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This story first appeared in the Oct. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When Rob McElhenney started pounding the pavement back in 2004 with the pilot for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, he was not aware he was pitching what would become one of TV’s most successful underdog stories. FX’s bitingly satirical comedy, about five hapless friends without a moral compass, was one of the first two in-house productions the cable network commissioned. It had a long road before cult status parlayed it into a mainstream darling — now in its ninth season and anchoring newly launched spinoff cable net FXX.
Sunny, which premiered in summer 2005 and was set to air its 100th episode Oct. 9, had the unfortunate obstacle of debuting in the time slot immediately following short-lived eating disorder comedy Starved. Low ratings demanded do-or-die stunt casting, and by a stroke of good fortune, Emmy-winning TV icon Danny DeVito joined as a regular for the sophomore run.
Streaming deals on Hulu and syndication on Comedy Central saw audiences grow — prompting sold-out national tours consisting of live re-enactments of season four’s musical episode “The Nightman Cometh” and big three-season renewals.
Now approaching the 10-year mark, creator McElhenney and fellow stars and executive producers Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton — as well as co-star and McElhenney’s wife Kaitlin Olson — look to the already greenlighted 10th season with the very real option of choosing to leave Philly on their own terms.
McElhenney (“Mac” McDonald): Our pitch was myself, an agent and our manager just going around and popping in the DVD and seeing if people laughed. I think we hit seven or eight networks in two days, and we ultimately got offers from four. When we took it to Fox, they did not get it. It was the only room that did not laugh once. I was just looking over at the executive who had a stone face through the entire thing. When it was over, he stood up and said, “OK, thanks.” That was the end of it.
Day (Charlie Kelly): They had just shelled out a lot of money to make The Ortegas, so there was a lot of tension over there.
McElhenney: A lot of the specifics from that pilot we shot are different than what made it to air, but the tone has always stayed the same. We fought from the very beginning to keep the integrity of the tone.
Howerton (Dennis Reynolds): People are always asking us how to get their foot in the door, and we always encourage people to go out and shoot anything they can.
Day: And none of us was really even a writer when we started.
Olson (“Sweet Dee” Reynolds): It was like my 300th pilot season, and I was so frustrated with the stuff that I was reading. I didn’t find things very funny, and then I wouldn’t even get them. This was for absolutely no money on a basic cable network I’d barely heard of, and I didn’t even care. I just wanted it so badly.
STAYING ON THE AIR
McElhenney: We knew that no one was watching the show, and the network said that we needed to bring in someone with cachet to draw attention. They didn’t really have the marketing budget at the time to blanket the airwaves.
Day: Their plan was to put their marketing money into Starved and hope that people stuck around and checked out our show afterward — which, if you’d seen Starved, was a lot to ask.
McElhenney: We bounced a few names around, but Danny just made a lot of sense. When I went to his house to talk about it, his kids ended up being huge fans of the show and he was good friends with John Landgraf from when Landgraf ran television at [DeVito’s] Jersey Films. Danny kept asking all of these questions, and I was really winging it with the character — we had a rough idea — so after about half an hour, he thanked me and I left. It wasn’t 10 or 15 minutes before I got a call from Landgraf saying Danny was in.
Howerton: Our season-two pickup was predicated on if we could bring in that high-level name. Not only did it mean that we were getting Danny on the show, it meant we still had a show.
Olson: We were still on this teeny-tiny stage in our minuscule dressing rooms, and all of a sudden we were doing scenes with Danny DeVito. The idea of it was surreal, but in practice it became very normal very quickly.
McElhenney: Whenever we got onto Hulu, that was when it dawned on me that the show was popular. We became this show that people could pass on to each other. And from there, we just saw the ratings move up and up.
Day: It was the live tour for me. I would stop in restaurants and airports and see that it was getting around, but when we were selling out the Beacon Theatre in 14 minutes and standing out there in front of 4,000 screaming kids, that’s when you realize, “Oh, wow, this has really touched a nerve.”
Howerton: The first time we went to Comic-Con, we were terrified because they put us in this massive hall. We knew it would look lame when we didn’t fill the space. And we showed up, the place was packed to the brim.
McElhenney: We did a big DVD release for the first and second season, and I remember going to some event in New York and there was barely anybody there. And the only people that were there were there for Danny and holding old Taxi DVDs. And then within three years, our DVDs were outselling anything live action on Fox.
Olson: There are still plenty of people who will say to me, “Oh, you’re on a show? What’s it called? Oooooh, I hear that’s supposed to be funny.” But definitely when I’m out with Rob, there’s a bit more excitement. It kind of blows their minds that we’re together in real life, and then they want to talk about it. Meanwhile, we just celebrated our five-year anniversary. We’re used to it.
PUSHING THE ENVELOPE
Day: I’ve got to say, I’m more surprised by what people get away with on dramas. People get their face shot off and cut in half. That’s why none of this stuff in a comedy seems shocking to me. It’s always social commentary and tongue in cheek. We showed Danny DeVito’s butt. So what? I saw a little kid get poisoned with ricin and nobody seems to care. I don’t find what we do shocking. Edgy, sure, but I think it’s just satire.
Olson: I realize we discuss subjects that don’t normally get discussed, but I’m never concerned that anything’s not going to make it to air. FX has always supported the voice and encourages us to push things even further.
Howerton: We were disappointed that there wasn’t more negative feedback. In the first season, we were doing all of this stuff about molestation and abortion. And we didn’t do it to get a rise out of people. We did it because we thought that’s what’s going on in the world and this is the kind of shit we think is funny. These were issues that people tend to get a little stirred by.
Day: It’s more nerve-racking because you say to yourself, “Is nobody watching? Does nobody care?”
McElhenney: I think the reason that we don’t hear too much about it is because everybody kind of gets it.
Howerton: It’s like South Park. I think we also get away with it because the characters are never rewarded. They’re always losing. They always wind up in the same place they started in.
Olson: It’s the perfect job. We have amazing writers, and I still get to add to the creativity of my character. I met my husband on this show. I had two kids here. I’m just enjoying it while it lasts. While we’re shooting, it’s strenuous 12- to 14-hour days, but give me a break, it’s 2½ months of the year. Anyone can handle that.
McElhenney: As long as it’s still fun and still funny to us, we’ll keep doing it. Even if the network doesn’t want to.
Day: I think we’ll stop when FX runs out of money.
McElhenney: We’re literally in 20 million fewer homes on FXX. The reaction has been rough from die-hard fans who don’t get the channel in their cable package.
Howerton: It’s available to them, but they have to upgrade. The majority of our fans are pretty young and battling student loans, so they’re bummed. Eventually, it’s our understanding that FXX will be in more homes. ?
Day: I think it’s hard on FX, too. This is an effort they really wanted to take on, but it always comes with a downside. Hopefully, the audience finds it. But you can’t blame us, it wasn’t our idea.
McElhenney: We’ve bounced around some ideas about how to end the show, but Glenn, Charlie and I are really going to have to sit down and come up with one that pleases us and pleases the fans.
Howerton: There was a time when season nine might have been the last season — and, interestingly enough, as important a decision as this is, the three of us came to an idea of how to end the show that we all really liked a lot and are leaning toward. That’s not to say it will be the one we end up with.
McElhenney: We also did it very quickly, which was shocking to us, because we can never agree on anything that big.
Day: Who knows though? By next year we may feel differently.
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