If you like your comedy dark and twisted, then It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is the contemporary sitcom for you. For seven years, the show has been a beacon of inappropriate humor on FX. The brainchild of three longtime friends and struggling actors (Glenn Howerton, Rob McElhenney, and Charlie Day), the series was able to build up a cult audience over several years on FX, a luxury that’s become sadly rare in television.
However, with a show like It’s Always Sunny that features a collection of 20-something burnouts who hang out in a derelict bar and engage in activities like wrestling the homeless and staging musicals about child abuse, that type of network support is a necessity. The humor isn’t for everyone, but something that inspires intense passion in sick puppies like myself who enjoy coming back to see what taboos will be broken every Thursday.
This week, The Morton Report got a chance to speak with Glenn Howerton, one of the series’ stars/creators. Howerton plays Dennis, the (almost) impossibly narcissistic leader of the gang who specializes in coming up with inappropriate schemes and taking advantage of pretty young ladies (particularly though his patented D.E.N.N.I.S. dating system that involves staging abusive phone calls from phony stalkers to drive women into his arms).
If the character sounds reprehensible, that’s because he is, but somehow Howerton and the writing team manage to make him seem likable and relatable if only because of the constant punishment he receives for his increasingly and delightfully reprehensible behavior. Enjoy as Glenn Howerton spills the beans about the conception, style, and future of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia in this exclusive interview.
Was starring in and co-creating a darkly hilarious show like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia anything close to what you saw yourself doing when you started out as an actor?
As an actor, I just wanted to do good material. I’ve always been attracted to things that were a little bit off. To put it in music terms, I’m not a big America’s Top 40 kind of a guy. I’m always a guy seeking out the really random, odd bands that don’t get a lot of radio play. I’ve always been attracted to the underdog. I like people who at least on the surface are doing things that are a little bit unconventional, a little bit weird, and a little bit against the grain.
I never really saw myself writing or producing my own work per se. That just kind of happened. In terms of the off-color, dark elements of our show, I think it reflects a certain anti-establishment sensibility that we always had. We were interested in creating something that we didn’t feel was being given to us on television.
How did you find picking up writing and producing on your feet since that’s something you never planned for? Did it come fairly easily?
No, it didn’t come easily to me at all [laughs]. What comes fairly easily to me is the jokes, the point of view of our humor, and the performance aspect of it. A lot of the jokes are more inspired by momentary responses to something on the page when we’re re-writing than any sort of preconceived notion of an episode. It’s when you get into structuring it and working out the details of the story that it becomes hard work. The jokes and the riffing, that’s the fun stuff.
Since the show started with you, Rob, and Charlie writing every episode yourselves, do you find it difficult to maintain the same sensibility now that you have a full writing staff?
Well, it’s a combination of trying to stick with the same tone that we established, but also embracing really funny people that you find, who surprise you and have their own point of view. Quite frankly, we’ve hired people before and didn’t particularly like their tone or sensibility or mesh with them. So, we’ve let people go before for that reason, but if you find the right people, they bring something to the show that we never would have imagined doing, but also really like. It’s very much a collaborative effort.
But I think fans or people who don’t understand how television works will sometimes see an episode that they don’t like written by other people and think, “Oh, why don’t those guys write the episodes anymore?” But they don’t understand that we still do write on all the episodes. We break the stories with the writers and they give us really good drafts and at the end of the day, the three of us always sit down and do our own rewrites on every script.
I thought it was great that FX let the show build up an audience over time, which rarely happens anymore. I was curious when did you first start to notice that the show seemed to strike a chord and gather a cult following?
Well, we knew when we looked at the ratings that we had cultivated an audience of some kind. Once we had an audience and people started watching the show, we noticed that there weren’t a lot of hills and valleys in the ratings. That says a lot. Our show has always had an upward trajectory. Even going into season seven, our ratings are going up. It told us early on that our audience is staying. We got a sense of that around season three, but honestly, it wasn’t until we went on the live tour after season four that we really saw how fanatical people were. Then once Twitter started, I got a lot of direct feedback from fans and that’s when it became clear to me how devoted the audience was.
Do you have as much freedom with FX as it seems at this point, because you can get away with some pretty wild stuff even for cable?
We still get notes from the studio and the network, but we don’t get a lot and it’s been less and less as the years go by. I have to give FX a lot of credit. They really allowed us to establish the tone of the show. I think once the tone and the characters were established they started to realize that we were able to execute what we wanted fairly easily. We fought them tooth and nail on a lot of things like any other show initially and I think they saw with the arguments that we did win, that we had a specific sensibility that works. They’ve been so good to work with. There’s been a lot of give and take and a lot of trust. But to answer your question more directly, now that we’re in the seventh season of the show, for the most part they really just let us do our thing. They may nudge us here and there, but we have a lot of autonomy.
