and you go and sometimes you go a little further and sometimes you go too far, but the script is just a roadmap. There's always room for improvement.
I can't tell you the number of times you get there on the day and somebody will pick up a prop and then somebody makes a comment about it and then next thing you know, the whole scene becomes about the prop. As long as it pushes the story forward, you just do that version of the scene.
"The Anti-Social Network" (Season 7, Episode 8)
Alright, what's the story behind the shusher?
That was based on a real thing that happened to me. Back in 2010, my wife and I were traveling with two of our close friends, Tom and Lindsay, in Italy. We were in this beautiful little Italian restaurant grabbing lunch and we started getting into the wine. I think we were being really loud, but we just didn't realize it. We'd had probably two or three bottles of wine and it's the middle of the day. And all of the sudden, we heard this "Shhhhhh!" And we looked over, and it was a tourist couple.
Granted, we were definitely being a little too loud, but I just remember we were like, "Did I just get shushed by a grown man? I just got shushed by a grown man!" Come over to the table and say, "Hey, I'm sorry, we're trying to enjoy a nice meal, can you keep it down a bit?" Of course we would. But to just shush us? I'm a grown man!
What happened next?
Our friend Lindsay, who was there, she couldn’t let it go. Days later she was still worked up about it. I remember bringing the story into the writers' room just because it was so funny.
That story bled into this whole question of if we're living in a world now where you can't just talk to somebody—you can't just go up to somebody and communicate human being to human being. Also, I love the whole thing where I make a joke about how I could be a psychopath, I could have a trunk full of all this stuff—and then in a later episode you find out I do have a trunk full of all that shit.
Yeah, that's a great call-back.
Our friends from that Italy trip are actually in the episode—they're the couple sitting next to the shusher. It's just a very funny, funny episode. In the blooper reel for that season, you can see that Charlie and I just could not get through the scene where we're getting the cop to draw the shusher without laughing. That whole episode was a blast.
"The Gang Tries Desperately to Win an Award" (Season 9, Episode 3)
This is your classic Emmys episode.
We debated this one a lot, because it was a bit of a tightrope. We didn't want to come off as petulant and actually desperate to win an award. We've had this conversation numerous times where we're like, "I really don't give a shit that we've never won an award. I could fucking care less." And then five minutes later, we'd say, "But why haven't we?"
Some of that dialogue's in the episode. We just decided to have a straight go at it and make fun of all the shows we thought were shitty but won awards, and also make fun of ourselves by answering the question of why we haven't won an award ourselves.
I'm also interested in how you balance topic or a really heavy theme episode. This is a really meta, theme-based episode, and I'm curious how you balance writing to a topic against plot and character.
You can have a theme like that, but ultimately what you have to latch onto is a character's desperate need and want. If you can't latch on to that, then the theme is meaningless. Once we were able to assign a need and a want to everybody, then we knew we'd cracked it. Ultimately, it was funny to have these characters try to crack the code of "What do I have to become and how do I change myself and my image in order to get the validation I seek?" But then, at the end of the episode, what you find out is that the characters in the show and the bar itself are just fundamentally never going to win an award. So, fuck it.
And then spit on them!
The 14th season of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia premieres September 25 on FXX. Glenn's favorite episodes—and all the episodes, for that matter—are currently streaming on FXNow. You can catch some reruns on VICELAND, too.