Top running gags from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Mark Harrison | On 15, May 2016
Update: Season 15 arrives on Netflix UK on 1st February 2022
There aren’t many shows that are more than 10 seasons in and still turning out instant classic episodes on a regular basis, but as viewers of FXX’s long-running flagship sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia will testify, it’s been going strong since 2005.
Created by and starring Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton, the show centres around the Gang, the worst people in Philadelphia – nay, the world – as they get up to no good in and around Paddy’s Pub, the bar they co-own. There’s illiterate janitor Charlie (Day), trust-fund twins Dennis (Howerton) and Dee (Kaitlyn Olson), head of security Mac (McElhenney), and deranged retired businessman Frank (Danny DeVito).
Incapable of the basic deferral of satisfaction that’s generally accepted to be a part of adult behaviour, the five of them spend their days screwing over everybody else, and each other, for personal gain. Over the last decade, the show has taken the Seinfeld formula of “no hugs, no lessons” to flabbergasting extremes and built a cache of running jokes and story-lines that have earned it a die-hard cult following. It’s already been renewed up to its 14th season in 2020, so there’s no end in sight.
As the latest season arrives on Netflix UK, here’s our look back at the running gags that paint a picture of the most twisted sitcom on television.
Awards and acclaim
You might expect that any show that has been on the air for upwards of 10 seasons would have at least got a little attention from the Emmys or the Golden Globes. McElhenney and co aren’t too bothered, but it makes sense that their characters, who are all uniquely unqualified to run a pub, might feel entitled to some praise for their running of Paddy’s.
Season 4’s Paddy’s Pub – The Worst Bar In Philadelphia memorably has the gang taking on the local critic (and his neighbours) who gave them the titular negative review, but any concerns that the people behind the show may have about their empty mantelpiece were astutely addressed in season 9’s The Gang Try Desperately To Win An Award, which concluded with Charlie singing a gloriously profane ditty to Philly’s foremost pub aficionados and intermittently spitting at them until they left.
Frank Doesn’t Have Donkey Brains
Danny DeVito’s arrival in Season 2 was the start of the show really finding its feet and kicked off a golden era of the show that is still going strong. Frank is the millionaire father of Dee and Dennis (but not really) and possibly Charlie (but we don’t know for sure). As a man of means, he’s used his resources to escalate the gang’s misanthropic hi-jinks into genuine super-villainy at various points.
His affinity for Charlie, with whom he shares an apartment (and a bed), could go as far back as shared childhood trauma, given what we eventually learn about young Frank’s spell in a mental hospital. In true Always Sunny fashion, this is mostly undercut by the reveal that the sum of Frank’s treatment was a certifiable lack of “donkey brains”. However, the man also pulls out a gun at the slightest provocation, poses as a doctor called Mantis Toboggan and was once trapped in a spiral in a children’s playground wearing only his underwear – he may be due a re-evaluation.
Dennis Reynolds: An Erotic Life
As we observed in our primer for How I Met Your Mother’s running gags, sitcoms tend to broaden out characters like Barney Stinson and move away from player stereotypes to find something resembling a real person. Never one to adhere to form, Always Sunny not only has Dennis collecting books and tapes about his erotic adventures, but has successfully sustained the question of whether he’s a serial killer for several seasons.
Howerton is very much the straight man in a lot of the gang’s escapades, but his chilling charisma and hysterical fits of pique also make him the scariest of the lot. The bloke is an avowed sociopath, less like the super-smart and sexy Sherlock variety and more like carrying an onion around to make himself cry, in case he gets cornered in a situation where he needs to show empathy with another human. Don’t even get us started on “the implication” of boat sex, which would be even more mortifying if Dennis were in any way capable with women.
Beef With The McPoyles
While the gang are certifiably the worst in the world, the show occasionally plumbs new depths to keep them from getting too self-conscious about that. Enter the McPoyles, an inbred family who are big on milk, led by twin brothers Ryan (Nate Mooney) and Liam (Jimmi Simpson.) They first appear in Season 1, when Charlie incurs their wrath by foiling a molestation lawsuit against their high school, and have recurred ever since.
After appearing as semi-regular characters in every season, a lot of the beef between the gang and the McPoyles came to a head in Season 8’s The Maureen Ponderosa Wedding Massacre, an episode which falls somewhere between a slasher movie and Game Of Thrones’ Red Wedding, involving a cocktail of bath salts and milk. They’re usually reluctant to get involved with the Paddy’s crew, but they’re also the only characters who are consistently more disgusting than the regulars.
