It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia just concluded its 12th season — an absurd lifespan (even with shorter cable seasons) for any comedy, much less one that remains as vital and funny and inventive as this. Season 12 was a particularly momentous one for the Gang, as we saw (SPOILERS) Mac finally come out of the closet, life from Cricket’s perspective, and, in tonight’s finale, Charlie finally convince the Waitress to have sex with him (for the purpose of giving her the baby she’ll never otherwise have) and Dennis, after being confronted by the son he fathered (after the events of season 10’s “The Gang Beats Boggs”) and the boy’s mother, having an epiphany about his own awfulness and leaving town by declaring, “I can’t do any of this shit anymore.”
It was a remarkably emotional moment for a series that has made it through a dozen years without anyone in the Gang growing or learning much of anything from their many terrible misdeeds — and exceptionally well played by Glenn Howerton (who, shortly before Sunny came together was briefly part of the ER cast) — but one I assumed would be undone shortly into the start of season 13. So when I got on the phone with Howerton this afternoon to discuss both the finale and this wonderful dozenth season of the show, I asked if he was leaving the show entirely from a sense of journalistic thoroughness, rather than any belief that the answer would be yes.
That’s when things took a very surprising turn — albeit one that made a bit more sense an hour after the interview ended — which you can read about just as soon as I fake my death in an alley…
I have to start off with a question I’m pretty sure I know the answer to, but just in case: Are you leaving the show?
So… it’s a little complicated. I may seem a little bit evasive here, and I don’t mean to. It’s not entirely certain whether I am or am not. I might be. I might be, but I might not be. That really is the truth. Just to be clear, to dispel any potential weirdness, it has nothing to do with my relationship to anyone on the show or Rob or Charlie or anyone like that. It’s partially a creative and personal decision. We may be taking an extended hiatus between season 12 and season 13. So I’m certainly staying open to the possibility of doing more, but there is a possibility that I will not.
(An hour or so after we finished speaking, clarity appeared in the form of reports in the Hollywood trade press that Howerton has signed to do an NBC comedy pilot with Patton Oswalt. These things are usually verboten to discuss before they become official, and as the Variety report suggests, this would be a slightly different situation than Kaitlin Olson pulling double duty with Sunny and The Mick, since FX and Fox are corporate siblings (and thus more amenable to share their stars than NBC would be if it had Howerton on a series regular contract), and since Howerton is a writer and executive producer on Sunny, while Olson just acts. So it sounds like his availability for future seasons will depend on whether the NBC pilot goes to series, and/or whether Sunny season 13 is delayed long enough to create a hole in Howerton’s schedule that lets him do both.)
So that brings us to what happens with Dennis at the end of the episode. How did you decide that, if you’re going, this is the way you wanted to go out?
You know what’s funny about our show is we’re on such a weird schedule. We used to air in the fall and now we air in January, but we still write it on the same schedule, so the conversations that happened about how to leave the show, what’s going to happen with Dennis at the end of this season if Glenn is not going to be coming back, they happened so long ago — almost a year ago, I’d have to go back in my mind to try to remember exactly how we landed there. We knew we wanted to leave it open-ended. We didn’t want to do something where Dennis died or anything like that, anything hokey. For my part, I’m just a big fan of subverting expectations whenever possible. It just makes for interesting drama, comedy, whatever you have it in entertainment. And in comedy, I have a great affinity for trying to surprise people and do the exact opposite of what people expect. In my mind, I like the idea of taking a character who we’ve built up to be potentially a serial killer and realize that it may be the exact opposite. He may be an extraordinarily fragile and emotional person who has created a shell around himself to try to protect himself.
As an outside observer, it seems that one of the ways you’ve been able to sustain the show creatively for so long is by keeping the Gang oblivious to their many terrible flaws and crimes and failings. Then suddenly, Dennis has this huge moment of self-awareness as his son says “Bye, Dada” to him.
I think the truth is, what we’ve always tried to do on the show is take a certain mentality that exists in the real world and amplify it. A certain attitude towards an issue. That’s the main vein of social commentary that I’ve tried to tap into: take a mentality that I see existing in our culture and giving that mentality to our characters, and watching it play out to its extreme. That to me is the best way to satirize the ridiculousness of taking a hard stance on anything where there’s nuance. And all of that is to say, I think it’s accurate to say to a certain degree, I think the characters are oblivious a lot of times. But I think even the most oblivious person registers things at the very least on some subconscious level.
It’s just a matter of, for us, we satirized the opposite for so long, the idea of being completely oblivious. I think that now I find it interesting the idea of hitting a point where a character realizes, “I can’t hide from this anymore. I can’t pretend. There’s a lot of wreckage and carnage I can leave in my past,” but there’s an interesting emotional truth to the idea of having a child and realizing, “I don’t think I can hide from this.” And recognizing the damage that was done — it’s weird to get this deep about a show like Sunny — but for me, there was something really interesting and poignant about Dennis having a moment of realizing, maybe his childhood was fucked up, and that he doesn’t want his kid to have a fucked-up childhood, too.
This is the most dramatic moment of the season, and probably the entire series, but there have been other interesting epiphanies this season. Mac finally came out of the closet. How often had you discussed having this happen in seasons past, and why did it finally happen now?
