Rob McEhlenney has already explained how It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia often had a blind eye to different perspectives and issues over the course of its run. The show’s co-creator has been one of the rare creatives to reflect on his earlier works and acknowledge the growth he’s had in recent years and not shied away from criticism of aspects of the show.
The latest example of that came this week when he explained why Sweet Dee changed so much from the initial version the Sunny gang had written. McElhenney spoke to The Independent about a variety of things amid the release of a quarantine episode of Mythic Quest, which has already had its strong first season wrapped up on Apple TV+. Among them is how Mythic Quest is decidedly different from Sunny, a show that started with a much smaller budget, writing crew and — by extension — perspective on people.
Part of it, MCElhenney says, is that the things he’s interested in writing about as he’s aged fit more with what Mythic Quest deals in than the characters on Sunny. But that doesn’t mean he can do it alone.
“We’re not pandering to the audience – they’re gonna call bulls*** when they see it,” says McElhenney, who is as sweary as he is switched on. “I mean look, there are certain experiences that we all share as human beings, and there are certain experiences that I have as a white dude
I can write a lot of characters, but I don’t know s*** about the specifics of being a young, African-American, gay, female gamer. So how else can we get that without bringing writers in who have those experiences?”
McElhenney pointed to the first scenes for Dee, the lone woman in the main Sunny gang, and how much the character changed because of notes from his future wife, Kaitlin Olson, gave to make her more real. As the story goes, Olson actually read a scene between Charlie and Dennis for her audition and thought the role wouldn’t have the typical finger-wagging of male characters while they continued to get laughs and cause trouble. Looking back, McElhenney put the blame on himself for how early on her character often had to play that part.
“I had a very different worldview than I do at 43,” he says – which was a blessing and a curse. For one thing, neither he, Day nor Howerton quite knew how to write a funny woman. Even Dee, who by season three is as fantastically awful as the rest of them, started out much flimsier than her male counterparts. “We weren’t writing that character twiddling our moustaches and saying, ‘Ooh, we need to keep our foot on the throat of female comedians,’” says McElhenney. “We were just ignorant.”
It’s an interesting reflection, especially considering that Olson’s notes amounted to letting Dee be as deranged and horrible as the rest of the characters.
It took Olson stepping in for things to change. After being sent yet another script in which Dee wagged her finger at the men’s wacky antics, she asked if she could have a word. “This is obviously well before we were dating,” says McElhenney, who’s now married to Olson with two sons. “She said, ‘I don’t understand why I’m in the show if my job is to come in and tell the boys to stop having fun.’ And I did not resist that. I listened to it and realised she was dead right. I brought it up to Glenn and Charlie and they said, ‘Absolutely, let’s figure this out. Let’s make her just as terrible as us.’”
But it’s another example of McElhenny constructively critiquing his past work and explaining how he’s learned to make better shows in the process. Mythic Quest isn’t better at being what Sunny is, but it’s clear the show is different not only because it has to be, but also because McElhenney and the other people working on it want the show to address very different things with a different perspective. And has the writers behind it to make fully fleshed out characters of all kind right off the bat.