Q&A: It’s Always Sunny’s Rob McElhenney and Glenn Howerton
Season 8 of FX’s hit comedy, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has the gang in their usual crazy situations: One episode has Dennis and Dee’s (Glenn Howerton and Kaitlin Olson) grandfather Pop-Pop wasting away in the hospital. As they try and decide whether or not to pull the plug, Mac, Charlie and Frank (Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day and Danny DeVito) stumble on Pop Pop’s secret life as a Nazi. In another episode, Frank concocts a plan to undermine the city’s garbage men but as the plan falls massively apart, the gang end up getting a little dirtier than usual.
The writing on the show is as crisp as ever and it’s a testament to McElhenney and Howerton who said on a recent conference call that they take their ideas and put them “on screen in the only way [they] know how.”
McElhenney, who is married to co-star Kaitlin Olson, is also the creator, writer and executive producer on Sunny. He had a recurring role on ABC’s soap, All My Children, popped up on Lost and made his film debut in The Devil’s Own starring Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt.
Howerton, a writer and executive producer on the show, graduated from Juilliard and besides his work on the show, he recently starred in the film Coffee Town and was featured in Will Ferrell’s Everything Must Go.
McElhenney and Howerton got together to chat about the show, coming up with plot ideas and if it’s easier for them to act in something they’ve written.
It’s Always Sunny airs Thursdays at 10pm on FX
How do you all come up with a lot of the material you use? Does it happen in life? Do you watch other people?
Rob McElhenney: Some of it is, probably, to whatever degree, taken from the headlines. I think it’s really just the way our brains work, I guess, you could say. It’s the way that—it’s the filter to which we see the world. I think we’re all observing what’s going on around us. Taking down ideas as the years go on and putting them on screen in the only way we know how.
Is any of it autobiographical or biographical in any way?
Rob McElhenney: In our premiere episode, we deal with euthanasia and that was sparked somewhat by a conversion that I was having with Kaitlin where we were fast-forwarding in our lives, and trying to figure out if one of us was on life-support—those are conversations that we have to have.
What do we want? Do we want to be DNR? Do we want to be hooked up forever? We were having that conversation and I brought it up in the writer’s room and then that’s what sparked the conversation and we started thinking; okay, now, how can we do an episode about this?
Glenn Howerton: I did have that same conversation with my wife. It was actually funny because we both had a totally different view on it. She was like, well I don’t know, I mean, what if something happens and—I was like, look, if something happens to me and I’m in a coma for a certain amount of time and the doctors are all saying even if I do wake up I’ll be brain dead, just pull the plug. I don’t want to live that way, you know what I mean? Take me out. Send me off into the next—release my soul from this crushed body. Something.
What are you ultimate goals for the show? Are there any milestones or anything that you’d like the series to achieve?
Glenn Howerton: We want to go a full quarter century.
Rob McElhenney: God, no, no, no. God forbid. We’d like a nice round number of ten. We’ll probably go ten seasons. I think our goal for the show is always to surprise people because we think that that’s really the best way to achieve comedy; comedic result is to always be surprising people. That’s our overall goal. I think the idea of knowing when our last season is is exciting because we can actually write towards an end. But that won’t be for a couple years.
Glenn Howerton: For me, I want to break Bonanza’s record.
Rob McElhenney: What was Bonanza’s record?
Glenn Howerton: 22 years.
The painting, the German shepherd painting, did you find that, per chance? Did your art department find that or did someone actually paint that?
Rob McElhenney: That painting was actually in Charlie’s apartment during the second season of the show. That was basically just set decoration in the second season. Interestingly enough, we actually were the ones that when we got into editing and we were watching the show—all the episodes of Season 2, that painting stood out to us so much, too much, it was too distracting. We actually said we never want to see that painting again. Take it down. Get rid of it because it’s just a shining, white, weird painting in the background of every Charlie’s apartment scene.
Glenn Howerton: We had so many fans and so many comments, asking about it. When we took it down, people were irate.