We never really entertained very seriously the idea of him coming out of the closet, and the reason we didn’t is, to me, there’s nothing more sad and poignant, and quite frankly funny, in the way we portray it, in the dark humor that I really love, that there still are so many people who have this hyper-masculine view of themselves, and the one thing that does not, absolutely cannot fit into that hyper-masculine view of oneself is admitting that you’re gay. Obviously, anybody with half a brain and half a heart and half an understanding of science understands how fucking ridiculous that is. That’s what makes it so sad, and also funny, to have a character who is so clearly gay, and be surrounded by a group of friends who could not fucking care less.
And I thought that was a funny joke… when you always see supportive friends trying to get a friend to admit the truth about this, they go, “Don’t worry, we’ll always love you and support you.” And our version of that is, “Dude, we support you coming out of the closet because we’re going to hate you either way. The things we dislike about you is not whether you’re gay or not. It’s everything else about you, so just come out of the closet.” For a long time, I never wanted him to come out of the closet, because he represents a certain thing that still sadly exists. But 12 seasons in, I don’t think anyone expected we would be on this long, we finally got to a point where we were like, let’s have him come out of the closet just so we can explore some new storylines and do some new shit.
“Hero or Hate Crime” happens pretty late in the season, so there were only a handful of episodes with Mac being out. Do you feel the writing for him or the show changed as a result of that?
Not really, just that watching a character do a complete 180. I thought it was interesting the idea that rather than see him transition into the lifestyle of a person who’s finally come out, that he is exactly the way he’s always been. The only difference is he’s not denying his sexual orientation.
Another big thing that happens in the finale is Charlie finally sleeping with the Waitress. Had there been close calls in years past? And how did this wind up being the right time?
In an effort to keep things interesting for ourselves, and therefore keep things interesting to the audience, it’s tough to have characters like ours grow, but a certain amount of incremental growth becomes necessary after 12 years. Otherwise, you start to follow your own hard and fast rules to your own detriment. You are embracing the idea that if Dennis is going to leave, let’s make a couple of big changes, and let’s set ourselves up for a season 13 where shit has kind of changed. I like to think that we’ve earned that after 12 years. It just opens us up to possibilities. We’ve talked about — and I don’t want to get into it because we may use it next season — but the myriad ways that Charlie having slept with the Waitress may affect his larger life going forward. Mac coming out of the closet, Charlie sleeping with the Waitress, Dennis leaving the bar at the end, these are all ways for us to say, “Hey, this is the same gang, and things are going to be the same to a degree”
How challenging has it been to keep the show fresh and funny after all this time?
What becomes challenging is you’ve mined so much territory about their attitudes and their point of view towards certain things. What becomes challenging is less the coming up with a plot and more coming up with a unique point of view from the characters. You can kind of come up with different story ideas and plot ideas, but the vast majority of what makes our show interesting and funny is always the characters’ reactions to what’s going on, or their point of view with regard to a certain issue or action. I think that’s where it becomes challenging, where you realize we’ve seen Dennis rant and rave, we’ve seen him be too cool for school, seen him be unemotional, and it’s like how much further can we go with how sinister he is before it becomes too cartoonish? It’s just tough coming up with original ways to have stories bounce off our characters?
Do you feel the documentary episode once and for all settled the question of whether Dennis is a serial killer? Or should we still have questions?
I have my own ideas, and my own point of view about whether Dennis is or is not a serial killer, or whether he ever has committed a murder. I’d prefer to keep it vague. I think it’s more interesting to keep people guessing.
Finally, I know you don’t want to get into specifics about why you might be leaving and what the chances are of you returning, but if this is the end for you with Sunny, how will you look back on these 12 years?
With a level of fondness that I can only describe as indescribable. It’s been the greatest joy, honor of my life up to this point, to have been a part of this show. It’s something that I’m extraordinarily proud of, and I feel just so lucky to have also found such an incredibly talented group of collaborators in Rob and Charlie and so many of the writers that we’ve worked with for so many years. Guys like David Hornsby and Scott Marder, Rob Rosell, guys like Dave and John Chernin, who created The Mick with Kaitlin, and thus weren’t with us this season. It’s just been the greatest thing. And for FX to give me the opportunity — I’ve always had a strange sense of humor — to create a character like Dennis, who in my view is so funny, and so fucked up, and so sad, and so demented, is just incredible.
I don’t know that you can point to any other character who is as dark and twisted and rapey and murderous and have it somehow still work, and be funny and likable. I’m just proud to create such a unique character. And more importantly, not just for ourselves, but I’ve seen the impact it’s had on our fans, on Twitter and when I meet people in person. I’m also a fan of things — music and shows and movies — that shaped me as a person, that made me feel like there are other people in the world who understand my sensibility, my sense of humor, and to hear from our fans that we’ve created in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia that does that same thing for them is the most rewarding thing in the world. Of course, it’s a bummer that we’ve never won a Golden Globe or an Emmy or anything like that, but I mean this totally sincerely: that pales in comparison to having this sort of lasting effect on people’s lives that I think Sunny has had.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com