While the question wasn’t explicitly asked when we spoke with Rob McElhenney ahead of season 2 of Mythic Quest (which you can start streaming on AppleTV+), the subject of why he chooses to run and star in two very different and very very successful TV comedies at once is ever-present in a conversation that also touches on the right approach to navigating COVID with his characters, nuance, and the freedom and fun of breaking out of a box.
For McElhenney it seems to be about getting nourishment from two very distinct wells. As he explains it, the characters on Mythic Quest (which feels more like an ensemble than ever before in season 2) are “real human beings. They might be difficult. They might be arrogant. They might be narcissistic, but they’re still navigating a pretty close approximation of what this real world is.” When it comes to Always Sunny In Philadelphia, which has been a part of his life for 16 years and 14 seasons, it’s a bit less evolved. But that’s sort of the point. “They’re cartoon characters and so there are no real consequences to the behavior other than their continual descent. […] they’ll never change or grow or learn… or win.” Imagine the fun of using those two distinct tools to take a crack at an ever-complex world that often needs more empathy, connection, and to have the piss taken out of it, and you’ll get a sense of where McElhenney is.
Mythic Quest gets looped into this wave of feel-good television alongside Schitt’s Creek and Ted Lasso. That’s obviously a little different from the reception to Always Sunny. What does that feel like and was it the intention to find a kind of lovability with some of these characters?
Well, certainly we liked the idea of presenting an optimistic look at the world because we’re optimistic people. I mean, the people who are writing the show are optimistic people, and yet we still liked the idea of exploring difficult characters. There’s no doubt that Ian is a troubled person and Poppy is very clearly a troubled person. And yet we feel like it’s really interesting to explore the difficult dynamics of working with difficult people. And yet [we’re] really looking towards an eye of a bright future for them, honestly.
There’s the freshly released bonus season one episode, Everlight, which is great. And then you seem to move away from COVID. It seems to be in a past tense state. What was behind the decision to not really dig in more on COVID?
When we had to rewrite the entire second season, because we had written the entire second season… We were about ready to shoot when we had to shut down and then we essentially threw out the whole season and started over. And we were writing much like this, just on Zoom calls, Megan (Ganz), David (Hornsby) and I, and a couple of other writers. And then we realized this wasn’t going to air until… We knew sometime in the spring of 2021, maybe summer 2021, we weren’t a hundred percent sure. But we thought, well, are people really going to want to watch an entire season reliving what they just lived through for an entire year? And my thought was, no, I think we’re going to want to have COVID in our rearview mirror even if it’s not in our rearview mirror at the time, [so] we can project to a near future. Maybe it’s six months from now, maybe it’s a year from now where COVID is behind us. And that we really don’t mention it or talk about it at all.
That being said, we felt like it would be irresponsible and inauthentic for us to just move past that as if it didn’t happen. We did the quarantine episode, where we addressed what it was like to work at home, but we felt like we needed to address what it would be like to return to “normalcy.” And we recognized that there’s going to be a lot of practical challenges to that. There are going to be a lot of emotional challenges to that. There’s going to be a lot of things that people didn’t necessarily account for, which is once again, coming back into your office that you left a year ago and now being able to interact with human beings for the first time, people who you haven’t seen in a very long time. There’s going to be some level of emotional catharsis that’s going to have to happen, so we wanted to do an episode that at the very least honored that.
You’ve said publicly that you are going to tackle COVID a little with Always Sunny. There’s obviously a side to this beyond the longing for communication and connection. There’s a lot of anger about the way the situation has gone. And some of the people that have kept the situation going. Does it make it easier to know that you can potentially scratch that itch with another show?
Oh yes! Yes, yes, yes. I mean, that’s what’s so fun about Sunny is that we can take popular culture and put it through the meat grinder of that very specific point of view, that is the show, more specifically the point of view of the characters within the show. And then we can essentially tackle any topic because we’re really not taking a political or even oftentimes social stand in a lot of these episodes. The characters might, but we as the filmmakers, generally, we’ll just try to take as many different arguments from the extreme sides of whatever the spectrum might be, and then just mash them all together and see what comes out. And oftentimes it winds up being biting criticism, not necessarily of one particular group or the other, but the culture itself. And that’s what we’ve always tried to do with Sunny and I think that’s why we’ve been able to do it for as long as we have.
There’s a scene at mid-season with you and Rachel in a Porsche [while talking about her aspirations] which is very interesting. Your character is definitely going out on…you’re putting yourself a little bit on a limb when you say in the scene, “It’s exhausting helping women.” You’re putting yourself into a conversation, which is interesting and I’m curious about your take on what that scene meant for both those characters.
