Always Sunny: How The Gang Mastered The Recurring Joke

Always Sunny is living, and thriving, in its usual filth and squalor.

It’s not supposed to be like this – a pilot originally shot on a camcorder by a few friends gets picked up by a cable network and runs with that opportunity for 12 seasons and counting. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia wasn’t supposed to be the face of cable comedy for a generation or be a bridge, like the one Frank’s homeless friends sleep under, that connects the Peak TV boom to the streaming #content renaissance.

By virtue of dwelling in its comfortable filth and squalor, Always Sunny has largely avoided becoming a relic of the mid-2000s. It’s streaming-proof, timeless, but still somehow socially relevant. Almost by accident, they’ve crafted a show that connects with our generation of binge-watchers and they’re doing it, in season 12, better than Hulu, Netflix, or Amazon can, with their high-priced libraries of original comedy content specifically tailored to be inhaled in succession like Pringles.

Always Sunny, noted and beloved early on for profiting off underage drinkers and doing crack, finally deserves an award for lifetime achievement in the most competitive era for television comedy. The part that really shouldn’t make sense to fans and critics alike is just how they’re doing it. The Gang long ago mastered the art of the recurring joke. When TV comedies get to be a certain age, dabbling in this area could be a death sentence. Always Sunny fearlessly chugs Fight Milk and revisits its past with an untethered rage that knows no bounds.

How Far Philly Has Sunk

These stubborn characters haven’t changed one goddamn bit since FX dropped the first episode on the world in 2005. Where have we seen this before? When the prison door slammed shut on Seinfeld, Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer were remorseless for their crimes against humanity. The colorful group of witnesses who testified against them, some whose lives were ruined, took solace in their deserved punishment.

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Seinfeld’s spiritual successor has toed the line of imprisonment for years. Consider the numerous run-ins with The Lawyer, Frank’s shell companies and sweatshops, several IRS-related crimes, and the hours and hour of peeping tom footage from every imaginable angle. That’s the short list, and if Always Sunny were to mimic the Seinfeld finale in loving homage, that trial could take up an entire season.

This show could pull off an arc as ambitious as that because Always Sunny somehow manages to turn olds gags, plots, and most importantly recurring characters into a major strength. Subverting the idea that people grow over time, Always Sunny juxtaposes its forever horribly mannered Gang by bringing the people of Philadelphia down to their level.

The list goes on and on, but a few key recurring characters have turned the show from its insular focus on the bar to this vast universe of degenerates: from the unraveling of Cricket (who gets two episodes to close out season 12) and The Waitress, to Mac’s Dad, The Lawyer (who lost an eye last season), Maureen and Bill Ponderosa, and somehow even the McPoyles if that’s even possible.

The show is careful to bring these characters back if and only if it serves the plot of the episode. We’ve gone full seasons without seeing fan favorites like the McPoyles or The Lawyer, only for the show to bring them back together for “The Trial of The Century.” That’s an episode you read the logline for and start to think the show is ready to jump the shark, yet they let it descend into absolute madness, with a payoff that doesn’t come until a year later when the resolution of Maureen Ponderosa’s cat storyline comes to a crashing conclusion in “Making Dennis Reynolds A Murderer.”

Making A Gag A Plot

The week before, Always Sunny took gag to plot with “Wolf Cola: A PR Nightmare.” For years, the show has played lip service to Frank’s soda shell company, Wolf Cola, without elaborating on what it actually is. You have to appreciate the long game as they pulled off an episode that was not only relevant to 2017 (the 24-hour news cycle), but also was a nice throwback to “The Gang Goes Jihad,” and the numerous times Frank’s tried to plug his soda, now the official soft drink of religious extremists. They no longer dress up as terrorists to scare away local businessmen anymore, sure, but in dealing with Wolf Cola’s PR nightmare, Frank, Dee, and Dennis show they have just as little restraint as they did all the way back in season two.

Longtime fans likely picked up on the Wolf Cola gag, or had some faint memory of a Wolf Cola reference. Where Always Sunny is really winning the day is when a joke like that hits even harder for those finding the show on a streaming service and consuming it at an unholy rate. In that sense, no matter how or when this show chooses to leave our TV screens, its legacy only stands to improve in the years to come. 

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