In anticipation of their show's sixth season premiere on September 16 on FX, the It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia peeps are making the press rounds. I had a chance to get the deets on the upcoming season from the show's co-creative director and star, Rob McElhenney. The new father was in the car with his wife and co-star Kaitlin Olson and their new baby son, Axel, on the way to a pediatrician appointment, when he gave us the lowdown about the new season, what drives his character Mac, and how the dick towel was just one big misunderstanding.
On his thoughts about juggling both writing and acting:
We break it into a three-tier structure which is why it takes pretty much the majority of the year. We will write the show for the first four or five months, and then under ideal circumstances, we don’t start shooting until all the scripts are done. But generally, we finish up the last four or five episodes while we’re shooting. And then we wait completely until we’ve finished production before we get into the editing round.
On coming up with new material:
We spend a lot of time in the writer’s room. We never think, "How can we get more outrageous, more outlandish, or how can we outdo ourselves?" What we try to think about is what we are not seeing elsewhere on television. [We try to cover] themes about American culture that are simply taboo - things that are talked about in living rooms, and in barrooms, but are not talked about on television.
What he's enjoying most about new fatherhood:
I had incredibly high expectations for the whole experience leading up to it and it has exceeded my expectations. Mostly what I enjoy is spending as much time as I can just staring at him. Sometimes I welcome the times that he’s crying and I get to try to soothe him back to sleep and i love to change his diapers. At this point Kaitlin is breastfeeding so I don’t get to enjoy the process of feeding him, so any other time I get to spend with him, I cherish.
What it was like working with Tom Sizemore:
We wrote this really funny trucker character and in the episode Charlie and Dennis are on this adventure where they get lost in the woods and are hitchhiking and come across this trucker that’s drivng to Atlantic City. They go on this road trip with him. And we knew that we wanted to cast it with somebody who was recognizable and could bring some level of gravitas to the role. We wanted to bring someone who plays that tense, sort of psychotic character really well. Sizemore was obviously at the top of that list. And there was some questions where he was in his life on a personal level. Dr. Drew is a good friend of mine and I called him and he told me that Tom was in a great place and really ready to work. I called Tom directly and he seemed exactly what Dr. Drew was saying he was. He showed up every day, on time, was professional, and was absolutely unbelievable.
On the likelihood of Green Man returning to the show:
We put Green Man on the back-burner cause we want to make sure it doesn’t start to seep into every episode of our lives. It certainly has seeped into popular culture. And I can’t turn on a sporting event without seeing him in the background. Specifically, if the home team has green color in the uniforms. What our goal has always been in the show is to not fall back on things that work and drive them into the ground and treat them like the dead horse they could possibly be and often times you see that in sitcoms. We want to say, well that worked and that was great, and let’s find the next Green Man. Same things go for Night Man. That was such a successful episode and successful live tour and we felt like we definitely want to do another musical. It’s just that we want to find something a little bit fresh and a little bit different. I think we’re not going to do that in the sixth season but in the seventh season, we’ll spend a lot of time and formulate a great musical episode.
On whether or not there's ever been a scenario that they decided was just too much for tv:
Mostly it’s because we recognize that something isn’t funny. It’s not that there’s any general topic or theme that’s taboo or out of bounds, it’s just in the execution and how you handle it. We deal with a lot of very sensitive issues, and it’s very easy to get very mean-spirited specifically with this show because of the personalities with the characters. And it’s very important to us that the show never comes across as mean-spirited. Often times we’ll look at an episode and say, you know, this isn’t funny. I’ll give you an example from the third season - the episode was titled Sweet Dee Dates a Retarded Person. Now a lot of people, just hearing the title, without having watched the episode, had a knee-jerk reaction to that and thought, "Oh well, they’re out there poking fun at mentally challenged people." Which was absolutely not the case. What we were making fun of was the characters and how ridiculous they were and hip-hop rappers and the way that they talk. The character is trying to figure out, that because the way that this guy communicated with us, that maybe possibly he was mentally challenged. So if anything we were making fun of ourselves. And I think that’s a really important aspect of the show. We are going out of our way to make sure that we are not poking fun at anybody but these ridiculous, misogynistic, arrogant, unbelievably self-centered characters.
His take on Dolph Lundgren's The Expendables:
(laughs) Yes, we saw The Expendables and one of the reasons we saw the Expendables was 'cause we needed to jar this kid loose. We were a week overdue at that point. And the kid was growing and because Kaitlin was having a natural home birth we were getting a little nervous that this kid was going to come out twelve pounds and with a giant head. And we needed to stop the gestation process immediately. [We were] assuming that the explosions and the sounds would jar him awake. I personally felt like he was going to hear the voice of Dolph and sigh, and say this is a world I need to be in. They were literally going to draw him out of the womb, and through my wife’s vagina and potentially in the movie theater itself. But I will say that we had a ton of fun. And you know, Dolph never disappoints. I couldn’t understand half the sh** he was saying during the movie, but I think it didn’t matter cause his pecs are so sweet.
When will Axel make his debut?
Axel will make his debut in show business the day he graduates from college and he can make his own decisions. The boy will not be anywhere near, in front of, or behind [the camera]. The only time he’ll be behind the camera is when he’s with me.
On whether or not Mac’s argument that he uses against gay marriage in the upcoming season will be hijacked by the religious right?
