The origins of Sunny go back to actor friends Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, and Charlie Day growing frustrated with auditioning and opting to create their own content. With little money and a camcorder, they shot a pilot, which was eventually bought by FX. The show would go on to chronicle the misadventures of four degenerate friends as they occasionally run Paddy’s Pub in the City of Brotherly Love. Joining Mac (McElhenney), Charlie (Day), and Dennis (Howerton) in the first aired episode was Dee (McElhenney’s future wife, Kaitlin Olson), while Danny DeVito was recruited ahead of season 2 to play Dennis and Dee’s wealthy father, Frank — and to help boost the show’s popularity. The bump wasn’t immediate, but Sunny would survive initial low ratings, Emmy snubs, and a network move to eventually tie The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet as the longest-running live-action sitcom, by season count, in American television history.
Ahead of the record-tying 14th season, Day, Howerton, McElhenney, Olson, and DeVito sat down with EW on the Sunny set to look back on their notable run, explain how they became a voice for social and political commentary, and ponder whether the end is near.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This show has always been unique in that you’re so involved in every facet of making the show. So now in season 14, are you still as hands-on? How different is filming season 14 versus filming season 2 or 3?
KAITLIN OLSON: It’s a well-oiled machine at this point. We’re cranking out our days so fast, we’re like, “Oh yeah, we can slow down and play around like we did in the first few seasons.”
ROB MCELHENNEY: It’s less stressful for us. Well, it’s still just as much work, but it’s less stressful because we have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t work. We’re laughing a lot more. I think in the beginning we were just still trying to figure out what the show was and who the characters are, and that’s stressful.
GLENN HOWERTON: It has been a fun year. It’s always a lot of work, though. Because we’re involved in every aspect of it, so it’s exhausting.
CHARLIE DAY: Something about the scripts we wrote this year feels to me like some of the older seasons of Sunny.
HOWERTON: There’s been a lot of great, smaller relationship episodes.
OLSON: Also, you’re not really having to work on your character. [Laughs] You’re just showing up to rehearsal, doing it as scripted a few times, and then trying to make each other laugh.
DANNY DEVITO: Everything we do seems like it’s a lot of fun. It’s really weird, because I guess this is 14, and it doesn’t seem to be. For me, it doesn’t get old. I just love going to work.
OLSON: For Danny and I, we work two months out of the year on this show. These guys are writing, and then after we’re done with production, they go and edit it. It’s a no-brainer for us.
DAY: When we were young, it was so new, and I mourn the loss of the newness of everything, because that’s just an exciting time in your life where just the opportunity to get to do it really fuels you in a way.
HOWERTON: Kaitlin just posted on Instagram from our last day of shooting season 1, and we were in my trailer and drinking straight out of a bottle of whiskey.
DAY: Celebrating, “We did it!” And we didn’t know if we’d ever get to do it again — and here we are 14 years later. But one of the advantages now is really having a better grasp on how to do it, so that we manage our time better, and in some ways, it’s less stressful because we know everything will come together. Whereas you don’t have the youthful excitement, you don’t have the youthful angst too.
How surreal does it feel to hear “14 seasons”? A lot of shows do seven seasons and people are like, “Okay, we get it, wrap it up.” But you all seem immune to that.
DEVITO: It’s crazy. It goes by fast. I did five seasons on Taxi, that’s it.
OLSON: I feel like when we’re in it, it’s not, but then when I see pictures or hear people talk about episodes that were a decade ago, that’s when it’s crazy, because it feels like a lifetime ago.
MCELHENNEY: The Office shot here and they started the same year as us, and it seems like they’ve been off the air for a while — and were on the air for a while.
OLSON: That’s a long time. Basically we’re just getting old and we don’t like thinking about it, so next question. [Laughs]
MCELHENNEY: We have the luxury of only doing 10 episodes a year, that’s huge. It allows us to have a tremendous amount of free time. So when we come back and it takes six or seven months to make this series, we’re fresh. And then beyond that, it’s because we all still love it and we’re still having fun, and there’s no disconnect between the writers and the actors, because we’re one and the same.
