7:45am PT by Patrick Shanley
Rob McElhenney Wanted "Authentic" View of Video Game Industry in 'Mythic Quest'
[Warning: This story contains spoilers for the first season of Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet.]
Sporting a beard that would make King Leonidas proud, an all-black ensemble and an ego the size of Jupiter, Rob McElhenney leads the cast of the new Apple+ comedy Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet as video game creative director Ian Grimm.
A decade and a half after his first creation, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, debuted on then-newcomer FX, McElhenney has just launched another comedy on a fledgling network with Apple's streaming service. Partnered with Lionsgate and French gaming giant Ubisoft, Mythic Quest is a workplace sitcom centered on the development studio of a massively popular role-playing game of the same name.
Not afraid to steer into controversial topics surrounding the games industry (gender disparity, labor issues, "toxic" communities), McElhenney (and co-creators Charlie Day and Megan Ganz) put a premium on authentically representing game studios in Mythic Quest — while obviously taking some artistic, comedic liberties.
With a cast that includes Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham, Community alum Danny Pudi, video game alum Ashly Burch (Horizon Zero Dawn, Borderlands 3) and fellow Sunny producer and star David Hornsby, Mythic Quest has already earned an early Season 2 renewal from Apple.
Following the show's premiere last week, McElhenney chats with The Hollywood Reporter about the series' authenticity, its differences (and similarities) to Sunny, his inspirations for Ian ("he's an amalgam of a bunch of different creative directors that I met"), working with one of the world's biggest tech companies and what's in store for next season.
First, how’d you land F. Murray Abraham?
We wrote the part of CW Longbottom and then sat down with Jeanne McCarthy, our casting director, and she said, "Who do you have in mind?" We said that type-wise, we’re looking for F. Murray Abraham. She said, "Great, what about F. Murray Abraham?" We’re like, "I don’t think he’d do something like this." She sends him the script then calls me and says, "Murray wants to talk to you." I say, "Okay, great." He calls and says, [imitating Abraham] "Hello! I can just tell you I’m very excited to do the show." That was it. I realized mid-conversation that he was agreeing to do the show based solely on the script.
Where did the idea come from?
We were approached by Ubisoft and they were fans of Sunny. They said they wanted to make something about game development, are you interested? Truth be told, I wasn’t that interested. That’s only because everything I’d seen in the past had just painted the industry in such a negative light and it just felt like it was always the butt of the joke, it felt hacky, it felt like I’d seen it a million times. They encouraged me to just come out to Montreal and check out their studio to meet some of the people who actually make these games. I figured, it’s a free trip to Montreal, might as well take it. Within a few minutes of walking into their studio, I realized we had something.
Are you a gamer?
I grew up playing games and I play games, but I wouldn’t consider myself a gamer only in so far as it’s not something I’m devoting significant amounts of time to. Because of the show, I get to play a lot more and consider it research, which is nice.
What was the relationship with Ubisoft working on this show? Did you have a consultant to make sure you were accurately portraying game development?
Big time. It was very important for us from the very beginning. I called Ubisoft back and said, all due respect, we love this and are very interested in doing it, however, we do not want to do a commercial for Ubisoft. Also, we don’t want to promote your games, necessarily, and we don’t even want to promote the industry itself. This should not be made as a sales tool. It should be something of a backdrop for the stories of the people who actually make the games. Because of that, we’re going to have to deal with some of the things you guys are wrestling with right now, because the industry is fraught with a great amount of positive aspects but also a great amount of negative ones. Things like gender disparity, labor issues when it comes to crunch, certainly a lot of the toxicity that comes from the community. We said, look, we’re not going to do a hit piece, but we can’t pander to the community and say this is all roses, because it’s not. We also need to make sure we’re not airing on the other side, too, and just present something that is entirely negative. We feel like we have a good way in to address both so that not only can the non-gaming audience watch the show and see themselves in some of the characters, but also the games industry can watch it and go, this feels authentic to our experiences.
You tackle hot-button issues surrounding the games industry in this show. Who did you consult with to accurately approach those?
Through our partnership with Ubisoft, any time we said we needed to talk to a game developer, they would bring in one of their consultants. And here’s one of the beautiful things about Los Angeles: There’s so many different studios. We spoke with multiple game devs, a few female game devs, multiple heads of monetization, the CEO of one of the studios, multiple creative directors. Then, in terms of the writers room, we bifurcated it so that we had half the room were hardcore gamers and the other side could give two shits about video games. That was important to us, too, because we wanted to make sure we were making a show that anybody could watch.
The cast of this show is very diverse in many different ways, from age to race to gender and interest in the industry.
Yes, something that’s really important to us is we wanted to make sure that nobody felt pandered to — and if there is a community that recognizes pandering, that’s the gaming community and they do not appreciate it. Honestly, I feel like just the viewing public recognizes it, as well, and they can smell bullshit. I think there’s such a glut right now of movies and television shows that are just checking boxes and saying, "Look how diverse our cast is. We have an African American person, we have a white person, we have a Latina person." It just feels false and inorganic to what the actual experience is. Now, not all the time, but I think when it’s happening organic to the story that’s being told, then it feels like, wow, what a rich tapestry through which you can tell the story. When it feels like you literally just decided you have to check boxes all the way down the road because that’s what seems to be important in the culture right now, people will respond negatively, and they should because that is not helping anything move forward. So, when we were approaching this we were like, let’s be honest about what the experience is like in these dev companies. When you go in there and take a look around, you are seeing people from all over the world. Different countries, different cultures, different colors, different religious backgrounds — but you are also seeing a lot of dudes. It doesn’t mean that they are not trying, because they are trying, but it’s not going to happen overnight. We wanted to make sure we were addressing that. If we just presented this world where half the people there were female, it would feel like bullshit. Now, that said, if you notice — this was done on purpose and I’m hoping people are picking up on this — most of the younger people are female and most of the older people are male. The reason for that is that it’s true to the experience. The gaming companies, much like a lot of what’s happening in corporations across the country, are doing their best right now and are bringing in new talent, and yet there aren’t a lot of older women in the industry because they didn’t start when they were young. Right now, there’s an influx of young female talent and they’re starting in entry-level positions and working their way up. Ultimately, that’s what we wanted to represent.
