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Q&A: ''Always Sunny'' creator Rob McElhenney

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Rob McElhenney, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Aaron Rapoport

When we last saw the gang from FX’s joyfully depraved comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, they were in rough shape. Illiterate Charlie was passed out on their bar’s floor after munching a few too many cough medicine-spiked brownies. Amoral playboy-wannabe Dennis and his tattooed buddy Mac each had a 25-pound keg hung around his neck. Lone female Sweet Dee was screaming in pain from a shattered knee, the victim of crazed ex-priest with a wooden stick and a mission. And along with their scheming head honcho Frank, they’d just lost ownership of Paddy’s Pub to a homeless guy.

Did their shenanigans earn them loyal fans? Yes. But had the Sunny gang gone too far? Was it time to lick their wounds and move on? Not a chance.

Earlier this week, EW.com broke news that the half-hour show will return to FX in the fall for a 13-episode fourth season. Series creator and co-star Rob McElhenney was kind enough to hop out of the writers room — where he, fellow exec producers Charlie Day (who plays Charlie) and Glenn Howerton (Dennis), and the rest of their team have just started hashing out new episodes — to kick us some insider knowledge about what we can expect from the new season.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So you’ve started up the new season. Take me through a typical day thus far.
ROB MCELHENNEY: Well, the first two days we started by just knocking around basic jumping-off points, like what we want to do episodes about and how we can execute it. We just sort of spit-fire, like, I want to do an episode about health care. Okay, I want to do an episode about the arms race. I want to do an episode about the housing market crisis. So we put up index cards. We wound up with 30 or 40 cards full of episode ideas, and then we start saying, ”Well, this one seems to make sense with this one. This one seems to make sense with this one.” And we start putting them together, and today we broke our first story scene-by-scene.

So had you been stockpiling ideas since last season? Do you walk in with a ton of stories you want to get done?
Not really. I try to put it out of my head because we work long hours on the show, because we write it and shoot it and cut it. So when we have time off, I like to take time off. That being said, once we start up — not to say that it’s easy — but because of the style of the show, and trying to find some sort of social relevance, it’s easy to open up a newspaper, see what’s in the news and say, ”I want to do an episode about that.”

I heard that the episode in season 3 where the gang finds a dumpster baby came about that way.
There’s nothing funny about a baby in a dumpster. The idea of it was so ludicrous to us that we thought, ”How can we spin this and put it into these people’s world in a way in which we can make light of a very serious situation?”

I think some people misunderstand what you’re trying to do. They think you’re trying to push the envelope or to think up outrageous things. But it seems like you guys are just sitting around going, ”What’d be funny?”
That’s right. We never try to push the envelope for the sake of pushing the envelope, which we think is just lame. And you can see it coming a mile away. Anybody can be outrageous. There’s a certain subtlety we hope comes across. And our number one goal is to make people laugh.

So… have you been reading anything in the news?
Oh yeah, absolutely. To me there’s nothing more tragic right now then the subprime mortgage crisis. These people are losing their homes left and right. And we thought, ”How can we have these characters take advantage of that situation?”

The last thing I thought we’d be talking about is the subprime mortgage crisis.
That’s the thing. A lot of people think we’re just doing d–k jokes…. What we are doing is presenting both sides of the argument and poking fun and poking holes in all of them. Take on the abortion issue or the gun control issue — we hope it’s a comedic take, ultimately, but that it has some kind of social relevance.

Funny and true.
Funny and true. We’re going to do something with the tax rebates that everyone’s going to be getting this summer. We’re going to jump on it by giving out Paddy’s coupons, which are essentially $100 rebates that we mail to everybody and they can come in and use their Paddy’s dollars, but then we don’t redeem them at all. We force them to use American dollars.

Any other plot lines you can spill?
One thing we’re thinking about here is Dee [Kaitlin Olson] finds out she’s pregnant and wants to give the baby up a la Juno. So it’s all about trying to find the right couple, and then moving in with the couple and having the couple just basically pay all her bills and give her a car and a place to live and just taking advantage of the couple’s generosity.

What other stories have you been wanting to do?
I want to do an episode about how Dee winds up having what she thinks is a heart attack, and she ends up taking Lipitor, or some kind of heart attack medicine, and we all recognize that what we need to do is get medicated as quickly as possible for anything that ails us.