HOWERTON: It feels more like being in a band than being on a show. I’ve been on other shows [Howerton currently stars on A.P. Bio], and there’s something so much more expansive about those other things. You’ve got the directors and writers and producers and actors, and they’re all different people. We are like a band. We write and play all of our own music. And we’ve been together for 14 years, writing and playing and performing, and all the internal fights and struggles that go along with that, the sort of internal therapy sessions.
DAY: I can see it that way too, where the time flies by, because what are you we going to do, not make music this year?
HOWERTON: That’s the thing, every year we put out a new album.
DAY: Let’s get in the garage for a few months, come up with something, and then do a few shows. It does feel like that, which is cool. Even though I can’t really say because I was never in a band. [Laughs]
HOWERTON: It’s what I imagine it to be. It feels like you’re on stage with a group of musicians that you’ve been playing with for a very long time. Like, I know exactly what I need to say to tee Charlie up. It’s like we speak our own language.
DAY: When you go do another show or movie and you’re working in a different style with different people, you forget, “Oh yeah, it doesn’t just all click in the same way that this clicks.” You have to find the way that the other thing clicks.
HOWERTON: Yeah, it messes me up a little bit sometimes. Because I come up thinking, “Okay, if I say this, then he’ll say this,” and he doesn’t. And I’m like, “Oh right, that isn’t Charlie.” But I do think it is actually important for us to get out and play with other musicians, to take that analogy further, but it’s always fun to come back together and be home. It’s like a family.
After season 1, it seemed like the show was truly at risk of being canceled, and then Danny was brought in and the rest is history. When did you feel like you started to be truly embraced?
MCELHENNEY: Probably for the first four years we were like, “Oh, that was fun, but that’s it. No one’s watching, so we will just move on with it.” But we always thought we had something good, it was just a matter of getting people to watch it.
DEVITO: They did seven episodes, and [FX CEO] John Landgraf, who I’m good friends with, called and told me to take a look at this show, “See what you think about it, because I don’t know what the future of the show is going to be.” I looked at it, and then I think six months later, Landgraf called me up and said, “We’re thinking of doing the show, we want to put someone in it, are you interested?” And I said, “Yeah.” What made me do it was the fun of it. I love to have a good time. Let’s see, I’m 30 years older than them, so it’s kind of like hanging out with your kids. Glenn and Kaitlin are my kids on the show, but I feel like they’re all my kids.
MCELHENNEY: Season 5 was when we realized, “Oh, there’s an audience.”
OLSON: People came out of the woodwork, and everyone’s thing was that they wanted to claim that they had been watching from the beginning.
MCELHENNEY: We’ve been doing this so long that it was before real social media.
OLSON: This is back in the MySpace days.
MCELHENNEY: So there was no barometer, like you just really didn’t know. It was only Nielsen ratings, which everyone kind of recognizes is bulls‑‑‑. Now you can go on your phone and see exactly how people feel, or at least the vociferous 10 percent — we didn’t even have that. And walking around L.A., no one seems to care anyway, because there are so many other shows and movies. So when we went out into the real world with the live Nightman Cometh show ahead of season 5 and went to places like Philadelphia, Seattle, New York, and San Francisco, you got a good sense of how popular the show as.
Last year you did a Time’s Up episode and the episode with Mac coming out to his dad. But that’s not anything new for you — you’ve been doing it from the beginning, whether it’s the housing crisis or gun control. How have you been able to so hilariously give this social commentary through the years?
MCELHENNEY: We’re always really careful about it. It’s not about laying out some political or social agenda — and it’s not because we’re afraid to do that — it’s because we don’t feel like it’s our place to do that with the show. Our job with the show is to entertain people, and one of the ways we try to do that is to take the conversations that people are having culturally right now and try to put them through the prism of a 22-minute sitcom. And we wind up jumping into these hot-button issues where people feel so passionately about them, and then what we try to do is find the margins, since whoever is in the 10 percent on either side tends to be insane. On the left and right, progressive or conservative, that far hardcore 10 percent tends to be crazy people — and those are the kinds of people that we are on the show and the kinds of stories that we like to tell.
