Rob McElhenney and the Gang Get Syndicated
Let's get this straight right now: You don't watch a show about people who exploit dumpster babies, smoke crack to fake Medicare claims, or bribe morgue attendants for “15 minutes alone with the corpses” because you’re a sick fuck. But the good news? You’re not alone.
“It’s taken about five years to catch on,” says creator Rob McElhenney, high off a week in which Comedy Central snapped up syndication rights to the series, any creator’s dream. “But I started seeing the Halloween costumes last year. And its pretty much impossible to go to a bar right now and not end up getting totally wasted. It's just shot after shot after shot.”
The rapid metastasis of Sunny, which is locked in on the tiny FX network through 2011, and this season is up 55% in the coveted 18 to 49 demo, is proof of two things: the freshness of its subversive themes — racism, abuse, white-collar crime — and the finding of its rabidly addicted fan base, which can't get enough of the gang of Philadelphia bar owners and a debauched, dysfunctional father figure played by Danny Devito.
To the fans, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is a salve for the soul, the anti-Friends, a big crotch-kick to the sitcom schlock that big networks force feed to Coldplay-listening, missionary sex–having, Crate & Barrel–buying automatons. Sure, Friends had its moments (Ross and the leather pants, anyone?), and the CBS series How I Met Your Mother ain’t bad. But King of Queens? Two and a Half Men? Anything with George Lopez? Come on.
There are some clear similarities, but “Sunny is still a cult show,” McElhenney insists. “We just happen to have a very large audience now. It’s like we're just like an indie band that people started to really like — and couldn't help but pass discs around to their friends.
Fresh off a week that included the syndication deal, a guest appearance on Lost courtesy of friend and Sunny fan Damon Lindelof (Lost’s co-creator), and the berth of his beloved Phillies into the World Series, McElhenney waxed rhapsodic on the jet-stream moment of success he’s experiencing. It’s a hoary montage we’ve all ogled in movies like the Radiohead documentary Meeting People Is Easy, or the cheesy upswing moments in VH1 Behind the Whatever.
“I’m pretty psyched. I’m going to all three home games in the World Series. I have a bet about how many Green Man costumes we’ll see on Halloween night,” McElhenney says, referring to a recurring costume worn by co-creator and co-star Charlie Day, while the character tried to beat up the team’s mascot, the Philadelphia Phanatic.
So... Michael Jackson bought the Elephant Man. Beethoven powdered his wigs. Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee swapped flesh on a boat. R. Kelly peed on a chick. And Rob McElhenney ... bought tickets to the World Series? Must have been decent seats.
Thing is, McElhenney’s always been a blue-collar guy, the kind that ain’t afraid to toss around a bale of creative hay if it means he'll understand how the cows get fed. He, Day, and Glenn Howerton (and others) filmed the show’s initial pilot six years ago for a couple hundred dollars and shopped it around with all of the swagger of Evel Knievel trying to borrow your minivan. Their cojones pretty much saved the show.
“Comedy Central said they liked it, but they didn't want me to run the show,” remembers McElhenney, “And we said, 'Thank you very much, goodbye.' I don't blame them — I was a waiter. I had zero experience writing or running anything. And I’d never worked in television. But let's just say I don’t think any of those people are working there anymore.” And the ones that remain? Guaranteed they had to crack open their wallet a bit wider to land Sunny’s sloppy seconds this time.
Showing the stones to keep control didn’t just allow the gang to score some cash, though — it also gave them some room to roam, creatively, from set pieces to guest directors, including child actor Fred Savage and former Teen Wolf actor Jerry “Styles” Levine.
“The best directors are the guys that come in there with a plan but are also ready to collaborate with us,” McElhenney says. “We have a lot of scenes where there are five or six people in 'em, and they’re all angry and yelling at each other, and if the director doesn’t have a plan in terms of how to stage it, block it, and shoot it, we could be there for six hours shooting a one- or two-page scene.”
Shooting on a soundstage is one thing, but it wasn’t until the gang hit the road to promote season five with a four-city musical tour that McElhenney realized just how feverish the show’s fans had become. The musical, The Nightman Cometh, is a sweeping aria of unrequited love that perversely hints at the rape of Howerton’s character, Dayman, by Nightman, and otherworldly figure played by McElhenney. Fans flocked to the shows.
“That was, like, real rock'n'roll type nonsense,” McElhenney remembers. “I signed a plethora of breasts. And I’d say my wife [Kaitlin Olson, who plays Dee, a bartender on the show] signed even more. It was almost like the Rocky Horror Picture Show. In San Francisco a whole section of Asian kids dressed up in fop outfits from the [throwback] 1776 episode, with wigs and everything. That was pretty distracting, actually.”
Success that fast doesn’t come without stretch marks, however: A recent product integration spot with Dave and Buster’s sparked some message board haters, despite similar promos by 30 Rock and Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
“It’s no secret that advertising pays the bills,” McElhenney says. “You can either reject it or embrace it — but we thought there was something really funny about embracing it,” McElhenney says. “It’s just a polarizing show to begin with. “'Mac bangs Dennis’ Mom' might be one guy’s favorite episode, another guy, ‘Sweet Dee Dates a Retarded Guy.’ But some people saw it and got pissed off. Fuck 'em. Did you like the episode? Was it funny? Great. The end. The truth is we don’t care, and we just try to make a funny show every week, and it seems to be working so far.”
With season five in the can now, McElhenney plans to spend the winter gearing up for the onslaught of shooting that will dominate his 2010. As the liaison to the network, that’s not a small gig. “I like getting on the phone, solving problems, coming up with answers,” he says. “I just filmed a guest spot on Lost, and I was bored as shit just sitting in the trailer in Hawaii waiting to shoot.”
The gang will also continue to hone their Fox Network space parody, Boldly Going Nowhere, with the help of Borat director, former Seinfeld writer, and Curb Your Enthusiasm director Larry Charles (another fan). And for Christmas, they plan to launch a holiday DVD that promises the raunchiest stuff since the inbred, unibrow-sporting McPoyles family took the gang hostage in raggedy tighty whities, grease, and robes.
“On a DVD we can do whatever we want,” McElhenney says. “It’s going to be the raunchiest thing we've ever done.”
Take that and stuff it in your stocking, Standards and Practices.
(This article originally appeared on the cover of ANTENNA's Winter 2010 issue.)