Writer Marcus Hyka explores the secret to the bold sitcom’s long running success and its mental mechanics.
“I haven’t even begun to peak,” declares (likely serial killer and main character) Dennis Reynolds in the third season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. That statement has never been more apt with the show now on its 15th season. In spite of its outrageously controversial content, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is officially the longest-running live-action sitcom in US history. But what makes such a pungent programme so hilariously enduring?
Debuting in 2005, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia was born a single camera, anti-sitcom. Instead of revolving around chummy sitcom characters in typical sitcom situations, the show’s creators and stars (Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton) decided to subvert this trope. The series centres around a clan of disgusting degenerates struggling to run Paddy’s Pub, a bleak South Philadelphia bar. A conventional episode consists of the “gang” partaking in various schemes to maximise pleasure and profit for themselves, always at the expense of others. Unlike a generic sitcom, these characters consistently behave erratically, which is the show’s secret rocket fuel. It unlocks a wealth of mineable comic potential.
Each main character is either a sociopath, psychopath, narcissist or a combination of all three. They hate one another, and their nonsensical motives lead to nothing but destruction, harm and/or death for everything and everyone they encounter. Notably, the characters are never rewarded for their misdeeds, as they face continual punishment for their depravity. The laughs are never aimed at the victims of the gang but at the gang themselves, who are a satirical parable of the most deplorable denizens. The protagonists are the antagonists. I’ve listed some appropriate episode titles to reference this point: Frank Sets Sweet Dee on Fire, Ass Kickers United: Mac and Charlie Join a Cult, The Gang Exploits the Mortgage Crisis, Mac Kills His Dad. I must confess that this show is a tricky phenomenon to describe, so I implore you to cautiously sample an episode. Preferably, this would be one after Danny DeVito’s addition in the second season.
“Each main character is either a sociopath, psychopath, narcissist or a combination of all three.”
Nevertheless, the show and its writers have not escaped backlash from audiences and critics. Over the course of the series, the dreadful characters have used various highly-offensive slurs and have engaged in Blackface. In recent years, viewers have reevaluated the message this sends as to what is appropriate in comedy. Thankfully, all episodes featuring Blackface have now been pulled from streaming services, with apologies issued. In fact, a recent episode of the show had the characters acknowledge their wrongdoings for engaging in Blackface in a meta turn of events. The language used on the show has similarly changed, ensuring hate speech isn’t given a platform to breathe. In 2020, when questioned about this backlash, McElhenney stated: “we failed in some ways and what we’ve been trying to do throughout the last few years is ameliorate that in a lot of ways”. The characters continue to be problematic, but the writers consistently renegotiate precisely how this is achieved as the parameters of satire evolve.
Crucially, the show resides outside the rhetoric of alleged cancel culture as it satirises the very right-wing, White people who deem cancel culture a devastating and vital issue.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia prospers on through its strict rule to never reward the vile main characters and through its willingness to learn and progress from its satirical mistakes. The show continues to amass cult status because of the infinite list of chaotic plots at the writers’ disposal due to the unpredictability of these anti-sitcom characters. The Gang Carries a Corpse Up a Mountain is the 15th season’s finale title. If that isn’t an articulate synopsis of the overall series, I don’t know what is. Long may it be sunny in Philadelphia.