DAY: It’s the greatest gift that this show provides to us, the ability to have a voice that can have a comedic take on anything.
HOWERTON: We sort of accidentally fell into that. We became these characters that could represent a side of an argument, and the characters have become a mouthpiece for a certain way of thinking that exists in society. It’s always the loudest, most extreme people that are heard, so watching the extreme points of view play out to their inevitable finish line is a fun way to satirize the fact that being really extreme in your point of view is never really going to get anything done.
DAY: I think people are nervous these days about what they say — maybe for the best, maybe not. And it’s probably a relief for people that there’s a television show based on a bunch of characters who always say the wrong thing. [Laughs] So it’s kind of fun that you can at least get the chance to see someone say the wrong thing and laugh at them, or with them, depending on where you fall on the sides of the spectrum.
HOWERTON: It’s an equal-opportunity show. We’re going after anybody who’s got a really strong ideological point of view and refuses to look at the facts. Right from the beginning, we were tackling things like, “Let’s make something funny that most people don’t want to talk about, but that you do talk about.” The whole cancer thing in season 1: Your friend has cancer but nobody ever wants to talk about the guy who is like, “Is it bad that I don’t want to listen to my friend bitch about the fact that he has cancer and I just want to get the f‑‑‑ out of his apartment?”
DAY: We thought that those uncomfortable situations were really fertile soil for comedy, so that is why we were writing towards that. But FX was the one pushing us towards making entire episodes about those things. But sometimes the episodes are just about going to a water park and what’s going to happen there. I think if it was all one or all the other, then the show wouldn’t have lasted this long.
Rob, what have you enjoyed about exploring Mac’s sexuality? There have always been hints about him being gay, but you’ve really focused on it in the last two seasons.
MCELHENNEY: I think making sure that we are very careful to not change the fact that Mac is an abhorrent person. And that was something we made a concerted effort on, to make sure we were servicing a very large part of our community, which is the LGBTQ community, and we wanted to make sure that we were having a character who was going to come out in a way that would feel satisfying and be in the tone of the Sunny, while also not just all of a sudden dramatically changing Mac’s character, because that just wouldn’t resonate with Sunny. And I feel like that’s something I hear over and over again from our fans, who say, “Hey, man, it’s great that Mac came out and it’s great that you didn’t change him, that he’s still so unlikable and such an a‑‑hole and that everyone hates him.” That is true inclusion, as opposed to saying he’s come out and now all of a sudden he’s this great guy. It doesn’t work like that. True inclusion is bringing the LGBTQ down into the gutter with us.
What was the reaction like to your epic dance number in the season 13 finale?
MCELHENNEY: It was both negative and positive, which is one of those things we talked about. It’s great to surprise people and have them not have any idea what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. I have people saying, “Oh my God, I love this, it’s one of the best things you’ve ever done,” and then I have other people saying, “You’ve destroyed my show, you’ve ruined it.” And I’m like, “Great!” That’s exactly what we should be doing on the show, is we should be destroying somebody’s idea of what Sunny is on a regular basis.
OLSON: It was kind of weird just how many people would just blatantly comment on his body and to me, and we were like, “What would happen if they were commenting on my body to you? Like, ‘Ahh, Kaitlin’s chest…’”
MCELHENNEY: A lot of people didn’t like it. Because a lot of people felt like it didn’t fit into the lexicon of what the show is. And I can’t say that they’re wrong, but the difference is that I get to dictate what the lexicon is and they don’t, and that’s a part of the experience.
Danny, you’ve gotten real down and dirty on Sunny. Hell, you’ve even gotten greased up and emerged naked from a couch. Is there anything you won’t do for a laugh?
DEVITO: In life I think you’ve got to have that attitude, as long as you’re doing it for fun and you’re having a good time and not hurting anybody. You have to have compassion and mercy. I keep saying to them, “Just push the envelope — what can you do?” It’s kind of like a challenge, the Frank challenge. I wouldn’t skydive, I don’t think, I’m chicken. I limit my stunts, I’ve got a stunt guy, but I do quite a bit of things. As long as it’s funny, I’ll slime around and s‑‑‑ like that.
