Dysfunctional idolatry is all the rage with brashness often mistaken for boldness here in what passes for reality. But in our recent conversation, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia co-creator and star Glenn Howerton makes it clear that the characters he and his long-time collaborators play in the now 15-seasons-deep comedy aren’t heroes. Instead, they’re supposed to be the butt of the joke, led astray by their ignorance and egos. It’s a message that may not have always been evident to some.
“I don’t think we were quite as good at this in the early seasons… making it clear that the writers of the show aren’t saying that this behavior is funny because we like it and we stand by it,” says Howerton. “It’s funny because it’s so awful, and it’s exactly what you’re not supposed to do.”
To wit, Howerton isn’t a big fan of the kind of supposedly edgy comedy that some might view as a comp for Always Sunny, partly because characters in those projects don’t face consequences. But it also has something to do with efforts to push boundaries without purpose. “I often find it offensive because it’s just not fucking funny,” he says.
What does Howerton like? Pink Floyd (a fact revealed while discussing how much he seems to hate The Beatles), working and now podcasting with the same group of collaborators (Rob McElhenney and Charlie Day) for going on two decades, and doing self-described weird and villainous stuff to get a laugh. Including Dennis Reynolds’ nefarious sex face.
We spoke with Howerton about all of the above, taking aim at absurdities across the ideological spectrum, the Gang’s Ireland-set misadventures, and the challenge of topping themselves as they continue making this once improbable but now-iconic series (which airs Wednesdays on FXX and streams on FX On Hulu the next day).
I enjoy checking on what people are Googling when it comes to someone I’m about to talk with. Apparently, the people want to know if Glenn Howerton is nice. Are you nice?
Am I nice? Yeah. I am nice, actually. I mean, everybody thinks they’re… No, that’s not true actually. Not everybody thinks they’re nice. Some people know that they’re not nice and can admit it. They’re like, “No, I’m kind of a dick.” But no, I’m not. I’m actually very nice. That’s the truth.
The internet said that you are “Pleasant and chatty.” That was the response to that question on Google.
Pleasant and chatty?
I think it’s from the lede of another interview.
Pleasant and chatty. I’ll take that.
The first couple of episodes of this season, you guys really manage to kind of piss off, I think, everybody, which is really impressive. Left, right, center, woke, un-woke. Is that the goal?
It’s not, it really isn’t. The way the show is talked about, it’s as if that’s our goal, or that our goal is to push the boundaries of what’s decent or whatever. And that’s never the goal. That being said, what is the goal is to make people laugh. And often in order to do so, you have to kind of shake them up a little bit. That’s my feeling. The best jokes to me, are slightly acerbic and make you go, “Oh, shit! Can you say that?” That’s just what I like because I like to be provoked. I like to be poked by art.
For me, it’s more raising questions, forcing people on any side of a particular issue to sort of face what is often absurd about their point of view, or the reasons behind their point of view. Because the truth is as far as I’m concerned, most of the time, the reality lies somewhere in the middle. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. So poking fun at the extremes on any side of any given issue or argument is… I mean, I think that’s just what the show’s always been about.
I imagine it also makes it a little more interesting for you guys. Like you’re kind of alluding to, everyone is so self-serious and for righteous reasons a lot of the time, but also sometimes not. And sometimes it’s just with everything. And so, I feel like you guys are definitely aiming at kind of cracking the shell a little, so people can kind of take a breath, take a look.
I think that’s right. I think that’s right. It’s the ability for us to laugh at ourselves and to try and provoke laughs from even the people that we’re maybe trying to satirize. Right? I want people who watch the show to feel like we’re not just satirizing the people that they disagree with, but that they’re being satirized as well. Because we’re all a little bit ridiculous, you know? Or we all have the capacity to be a little bit ridiculous in our point of view, and what we stand for and what we fight for. So, that’s always been the essence of the show in many ways.
That’s a great point and, when I look at the second episode of the season, the Lethal Weapon episode… you tell me if it’s is a spoiler, but my favorite joke is the pausing and waiting for applause [after doing something woke]. That’s the best observation.
And so you’re cracking the shell a little bit on how people can get hyper offended, but you’re also cracking the shell on [faux wokeness]… I’m going the long way around here to ask, what was the motivation there?
I think when you threaten people’s lives and you threaten their livelihoods because they don’t think the way you think, and they don’t believe the same things you believe, what’s going to inevitably end up happening is that some people are going to push back against that and go, “This is just the way I am.” But most people are going to not want their livelihoods taken away. So they’re going to start doing quote-unquote, the right thing, but they’re going to be doing it for the wrong reasons. They’re going to be doing it out of fear. Or often as what we’re satirizing, what you’re referring to, that people start to do it because they’re like, “Oh, I’ll be praised for this, for doing and saying the right things and being righteous.” You know what I mean? And they don’t really care so much about why they’re supposed to be doing what they’re supposed to be doing. They just want to be celebrated for actually doing it. You know? And that’s the danger of some of the over-correcting, is that people feel compelled toward that, or they feel forced toward that.
