Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton do such a convincing job of portraying a trio of degenerate, sex-crazed narcissists that it's hard to believe "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" is set to begin its third season on FX Thursday.
How could these hedonistic slackers pull themselves together long enough to produce 15 half-hour segs of a single-camera show on which they all serve as genuine multihyphenates -- stars, writers, producers and, in the case of McElhenney, an occasional helmer.
Perhaps it was all that real-life unemployment that the three endured just a few years ago when they were struggling actors yearning to eat regularly. Since its 2005 debut on FX, "Sunny" has become the poster child for the groundswell in the biz of actors taking matters into their own hands and writing their own material, on the theory that it can't be any worse than the crap they're being turned down for anyway.
"I jumped from waiting tables in West Hollywood one night to directing a pilot and showrunning," McElhenney still marvels, even with 34 episodes (and counting) under his belt. "It's such a great complement when people say (the threesome) come off as a comedy troupe that has been working together for years. Because we haven't. We were friends before, but we never worked together."
Click here for clips of the new "Sunny" segs on the FX website, or check out the promo vids posted below.
(Pictured above, from left: Glenn Howerton, Rob McElhenney and Charlie Day)
It started, like so many plots on "Sunny," primarily as a lark. McElhenney had some down time in 2004 during a period when the phone wasn't ringing much. The Philadelphia native had a respectable number of credits under his belt -- a "Law & Order" here, an "ER" there, a little big-screen time in 2000's "Wonder Boys" -- but he was frustrated after a long dry spell. So thinking about anything he could do to showcase himself, he dreamed up an idea for a short film about a horribly self-centered guy who knocks on a neighbor's door to borrow a cup of sugar, only to be informed that the neighbor has just been diagnosed with cancer. Instead of bursting out with compassion and consoling cliches, his antihero would make a half-hearted attempt to "act like he cared but he'd really start scheming to get the fuck out of there -- after he got his sugar."
So McElhenney wrote, and in time, showed it to his friends, Glenn and Charlie. They liked it, and the threesome began to expand the concept into a proper story built around a broader group of desperate, self-indulgent characters who found themselves in situations that called for a modicum of decency, which they were unabashedly lacking. After collectively beating the script around for a while, "we got a couple of cam-corders and said, 'Let's shoot this for fun,'" McElhenney says.
Through the wonders of DV editing tools available on Mac computers, they stitched the best of what they shot into a 20-minute piece. It didn't take long for them to come to the collective notion: "Maybe we got sumthin' here?"
They got their homemade demo into the hands one of the town's top lit agents, Ari Greenburg of Endeavor, who is known for his eye for new writing talent. Greenburg concurred with the trio's idea that their piece would make a dandy pitch reel for an off-kilter comedy series. Their handiwork made the networks rounds, and was surprisingly well-received, McElhenney says.
"Most of the networks liked it, to our surprise, but not to our surprise most of them did not like the fact that we had so many demands about being able to write and produce it ourselves," he says. "Most of them said, 'It's so funny. Now here's how we're going to change it.'...And everybody balked at us being the actors and the exec producers. But at FX, they said, 'OK.'"
McElhenney credits FX chief John Landgraf for having a vision (and more important, adhering to it) of "letting the creators create." At the same time, because of all the leeway they were given, the trio was more than willing to work with the FX creative team to help "shape it into the show it is now," McElhenney says. "The network embraced the tone that we were going for, and then helped us work with these characters to make it a (sustainable) show."
"Sunny" taps into the same kind of root-for-the-nerdy-underdog spirit of raunch that helped make "Knocked Up" and "Superbad" such big hits on the bigscreen this summer. At its core it revolves around four friends -- Mac, played by McElhenney; Charlie (Day); Dennis (Howerton); and Dennis' sister, Dee, played by Kaitlin Olson -- who own a dive bar in Philadelphia, and the endless scrapes they dive in and out of. Danny DeVito came aboard in season two as Frank, Dennis and Dee's long-lost father, although at the end of last season we learn that Frank isn't really their dad in a DNA sense, but he might be Charlie's.
Most episodes revolve around the "gang" trying to get laid, get out of anything like hard work, investigate get-rich or get-famous-quick scams, and frequently, get even with someone who one of the group feels has done him or her wrong at some point. The internecine warfare among the foursome can also be intense. And at some point in nearly every episode, somebody's busy getting plastered. (The "Cheers" gang at their worst never swilled it up like these losers).
There's a surprising lack of anything remotely resembling "heart" written into the show. McElhenney notes their good fortune in landing the broad-minded Olson for the pivotal role as Dee. Miraculously, the actress appreciated the troika's warped sense of humor and became a fourth Musketeer offscreen in "a matter of weeks," McElhenney says.
Indeed, the gist of the jokes in most "Sunny" segs would make Charles Bukowski blush. The unadulterated nastiness of its tone at times undoubtedly limits its appeal to audiences who have a hard time with jokes about incest, racial and ethnic differences, the disabled, abortions, crack heads, boozers, terrorist plots, seducing a friend's mother as a revenge ploy, etc. Every so often a random bit-part character will observe that the lead characters are "assholes," and it comes across as if it's meant to reassure viewers that the people who bring you "Sunny" are not really endorsing the behavior on screen.
McElhenney stresses that they use their own internal taste meters, and strive to make sure there's comedic value whenever they push hard at the boundaries of 10 p.m. basic-cable etiquette.
"We're always surprised at how far we're allowed to take it," he admits. "We do have crazy and bawdy humor, but we don't want to do things that are just in bad taste. If we're doing something that's kind of gross or may be offensive, it has to be funny too. If it doesn't make us laugh, then we haven't struck that kind of nerve that we're trying to strike."
The challenge of wearing so many hats on the production means that they have to have all of the season's scripts written before the cameras start rolling, or the latter half of the season devolves into madness. They learned that the hard way when they started production last year with only 10 of the season's 17 scripts completed.
"We all lost a lot of sleep and stomach acid" over it, McElhenney admits. But though they were careful not to make the same mistake again this year, there was still plenty of time for on-the-fly rewrites when the segs finally went before the cameras.
"Any episode you see is never exactly what we've written," McElhenney says. "We pay close attention to crafting the story, because if there's no structure for us to go into it's just going to be a mess, and then as we shoot we (work) to make the dialogue as funny as it can be. We don't want it to be a just bunch of guys doing poop jokes and dick jokes. Hopefully we're telling interesting stories in there as well."