‘Our Better Episodes Are the Ones That We Fight Over’

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Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Patrick McElhenney/FX

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphiahas been running strong for 15 seasons. The last season, which aired on FX in December and is currently available on Hulu, made it the longest-running live-action sitcom in TV history. More than that, Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, and Charlie Day have been working on it in one form or another for 18 years. If you met someone in your everyday life that had been working at the same job for nearly 20 years, you’d think they were just so weird. Yet somehow they’ve made it work. And arguably, this most recent season, where they take the gang to Ireland, is one of the strongest ever — super-funny and pointed but also honestly felt. But creative and popular success does not come easy. Not only do the guys, who remain the primary brain trust for the show, still find themselves fighting over bits and jokes, they demand the passion to fight from each other.

On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Day and Howertown discuss the show’s writing process, how they all work together, why it was time for Charlie to meet his father, and how they resolved the biggest disagreement of the season. Below, you can read an excerpt from the transcript or listen to the full episode. Tune in to Good One every Thursday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Charlie Day: I know, for me, I had renewed energy coming into this season. I finish every season now as though I think I’m done with the show forever. But then enough time goes by and I really miss everybody, and I get excited about the possibility of writing a few more episodes with these guys.

Glenn Howerton: I took two years almost completely out of the writers’ room — seasons 13 and 14. Our process is we break stories with the room and then we assign drafts. Then the drafts go off and we give notes. We get it as close as we can with the writers. And the final step is the three of us do what we call an “RCG” pass. The RCG pass is just the finesse pass where we make sure everything makes total sense, where everything is flowing, but mostly that everything’s as funny as it can possibly be. So I came in, 13 and 14, and I did that with the guys just because that’s the fun part. I didn’t feel burned out on that. It’s the story breaking part that’s superhard. I had probably close to three years where I wasn’t in the writers’ room breaking stories, so I definitely felt a renewed energy. For how burned out as I can sometimes feel on this show, I also recognize that it’s such an extraordinarily unique opportunity for us to be able to tell stories.

C.D.: It was a big thing for me to have Glenn back. I really wanted him back not just because of his strengths as a writer but because of the process. We are at our best when the three of us are disagreeing to the point that we argue to the point where we find something. We can push through the first 20 ideas that we have because one of us doesn’t think it’s going to work, and then we get to an idea that we do think works.I think our better episodes are the ones that we fight over. But the funny thing about the show — and I think this is something people don’t realize when they think about the writing of the show — is it is a fast-moving train from the minute that we start the writers’ room. We only have a certain amount of time before we have to be on set. We can’t say, “These aren’t working — let’s throw them all out and start over.” So at a certain point, we have to run in the direction of an idea we have.

G.H.:We get along really well, and we have fun together, and we enjoy each other’s company, and we’re definitely close friends, but we’re very different people in many ways. I think, in those early seasons, it was really tough because this was the first time we’d all had an opportunity to write something. We were all actors, and so we were always at the mercy of whoever wrote it and whoever’s producing and directing it. This is the first chance we were like, Okay, I have opinions about this. I have opinions about character and story. This is my opportunity to finally have a voice in the writing part of this. So in those early years, you trust your own aesthetic, but when Charlie had some crazy idea to make his character illiterate, in my mind I was like, I think that’s too broad. It scared me, and I didn’t know yet that I could trust Charlie to be right about that because we didn’t have enough years under our belt and enough experiences where he got his way and I had the opportunity to realize that I was wrong. But after about two or three years of that, you kind of get to the point where you go, These guys are really smart and funny, so it just becomes a democratic process with the three of us. It’s often a two-versus-one thing. Two people arguing over something and one guy who’s like, “I can kind of see it both ways.” And then it’s like, “But I’m leaning in this direction,” and then now we just go, “Okay, fine, fuck it. That’s what we’re doing.”

G.H.:Charlie had a story line over many, many seasons about not knowing who his father is and thinking that it’s Frank, and we kind of left that question dangling. So it was about tapping into an emotional core of the thing. Correct me if I’m wrong, Charlie, but him thinking that it was his brother was just a way of making it more surprising when you learn that it’s his father. We thought it was a nice misdirect. It’s like, Oh, that’s cool. We might get to meet this character who’s going to be Charlie’s brother, only to then discover, Oh my God, it’s his father. He’s always wanted to know who his father is.

C.D.:It also was nice to try to be like, We’ve told 15 years of stories about this person, and just to have a little bit of truth and understanding. Whether it makes people uncomfortable to watch or not, I don’t know, but I don’t really care. It was more important to say, Look, this is a person who grew up fatherless with a poor mother, and we’ve mined lots of comedy out of that, which is great. But there should be some truth, there should be some reality to the character. It should be a real person. It was like an opportunity to say, Let’s just drop the curtain a second and say, “Hey, guess what? Even horrible people are real people, too, and there’s probably a reason why they became the way they are.” But I don’t think we would want to dwell on it for too long.