You guys are running out of drugs to get hooked on. Drug addiction seems like an ongoing Sunny theme, and it turns out to be actually hilarious. What else has worked really well in past episodes that you want to revisit?
Music really seems to work. We did an episode about a band last year.

Day Man!
Day Man has been huge, and we really want to take advantage of that. We’re really happy that people seem to dig that. We are thinking about doing a Day Man/Night Man rock opera, in the vein of Tommy. The whole show wouldn’t itself be a musical, but we’d perform a musical within the episode, so that way you can see us in between. Maybe it’s the story of how Day Man came to be the ruler of the universe.

How did he become the ruler of the universe?
We knew we wanted to have an episode about a band. So we started questioning, ”What is the kind of the music that this band plays?” The lyrics were written by a couple of our writers, as well as Charlie, to create ”Day Man, fighter of the Night Man, champion of the sun, master of karate and friendship for everyone.” And then the music was Charlie and Glenn Howerton and another buddy of ours, David Hornsby, who plays Rickety Cricket. He had the suggestion of putting in the voice from Flash Gordon. It goes, ”Flash… Ah-ahhhhhh!” That’s where Dennis [Howerton] got, ”Day Man… Ah-ahhhhhh!”

Who knew Charlie could play the piano so well?
He’s a musician. And believe me we’re going to exploit it as much as we can this year.

NEXT: ”We really want Frank degenerating even further.”

Obviously you’re scripting every episode, but how much of what we end up seeing is actually improv?
We write very specifically the scripts for all the episodes, so everything is scripted and beated out over and over and over again. On the day we’ll generally do one or two takes of a scene as scripted, and then we’ll play with it and see if anything develops. Anything we don’t think is funny we’ll cut and anything we do think is funny we’ll harp on and run with it. There are some scenes that are word-for-word exactly the way they were written in the script, and there are other scenes that we wind up changing completely not only on the day but in the editing room and you realize it’s not even about what it used to be about.

So the main cast is coming back. Let’s talk about the supporting cast. Who’s coming back?
We love the waitress [Mary Elizabeth Ellis], obviously. That character is just so funny. Having this character who’s madly in love with Dennis and he hates her. Charlie is madly in love with her [but she hates him]. Frank has had sex with her. And Dee and the waitress are pseudo-friends, but not really. We thought it might be a good opportunity for Mac to start dating her and have it really working out. Rickety Cricket will be back, too.

He’s a writer on the show, right?
He is. David Hornsby’s a writer, and producer on the show as well. He’s been a friend of ours for years. The McPoyle brothers will be back, of course, at some point.

If Mac is going to start dating the waitress, does that mean Brittany Daniel’s character, a pre-op male-to-female transvestite, may not show up again?
You never know. She might show up post-op. And Mac might be really into it and she might finally realize he’s a degenerate and drop him completely.

Any guest stars lined up?
I’m really keeping my fingers crossed that we can get somebody [from a] show like The Hills or Laguna Beach or Tila Tequila. Somebody of that caliber would really raise the bar. Shooting for the moon, baby!

What do you have planned for Danny DeVito’s character?
We really want Frank degenerating even further. We see our characters not really changing over the course of the entire series, but he drops one rung lower on the ladder each week. By the end of it he’s just going to be a puddle of goo.

A co-worker of mine is trying to get together a collection of all the slogan t-shirts that you’ve worn on the show. She has ”I Rock” and ”Come to Philly for the Crack.” She wants to know where you got, ”What are you looking at D–knose.”
We had our wardrobe department make it. The reason is the director of that episode is a guy named Jerry Levine. He directed our first bloc of episodes last year. And he played Stiles in the movie Teen Wolf. In the movie, Stiles wears a t-shirt that says, ”What are you looking at D–knose,” with no question mark, just like a statement, which made no sense to me. So when we were trying to come up with a t-shirt idea for me to wear with my sleeves cut off, knowing that Jerry was going to direct the episode, we thought it’d be good to put that slogan on there.

The thing fans are wondering most is when’s the season 3 DVD going to come out?
We’re working on that now. We’re putting as many extras and special features as we possibly can because, as fans of other shows and movies, we really respect and love when we buy a DVD — and are shelling out a fair amount of money — that there’s a lot of extras on there that really differentiates it from what you can get on iTunes or your DVR. The season 3 DVD is going to have stuff you can’t get anywhere else. We want to spend a lot of time working on that. My guess is it’ll be out sometime in the fall, around when [the new season of] Sunny comes out.

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