There’s one scene in that episode… Your very upsetting sex face. Just the look on your face, it’s very disturbing. Do you practice that? How do you arrive at the right disturbing sex face?
Well, as my wife would probably attest… Sorry, this is not going where you think it’s going.
[Laughs] That’s fine.
I just have a very… And I’ve always been this way. I just have a very strange sense of humor. One of the things that I like to do to make people laugh is to sort of do things that are slightly uncomfortable, things that are slightly strange, things that are weird, things that are kind of awful. I’ve always been able to find humor in sort of villainous behavior, behaving absurdly. It’s absurd, right? Nobody fucking looks like that when they have sex. I hope not.
I just have a fucking weird sense of humor, man. I find shit like that funny. So I’ve always just kind of been that way. So it doesn’t really take much for me as a performer to go there, because I just think that shit’s funny. And I’ve been doing it for years. [Laughs]
What was the pull to take the story to Ireland?
I think when you’re 15 seasons into a show, you’re kind of looking for anything to just kind break things up and keep it fresh. Right? And I think that we found the concept of characters who identify as Irish, going to Ireland to discover their roots or for whatever reason that they’re going for… And all the characters are kind of going there for different reasons, which is pretty typical of our show.
Honestly, it was just a way to do something a little bit different. Most seasons, the episodes themselves are episodic. They’re not serialized. But we thought it was a good opportunity to do some more serialized episodes.
How long can this feel fresh for you guys? I mean, you’re still at the top of your game in terms of what you’re putting out there, but I know that’s not necessarily the same as feeling fresh in the room when you’re creating it.
I don’t know. Look, it is hard. I’m not going to lie. It is very difficult because we hold ourselves to a very high standard. And one of the things that I’ve always prided myself on is being able to continually come up with content, or come up with stories and character moments that surprise people and that catch people off guard a little bit. And it becomes more and more difficult as the years go on to be able to do that. Right? Because you have to accomplish two things at once. One, you have to serve the character that you’ve established. You can’t just change the character, fundamentally altering who that person is. So you’re limited in what you can do, with regard to that. So continuing to surprise people by using the characters that have established character traits… you know, it gets fucking hard. And I guess that’s another reason why we wanted to do something different and go to Ireland, just to give us something different to play off of.
As far as how long can we do it for? I mean, I don’t know. I really don’t. This season was challenging for sure. Breaking stories. I mean, we really did run into that sort of classic sort of thing, where we’re like, “Oh, no, we’ve already done that. Oh, no, we’ve already done that. Nope, we’ve done a version of that.” And you start to go, “Holy shit, man. What are we going to do?” But weirdly out of that process, to me, this is our strongest season in years in many ways. So, I don’t know how that happened exactly. But it’s challenging. I’ll tell you that.
What’s the experience been like for you to go back and start re-watching some of these episodes with the podcast and re-experience that stuff with these guys?
It’s been really fun to go back and tell stories. Because those guys will remember things that I’d forgotten. And I’ll remember things that they’ve forgotten about the making of the episode. And I mean, if you listen to the podcast, we’re maybe only talking about the episodes 25% of the time, maybe 20% of the time. The rest of the time, we’re just talking about other shit. [Laughs] Or whatever comes up after we’re talking about the episode. I’ll go back, I’ll listen to the podcast, because I don’t even remember what we did, and I’ll listen to it. And I’m like, “Oh, right.” When we’re doing the podcast together, it is a window into sort of the way the three of us talk when it’s just the three of us in a room. It’s not that different from how we are when we’re not doing the podcast. [Laughs]
It’s like your Get Back. It’s like the Always Sunny version of Get Back.
The Beatles doc that everybody’s been talking about.
Okay, yeah… I don’t like the fucking Beatles, man. So I don’t know.
Oh, really? Wow. Overrated, or just not your kind of music?
[Sigh] I got a bit of a chip on my shoulder about The Beatles because I feel like they made a lot of really cool music, and they were obviously incredibly innovative and all that. But I think there were a lot of bands that were around that same time that just don’t get enough play. And I’m just fucking sick of hearing about The Beatles. Like, Jesus Christ, just shut the fuck up.
That’s very true. Don’t sink eight hours of your life into that documentary then. I would advise against that.
I won’t even watch the first 15 minutes of it. You want to put on an eight-hour documentary about Pink Floyd or The Kinks, I’m all in. But the Beatles, I’m like, “Jesus, man, we get it. We get it.”
Watching them pull a classic song out of thin air while you’re like a fly on the wall is a weird interesting experience. But it didn’t need to be eight hours.
That’s what I’m finding to be the case with most docuseries, right? It’s like, I get really pissed off when I’m watching a docuseries and it’s eight hours long. And I’m like, “You absolutely could have done this in two hours or an hour and a half.” But because docuseries are so popular right now, you made it eight hours. And so, I spend eight hours learning the same thing I could have learned in an hour and a half. Makes me mad. But I would watch an eight-hour documentary about Pink Floyd. I’ll tell you that.
‘It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’ airs Wednesday nights on FXX before coming available for streaming on FX On Hulu the following day.