Kaitlin, you’re used to Dee getting crapped on all the time. Do you just want them to keep finding new ways to make her life miserable?
OLSON: Dee should be dead. It’s so funny to me. I don’t think I can articulate why, but I find myself skimming story lines to see where I’m going to be exploded or beaten or whatever. It makes me laugh. Like when she tried to become a comedian. That was so mean. My favorite part of that episode was filming the twist, because we didn’t really rehearse it this way, and having no idea that when I walked out, the way Charlie and Mac celebrated, they almost started crying they were celebrating so hard, and throwing champagne all over each other. It was so victorious and so emotional for them that they did this thing. Oh my God, it was so funny to me.
MCELHENNEY: Dennis didn’t know, though. He was getting so mad that he didn’t know it was fake. So really the joke was also on Dennis and he’s like, “No, no, it’s not.” Even in that, ultimately, the true target was Dennis. He would be the one who would revel in it the most. So Dee can’t even be the butt of her own joke.
As we’re on set, you’re shooting a laser tag episode, but what else should we expect in this historic season 14?
MCELHENNEY: Every year is the exactly the same in terms of the approach, which is to try and do things that would be “stereotypical” episodes of Sunny, very Sunny-esque episodes with a similar structure, and then we try to mix up a few. We always notice that people either love or hate those different ones. And that’s great, that’s part of the experience. I truly and firmly believe that if we were just giving something by the numbers week to week, that ultimately we wouldn’t be going into season 14. It would just get tired. If they hate an episode every once and a while, that’s fine as long as they keep coming back to see what they might love or hate the following week.
DAY: This laser tag episode that we’re shooting right now is a Waiting for Godot-themed laser tag episode, which America has always wanted.
MCELHENNEY: And this is one people are going to hate. [Laughs]
DAY: We have film noir episode, shot in black and white, using much fancier cameras than we shoot our show on. It makes you realize we should shoot on those cameras anyway. Oh, we got Dolph Lundgren!
HOWERTON: Playing John Thunder Gun. And I directed two episodes this year.
DAY: Which was great. It felt like old-school Sunny to me, when we started as just a couple of guys with cameras.
OLSON: There’s a great episode called “The Right to Chop,” where the guys weigh in very heavily on whether Dee should be able to cut her own hair, because they have to look at it, which I love. We have an episode on global warming.
MCELHENNEY: Again, we’re not saying anything… Well, we are in that episode a little bit. But really we’re just watching as the temperature in the bar is rising and rising and rising and the air conditioning eventually breaks, and all we’re asking people to do is, “We don’t have to stop, we just have to slow down a little bit.” But nobody wants to slow down, they want the party to keep going, and to tragic results. But that is the impending doom that is It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia — and our species.
Have you thought about the end? Clearly you have to do at least one more to break the record.
MCELHENNEY: For us, we just have a short checklist: Do we still enjoy it, are we still having fun, are we still stretching ourselves creatively, and is the audience still there? It seems like all those boxes keep getting checked, so we keep coming back.
DAY: It’s whether we can put out a good season of television. So it’s always making sure everyone has the time and desire to put in the hard work we put in to make the show what we think it is.
DEVITO: There’s no rumblings about stopping. Next year we’ll come back and do another season and just keep going. Right now I’m having everyone sign this script for a friend of mine’s kid who is in England and went through something. It’s his favorite show and he pops it on when he feels like he needs a lift. He’s 11. So our fanbase is growing; we have older guys, women, 11-year-old kids. If we can be like Warner Bros. cartoons, let’s do it. Throw on a Looney Tunes once and a while and see what Frank and the gang are doing. Maybe we’ll expand in the next couple years to some really specific special-effects things, because don’t you think we should all be able to fly? [Laughs] No skydiving, though!
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia returns to FXX on Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET.