It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia - On the Set

Posted on 01. Sep, 2008 by in Film/TV

words by Randy Gambill, photos by Robert Todd Williamson

As I walk around the campus of Roosevelt Elementary School in Santa Monica on this bright and sunny Friday, I notice a smattering of kids enjoying recess and my mind turns to the many more inside their respective classrooms – all of these innocent children are most certainly oblivious to the madness that is transpiring in their own gymnasium. 

That’s because FX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, entering its fourth season this September, has invaded the campus of these unsuspecting tots and transformed their gymnasium stage into the setting of a musical operetta sequence, its main theme being the delicate subject of pedophilia.
Oh, the irony. 

Welcome to the no holds barred, demented world of this scathingly irreverent show, most oft-described as “Seinfeld on crack”. For those of you who don’t know, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia follows the demented adventures of four young miscreants and their dubious father figure (Danny DeVito), who run an Irish pub in Philadelphia. The show subscribes to the Seinfeld credo of “no lessons, no hugs” but one-ups them with its own apparent motto, “no fear of being too outrageously offensive.” The show is a gleeful, hilarious punch-in-the-face to any sacred cow you might want to hold dear, from mental retardation to Nazism, and the gang takes on all subjects with equal-opportunity offensiveness. The brilliance of the show is that it does not set out to shock for pure shock value and its one criteria is to make you laugh, which it does - nastily, frequently, and out loud. 

Sunny is the brainchild of Philadelphia native Rob McElhenney, who also stars in the show, along with Glenn Howerton and Charlie Day. The trio are executive producers on the show and also write many of the episodes, in addition to providing craft service on set (just kidding). The beautiful and funny Kaitlin Olson is the lone female of the group, Sweet Dee, and after a brilliant but ratings-wobbly first season, DeVito joined the proceedings to provide a little star wattage. Today’s filming features an operetta sequence performed by the entire cast, a culmination of a musical dream hatched by Charlie (Charlie Day) in the 3rd season. The sequence is a hilariously perverse take on bargain basement Community Theater, featuring the show’s recurring musical creations Day Man and Night Man, as well as the pedophilia theme. In typical Sunny fashion the gang from Paddy’s Pub is performing this shameful spectacle for a group of senior citizens. It adds to the dementia of the proceedings to see all the senior citizen extras milling about and sometimes having to be led around by attentive PA’s. Just another crazy day on the set of this wickedly subversive show. 

Director Matt Shakman (best remembered as a child actor on the Growing Pains spinoff Just the Ten of Us) has decided to shoot the operetta in its entirety by covering the action with multiple cameras, privileging everyone to see the cast perform an actual musical in continuity right before our eyes. 

Since most film and TV is shot in short bits and pieces, it is shocking to see the cast enact the entire thing in real time. Danny DeVito, in full troll regalia, musically and sexually propositions Glenn Howerton, resplendent in kiddie pajamas, on an imaginative set that looks like Dr. Seuss done cheap. Glenn Howerton is Julliard trained and DeVito can do anything, but it is still surprising to see how well they sing and how brilliantly they perform in long, uninterrupted takes, never stumbling over a line or missing a musical cue. 

The charming Olson appears in a pink fairy/princess-type outfit and in a sing-songy aside to the audience, disassociates herself from the subject matter of the play while trawling for a date. Finally the Night Man himself, Rob McElhenney, appears in his Karate Kid-inspired outfit and after a musical number and some weird martial arts moves, and attempts to rape Howerton. Howerton finds his strength and unzips his pajamas to reveal a tight, glam-rock satiny number (He wore this outfit in the Season 3 predecessor to this episode) and the musical battle between Day Man and Night Man begins. 

Shakman puts the cast through this sequence a number of times and their enthusiasm and professionalism never breaks. Watching the deranged shenanigans of these brilliantly funny people got me to thinking: 

What makes people funny? And why are so many people NOT funny? 

