It's Always Sunny Inside the Head of Rob McElhenney
It's Always Sunny Inside the Head of Rob McElhenney
By Eugene S. Robinson
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because if you don't, we're laughing AT you and not WITH you.
By Eugene S. Robinson
“Do you always start your day with a bag of cocaine and a gun?” And as Danny DeVito pulls up to the bar with a sandwich bag of cocaine and a pistol, if you don’t know you’re watching one of the funniest shows in the history of funny shows, you most certainly do when DeVito nods, “Mmm…yeah.” Rob McElhenney created that show, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, has a new season out of his latest show, Mythic Quest, and still took time in between all of that to chat them up on The Carlos Watson Show. You can find excerpts below or listen to the full interview on the show’s podcast feed.
When It Started to Get Sunny
Carlos Watson: Someone told me you have a crazy Silicon Valley-esque story of how you got the show greenlit and up and going. Would you tell it to me? How did you get this show on the air?
Rob McElhenney: Sure, yeah. I don’t know if it’s Silicon Valley, but we made it on our own. We shot the show with these big camcorders. So this would have been 2004, well before smartphones. So we decided we wanted to make a show and we wanted to do it on her own. So we got these big old camcorders and we just started shooting it and learning how to make a TV show. And we would make episodes of this thing, that to us was just a series of short films, but I eventually realized it could be a TV series and that’s what it continues to be to this day.
Watson: And how did you get it on the air?
McElhenney: Yeah. So at the time, I had a manager and I gave it to the manager and the manager gave it to an agent and the agent said, “I think we can sell this thing.” So he set up a bunch of meetings all over town and I just took this … It was an actual VHS tape. That’s how old this show is and how long this has been going on. It was a VHS tape that I brought around to the various studios and I would pop in the tape and we would just watch it together and we were fortunate enough to have offers from almost every studio we brought it to.
Watson: Did you think it was going to be a hit right out of the gate or what was your expectation? I don’t know if you’re from a TV family or not, or had some sense of how Hollywood worked, but did you have some expectation?
McElhenney: No, no. I’m not from a TV family by any stretch of the imagination. I grew up in Philly and moved out to LA in 2002 and was just working in bars and restaurants, both in New York City and in LA and I didn’t have any expectations. And the only thing that I desperately wanted to do was to be able to quit my night job. That was the most important thing to me.
But certainly we knew we were making, or at least we believed we were making, something good, but we didn’t know how long it would take for people to catch onto it. And it’s funny because people talk about it now as if we’ve been on the air for as long as we have and been successful as long as we have, which is nowhere near the truth. I mean, we have been on for this long, but nobody watched the show for the first five or six years and they just kept renewing it because it was so cheap.
Watson: Oh, what a great story. So were you living in fear during those first five or six years or was there something in you that just felt like it was going to keep going or you didn’t know any better?
McElhenney: Yeah, I mean, I think I was so naive in a really good way because I just kept thinking, “Well, we’re making something that we believe is good and eventually we’ll find the audience or the audience will find us.” And then it wasn’t necessarily scary because it was also a time in my life, I was in my mid- to late-20s, so I didn’t have a lot of responsibilities. I didn’t have a mortgage, I didn’t have a house. I was tenuously holding onto my car that I’m sure I had back payments on. And yet besides that, I didn’t have children or pets or anything like that, so it was just me on my own. So if it failed or if it didn’t work, I was confident that I could just try to move on to the next thing.
Watson: Was it always with an eye that you were going to do TV or film no matter what, or could the next thing have been outside of Hollywood?
McElhenney: Yeah. I mean, I never … This is my dream job and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. And I just don’t really believe in, nor understand, backup plans. Unless you truly have other interests and things that you’re really excited about doing for a living, then, of course, but that’s not necessarily a backup plan. That’s just another plan for something you want to do with your life and I didn’t have that at the time.
And a Peek at Mom + Pop McElhenney
Watson: Rob, what did your parents do when you were growing up?
McElhenney: My father … worked in social services in Philadelphia and my mother was a teacher and then later on, she became a nurse. My parents divorced when I was very young, but they were always close and remain close to this day. My mother remarried another woman and she’s been my second mother and she works in hospital administration and my father has since remarried and she also works in the medical field.
Watson: How impactful was it when your mom came out? Were you surprised and did that … I assume, but I don’t want to project upon you, I assume that that was significant as a young person that happened.
McElhenney: It was. It was, but I don’t … When I look back on it, what I realized is I probably had a different experience as a kid. I never remember it being hard and I think a lot of that has to do with the way that they handled it. There was never any acrimony. I don’t remember any acrimony between my mother and my father. Like I said, they are still really, really close and I think they just made a decision very early on to not allow what their situation was, to the best of their ability, affect us in a negative way.
And so all we felt was love and support and boundaries and discipline, of course, but also just a presence. They were always there, always around. Whenever we needed something, we got it. Whenever we wanted something, we didn’t necessarily, which was always a good lesson for us. It’s something I try to instill in my own children.
I think I just always had a really great relationship with them and I continue to do so, so they made that a lot easier. At the time, of course, it’s challenging and difficult to navigate those things. But as an adult, I look back and all I can feel is nothing but empathy and compassion for what they were going through in their late 20s, which is astonishing to me.
Watson: Tell me about the new show, or at least I know it’s in its second season, Mythic Quest. What made you decide to do a new show, given all that you are already doing with It’s Always Sunny?
McElhenney: Yeah, I was actually approached by a company called Ubisoft. That’s one of the biggest game developers in the world. And they said, “Hey, we’re big fans of Sunny. Would you be interested in developing or creating a show that takes place in game development?”
I said, “No. No, thank you.” Because I didn’t have any interest. I don’t play video games really, and so I just didn’t think it would be something I would be interested in. And they said, “Well, why don’t you just come and take a tour of our studio up in Montreal?” So I thought, sure, I have never been to Montreal before. It’d be a free trip to one of the world’s great cities and whatever, I got to go and meet with these people for a couple hours.
So I do, and I start walking around the office and I start meeting people and I start talking to people and I realize that there was a show there. It was such a fascinating group of people who all had a common goal, a common love, and these very big egos and disparate personalities that were from all over the world coming together for the sake of this one thing. And ultimately they were stuck together, because this is what they did for a living.
I thought, wow. I mean, I have very little interest in doing a show about video games and the making of video games, in the same way that I had very little interest in making a show about owning and operating a bar, right? Who cares about that? But you care about the people that work in the bar. And so I felt like, well, maybe we can do that with video games. And that’s just the background, and this is sort of the background of another television show, that maybe the gaming studio would be just happening in the background, and you’re just talking about the stories of these people that unfold in the way that they would in any workplace.