PAST DEADLINE

When things were hazy, Landgraf made sure to stay on the 'Sunny' side

If you're over the age of, say, 35, the chances are fairly good that you've never heard of the FX comedy series "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." But maybe it's time you looked into it. Because while the mainstream buzz and Emmy nominations go to the likes of "Entourage," "Mad Men" and "Damages," "Sunny" (as it's known to those too lazy to write or pronounce five-word titles) is starting to steal your kid in college and all of his or her friends — and just maybe your little brother and sister, too.

Fact: During the month of July on the streaming/download site Hulu, the most popular TV series was "Sunny." As of Thursday, it was listed as the sixth-most-popular show of all time in terms of traffic and interest. That's right: of all time.

Fact: The 17-episode Season 1 and 2 "Sunny" DVD released last year was such an unexpected smash that FX chief John Landgraf says it "had the highest conversion ratio of ratings to sales of any TV title in history."

Yet these little nuggets likely would come as little surprise to those who dropped by Comic-Con in San Diego a couple of weeks ago, when a screening and session attended by the "Sunny" producers and stars (who are, in fact, one and the same) nearly filled to capacity a room holding about 4,500 fans. It was the kind of reception one might expect for — gasp — a hit show.

Could it be that "Sunny" is money?

Well, if you ask Landgraf about the series that rolls out its Season 4 premiere at 10 p.m. Sept. 18, he'll tell you he kinda knew this was going to happen, even in the days when the show that arrived on the scene precisely three years ago today was barely attracting friends and relatives, much less actual viewers.

It launched Aug. 4, 2005, on the back of another original comedy, "Starved," which was given 99% of the marketing and promo budget earmarked for the two shows.

Yet Landgraf saw something even he can't fully explain in Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton and Charlie Day, three guys who wrote, produced, directed, shot, edited and starred in a well-received — and now legendary — comedy sample they made on a digital camcorder for less than $200. Based on that and that alone, Landgraf gave the guys who were still surviving as waiters and bit players a seven-episode order.

More remarkable still, he renewed the show and persuaded Danny DeVito to come on as a regular after "Sunny" tanked in the ratings, then "doubled down," as Landgraf says, on a third year even when the ratings rose only 30% from what had been mere hash marks.

Then, a few weeks ago, Landgraf did something thought to be unprecedented. He decided that on top of the 13-episode Season 4 he'd already signed off on, he also would renew the show for three more years and 39 more episodes (bringing it through Season 7).

Talk about putting your "Sunny" where your mouth is. A roll of the dice many considered foolish has paid off handsomely, producing a comedy that's become bona fide appointment viewing for the dorm room set even as it remained a well-kept secret with the aging masses.

"I love this show, man," Landgraf says. "We took a bet on these young guys, again and again and again. And that confidence is being rewarded now. We finally reached the ignition point in Season 3 where we went for it and doubled the marketing budget. And this show has raised its game and justified it all."

A single-camera comedy about five self-absorbed people running a Philly pub, "Sunny" is bawdy, edgy and politically off-kilter. One fan on IMDb describes it as " 'Seinfeld' on crack." The hyphenates who make it all happen — McElhenney, 31, and Howerton and Day, both 32 — write and exec produce the show as well as star, giving them unusual control.

"That's also served to distance us a little bit," McElhenney admits during a lunch break from shooting last week. "We really work in a bubble. It's also just difficult to quantify our audience. We're a half-hour on a network that didn't do half-hours, really, until now. That's why what we saw at Comic-Con just blew us away."

Adds Howerton: "You won't see us on the cover of Vanity Fair like 'Mad Men.' We're like that obscure band on the college radio station that for some reason doesn't get airplay from the radio mainstream yet sells millions of albums anyway. But our fans are pretty fanatical about us, and I have to believe we've finally risen way above the radar."

To be sure, the guys no longer have any worries about the radar finding them. Not with four more years of their main gig, along with having signed a two-year overall deal with 20th Century Fox TV and landing a pilot order for "Boldly Going Nowhere," a futuristic comedy set onboard a spaceship that the trio will produce for Fox after the current "Sunny" season wraps in October.

All in all, not so bad for three dudes who couldn't get arrested four years ago. "It's just nice knowing we don't have to go back to work in a restaurant anymore," McElhenney says.

Ray Richmond can be reached at ray.richmond@THR.com.
comments powered by Disqus