Over 14 seasons of a comedy like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia you’re bound to offend someone or present things that may not age well. Show creator Rob McElhenney recently admitted as much, but unlike other creators he explained why it’s important to learn from those moments and strive to do better.
McElhenney was profiled by Esquire writer Emma Dibdin in a piece that explores his new show, Apple TV+’s Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet and also dives into the long history of Sunny and how it’s impacted his life. The feature is great and chronicles how things have changed in TV in the decade-plus since McElhenney, Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton filmed two episodes of what became Sunny at their apartments in Los Angeles.
McElhenney explained that the show was originally supposed to be the anti-Friends, where people didn’t have each other’s backs and tried to distance themselves from caring about others. And that gruff attitude, though funny, has resulted in some early episodes that don’t age well when it comes to homophobia, racism and sexism. But McElhenney said it was always important to distinguish between his character Mac and McElhenney as a showrunner and writer, even if the show failed people on screen.
“An important distinction that I think we try to make in Sunny—and don’t necessarily always succeed—is that for as homophobic or racist or ignorant or terrible as the characters are, I think it’s clear that the people behind the show are not. And where we have blind spots, we try to ameliorate or at least recognize them.”
The piece mentions a trans character in season one, Carmen, who McElhenney admitted was called a “slur” in the early episodes. In later seasons, the character returns and the show tried to handle them better and make amends, to some success.
“[The characters] were calling her a slur during the first few years, which was most definitely out of ignorance. It was never supposed to be inflammatory or hurtful, but nevertheless, it was. We can’t go back and re-edit those episodes, but what we can do is make sure that as we’re moving forward, we’re making those adjustments and doing our due diligence.”
McElhenney mentioned that Sunny lacks representation in many ways, but that it wasn’t intentional. Now, assembling a writer’s room is a more deliberate process, and it’s made for much better results on screen as well. It’s something McElhenney has tried to be aware of when making Mythic Quest, admitting that he’s no longer the young cutting edge of comedy or politics that he perhaps once was.
“I’m an old man in the writers’ room, and I think of myself as a pretty progressive lefty liberal, but sometimes by the end of these conversations I feel like I’m an archconservative! I don’t always agree, but if I just shut the f*ck up and listen, nine times out of ten I can at the very least understand their perspective.”
It’s refreshing to hear a comic speak about aging and how common mores change over time. Rather than grapple with the youths and their understanding of what’s acceptable, McElhenney knows that things change and evolve over time. Sunny may not age as well as other comedies, but it’s very clearly a product of its time, a time McElhenney is making sure he won’t get stuck in.