“Charlie Work” is one of television’s dirtiest jobs. It’s shorthand for the custodial duties inside Paddy’s Pub: urinal cleaning, basic slimes and sludges, the occasional blood stuff, and a potluck of basement activity. Charlie Kelly doesn’t begrudge the title. He loves the dark, being naked, slippery things, and the smell and taste of bleach. To the uninitiated, dispatching vile fluids would be a daily hurdle. Charlie sees it as something more; he moves filth and squalor around the bar like an artist spreads paint on an open canvas.
Actor Charlie Day is overjoyed to be the master behind this craft. Finding consistent acting work on TV is a chore all to itself, and he’s as surprised as anyone that his employment inside Paddy’s Pub has lasted 14 seasons.
“I didn’t change my character’s name from my real name because I figured, ‘we won’t last that long,’” Day jokes with reporters during a break from filming the upcoming season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. “But in hindsight, I’m glad I don’t walk down the street and people yell, ‘Kramer!’ at me. I just assume they know me personally or are huge fans.”
There was a time during the first season when inviting Seinfeld comparisons drove interest to the then cult series. Always Sunny premiered in 2005 on FX, a network that was starting to gain recognition for dramas like The Shield and Nip/Tuck after several failed attempts at late-night comedies. The bar owners of Paddy’s Pub, Charlie, Mac (Rob McElhenney), Dennis (Glenn Howerton), Dee (Kaitlin Olson), and Frank (Danny DeVito, who joined the cast in season two) were crass, opportunistic, and relentlessly mean to each other. It lived up to its billing as “Seinfeld on crack” when Dennis and Dee literally do crack in season two to defraud the welfare system.
The comedy has since shed that early moniker by getting progressively weirder and making its version of Philadelphia shockingly more lived-in as the seasons go on. In that sense, Always Sunny has surpassed the predecessor that made it all possible. Not only is the show deeper than its sitcom countparters, but it’s entering historic territory with its 14th season (more details on that here), tying it with The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, which ran on ABC from 1952 to 1966, as the longest-running sitcom in TV history.
Always Sunny is typically short on sentiment, but the Gang got nostalgic for a brief moment when we visited the set with a group of reporters over the summer. Fielding a question about the show’s longevity, Day says a crucial element to the series becoming a contemporary TV mainstay was the audience buying into the tone of the show even if it meant going along with increasingly uncomfortable behavior.
“Our estimation from the beginning was that the audience would be along for the ride if they knew where we were coming from, where our hearts were at, and what we were trying to say,” Day says.
The landscape of comedy has dramatically changed since 2005, but Day feels the voice of the show and these characters is firmly established: “We very rarely get any kind of blowback, and I think the reason is because I think that we try to make it abundantly clear that, and our audience is savvy enough to recognize, we’re not advocating bad behavior, we’re satirizing it.”
As co-creators, McElhenney, Day, and Howerton still work tirelessly on all aspects of the show.
“They write the show, they act in the show, they edit the show,” DeVito says of his co-stars. They live their family lives in there. So there’s a lot going on here, and I’ve learned to appreciate it.”
In recent seasons, they’ve diversified the writer’s room and opened up more opportunities for new voices to direct the show. In particular, McElhenney name dropped writer and executive producer Megan Ganz (who we spoke with last season about her excellent escape room episode) as a hire who’s helped evolve their perspective.
“Sure, we can continue writing the show, but as we get older and we are doing the same thing for so long, you just get stuck in the same creative rut if you’re not allowing for other people to come in and bring different perspectives,” Howerton says.
He continues: “In the end it’s always going to be jammed through the prism of the way that we see the world or see a TV show, but now we have the benefit of all these different ideas and experiences coming in that we might not have had before.”
Some of season 13’s best episodes were about exploring the nuances of sensitive topics such as the #MeToo movement, toxic masculinity, and Mac coming out to his father.
“We’re grandfathered into an ability to attack any subject and still be funny in a world that’s growing overly sensitive, I’d say towards everything. Sometimes good, sometimes not so good,” Day says.
He continues: “For example the #MeToo episode is an important topic. We were one of the few shows that could dive headfirst into a topic like that and get away with it. I think people still need an outlet where they can talk about something that we all don’t know how to land on it, and it’s uncomfortable. [The characters are] addressing sexism, racism, and whatever topics plague us all, and they’re approaching it from a standpoint that’s thoughtful but also funny. To have a platform like that has been a real gift.”
Even with the world changing around it, Always Sunny continues to age well by maintaining the characters’ trademark stubbornness when addressing bigger picture issues.
“We wanted to make sure that even though the characters might change, that they don’t evolve,” McElhenney says. “We want to make sure that [Mac] doesn’t become a better person, or a sweeter person, or a more endearing person, or a nicer person. We felt like we wanted to still keep the tone, so I would say in all the right ways he’s remained exactly the same.”