G.H.: We knew we wanted to see the progression of Dennis’s illness, and putting them in this castle was a good opportunity to do something that I think we enjoyed doing a lot of times, which is sort of combining comedy and horror. I mean horror more in the sense of a character becoming horrific. I had heard so many stories about people having COVID or long-haul COVID where they experienced strange psychological symptoms.

C.D.: I was like, I know this is going to be funny if he’s talking to the castle. And Glenn and I were leading in this direction, and Rob had a different idea. But the fight was less about the scene. The fight was about process. Rob had written it a certain way, and I was talking to Glenn and I was like, “Look, I think we should do this a different way.” So Glenn and I wrote the talking-to-the-castle scene, and we talked to Rob, and Rob liked his direction. But he was sort of giving up on it. He was like, “Fine, whatever, just do it your way.” But the argument was that we didn’t want him to just say, “Fine, whatever.” And look, he was tired, and he got an idea he wanted to work. He liked this idea, and to have people that he cares about say, “No, this is bullshit. This isn’t going to work,” I get it — it stinks when you really feel as though something’s going to work, and the other guys are like, “No, it’s not.”

G.H.: If we take him at face value, though, what he was really saying was, “I know what I wrote works. Why are we spending time on something that I know works?” And at the end of the day, the reason we are spending time on it is because Charlie and I disagreed.

C.D.: That was the thing in the gut. I love Rob, and he’s brilliant and he’s come up with some good things, but something in my gut was like, No, your approach to the scene is wrong for this. And I have an idea, and I think mine’s better. That’s just the way it works. The argument was less about what was right and what was wrong and more about 15 years of arguing. Rob didn’t want to argue, but we’re like, “No, argue! Argue as best as you can! And then let us convince you so that you believe it. Not ‘You’re giving up and just doing what we want.’ I want you to believe in what we’re doing and then put your spin on it.” Which we did. And I think the scenes worked.

G.H.:I mean, he would probably still say that it was a little bit of a lateral move. It’s not that he didn’t like what we were doing.

C.D.: He’s crazy. His idea was a mess.

G.H.: But that’s our opinion. And I, by the way, I totally agree with you. I stand by that. I don’t think what he wanted to do was going to work at all. I think it was going to feel derivative.

C.D.:But he wound up having a spin on it where it’s not just the talking to the castle, but he was pushing for more intense wheezing and the gasping for breath — I can’t remember exactly. So eventually, we convinced him to go this direction, and he put his spin on it, and it made it a great thing.

G.H.: Just so we’re clear, this is something that has happened in every iteration — where Charlie has gone off and written something by himself and he feels very strongly that it works, and Rob and I look at each other more like, “This is this is not going to work.” And then we usually end up somewhere either in the middle or going a different direction. And it’s happened to me, where I’m like, “This is so funny. This is so great,” and they’re like, “Dude.”

C.D.: Every single season, we have a little therapy session midway through the season where we sit down and we hash some shit out. It’s always pretty much the same conversation, which is basically like that scene we’re talking about. It was not really about the scene; it was about the buildup of tensions leading up to the scene. You’re navigating personalities and creative ideas. You have a ticking clock, so there’s the pressure of that. You have time and history, and usually it comes to a head at some point. We sit down and discuss it like adults, and then we move on.

G.H.: To be clear, we don’t have a therapist there.

C.D.:There’s no mediator.

G.H.: It’s not an actual therapy session in the sense that there’s no professional in the room telling us how to navigate this, but we’ve been doing it for long enough, and the three of us are all very self-aware of our own faults.

C.D.: We’re going one at a time at this point. When we get into the writers’ room — and I don’t know when that will be — but the next time we get in the writers’ room, we’ll have all those big conversations where we’ll say, “What are we doing? Is this it? Are we going to try to leave it open-ended, or are we wrapping it up this year?” Who knows? I think we kind of approach every year like that now.

G.H.:It’s just constantly reexamining, Are we still getting something from this personally that is artistically fulfilling, or are we just doing it for the money? And the answer to that question thus far has been, No, I’m still getting something out of this. Even if it means a little bit more time between seasons, this is just a show that can keep going because there’s always something going on in the world that it would be interesting to see through the lens of these characters.

C.D.: For me, it’s always just a personal thing between me and Rob and Glenn, which is, Can we find it in us to get more out of these characters and tell more stories, or are we feeling limited or boxed in or played out? Is there life still in the show? We discuss what we want to do for the season, and if we see something in there, like this year with Ireland, then we’ll do it. And if we don’t think we can do it, then we’ll stop.

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