The show has always reminded me of the last few years of Seinfeld where it got a little more surreal and the characters started becoming incredibly cruel to each other. I was curious if that was ever an influence at all in the early days of the series?
Seinfeld has always been somewhat of an influence to us at least subconsciously. We never set out to do something Seinfeld-ian, but at the very least I know we all watched Seinfeld and found it funny that all of the characters could be so selfish or self-involved and in a lot of ways such crummy people, but still be identifiable and likable. I think undoubtedly that had an influence on us. We drew a lot of influence from Curb Your Enthusiasm and the British Office initially, but once we got to season two it really became its own piece.
Have you guys ever had to abandon subject matter that seemed to get too dark even for the tone of the show or can you normally find a spin to make it work?
Um not really. I mean, as far as something that’s too dark, I think that’s part of what makes the show such an interesting challenge for us. If we have a story that we want to tell, we will figure out how to tell that story no matter how dark it is. There’s nothing that we’ve ever turned down because we thought it was too dark.
But I will say that there are a few things that we turned down just because we didn’t think it was funny. We’ve been pitched a million times “The Gang Gets Herpes” or “The Gang Gets AIDS,” and it’s like, okay, I can understand why that’s being pitched from the perspective of, “oh, you guys haven’t done that before.” But every single person in the gang getting herpes just isn’t f***ing funny, quite frankly. If someone in the gang gets herpes there has to be an interesting story that it seeps into, maybe. As a standalone story, none of us really find a bunch of people getting a sexually transmitted disease very funny.
You really nail a sadly common personality type with Dennis’s intense narcissism; do you ever get people coming up to you in the street saying they identify with the character in a non-ironic way?
[laughs] Weirdly. I think people do relate to the characters and I don’t think it’s so much that people are like these characters as much as I think they can identify with the impulses that the characters have. The difference between the characters on the show and a lot of people in real life is that I think people can live out their narcissistic fantasies through the show. I think it’s similar to how you can watch a revenge movie and get some sort of perverse satisfaction out of watching somebody kill a bunch of gangsters after their family is murdered. I think people like our characters in the same way you can watch certain movies and come out really liking the bad guy. To actually watch people live out these absurd impulses can be very satisfying.
Have you ever put “The D.E.N.N.I.S. System” into practice?
[Laughs] Well not directly. I’m married and I was actually with my current wife when we came up with the concept for that. I think it was just a twist on something that I observed in certain chick-slayers. I think there’s a certain psychology that I may have picked up on my own in terms of getting women. It’s a really perverse version of something that maybe I’ve done in the past, but that’s all I’ll say.
How did you end up doing voice acting on The Cleveland Show?
Personally, I've always had a passion for doing cartoon voices. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do since I was a kid and at the time it was the only outlet I could find outside of Sunny that I actually have time for. I started leaning on my agency to do voiceover work and I went in an auditioned for some of the main characters on that show. They didn’t hire me for that, but they liked what I did and started bringing me in for other stuff. Now I play like a million different characters on the show, it’s great.
Since you were a part of the Crank movies, is there a chance that Neveldine/Taylor could ever direct an episode of It’s Always Sunny, because your sensibilities really aren’t that different?
First of all, I love those guys and I’ve been friends with Mark Neveldine for about 11 years now. I’ve known him for a long time. We kind of came up together and actually we were coming up with Sunny and the same time they were developing Crank, which was really cool. The only problem is that we shoot our show in blocks and shoot six or seven episodes all at once, so for them to commit to something like that I think might be a little tough on their schedule. But I would love to collaborate with Mark on something in the future, so you may see a Howerton/Neveldine movie a couple years from now, who knows?
Do you guys have an end date in mind or even a specific finale episode planned for the show or are you happy to keep it running as long as it’s working?
We’re definitely going to do a season eight and nine. We’re talking about doing shorter seasons so that we can start doing more projects outside of the show, so there’s a chance that we’ll start doing ten-episode seasons. And the reason we want to do that is that while we do want to keep doing the show, if we keep doing 13 episodes a season it’s going to start feeling like work to us and we don’t ever want it to feel like work. We want it to be fun. So, we’ll definitely do eight and nine and there’s a good chance we’ll do a ten. Beyond that, I think it might start to feel like we’ve squeezed the premise for all it’s worth. I’ll tell you what, I’ll be able to answer that question in two or three years.