At a time when it feels like any comedy, great or up-and-coming, could be cut down at any moment, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia stands tall. The FXX series, which premiered on FX in 2005, is now in its 14th season, tying the record for longest-running live-action sitcom set by The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet—in 1966. The dissolute Paddy’s Gang would need at least another 28 years to come close to producing the same number of episodes; there are currently 144 episodes of It’s Always Sunny (not including season 14), compared to the Nelson family’s 435 episode count, which is just further proof of how much the programming landscape has shifted. But series creator Rob McElhenney and his fellow executive producers, Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton, didn’t have any such goal posts in mind when they first filmed the pilot in 2004; what they had was roughly $100 for production costs and a desire to create more opportunities for themselves onscreen and off.
Fourteen years later, no one is more aware of that milestone—and everything that went into hitting it—than the core ensemble of McElhenney, Day, Howerton, Kaitlin Olson, and Danny DeVito. As part of the Television Critics Association 2019 summer press tour, the actors who bring Philadelphia’s most debauched citizens to life host a panel and set visit, which is an incredibly organized affair given the Gang’s state of affairs. Critics are guided through Paddy’s, where not a single one of the fictional patrons has ever been carded, before getting a tour of Charlie (Day) and Frank’s (DeVito) squalid yet cozy apartment, the site of many unseemly sights and rounds of “Nightcrawlers.” Dee’s (Olson) home has some surprisingly great furniture, as well as a wide array of “head massagers.” We’re not made privy to Dennis (Howerton) and Mac’s (McElhenney) apartment set, which is probably for the best.
If you’re not already familiar with It’s Always Sunny, these places will come across as little more than fire hazards. But the unassuming (to put it mildly) settings are a key part of the show’s oft-brilliant skewering of hangout comedies in the “twenty- or thirtysomethings living it up in a big city” vein. It’s Always Sunny takes inspiration from the misanthropy of Seinfeld and takes aim at the well-appointed, improbably smooth-sailing lifestyles of Friends. Instead of hugs and lessons, there’s booze and consequences. No one gets a promotion, not one that lasts, anyway. Rather than offer bland platitudes about friendship being paramount, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia regularly ventures into the thorniest subjects, including reproductive rights, gun control, marriage equality, and religious intolerance (and the attendant homophobia). Nothing is ever resolved as a result of these forays—in fact, the Gang usually leaves things worse off than they found them. But while its characters may not evolve (much), the show’s themes, cast, and writers certainly have, which is one of the reasons why It’s Always Sunny has now lapped both Seinfeld and Friends, as well as every other live-action sitcom except Ozzie And Harriet.
When asked to reflect on the show’s history of going against the grain, McElhenney says he’s never been surprised by what the writers and cast have gotten away with getting on the air. “I don’t know if it’s a surprise that we got away with it, because I think our estimation from the very beginning was that the audience would be along for the ride if they knew where we were coming from, and where our hearts were at and what we were trying to say,” he says. Pressed to reveal what’s the “worst behavior” he’s ever displayed onscreen, McElhenney points to his singing ability in episodes like “The Nightman Cometh,” the first of many surprising and inspired musical moments on the show. It’s clear that, while the cast acknowledges that they’re all playing people no one should actually hang out with in real life, It’s Always Sunny isn’t about a race to the bottom.
Day underscores the fact that “there’s thought behind the edge of the show. When we do something that really pushes buttons or goes to the edge, it’s because we’re trying to say something about us as Americans; maybe it’s even a global thing.” And if Always Sunny is one of the shows to survive the boom in programming, it’s “because we’re smart.” So, yes, the Gang has staged an intervention to rein in Frank’s hedonistic ways and ended up getting blackout drunk, marched into the bar playing a sex doll like a trumpet, invited alcohol poisoning by attempting to break an indeterminate Wade Boggs record, and are likely harboring a serial killer (Dennis). Rob, Charlie, Frank, Dee, and Dennis don’t set out to do the worst thing possible on any given day, though; as Howerton tells us, “No matter how dark it gets, the characters are weirdly optimistic.” Despite not being able to grasp let alone follow most social conventions, the Gang has also bought into “the American dream: just do whatever you got to do to be on top.”
