Celebrating its fifth anniversary this month, FX’s hit TV show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is known for goofy, politically incorrect comedy. The so-called “Gang”—Charlie (Charlie Day), Mac (Rob McElhenney), Dennis (Glenn Howerton), Sweet Dee (Kaitlin Olson) and Frank (Danny DeVito)—performs outrageous antics at historic sites, restaurants and attractions all around town. The show is the brainchild of writer, star and executive producer (and Philly native) Rob McElhenney, who spoke to Editor Karen Gross.
How do you manage to juggle being a writer, producer and actor on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia?
ROB McELHENNEY: Well, first off I have a ton of support and an amazing staff. So that helps. But really, it’s just about waking up bright and early every day and going to bed very late at night and doing everything you can in between to make it work.
Tell me about your background in Philly.
RM: I have a huge family on both sides. I was raised on Moyamensing Street in South Philadelphia until I was about 13, when we moved out of South Philly and moved to Delaware County, Pa., closer to my father’s mother. I went to St. Joe’s Prep [High School].
Did you go to college in the area?
RM: I graduated [from high school] and I was sort of lost, because I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. And I wound up at Temple University for about three weeks and it just wasn’t working, and I think ultimately I wasn’t mature enough to appreciate the opportunity for education at the time. I decided that I wanted to move to New York City; I had some friends that lived in the Bronx who were going to Fordham University. And I literally packed a duffel bag, took the train up there and wound up with about $85 in my pocket moving into the dorms of Fordham University and getting a job as a barback in the city. I think I was 18.
How did you get into acting?
RM: While I was living in New York and trying to figure out my life, I met a commercial agent. I was 18 or 19 at the time but I looked about 15. And she said, “Because you’re over the age of consent, it’s easier for you to work longer hours on set and we could send you in just for commercials.” So that’s what I wound up doing. And it was such a great and interesting profession. I enrolled at the Lee Strasburg Institute, essentially going to school during the day, working at the bar at night and then every once in a while leaving to do commercials. And I wound up getting my first part in a movie and got to work with Brad Pitt and Harrison Ford in The Devil’s Own. I was eventually cut out of the movie, but just the experience alone made me believe that this was something that I could do. So then I moved out to California when I was 25.
How did It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia come to be? And did you always plan to set it in Philly?
RM: When we sold the show, I was [working as] a waiter. We shot the show ourselves and said, “if we’re going to do it, then me and my friends are going to be the stars, and I’m going to be the show runner and we’re going to be executive producers and I’m going to direct the pilot and I want to ‘run the show.’” And most of the other networks just laughed at me, but FX, to their credit, said, “Let’s give you a shot.” That being said, they weren’t going to send me off to the other side of the country with their money—a person with very little experience writing or running anything, essentially just a waiter—to go and make a TV show. So I think they wanted at first to keep us close. That being said, right from the very beginning they said it’s really important that we did go to Philadelphia and shoot as much as we can. So as important as it was to me, it was also equally important to FX, too, that we did that. …We shoot a good amount of it in Philly, but we also shoot a good amount of it in Los Angeles. Originally we just thought we’d keep [the characters] in Los Angeles. But at the time there were so many shows coming out about people living in Los Angeles; there was Joey, Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm. We just thought, “There’s no reason for this to take place in Los Angeles. Let’s just put it in a city and give these people a profession where they can have their days free to get into trouble, and let’s make it more of a blue-collar, working-class town so that we can feel like these guys are kind of underdogs.” And instantly I thought, well, of course, let’s just put it in Philly, and FX was very receptive to that.
What are some of your favorite Philly locations where you’ve filmed the show, and where would you still like to shoot?
RM: I would say my number-one favorite location was to go back and shoot at the South Philadelphia house I grew up in … and also just up and down Moyamensing Street, because I have so many family members that still live there. So it’s great to have everybody come down and watch the shoot. In the first season we thought, “well, let’s just do iconic Philly.” So we shot at [steakhouse meccas] Pat’s and Geno’s and we shot at the Art Museum and, then after I went back and watched the first season, I thought, “I’m from here, and to me this is not what Philadelphia is about. This is what outsiders think Philadelphia is about: the pretzels and the cheesesteaks and the running up the Art Museum steps. To me, Philly has so many different aspects of its culture that I would rather explore, then, just the generic, iconic places.” In the second season, we went back into North Philly where I went to high school, we shot in those streets, we shot in West Philly. We shot in places that people aren’t used to seeing, places that are a little more gritty.
