Rob McElhenney: ‘We weren’t trying to keep our foot on the throat of female comedians, we were just ignorant’

The creator and star of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia talks to Alexandra Pollard about masculinity, Mac’s coming out and the quarantine special of his new show, Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet

Friday 22 May 2020 06:33
‘There are positive things about masculinity, and things that are exceptionally toxic’
‘There are positive things about masculinity, and things that are exceptionally toxic’

Everybody deserves to have a story told, even middle-aged white men,” says Rob McElhenney. “It’s just that people like me have had all the microphones and all the stories. That doesn’t mean that white guys are getting squeezed out – we’ve been here, we’re still here, no one’s getting diminished – just that other people are being able to walk into their own light.”

As the creator and star of the hilariously ribald It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the 43-year-old is responsible for four of the most odious white guys in sitcom history. Set around a dingy dive bar called Paddy’s Pub, the US show has managed to plunge into the dank depths of satire and emerge victorious. For 14 seasons and counting, Mac (McElhenney), Charlie (Charlie Day), Dennis (Glenn Howerton), Frank (Danny DeVito) and Dee (Kaitlin Olson) have festered in their own narcissism and greed. They fake disabilities. They pretend to be terrorists. They exploit a baby they’ve found in a dumpster. They eat a dog. One of them may or may not be a serial killer. “The world just keeps presenting us with sociopaths,” shrugs McElhenney, “and sometimes we have to satirise that, because otherwise we’ll be crushed under the weight of how depressing that is.”

For the past decade and a half, McElhenney has poured everything he has into It’s Always Sunny, which is now the joint longest-running live-action sitcom in American history. In fact, save for a few cameos in shows such as The Mindy Project and Game of Thrones, he’s barely had time for anything else. That is, until now. Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, the Apple TV+ comedy he created alongside Charlie Day and Megan Ganz, follows the travails of a boisterous video game studio – think Silicon Valley meets Veep. McElhenney plays Ian (pronounced Iron, for some reason), the company’s pompous creative director, and Charlotte Nicdao is his type A sometime-nemesis Poppy, the company’s lead engineer. McElhenney’s trademark caustic humour is there in spades – jokes about suicide and Nazis flirt with the boundaries of good taste – but this time, the characters actually grow as humans. Some of them even like each other.

“It just feels like tonally, Sunny isn’t the right platform to get into some of the things that I’m finding more interesting in my life right now,” says McElhenney, on video call from his home in Los Angeles, sitting in front of an eruption of red and green trees. We’re discussing the Mythic Quest quarantine special, which sees the team grappling with having released a disease into the game right before a global pandemic. And grappling, too, with the fear, loneliness and confusion that abounds at the moment.

“In crisis, you see the best and worst of people,” says McElhenney. “Everyone is going through the same things. At least, people that respect science are. That sense of loneliness and despair, that sense of uncertainty, needs to be addressed in some way, but ultimately we want to leave people with a sense of optimism.”

Optimism is not something they’d be caught dead flogging on It’s Always Sunny. In fact, the gang would probably try and give the virus to each other. But Mythic Quest is a very different beast. There’s a sincerity of spirit behind its snippy humour, as well as a different outlook when it comes to diversity. Where in It’s Always Sunny, marginalised people pop up to expose the gang’s bigotry, here they have their own stories to tell.

“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, and certain experiences that you have as a white woman…” His eyes widen a little. “I’m assuming, sorry, based on what I’m seeing, but that could be incorrect.” No, that’s correct. “OK, right! I like having that conversation, which is: ‘I’m doing my best, I’m gonna f*** up sometimes. I’m assuming something that could not be true. Could you walk me through who you are and what your experience is to the extent that you’re willing to share that with me?’ 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?”

Charlotte Nicdao and Rob McElhenney in ‘Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet’

In the early days of It’s Always Sunny, McElhenney didn’t have such a firm grasp on the limitations of his own perspective. His first break after a number of false starts – he was cut out of his debut film role in the Brad Pitt-starring The Devil’s Own (1997) – the show was made on a shoestring budget with the can-do tenacity that only a 25-year-old can muster. “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 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.’”

It wasn’t the only misstep they had to correct. McElhenney admits that he initially bungled Mac’s long-awaited coming out by having him go back in the closet. When queer fans of the show expressed their disappointment, Mac came out again – in perhaps the only poignant scene in the show’s 15 years of existence – through an interpretative dance that took McElhenney two-and-a-half months to rehearse. But he was determined that it wouldn’t change who Mac was: a dirtbag of the highest order. “I wanted to make sure that once I came out, I wasn’t all of a sudden this paragon of virtue, which is pandering in the opposite direction,” says McElhenney, whose mother and two brothers are gay. “I wanted to double down and make Mac just as awful, if not more awful, as he was before. And what I found from the LGBTQ community was that they really respected and loved that aspect of it. Just because the guy comes out of the closet, doesn’t mean he’s suddenly a better person. There are dickheads on all sides of the spectrum. That’s full representation. ‘Hey, we get to be assholes too.’”

Howerton, McElhenney, DeVito, Day and Olson in ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’

Charlie Day once described McElhenney as “the most driven man I know” – which perhaps explains why he dedicated himself, against the wishes of his castmates, to gaining 60lbs for the show’s seventh season, and then honing a superhero’s physique a few years later. Does he enjoy using his body for comedy? “I have an extreme fascination with masculinity, just as a part of the human condition,” he says. “I think there are extremely positive things about masculinity, and there are things that are exceptionally toxic about masculinity. There’s always gonna be that push and pull, where if you fall too far in one direction or the other, you’re gonna have problems, but if you can harness what’s good and push away what’s bad, then you can use some of these aspects for the betterment of yourself and your relationship and your community, and both Mac and Ian find themselves unable to do that.” Besides, he adds, “I just find it funny”.

Lockdown has done nothing to quell McElhenney’s drive. As well as executing Mythic Quest’s quarantine episode – which he says was “by far the most difficult production I’ve ever been part of” – he’s also been plotting out the 15th season of It’s Always Sunny. Endurance, he says, is the key to getting through this. “Because that’s what I see all day long is people taking... a very British point of view,” he says. “We will endure. We have to... I’m certainly not gonna quote Winston Churchill in this interview. But there is a certain ethos that I think is transcending every culture which is: we’re gonna survive this. We’re gonna get through it. We’re never gonna give up.”

The quarantine special of Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet is streaming on Apple+ now

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