Rob McElhenney: Yes. They were like, what happened to that dog painting? We loved that dog painting. We kept thinking, the scenes aren’t supposed to be about a painting of a dog in the background. We just felt like it was too distracting, but we always wanted to bring it back in some way.
When you’re writing your episodes, do you have favorite teams that you guys like to work with? The gang is so often shifting alliances, even within one episode.
Glenn Howerton: That’s a great question.
Rob McElhenney: That is a good question. Everybody brings something unique and different to the table. The three of us only ever write with each other. Sometimes we write in pairs, sometimes we write all three of us. We did a lot of writing this year, though, the three of us.
Glenn Howerton: No, I think they means in terms of storylines.
Rob McElhenney: Oh, in terms of storylines. I’m sorry. I misunderstood your question. We do try to keep tabs of that, actually, to a certain degree. We try to mix it up as much as possible, so that the same pairing isn’t happening all season long.
Glenn Howerton: Sometimes we’ll find that, too. Where we’ll break three or four episodes in a row and realize that we have ‘Dee’ and ‘Frank’ together for those three or four episodes and we’ll realize that we’ve got to break them up a little bit.
From the last season finale, did you always know that ‘Mac’ was going to be Ronald McDonald, or is that something that just occurred to you? Will you have a similar revelation with the waitress?
Rob McElhenney: We’ve been talking about that for a while.
Glenn Howerton: We’ve been talking about what ‘Mac’s’ name is for a long time. I think we came up with the idea that his real name was Ronald MacDonald a while ago; like a couple years ago. We also thought it was so ridiculous we weren’t sure if we ever really wanted to reveal it or if we did that it would ever actually be that. So, we finally decided to do it. As far as the waitress goes, we don’t have any plans as of now to ever tell anyone what her name is. Although she does have a name and we do know what it is.
Are there a certain set of criteria that do go in to breaking a story, that you find that you have to have a certain set of criteria?
Rob McElhenney: Most importantly, what we’re always talking about is, for as unbelievable as some of the storylines may seem, we have to believe that the characters believe that what they’re doing gets them what they want. That’s the most important aspect of breaking a story, so it doesn’t just feel like a series of funny events. That we really justify why these characters are acting the way that they do.
That’s the major criteria that I follow. Of course, we like to tie things up and tie things together. That’s good story writing.
Have you ever written a scene or story where you thought you had gone too far?
Glenn Howerton: The gauge for too far is always just—we never set out to—we never want to offend anyone; not for the sake of offending anyone. People will always be offended by things. That’s just the way it is. Usually the people who get insulted the most over the course of the episode are the characters themselves, which is why I think we can get away with so much. There are certain things—it’s just a matter of taste. We had some things actually in the season opener with some very touchy subject matter. I won’t go into it, but there were some things that we decided to extract from the episode because we felt like it took the joke a little bit too far—it’s when it goes into territory where it’s not funny anymore.
Everybody likes to test the standards and practices. Do you mind doing that?
Rob McElhenney: No, I think after eight years we’ve figured out what we can get away with and what we can’t. I think at this point everybody understands what the show is and what we’re trying to do with the show. I think that that helps a lot. That allows the audience to be along for the ride as opposed to, like Glenn said, offending people.
Glenn Howerton: Yes. A lot of it is just about context. Certain things done in a certain context when they’re justifiable and they’re not just cruel or offensive, we can get away with. It’s never our intention to try—I also have to say, it does cause you to be a little bit more creative when you can’t just do anything.
Having certain boundaries and restrictions can actually be helpful, to a certain degree. We have some good ones with FX. I think it makes it more challenging; it forces you to be a little bit more creative.
Does the show allow you enough time to go ahead and to venture into films?
Rob McElhenney: It’s been tough in the past because we do write, produce, and star in the show. In previous seasons, it’s been almost a year-round gig and then we’re so exhausted coming off of it that we don’t really want to do much else, which is why you haven’t seen us do much else, quite frankly.