When Danny DeVito joined the show in the second season, how did that change things?
RM: Our concern, right from the beginning was, you’re bringing in not only a movie star but an icon of American cinema and television. How is this going to affect the dynamic of the show and then also the perception? And I feel like it didn’t skip a beat. If anything, it just added to not only our street cred but just the panache of being able to have somebody of that caliber come and say, “I really like the show and I really want to be a part of it.”
This month marks the fifth anniversary of the show’s first episode. How do you feel about that?
RM: Look, I feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I get to work with my friends; I get to work with my wife. I get to write whatever I want because I have the support of the network and the studio and the fans, of course. And I get to come to work to do exactly what I want to do every single day. I could not be more pleased with the support we have had from the fans, the staff of the show itself and certainly from the city of Philadelphia. We’ve had to work very hard to get to this point. I wake up every single day at 6 am and I don’t go to bed until 11 pm and in that period of time I’m literally working on this show all day long. It’s because I want it to succeed. And I feel like I learned that in the city of Philadelphia. People work as hard as they can to achieve what they want.
And I understand you’re going to become a father this month!
RM: My first son is due. We do [have a name] but we’re keeping it a secret. By an amazing stroke of luck the baby will be born around the same time we finish editing the show. We’ll have about three months off; that’s the first time we’ve had more than a month and half off a year since the inception of the show.
Tell us about Mac’s Tavern, the bar you recently opened in Old City.
RM: It was something that I was approached with through my high school friends. And they said, “Hey, we’re interested in opening up a bar. Would you guys want to be involved?” And I talked about it with [wife/costar] Kaitlin and we both agreed that it was something we had always thought would be a really fun and interesting venture. But it was very important to all of us that it didn’t feel like we were opening up some place where we could try to make as much money as we can selling “Sunny” merchandise and making it feel like a big TV show. We wanted it to feel like it was an authentic Irish bar in the heart of Philadelphia for Philadelphians and, of course, people that visit the city.
Do you plan to visit the bar?
RM: I’m back so often for holidays and to visit family and obviously we’ll bring the kid back, so I’ll be there a lot.
ROB McELHENNEY’S PHILLY MUST LIST
1. Old City: what an amazing and beautiful place that is. There’s a sense of history you get in Old City that you don’t get anywhere else … just walking through those cobblestone streets and looking at those homes. And getting a sense of not taking for granted the freedom that we enjoy in this country. It wasn’t just given to us, it was something that had to be worked for and negotiated for and fought for. That gives me goosebumps when I walk around that area. [Front to Sixth sts., from Vine to Walnut sts.; see oldcitydistrict.org.]
2. As a kid I grew up very close to the Mummers Museum. I haven’t been there in probably 20 years. As I remember, it was such a fascinating place to go and so specific to Philadelphia. If you really want to take a hard look at the culture that is South Philadelphia, then go to the Mummers Museum; it’s an original and amazing place. [1100 S. Second St.]
3. Growing up we never went out to eat really, and I never got to enjoy Stephen Starr’s restaurants. When I came back four or five years ago, people were like, “You have to go to this guy’s restaurants.” And I was like, “C’mon, I’ve lived in New York, I’ve lived in L.A., how great and different could this guy’s restaurants be?” And they blew me away. That dude knows exactly what he’s doing! [Laughs]. Every time we go out with Danny DeVito, he wants to go to another one of Stephen Starr’s restaurants because they’re so amazing. Alma de Cuba is my favorite restaurant in Philadelphia. The food is unbelievable.
4. I think I’d be remiss and fiscally irresponsible to not mention Mac’s Tavern. I opened it with a group of my friends from high school, and it feels like a neighborhood bar. We wanted to make sure it felt like an Irish pub and not like an homage to “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” The bar is really an homage to the city itself, and as authentic as possible. I feel like people will have a really good time in there.