Everyone claims that humor is subjective, but lets face it, humor is one of the more objective qualities a person possesses. If you are funny people laugh at you. If you are not, they don’t. I’ve had to endure far too many humorless jackasses and bad improv nights to think otherwise. So I posed my hard-hitting two-part question to some of the cast members and got
some pretty interesting responses. 

Kaitlin Olson seems to enjoy the question and offers an initially emotional response, “This question makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Well, my own personal feeling is that people who aren’t funny are trying too hard. I think humor has to come from playing around. You have to be playing around and loving it. And when people are trying to be funny, for me, that’s what I don’t find funny.” 

Glenn Howerton offered a more analytical response, “I think there is a certain cynicism that a lot of people who are funny have. And that’s not to say that people who are funny are totally cynical. But I think there has gotta be a reason why a lot of stand up comedians, when you actually meet them, are cynical people. They’re not very happy.” 

I offer: “They’re angry, alcoholics sometimes?” 

“Yeah! Or there’s a lot of anger, and I think the reason is because, to be funny, I think there has to be a different part of you that sees the world as being fucked up and ridiculous and just insane. And you can either cope with it or not, but I think you have a certain ability to look at things from the outsiders’ point of view that there are a lot of things in this world and a lot of people who are ridiculous and crazy and stupid. Which sounds very judgmental, and it is, but I think you can have a cynical point of view and be a positive person. I do think thatyou have to have a certain amount of cynicism in order to be a funny person, to recognize irony.” 

Charlie Day’s response was both self-deprecating and ahem, funny. “What makes people funny? That is a good question. A lifetime of petty misery, I think. Yeah, and maybe a sense of humility. And the ability to laugh at themselves…and especially at others. But if you can’t poke fun at yourself then you start to become unfunny.” – I chime in to say that I know a lot of people who proclaim themselves as funny and they are not funny. – “Well, you know, it’s subjective I think. I’m sure there’s a lot of people that don’t find me funny at all.” I have to say Charlie, they are wrong! Yes, he agrees, “They are just wrong!” 

The show has been building from cult item to full-fledged hit, and is on its way to becoming a comedy classic in the pantheon with Seinfeld, Friends, etc. Rob McElhenney, the creator of the show, who is a native of Philadelphia, shared with me his true source of inspiration for the show, “I think initially we were pretty influenced by, certainly Seinfeld, but at the specific time we made the original show we were inspired by the British version of The Office.” 

Certainly the addition of comic great Danny DeVito in the second season boosted the show’s exposure. Charlie Day explains how the busy actor-director-producer decided to come play with the Sunny kids on a regular basis, “Danny’s kids were fans of the show and Danny was a fan through them. We were at a point after the first season that FX President John Landgraf wanted to see if we could get a little more attention to the show by getting a famous person. Danny was at the top of the list and so Rob went and sat down with Danny and pitched him on the show and then must have threatened him or something because he took it.” 

DeVito has his own reasons for taking time from his busy feature schedule to be a series regular again, “I had fun doing Taxi. It was five years with a cast that was like a family and it was more fun than anyone can imagine. The Sunny boys and girls, coupled with the story of Frank being joined at the hip with these young talented actors, as well as the endless possibilities for depravity was too much fun to pass up. I mean fun-loving colleagues who care, who are always there for you, writing that’s delivering for the characters, and for the audience…what greater thing can a humble fun-loving thespian desire?”  

After lunch, the second half of Charlie’s musical is being shot, also straight through, culminating with Day, who is dressed as a cross between Willy Wonka and a pimp, descending from the stage on his sun dais and making the musical cast complete. Day displays a surprisingly good and wide-ranging voice –- he does a great rock and roll solo. 

It is a uniquely pleasurable treat to see all five members of this great cast dancing and belting out songs and just being plain silly on-stage together during this musical finale. However inconclusive my poll on the nature of being funny might be, it is an empirical fact that what the cast of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is doing right in front of my eyes is funny. It’s actually more than just funny. It’s a comic bliss-out.   

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