But we are—as the show goes on, we have a lot of talented people surrounding us that we’ve worked with for many, many years. The process has become a little bit more streamlined, which is why hopefully you’ll be seeing us pop up in things more and more in the next couple years.
Glenn Howerton: Yes, this year is a little bit different—we had to start a lot later this season. We want to get back on our earlier schedule. We’re really only going to have one month off between seasons.
Rob McElhenney: We all have babies. Multiple—we have two babies. Glenn has one and Charlie has one; so we want to spend as much time with our families as we can.
Do have any plans or wishes to write feature comedies in the future? If so, what do you think are the challenges of writing for film versus TV?
Glenn Howerton: For me, the biggest challenge for me is that we are so used to writing in that format, that television format. It is a different structure entirely. Certainly, long term we have plans to write, produce, direct features and things like that. Right now, our focus really is on Sunny, though, because it’s something—it’s a job that we take very, very seriously; we don’t take it for granted. We don’t ever want to take it for granted. We have a high standard for ourselves. I think the fans have a high standard for us. In order to achieve what we’d like to achieve on the show, it takes up most of our year.
What are you favorite TV shows?
Glenn Howerton: Good question. I really think that new show, Girls, on HBO is really terrific. I’m a fan of that. I really, really enjoyed Enlightened, also on HBO. I think it’s terrific. I think Louie is a really interesting show.
Rob McElhenney: My favorite show—I love Mad Men, Game of Thrones, 60 Minutes—
Glenn Howerton: Oh yes, 60 Minutes continues to kill us.
Rob McElhenney: Breaking Bad—
Glenn Howerton: Yes, Breaking Bad is just, I think—
Rob McElhenney: I try to watch as little of comedy as I possibly can.
Glenn Howerton: Yes, yes, same here, same here. It’s just hard, when you’re working on comedy all the time. Seriously, the last thing I want to do is go home and watch a bunch of comedies. No offense to any comedies, it’s just, you can’t help but over-analyze it and it just becomes not fun anymore.
How much of what you do doesn’t make it to air?
Glenn Howerton: We started to streamline things a little bit better in the writing process so that we don’t end up with a lot of scenes on the cutting room floor. I think, actually, earlier on we probably had more things that we cut because the scripts were longer and we just hadn’t—we would try to edit ourselves as much as possible in the writing because we don’t want to shoot a bunch of things aren’t going to make it. Most of the stuff that just doesn’t make it on the air is just either probably extensions of scenes or little things that were cut out more than whole scenes themselves.
Was it more of a gradual development or was it just planned that you would start adding more supporting characters in the show, and open up what was a little more of an insular world with the three leads?
Glenn Howerton: As we built out the show and built out the characters, we realized that what we were creating was a bit of an alternate universe. Certainly, the stakes are just as high as real life, but the results are a little bit different. These people—I was counting how many major car accidents my character has been in over the last seven years. I think I’ve had five or six head-on collisions. I don’t seem to have any—maybe some brain damage, but the character doesn’t seem to have any physical scars. Clearly, we’re creating a heightened reality. When we started joking about who else lives in this universe, who else lives in this world, it just made us laugh. That helped broaden our scope, which I think only adds to the comedy.
Rob McElhenney: Maybe more of a parallel universe that an alternate, a completely alternate one; slightly heightened reality, yes.
Is it easier for you guys to act in something you write as opposed to saying someone else’s words on another film or TV show?
Rob McElhenney: I don’t know if it’s—it’s easier in the sense that because you wrote it you know it works, at least in terms of what your sensibility is. With respect to that, it’s easier.
Glenn Howerton: Certainly having a lot more control over the entire process, not only writing it, but then having a very heavy hand in the directing, and then knowing very well who it is that you’re acting with. Then, being in the editing room so we can shape the performance is really liberating and it helps build a lot of confidence. That being said, when you’re on somebody else’s set, you don’t have any responsibilities other than saying the words, which is pretty great.
Rob McElhenney: That’s pretty sweet, too.
I love it when you guys pop up in films and TV shows, keep it up!
Glenn Howerton: Thank you, Lance. We will do our best.