DeVito likens the grasping and scheming to another classic sitcom: “It’s a lot like I Love Lucy, on account of how Lucy and Ethel would dig some big hole and you watched them try to get out.” But it’s one thing to mock aspirational sitcoms and their emphasis on character progression; it’s quite another to have Mac don blackface because he really wants to embody Danny Glover in “Dee Reynolds: Shaping America’s Youth.” McElhenney, Howerton, and Day are all keenly aware of that, too. “The most important part is that the characters are one way, but the way the show handles that is never celebrating that behavior. It’s very clear on our show that this behavior will always get you right back in the same place, which is absolutely nowhere,” says McElhenney. Just look at Rickety Cricket, played by David Hornsby, who is hailed by his co-stars and co-writers as crucial to the ongoing success of the show. But according to McElhenney, poor Cricket is basically the painting in the attic that records (and suffers) every one of the Gang’s misdeeds: “[The Gang] directly—yet in our minds, indirectly—affect this man’s life so much that he goes from being a Catholic priest who’s very, very happy to a shell of a human being. Watching that devolution of a human at the hands of this behavior really distills what we’re saying with this show.”
Character growth may not be a goal, and neither is longevity—not one that’s top of mind, anyway. But everyone involved thinks It’s Always Sunny could go on virtually forever, even as they take on other projects: Day has found his way into feature films, Howerton is the lead on A.P. Bio, Olson has starred in multiple series, including the woefully short-lived The Mick, and McElhenney is producing a new show for Apple TV+. But there’s no doubt that they all want to keep walking right up to the edge of the abyss together, and that they’ll keep fueling the show with topicality. The writers regularly find ways to not only touch on hot-button issues but also return to them years later; they reckoned with racism again in “The Gang Makes Lethal Weapon 6,” and season 14 will feature another episode about women’s bodily autonomy seen through the lens of the Gang’s obsession with aesthetics. In order to offer new commentary along with reliably great humor, It’s Always Sunny has brought in writers like Megan Ganz, who wrote one of the series’ smartest and most unsettling episodes, “Time’s Up For The Gang.”
It’s not as if they’ll ever run out of ideas, McElhenney points out: “We just turn on the news, man. Look online, look at social media. There’s no shortage of the places the human condition can take you to satirize.” The season-14 episodes the actors tease range from the absurd—an Airbnb-dating scheme—to the ineffable, like the one only described as “Waiting For Godot At Laser Tag,” and an ambitious film-noir outing. According to Olson, there’s also an upcoming episode on global warming, which she calls timely and which DeVito thinks we’ll be revisiting in future seasons: “At this point, we can do one every year.” And as one of the shows that helped define the FX(X) network, It’s Always Sunny can probably count on breaking ol’ Ozzie and Harriet’s record. The team has certainly been given the creative freedom to keep poking at humanity’s couch-ensconced underbelly, Howerton says: “So I don’t know, maybe we’ll take breaks here and there, but I don’t know if we’ll ever stop. At least until they kick us off.”
McElhenney wraps the panel with a pertinent anecdote: “I was talking to Larry David at an event, and he said, ‘Hey, can I give you a piece of advice?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll take a piece of advice.’ I was expecting some sort of comedic breakthrough, something about the episode or an approach to the show, and he said, ‘Don’t be an idiot. Never stop. Just keep doing it.’ He said, ‘One, because it’s the greatest job you could ever want, and two, because if you do a final episode, they’ll just destroy you for it.’” The Gang might not have learned much in 14 years, but McElhenney, Howerton, Olson, Day, and DeVito recognize a good thing.