Q & A: It’s Always Sunny’s Rob McElhenney on the new season, his weight gain and doing the show “as long as possible”

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has just started its seventh season and last week I got a chance to talk with series creator/writer and star, Rob McElhenney.

Before this season started, McElhenney, who is usually really fit, grabbed headlines by gaining 50 pounds – 53 to be exact. He did it because he was watching a “popular sitcom” and noticed that the actors got better looking over the years. So, he thought, “what would happen if the character would completely just let himself go and his age caught up to him?” After eating probably thousands of doughnuts (yes, that’s what he ate), he was successful. I’ve seen a couple of this seasons episodes and he’s right, it does add a lot more to the character and the show.

Rob also talked about their plans beyond this season, how he and the rest of the cast are involved in every aspect of the show and if there will ever be another Nightman Cometh tour. 

It’s Always Sunny airs Thursdays at 10 on FX

For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes

How much of the show is scripted versus you guys just ad-libbing?

Rob McElhenney: Well, we usually try to do at least one or two takes completely scripted. So, we very carefully and arduously over probably the longest span of the production cycle spend writing, and I’d say we get at least one or two, maybe three, takes of it exactly as scripted. And then from that point forward we’ll ad lib and maybe change the scene, or if certain things aren’t working we’ll make cuts. And then, in the editing room we have either scripted or non-scripted takes, and then sometimes we find that it just works better in script form, and sometimes it just works better as a completely new scene, and we’ll build something completely different in post.  

Do you ever worry that you go too far?

Rob McElhenney: No, but mostly because we have—I think we have a really sensitive barometer for that, and ultimately we have a rule, which is, if it comes across as the characters being mean and abusive, then it’s funny. But, if it comes across as the writers or the creator or the producers being abusive or mean, then it’s not funny. And, I think ultimately the audience can tell the difference.

All of you guys are involved in every aspect of the set, the filming, what’s going on behind the scenes and in front of the scenes. Can you tell us a little about your viewpoint as one of the actors/producers/writers with the show?

Rob McElhenney: Yes. I mean, I can’t imagine doing it any other way. For us, it’s just sort of been that way from the very beginning. And, because it was such a grassroots show, and because we didn’t know how to make a TV show, we just kind of figured it out as we went along.

You know, it’s the really, the only way we know how to do it, and we’ve definitely—over the years—have gotten a little more patient and certainly a lot more respectful of each person’s individual role on the show. And thus far now, I think, in Season 7, we’ve spent a lot of time delegating responsibility, and that’s really been, I think, the key to the show continuing to grow and to get as good as it’s gotten.

So, it used to be that we would sit behind the monitors, and right behind the director’s ear, and kind of be really, I think, ultimately overbearing, and I think we’ve gotten to a point where we work with the directors. Well, this year one director, Matt Shakman, we’ve gotten to a really great rhythm with him where we’re getting what we want, and he’s getting what he wants, and everybody’s happy.

One of the big things this season is that you put on a lot of weight. Could you tell us more about that? You actually put on what, 50 pounds I think it is?

Rob McElhenney: Yes. A little over 50 pounds. I think the final count is like 52 or something—53.

Where was the reasoning behind this? Were you guys just like, “Oh, we think it’d be funny is Mac got fat?” What did you guys think about that?

Rob McElhenney: No. Ultimately, what happened was, it was in between seasons last year; six into seven. And, I was watching a popular sitcom, and I noticed that the actors were getting better looking as the years were going by, and I started to think about any show that I have ever seen in which that wasn’t the case.

I feel like shows in their sixth, seventh, and eighth season, the actors have a lot more money, they become a little bit more famous, and they have better access to better wardrobe, new hair, new teeth, sometimes plastic surgery. And, I thought how untrue of life that was, that especially characters like this who abuse themselves in so many different ways, would start to look—would start to deteriorate over time and certainly wouldn’t look better.

And, our goal has always been to try and do what’s not being done on television, and literally deconstructing the sitcom. So, where most sitcoms try to make the characters as lovable and likable, and as far I’m concerned, as fake as possible, we try to go the opposite, which is to make them as deplorable as possible, just to see if we can get away with it. And, it seems like the audience responds to that.

So, for me, it wasn’t just about getting overweight, it was about trying to look as unattractive as I possibly could. So, it was as if, what would happen if the character would completely just let himself go and his age caught up to him? So, I grew a disgusting beard, I didn’t wash my hair, and I was 50 pounds overweight, and yet the character still thought he looked good. That to me was funny. Simply getting overweight, that would be just a stunt, and that wasn’t very funny to me.

Just out of pure curiosity, in your journey to put on 50 pounds, is there a particular food item you found most effective?