Yes. I’m glad you asked about that. Ashly (Burch) is one of our writers who plays Rachel, and these are very similar to conversations that we have in the writer’s room. Of course, this is an extreme version of the conversations that we have. But what I try to do is to surround myself, certainly in our writer’s room and then with the cast, of course, later on, but in the writer’s room, with very different points of view. I try to find really young people, real older people, obviously, there were actually more women than there are men, different ethnicities, different cultural backgrounds, and just try to get a rich understanding of what the current state of American culture is, and then what everybody’s point of view is. So we find ourselves in these kinds of conversations all the time. Some of it gets stored away for Sunny, in which I can explore that in a way that’s more cartoonish and ultimately biting.
And then some of them, we can explore these kinds of conversations in maybe a more nuanced, more interesting way. Where both characters… and it was very important to me… As it is oftentimes when you’re writing those scenes, the most interesting scenes are not the ones where one person’s right, and the other person’s wrong, and that’s the end of the story. There’s something, to me, [that’s] much more interesting where somebody has a good point, somebody has a good counterpoint. Somebody responds to that counterpoint with a good point, somebody then responds to that point with a good counterpoint. And then you take it to the extreme of having a button that is ostensibly offensive, and yet it’s a comedy so people get it, they understand where we’re coming from.
Obviously, Ian is changing to a certain extent. Do you have to be mindful of the velocity of that change and not bring him to a point where maybe he has attained… I don’t want to say this word, but for lack of a better term, a level of wokeness? Is that a concern?
100%, because that just doesn’t feel authentic to the experience of being a human being, right? The characters of Sunny will never wake, ever. That’s the point of Sunny. A show like this, to watch people… To your point, I don’t necessarily want to use that word, but to watch people learn something and grow, that is authentic to the experience of being a human being. To watch them go from zero to a hundred is bullshit. And no one’s going to believe it. No one’s going to buy it. That’s why, for example, you might see a little change in Ian in a certain direction, and yet he can also very easily have that same conversation that he has with Rachel, where he’s getting Rachel to maybe take a second look at why she’s standing on her soapbox and what that soapbox actually represents. And maybe she shouldn’t be screaming into a megaphone because she’s got nothing to say. Those are really interesting conversations that I love to find these characters in, and that will allow us to understand why they’re making the changes in their life that they eventually do.
One of my favorite episodes of television in the last 10-15 years is the dance in the Sunny episode when he comes out to his father — it’s such a beautiful scene. As a creator, using that kind of thing, or even these standalone episodes, like the one coming up in Mythic Quest with C.W. where we go into his backstory or the one last year with Jake Johnson and Cristin Milioti, which was such a beautiful episode…. Beyond it being a very exciting and freeing thing, what’s the value in being able to break rhythm on what a show usually is and kind of zig instead of zag?
Well, obviously, like you just said, there’s a certain freedom in that, but I also think what it winds up doing is, it makes the rest of the process equally as interesting. Let’s speak to the second season [of Mythic Quest]. You have “Everlight.” Then you have an episode in the middle of the season, which is another throwback episode flashback. And then we have another episode that’s very different from what we normally do. And then another one. And yet, when you start saying, “Well, this is different from what you normally do, but you’re doing it four and five times a season.” What you’re realizing is that that is essentially what the show is. And that when you go back to what the original form of the show was, which is an office comedy, then all of a sudden you realize, “Oh, I didn’t know the show I was making until right now.”
And I still don’t know what the show is. If I’m being honest, I don’t even know what Sunny is, because we just show up and do it. And it changes all the time. I would absolutely be lying, and every single fan of Sunny knows for sure that I’m lying, if I were to say, I knew Mac was gay season one, episode one. I never assumed that at all. It wasn’t until 10 years later where I was like, “you know it’d be an interesting thing… it would be interesting to maybe look back and see if this makes a little bit of sense.” And then we started planting those seeds, but we wouldn’t have been able to do that if we weren’t willing to just take wild risks and hope that the audience is going to go along for the ride. I guess that’s the long answer in saying, I like the idea of jumping off into the abyss because it’s exciting and you don’t know if people are going to like it and if they don’t, then fuck them.
Look, Jason. Ultimately it’s just more fun. If people don’t know what they… I often think when I hear people say, “Oh, I hated that episode of Sunny. It wasn’t like the other ones. I hate it.” I actually think that is important. I think that’s important to the television show because you realize like, “Oh, I don’t know what I’m going to get. I might sit down and I have a completely different experience week to week to week.” And I think there’s something about living in the moment of like, “I don’t know what to expect.” And then having something delivered to you, whether you like it or not, I think is an important part of the experience.
The first two episodes of ‘Mythic Quest’ season 2 are available via Apple TV+ with new episodes to follow every Friday.