How 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia' Reinvented Television's Comedy Model
The "Sunny" actors and their FX boss, John Landgraf, open up about making TV comedies on the cheap.
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's contribution has been more than steady ratings and big laughs.
The long-running comedy, which was picked up for an eighth and ninth season Saturday, has also offered the News Corp. division an enviable business model, built on hefty ownership and low cost production. "Sunny not only became a hit, but the cornerstone of FX’s comedy brand, establishing a production model that’s become favored by the creative community and has lead to Archer, Louie, The League and Wilfred," said FX president and general manager John Landgraf after announcing the show's creators and executive producers, through their RCG shingle, had been granted a three year overall deal with FX Productions.
Executive producer and star Charlie Day took the opportunity before the Television Critics Association to praise FX, which took a chance on three young actors with no experience running a television show. Rather than pair them with an established showrunner, the network granted them the freedom to find their voice. "You have to give credit to FX for letting us operate in a bubble," he noted, adding that it was "refreshing [for viewers] to see a sitcom that didn’t feel as though it went through that network machine and got watered down."
The series, about a group who owns a dingy bar in South Philly, began as a $100 to $200 video centering on three self-obsessed actors competing for a role as a terminally ill patient. Though Landgraf wasn't sold on the initial plot, which was later changed, he was struck by both their talent and edgy humor and gave them a budget to shoot a pilot. "It was a good partnership because they wanted to learn," he said, "and we wanted to kind of reinvent the model."
Though Sunny's budget has escalated in success --now approaching $2 million per episode heading into season seven-- the series once cost about $550,000 per half hour, a fraction of what most television comedies traditionally run. To hear Landgraf tell it, FX and RCG did successfully reinvent the model for TV comedies: "By embracing a low cost production model and taking less money upfront," he said, "Rob [McElhenney], Glenn [Howerton] and Charlie were afforded more creative freedom, a true financial partnership and less pressure on the ratings so that the show had time to find an audience."
For McElhenney, who kept his gig as a waiter until the series was picked up for its second season, the incentive was that sizable ownership stake that he and his partners were granted. According to one knowledgable source, the trio's back-end is now worth close to $60 million.
"Our philosophy from the very beginning is when you’re making a situation comedy that it really is just a group of people sitting in a room talking to each other," said McElhenney. "We thought, 'Well, let’s just figure out a way to do that as cheap as possible... we just wanted to break it down to its basics."
Added Howerton, "If a stand-up comic can stand on stage by himself with no set and make people laugh, then why can't you just stick people in a room together and have them talk to each other in interesting ways and make them laugh. That doesn't have to be expensive."
To this day, even with profiles and salaries raised and the series on track to become the longest running live action comedy in basic cable history, the group says it still shoots the show in much the same way. The only major difference, according to Day, "Now we can afford to blow a car up or sink a boat with effects."