Olson finds that Dee going against type, at a time when “Strong Female Character” has become an overused and generic descriptor in Hollywood, continues to get funnier as the years go on.
“I like doing things that are unexpected and playing characters that you’re not seeing all the time,” Olson says. “And it’s really fun to play, especially in this day and age, a character that allows all this misogyny and doesn’t really know how to deal with it other than yelling.”
The series isn’t totally bereft of evolving characters, though. In last season’s escape room episode, Dee falls out a window to beat the escape room and ends up in the hospital. Expecting the usual ridicule, Dee finally gets credit from the guys and is awarded the first bite of a steak. It was a surprisingly sweet moment, and for once, no bird comments followed. For Olson, it’s a different story online.
“I reap the benefits on social media because every time I post something I get thousands of, ‘shut up, bird!’ comments,” she says. “Piggy backed on top of that are people defending me and being like, ‘oh, really original, I’m sure she loves reading shut up, bird! Don’t listen to them!’ I don’t have to do anything, I have all these women and men who are so upset at them for saying, ‘shut up, bird!’ We’re showing how ridiculous it is to talk to someone like that, plus there’s really nothing wrong with a bird, so that’s funny too.”
For the past 13 seasons, the Gang has mostly carried on terrorizing the city without consequence. It’s the supporting characters around them who not only suffer, but are also equally important in making callbacks and recurring gags land as well as they do, which is truly uncharted territory in the sitcom world. The list is long, but characters like The Waitress, Artemis, The Ponderosas, The McPoyles, and The Lawyer, just to name a few, are pivotal to giving this bizzaro, grimey Philadelphia as close to a homey feel as possible.
McElhenney says when it comes to Philadelphia as a “character” on the show, it starts and ends with David Hornsby, who plays maybe the most important supporting character of them all, Rickety Cricket. Hornsby has been in the Always Sunny writer’s room since the show’s inception and frequently sits in the director’s chair.
“He doesn’t get all that much credit as a writer or creator or producer of the show, but he has been instrumental in every episode we’ve written,” McElhenney says. “In terms of character evolution, like who’s the one character who actually does evolve, it really distills so perfectly what this kind of behavior will do to a human being. So [the Gang] directly, yet in our minds indirectly, affect [Cricket]’s life so much that he goes from a Catholic priest who is very, very happy to a shell of a human being. To watch that devolution of a human at the hands of this behavior, I think really best distills what we’re saying with the show.”
No matter how many countless lives they ruin, McElhenney says even if they aren’t celebrating bad behavior, the spirit of the show endures because you can’t keep the Gang down: “They live such dingy lives in such a dingy world. As dark as it gets, the characters themselves are weirdly optimistic.”
The show has yet to win a major award and immortalized that fact in the season 9 episode “The Gang Desperately Tries To Win an Award.” They do intend to make more history, though, by continuing the show for the foreseeable future.
“It’s tough to say you want to stop a thing,” McElhenny says. “FX has always given us a tremendous amount of freedom. For all the things that I’ve done outside this, I don’t know if I’ll ever get to do something where I get the amount of creative freedom to tell the stories we want to tell and bring something so singularly our sense of humor. We’ll take breaks here and there, but I don’t know if we’ll ever stop till they kick us off.”
Day recalls meeting Seinfeld co-creator Larry David at an event and the TV legend asked if he could impart some wisdom.
“I was expecting a comedic breakthrough and he said ‘don’t be an idiot, never stop, just keep doing it. Greatest job you could ever want, and if you do a final episode they’ll destroy you for it. You hate to see the things you love stop.’”
In between seasons, the core cast has found creative fulfillment in side projects. Olson and Howerton both landed leading roles on network television. Day is a budding movie star and McElhenney continues to both write and direct new projects.
DeVito is simply living his best life. The 74-year-old actor has a main role in the upcoming Jumanji sequel, frequently stars in national commercials, and recently gave his best GQ-style pose on the cover of Cigar Aficionado magazine. Florida may seem like a more relaxing destination at this stage of his life, yet every year he grabs his best toe knife and treks back to Philly (well, a studio lot in the greater Los Angeles area).
In season two, Frank entered Paddy’s Pub and traded a lavish lifestyle to spend time with his kids, hangout with homeless friends under the bridge, and play “Nightcrawlers” with his new roommate Charlie. This was 2006 when DeVito, a comedy TV legend and legitimate movie star, agreed to take what probably should have been either a guest spot or a recurring role alongside a bunch of virtual unknowns. He’s stayed for the last 14 years and has no plans to leave. Philadelphia is home. And home is where his people are.
“I love hanging out with these really insane people,” DeVito says. “I love doing all kinds of crazy shit. You know, they haven’t put me naked inside a couch in a while.”
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia Season 14 premieres Wednesday, September 25th at 10:00 p.m. on FXX.