It’s quite fitting that the concept behind It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia was born out of a nightmare. (After all, we are talking about a sitcom that follows five deranged losers as they attempt to profit off of dumpster babies, have sex with each others’ mothers, and develop a crack addiction to collect welfare.) One night in 2004, Sunny‘s creator and star Rob McElhenney literally dreamed up an outline for a pilot involving a cancer-plagued man and his insensitive pal. By 2005, McElhenney and co-stars Charlie Day, Glenn Howerton and Kaitlin Olson were shooting a tweaked version of that exact pilot for FX. (Danny DeVito joined the show in season two.) “The show started as a night terror, basically,” says Howerton. “A late-night sweating station.”
These days, however, we imagine McElhenney is having better dreams — season five of the FX comedy has scored an average of nearly two million viewers, and the show was recently picked up for syndication by Comedy Central. A few months ago — while in New York City for their tour of their season four musical finale, “The Nightman Cometh” — EW sat down with the Sunny fivesome to chat about the show’s evolution. Here’s how the series grew into the cult phenomenon it is today. But before you click on the “read full post” link below to read all about it, check out this this exclusive video, filmed on the set of EW’s photo shoot with McElhenney, Day, Olson, Howerton and DeVito. Then head over to EW’s Facebook page for a special pottymouthed bonus video!
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In 2004, McElhenney, an out-of-work actor in L.A., approached his friends about his idea for a TV show.
Rob McElhenney: “It was just an idea of a guy going over to another guy’s house to ask him for sugar, and the other guy telling him that he has cancer. And instead of the friend being compassionate, he just wants to get the sugar and get out the door. I knew that nobody else would think that was funny except Glenn and Charlie. So I wrote a script and showed it to them.”
Danny DeVito: “That so has kept with the theme of the show: They’re selfish bastards. Me too.”
Glenn Howerton: “You are a selfish bastard.”
DD: “Yea! But that’s a great little catalyst.”
Charlie Day: “We used to all get together and read Rob’s material. So when Rob came to us and said he had an idea for a TV show, we were on board. Rob is the most driven man we knew, so we were just hanging onto someone who had some motivation.”
RM: “I had the motivation. They had the talent. So we started leeching off each others’ energy.”
CD: “It was the perfect storm.”
Using their own cameras, Day, Howerton and McElhenney shot an episode for less than $200. It was worth it: Low-rent or no, FX picked up the pilot, which was originally titled It’s Always Sunny on TV. But some changes needed to be made. Though McElhenney originally imagined his characters as actors, too many Hollywood-centric series had already hit the airwaves (Entourage, The Comeback, etc.). The gang switched the setting to a bar in McElhenney’s Philly hometown, and renamed the series. All they needed was a female perspective, which they found in McElhenney’s future wife, Kaitlin Olson.
Kaitlin Olson: “I didn’t know [any of them]. My manager actually asked [after my audition], ‘Were any of them cute?’ And I was like, ‘Nah. Not really.’ But I do take it all back now.”
RM: “She was flustered in the audition. She wasn’t that great the first time.”
KO: “This is how they keep me down. They know I’m great, and they know once I realize it, I’ll leave them and go do something else.”
CD: “I was listening to an interview with a director who was talking about how people want to see men be funny and act childish, and they don’t want to see women do that. But Sweet Dee is as selfish and childish as any other character on the show, and the audience loves her for it.”
KO: “When they wanted to hire me, Rob and I had a conversation on the phone, and I was like, ‘I like this project, but I don’t want to be the girl. I don’t want to be the boring straight person.’ And he promised me that wasn’t his intention. And I’m thrilled that I get to play a woman that isn’t just, ‘I’m a girl. I’m going to tell you guys when I think you’re doing something bad.’ Let the world be the voice of reason, and let us be ridiculous.”
The series bowed to low ratings—just over one million viewers tuned into the premiere—but critical feedback kept FX optimistic. That, and the possibility of adding a bona fide star to the still-unknown cast.
KO: “The guys wanted someone who was just like our characters, but older. Danny’s name came up, and right away, it seemed like a good idea. He’s quirky, funny and gritty. And Rob went to talk to Danny at his house.”
GH: “We needed to create something very specific to pitch to him, so he knew what he was getting into.”
DD: “I said I would like to do it if it’s something I could wrap my head around and really understand why I was there and what was happening. And they did a great job with that. They see things in a really unique way. I liked the show. I think they might have known that. But they had the foresight to go to an actor who they felt could make a contribution and not be a stumbling block in the show.”
The addition of DeVito helped the show boost their ratings. But buzz really picked up in season three, after “Dayman,” a little musical ditty penned for a band-themed episode, became a viral sensation.
RM: “Most of the song was written by Charlie and Glenn.”
CD: “We had a little Casio keyboard and started screwing around with it. A bunch of college buddies [once told me], ‘If I even walked down the hallway in the dorm and you were sitting out there with a guitar in your hand, I knew you were going to make up some song about me as I walked by.’ So it’s nice to finally make a living doing it.”
KO: “Seeing all over YouTube small-town bands singing ‘Dayman,’ as one song in their set…it was like, whoa.”
RM: “Charlie wrote ‘Nightman’ too. That was completely made up on the spot. [Sings] ‘Nightman, sneaky and mean, spider inside my dreams, I think I love you. You make me want to cry, you make me want to die, I love you, I love you.’
CD: Even the music I made up on the spot.
Mary Elizabeth Ellis (Day’s wife, who plays “The Waitress” on the show): “He’s always singing weird ass songs on our piano at home.”
The forecast is still sunny for the gang, thanks to increased ratings and Hulu, where the series remains one of the site’s most popular shows. And since the fivesome is locked into two more seasons with FX, fans can expect the cast to continue to tackle the big issues—in increasingly perverse ways (Remember “The Gang Solves the North Korea Situation”?).
CD: “I have fairly long commutes to work, so I listen to NPR a lot.”
GH: “That’s where I get all my ideas from, too.”
CD: “I listen to what everybody’s talking about on NPR and say, ‘Alright guys, people won’t shut up about North Korea.'”
GH: “Our characters take sides, whatever the issue is. As a show, we don’t tend to preach any sort of side. Everybody ends up being wrong.”
CD: “I don’t think our show offends people. I’ve never had anyone tell me they were offended.”
DD: “No one in Dick Cheney’s family is watching our show.”
RM: “His daughter, maybe. She gets it.”
GH: “My brother-in-law is in seminary school right now. And his teacher in seminary is a huge fan of the show. People get it’s satire.”