There are some similarities between Mythic Quest and Sunny, but they are very different shows. Was it important to you to make this feel unique from your past work?
We love Sunny and we’re going to continue to do Sunny. By no means do I want to distance myself from that show. In fact, I want to embrace it the other half of the year because it’s my baby and I want to keep doing it. But, if we were going to do something new, we didn’t want to do the same thing. Of course, it’s still comedy and we all have our very specific senses of humor. Bringing over Charlie Day and I and Megan [Ganz] who co-created it and David [Hornsby] as an exec producer, it’s going to be impossible to completely take out the DNA of what our comedic sensibilities are. So, that’s why it feels a lot like Sunny in some of its humor, but in terms of stretching tonally, that was something that we really strove for.
There’s an episode about halfway through this first season that is a bit of a departure. Why did you decide to sort of branch off from the main narrative in that episode?
Well, we’re definitely fans of TV and we’re seeing people take real risks in storytelling. There are no rules anymore. It used to be that you had to tell a story in a very specific way. And yet, we recognize the show is a fairly traditional workplace comedy, and that’s by design. Sunny is a very niche show for a niche audience. We love that. It’s not for everybody and it’s not supposed to be. [Mythic Quest] we thought was an opportunity to broaden that out a little bit and welcome a new audience in, just as a challenge, but we still want to stretch and do strange things. So, we had this idea of having something right in the middle of the season that was thematically tied to what was happening and also had lots of different elements to it that were Easter eggs that hopefully, if somebody watches it the first time, they might pick up on the Roscoe character, the fact that this was the previous game studio offices and ultimately, in the end, you start to realize that it’s all thematically built into what the overarching narrative of the season is. Hopefully, we want this audience to watch multiple times and pick up on other things, because there are a lot of elements in there that are very carefully placed to create this overall ecosystem that we’re trying to build and will come back in the second season.
Mythic Quest is launching in the early days of Apple+. 15 years ago, you launched Sunny in the early days of FX. Have there been any similarities or differences?
Absolutely. That was such a big draw for us. When we pitched the show, we had offers from many networks, including a lot of the streamers. One of them was Apple. We were really unsure at first. They hadn’t launched yet, they weren’t going to launch for another year, we didn’t know any of the other shows they were making, we had no idea what they were doing. They were being very secretive about it. The question was, do we go with the one of these streamers or premium cable outlets that we know what we’re going to get or do we jump into the abyss of mystery and see what comes out? It felt like the safe move would have been to go with the known, why not jump into the unknown, just like we did with FX? It seemed to work out there, so, if you’re going to place a bet, why not place it on a trillion dollar company?
Did you base your character, Ian Grimm, on a real-world person?
He’s honestly more of an amalgam of a bunch of different creative directors that I met. It’s a really fascinating job because Ian describes himself as a builder of worlds and I did meet a person who describes himself that way. It’s funny and it’s ridiculous, and yet, when you break it down, that is what they’re doing. He works with a team to create a virtual reality space where people from all over the world can commune and play together. As ridiculous as it sounds for someone to actually describe themselves as a builder of worlds, which is essentially saying, "I am a god," is a ridiculous thing to say out loud, but it’s also not that far away from what they are truly doing. That creates a certain level of narcissism that is just too fraught with comedic possibilities to pass up.
Season 1 was subtitled Raven’s Banquet, implying that Season 2 will follow a similar trend. What can fans expect from the next season?
First of all, one of the great benefits of working for a trillion dollar company is that they can jump into the abyss of mystery as well and pick us up months before we’ve aired. That just shows how much confidence they have in what we’ve delivered to them, which feels great. But, it does put us at a disadvantage because you’re not really 100 percent sure how things are going to play and the one thing I’ve learned from Sunny is that you never really can predict what’s going to resonate with people. Ultimately, that’s not really our job. Our job is to make the show we believe in and what we want to make. But, what we do with Sunny is we listen to what the community says. That doesn’t mean that we’ll always take what we hear and implement it into the show, but we don’t turn off our senses either. That’s one thing that we’re at a disadvantage at with the second season [of Mythic Quest] because we’re breaking it now. The good news is, we’re coming out [now] and I hope to get some of that feedback so we can start implementing it into the scripts.
We’ve got you and David Hornsby in the show. Possible that we’ll see any more familiar Sunny faces in the show as it moves forward?
Anything is possible. My wife [Kaitlin Olson] needs a job, that’s for sure. She’s used to doing two shows a year. Last year, she had Sunny and The Mick and this year she’s doing Sunny and a Quibi show, but we’re not really sure if she’ll get a second season on Quibi so we’ll see.
Was your beard on Mythic Quest real?
I am offended that you would even ask.
Thank you. It is 100 percent real. The only reason it does look fake is because it’s so dark. I do have some gray in my real-life beard. I’m 42, right? The groomers were like, do you want to dye your beard? I said no, I’m not going to be the asshole that dyes his beard. But then I thought, wait! In real life, I’m not the asshole who would dye his beard, but Ian is absolutely the guy who would dye his beard. It wasn’t even dye, it was paint. So, the hair is real, the color is not.