The best part of being on the set of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is the details. You walk around Charlie and Frank’s apartment and pay attention to the books scattered around (a fascinating combination of Stephen King and chick lit), admire the extreme increase in cleanliness that comes when you walk around Sweet Dee’s place, and then of course there’s Paddy’s Pub. From the ragged fliers stapled to the walls to the neon signs behind the bar to the white board in the office detailing “Charlie Work,” it manages to feel real and lived-in, in a way that other Hollywood sets never manage. Like, it almost really feels like you’re at a bar.
This summer, at the Television Critics Association press tour, I made my second trip to Paddy’s — the first was while the show was in production on its 12th season. But in the space of those three years, the Paddy’s set had been broken down and built back up several times, as the show has constantly shifted filming locations.
“We have shot all over the city,” creator/star Rob McElhenney said during a press conference after our set tours in July. During Season 12, they were working on the legendary Fox lot in Century City (right across the street from the building which doubles as Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard); the day of this second trip, we were many miles away in the San Fernando Valley studio space where The Office made its home for nine seasons. In between, they shot the 13th season on the same stage where Seinfeld was produced.
“It’s great to do a tour of all the best shows on television,” McElhenney said. “And then we come in and desecrate them.”
When I visited Paddy’s in 2016, I spent several hours hanging out there, waiting for breaks in production to speak to the cast; three years later, stepping back inside the false walls of the pub for a quick tour felt familiar and friendly, like walking into my neighborhood local. It felt like nothing had changed in the ensuing years, which speaks to how Sunny has managed, against all odds, to become a TV institution, tying the record for longest-running comedy series with Ozzie and Harriet with its 14th season.
It’s not anything the creators and cast expected to happen when they started, as star/executive producer Charlie Day said to the press: “I mean I didn’t change my character’s name from my real name cause I figured, ‘eh, we won’t last.’”
But lasted it has, not just because of a strong ensemble anchored by sitcom legend Danny DeVito, but because of the specific quirks underlying the writers’ approach to telling stories about a group of miscreants who own a bar in Philadelphia. For one thing, no matter what schemes Mac (McElhenney), Charlie (Day), Dee (Kaitlin Olson), Dennis (Glenn Howerton) and Frank (DeVito) might cook up in the pursuit of money, sex or glory, there’s a moral core to the show. “The most important part is that the characters are one way, but then the show and the way that the show handles that is that we’re never celebrating that behavior,” McElhenney said. “It’s very clear that as a show we’re saying this behavior will always get you right back in the same place, which is absolutely nowhere.”
Another factor is the way in which the characters have changed over the years — or not. As one example, the character of Mac, after many seasons of build-up, officially came out as gay at the end of Season 13, but McElhenney made a point of saying that “we wanted to make sure that even though the characters might change, they don’t evolve. We wanted to make sure that he doesn’t become a better person or a sweeter person or more endearing person or a nicer person. We felt like we wanted to still keep the tone. So I would say, in all the right ways, things remain exactly the same.”
And while the show has more than enough adult content to earn its TV-MA rating, Day mentioned that he finds it disappointing when the show is dismissed as “filthy,” because “I think one of the reasons we’ve survived as long is there’s thought behind the edge of the show … when we do something that’s really pushing the button or going to the edge, we’re trying to say a little bit something about us pretty much as Americans.”
Added Day, “I don’t think we’re dirty. We’re edgy, but I think we’re outlasting [other shows] because we’re smart.”
Plus, because of the show’s well-established ethos, Day felt that “we’re grandfathered into an ability to attack any subject and still be funny.” He cited as one example the Season 13 episode “Time’s Up for the Gang,” which addressed the #MeToo movement. “We were one of the few shows I think that could dive head first into a topic like that and get away with it,” he said. “And I think people still need that. They still need an outlet where they can say, wow, they’re talking about something that we all don’t know how to land on this. And it’s uncomfortable. And they’re addressing whatever it is, sexism, racism, whatever, these topics that plague us all, and they’re approaching it from a standpoint that’s thoughtful but also funny. To have a platform like that has been a real gift, and maybe we’ve been able to get away with it just cause people aren’t paying attention. But I think it’s because people understand the show. And for that, we’re super appreciative.”
DeVito still relishes each new episode, saying that when he receives the scripts, “I’m always surprised. I’m always happy. I always feel like, you know what, this is going to be like off the charts. I love to be challenged and I love doing all kinds of crazy shit, you know? I mean they haven’t put me naked again in couch in a while, but we get close to it.”
A big factor in keeping the show feeling fresh has been the addition of other writers, including Community and Modern Family alumni Megan Ganz, who Day called “one of the best writers we’ve ever hired.”
McElhenney noted that at a certain point, they realized that “sure, we can continue writing the show, but as we get older and also as we’re doing the same thing for so long, you just sort of get stuck in the same creative rut, if you’re not allowing for other people to come in and bring different perspectives. It’s always in the end going to be jammed through the prism of the way that we see the world, or see a TV show. But now we have the benefit of all these different ideas and experiences coming in that we might not have had before.”
It also means that it’s possible for them to go back to topics or issues they’ve addressed before, such as an upcoming Season 14 episode that tackles the question of a woman’s right to choose—which was also the subject of the season one episode “Charlie Wants an Abortion.” However the angle is new: “Dee comes in saying that she wants to get a haircut, and the four of us decide that she should not be getting that haircut because yes, it is her body, but we have to live with the choices that she makes,” McElhenney explained. “When that was pitched we were like, well, that’s a great new way of looking at an issue that we’ve already dealt with.”
It speaks to what makes the series so special—never afraid to try new things, but always true to its core ethos—and the team made it clear that at this stage, they don’t necessarily see any reason to stop anytime soon. It helps that FX has enabled them to venture outside of the Sunny world for other projects, such as Day’s role in the Pacific Rim films, Olson’s The Mick and Howerton’s NBC series A.P. Bio..
Howerton said, “This is the greatest job. I can never have a job as great as this … and we recognize that it’s important for us all to have different outlets for our creativity, so that when we come back together, it makes us appreciate this show more. It makes us appreciate each other more, and I think ultimately makes this show better.”
As he added, “I don’t know that I’ll ever get to do something with the amount of creative freedom that we get on this show, to tell the stories that we want to tell and, and bring something that is so singularly our sense of humor. So maybe we’ll take breaks here and there, but I don’t know if we’ll ever stop until they kick us off.”
McElhenney said that he recently met Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm creator Larry David at an event, and David had some advice for him. “He said, ‘uh, don’t be an idiot.’ He’s like, ‘never stop. Just keep doing it. One, because it’s the greatest job you could ever want, and two, because if you do a final episode, they’ll just destroy you for it.’”
In an era where more and more shows are fighting to keep going, there’s a refreshing comfort to the longevity of Sunny, to knowing that the foundation is there for it to continue breaking records, challenging perceptions, and evolving as a series (even while the characters don’t) for the closest thing possible to forever. As filthy as the sets might look, on screen or in person, there is something pure about knowing that the magic of television will ensure they’ll always feel the same.
It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia returns Wednesday, Sept. 25 at 10 p.m. on FXX.
Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She recently spent five years as TV Editor at Indiewire, and her work has also been published by The New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of “X-Files” trivia. Follow her on Twitter at @lizlet.