Rob McElhenney: Donuts. Yes. I actually worked with a nutritionist to try and do it as healthy as possible, but at a certain point I just needed to consume as many calories as possible. And, he said go for the donuts so that’s what I did. I would literally eat six to eight donuts everyday through production. That was amazing. I will not lie to you.

I was originally buying some of those donuts that you can find prepackaged in the supermarkets, and my nutritionist was like, “Look. If you’re going to eat donuts everyday, don’t eat those, because they have a shelf life of six months, and they’re pumped full of so many preservatives and chemicals that you’re going to wind up even sicker than you would be otherwise.” So, I was literally encouraged to find a healthier form of donut, and I found that in the form of a local bakery.

Do you have an end game in mind? As far as how many seasons that you see the show running for, where the characters are going to go?

Rob McElhenney: Well, originally we did. And, what we found is that we just kept thinking that the show was going to get old after awhile as most sitcoms do, but I think we have a couple of things on our side.

One is that we don’t do 22 or 24 episodes like most sitcoms. We’ve done as few as seven and as many as fifteen. But we’ve never exceeded 15, and I think that that’s helped us just from a content standpoint.

So, we have that kind of going in our favor, so it’s not about the amount of years. It’s more about the amount of episodes. And, every time I kind of mention to fans, “Hey, do you think that this is going to get old?” they keep saying, “Well, it hasn’t gotten old, yet.”

 So, our feeling is, if we can keep making the episodes and people keep watching them, then we’ll try to do it as long as possible, and I think a barometer for us will be each year saying, “Is this episode as good or better than the season before it?” And, if the answer is no we’ll have to think about wrapping it up. And, if it is, we’ll keep making them. And, as of now we’re under contract for at least two more.

The gang has always gotten into some fantastically awesome and outrageous situations. Is there one specific thing that you would like to see happen that you guys haven’t done yet?

Rob McElhenney: If I can answer that question now, it would have already been in an episode.

I think, ultimately, we rack our brains in that writer’s room every year trying to figure out just that. And, there hasn’t been anything that we’ve tried, that we’ve really wanted to do, that hasn’t quite worked. There are certain things that we—there are some things—that we try to do that might not work in a particular episode, but we can make them work in another episode.

When you guys are coming up with storylines, do any of you ever say, “No, my character would never do that?”

Rob McElhenney: No, pretty much because our characters would do anything if it suited their needs in the moment. So like, even forms of like great ultraism, or any acts of great ultraism, would still play regardless of how deplorable our characters were if they felt like it was going to garner them what they wanted in that particular moment. Because, then you buy it, because you know what the motivation is, even if in the moment the motivation is selfless, you know ultimately it’s going to be selfish.

And, when you’re on hiatus, are you pursuing other work like auditioning or writing other things, or just taking a much-needed break?

Rob McElhenney: No, I feel like I’ll take a break when I’m in my 40s. I think right now I want to take as much time as I have to take advantage of the opportunities that we have because of the show. So, I’m writing a movie, and I know the guys are writing a movie and working on a couple of other TV shows, and we’re producing an animated show for FX that will be on next year. So, we try to stay busy.

Obviously the show requires a ton of planning. What have you thought of beyond this season, assuming you’re getting approved for Season 8?

Rob McElhenney: Yes, we actually we just signed an overall deal for the next two years with an option for the tenth season, so we’re definitely coming back for Seasons 8 and 9. And, what we’re going to do is, cut the order back to ten episodes, at least for Season 8. We’re not sure about Season 9.

And, ultimately that’s because we want to make sure that the quality of the show stays up to par, and ultimately we’d all love to do 15, 20 episodes, because it would be incredibly lucrative. But, I think, really when it comes down to it we don’t want to ever feel like we’ve sold out our fans.  And as frustrating as it might be for us and for the fans to only get to watch ten episodes, and for us to only make ten episodes next year, I think, ultimately, it will keep the quality of the show up. And, to me, I believe that this season, the seventh season, is our strongest season yet. Which to me, it makes me incredibly optimistic for the future.

Do you guys plan on ever doing another Night Man Cometh tour?

Rob McElhenney: It was. We actually, we thought about doing it this year, to promote this year, because we—two years ago we did the East Coast and the West Coast, but we took a lot of flack from all our fans in the Midwest and in the South who wanted us to come there. You know, the Chicagoes and the New Orleans and the Dallases and the Houstons and the Kansas Cities, and we really wanted to make it happen, we just didn’t have the time.

So, this year we talked about doing it, but Glenn—it would’ve been right around now—and Glenn’s wife would have been having a baby. So, we decided let’s put it off until next year. And so, I think we’re planning to do it next year.

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