I’ve actually heard and seen someone make that argument and I thought it was hilarious and I actually said to them: I cannot wait to put that in my show. I don’t think that’s the response he was hoping for. But I have actually heard that. And that’s coming from a place of people assuming that all physical and emotional relationships, romantic relationships, when it comes to marriage, have to be about procreation which I find incredibly offensive to people, including heterosexual couples who decide to get married and decide not to have kids. Does that mean that their marriage is void? I mean, come on, it’s ridiculous.
On Dennis' arc over the next season:
We thought it would be really interesting for someone we’ve sort of created to have a personality, almost out of like anti-social behavior. But he, out of everybody, seems to be the most pathological. I think there’s something really funny, particularly in the premiere, when he talks about how he’s feeling feelings again. He says, “Do you remember what it was like to actually feel something?” And we thought that was a really good look into who and why that character acts the way that he does. And the potential that has been going around for the last five years to the audience that knows him, actually not feeling anything. And now all of a sudden he’s met this woman that has triggered something in him. And of course, it has nothing to do with the woman, everything in Dennis’ life has to do with himself. He’s stirred up all of these emotions that he never thought that he had since he was a kid.
On his favorite episode of the season so far:
I think my favorite episode thus far is probably Who Got Dee Pregnant? which is going to air about halfway through the season. I like this episode for a bunch of different reasons but one in particular is because we screened it at Comic-Con. It was about 7,000 people in a room and you know, sometimes a television show doesn’t reach a certain play in large crowds, especially single-camera shows 'cause there are no break for the laugh track. And the show doesn’t really lend itself to that to begin with. Sometimes a lot of things are missed. And when we’re making our show we’re making it for a television audience. That being said, it was such an experience and it lead me to believe that this was the funniest episode we had done this season.
On the biggest challenge as writing and acting Mac:
Playing him is actually easy because it’s a release. Because this character is so aggressive and so angry and so insecure, it allows me to vent for twelve hours while we’re shooting over the course of a day. And you’re allowed to do things on camera and treat people a certain way that you would never be able to get away with in real life and for very good reason. I look at it as if I’m in the therapist’s chair for thirteen hours. In terms of writing the character, as it is for all of the characters, it’s just a matter of sitting in a room and figuring it out. Some things come easier than others. I always wanted to do a story, at least in the last two years, about gay marriage. And that particular episode came together very quickly because all the pieces were there. Immediately, I thought, well, how interesting would it be if we had the transgender woman on the show, Carmen, who Mac has a sort of obsession with, getting married to a man, and how confusing that is to Mac. And just like always he gets up on his high horse and has a very specific point of view about something. And the point is that he doesn’t care about gay marriage at all. He just cares about this woman who chose somebody else over him. That piece sort of fell into place. I really wanted to explore this idea of domestic partnership and two people cheating the system to get health insurance and it made sense that it was Charlie and Frank. I loved the idea of showing how difficult it was to get that domestic partnership. [By contrast, we wanted to show] how easy it was for Dennis to just walk into a courtroom with a girl he doesn’t really know and just met and was able to get married within a couple of hours. That was really an episode that came together in a day and we wrote it in a few days.
Why he thinks people watch It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia:
I think that ultimately it’s because people understand what we’re trying to do. I think at first glance, people would assume that we’re a crude show attempting to push the boundaries of good taste and it’s full of arrogant characters who are deplorable and distasteful. And I think that our fans have recognized what we’re trying to do with our show is simply just satire. We’re taking a look at American culture, a look that we feel is not being taken by a lot of the network shows, specifically comedy, and we are doing something that’s wholly original. We are not putting these arrogant, misogynistic characters on a pedestal and saying that these are people you should revere and look up to or that they are role models. We’re saying that this behavior garners you a horrific result of you being locked in this life of hell, working in a sh**hole bar with no friends besides the people that you’ve found and are the only ones who will actually be friends with you. And you will never ever succeed or win in life. And I think that [viewers] recognize that we as filmmakers are certainly not promoting that behavior, we are saying that you are going to be losers for the rest of your life.
On the phenomenon that is the dick towel episode:
I think that is an episode that has been completely misunderstood. I had somebody telling me ... that I was contributing to the downfall of society. And I thought that was so funny and it also raises a magnifying glass on people who do not understand what we’re trying to do with the show. With that episode, we were trying to figure out ways to exploit this consumer culture that we have in the country, where people will buy anything if you just market it correctly and put it on television. If you remember, the other product we had was was socks for cats, called kitten mittens which are completely ridiculous. We were also trying to sell a shotgun that you put into your mouth and blew tequila shots into the back of your throat. And then the other option was this ridiculous, unbelievably juvenile towel on which one side had a very large penis and one side had a very small penis. And we figured as long as we put a website together and sold these things that people will buy them. And we went one step further and thought it would be fun for the fans if we told them what this site was and we drove them to this site. Well, the minute the show aired on the east coast, the site crashed. We had something insane - I think we sold 16,000 of them. We thought it was just part of the joke and not a money-making venture. We waited so long to get it going cause we didn’t really think that it was actually going to work. We thought it was just part of the joke. We thought it was such an interesting and fun social experiment to see the response from the fans. I find it really funny that someone thinks we’re trying to contribute to the downfall of society when literally we’re holding a mirror up in a really satirical way to the consumer culture that is the United States of America and how quickly it can become pervasive in the culture. We have these ridiculously stupid products that people will buy just because it’s on TV.
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia returns September 16 on FX.