The show has always had a good rotating cast of supporting characters, either bringing them all back for episodes such as Season 3’s finale, The Gang Dances Their Asses Off, or dotting the usual suspects throughout each run. They range from Rickety Cricket (David Hornsby), a clean-cut priest who gradually turns into a Phantom of the Opera-esque vagrant over each successive brush with the gang, to The Lawyer (Brian Unger), an occasional nemesis of the gang, who is reluctantly involved when they get into their frequent legal scrapes.
Of all those reluctant regulars in the orbit of Paddy’s, the Waitress (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) is the most storied, first introduced as the love of Charlie’s life back in Season 1. Unfortunately, she can’t stand him, and each member of the gang has capitalised upon Charlie’s devotion to ruinous effect on her. Off-screen, Ellis and Day are married, and she gamely comes back at least once a season for more of the ritual humiliation from a bunch of characters who can’t even remember her name.
Charlie is as close as the gang has to a moral compass, if only because you often get the sense that, as disturbed as he is, he might have been a halfway decent human being, if he hadn’t grown up with these friends. Over many seasons, all of Paddy’s’ disgusting chores, from toilet cleaning to rat murdering, are put down as “Charlie work”, while Dennis, Dee and Mac drink in the bar.
Season 10’s episode of the same name provides a staggering look into Charlie’s daily routine on the one day in which he takes any pride in his work – the annual health inspection. Unfortunately, the rest of the gang have made a mess of the bar as they get underway on another implausible scheme, culminating in Charlie putting out fires all over the bar with seconds to spare in a dizzying tracking shot around the building. It’s far from his only day in the sun, but it shows how his near-supernatural endurance and determination is occasionally channelled somewhere other than pestering the Waitress.
Dee Is A Bird
Deandra “Sweet Dee” Reynolds starts out Season 1 as the straight woman, but as the gang has gotten more horrible, she’s become just as involved and as toxic as the rest of them. What doesn’t change is the gang’s continued campaign of abuse about her appearance – the go-to putdown is she looks like a bird.
It’s mostly her brother Dennis who benefits the most from battering her self-esteem, but the others cheerfully join in at any opportunity. It reaches new extremes of cruelty in Season 9’s The Gang Breaks Dee, in which she’s so depressed that she becomes a self-deprecating comedy superstar, as the gang try to cheer her up as only they know how. Serves her right, the goddamn bird.
Lethal Weapon Sequels
From the very first episode, The Gang Gets Racist, the show has been conscious of the lack of diversity in its cast, but the gang have hardly let a thing like that get in the way of them making new, unauthorised instalments in the Lethal Weapon series. Mac and Dennis appear to be in ongoing disagreement about whether Danny Glover’s Murtaugh should be played in blackface, or with a moustache and a deep voice, and have changed their mind mid-production on each of their sequels thus far.
Aside from providing a perfect microcosm of the gang’s narcissism, Season 6’s Dee Reynolds – Shaping America’s Youth and Season 9’s The Gang Make Lethal Weapon 6 each provide hilarious tributes to the tried and tested formula of the buddy cop franchise and 80s action movies, complete with lots of male bonding and caricatured villains played by Frank and Charlie. All continuity errors and creative set-dressing of the pub aside, their sequels still make more sense than an actual Lethal Weapon reboot would at this point.
Going back to awards, physical transformations are one of the big gimmicks that win actors recognition in the industry. Robert De Niro famously gained 60 pounds for Raging Bull, but McElhenney wasn’t far behind in Season 7 of Always Sunny. Noticing a trend of sitcom actors getting more attractive over a show’s lifetime, he decided to pile on 50 pounds between seasons, purely because he thought it would be funny.
Fat Mac appears throughout Season 7 and his fuller figure and voracious appetite aren’t even acknowledged for about 10 episodes of the run, until How Mac Got Fat reveals that it comes out of his much longer-running character development. Mac is the most insecure of the gang, with a child-like naivete that rivals Charlie at his dumbest, borne out of what may or may not be an extreme case of the not-gays. There’s no room for vanity in any of the regulars in this show, but Mac’s fat year is above and beyond.
Nightman, Dayman and Green Man
The Men (or Mans) in Charlie Kelly’s life have mostly gone away in later seasons, but for a while there, they would weave in and out of the gang’s misadventures pretty regularly. In particular, we miss Green Man, the morph-suited mascot that Charlie invented in high school, who only comes out whenever he gets wasted at sporting events.
But the Nightman-Dayman dynamic represents the pinnacle of the gang’s various performing arts endeavours, as Charlie, who turns out to be a musical savant (despite his illiteracy), tries to express a traumatic childhood through the medium of an amateur stage production. Season 4’s finale, The Nightman Cometh, is the very best episode of the show to date – Dennis, Dee, Frank and Mac sing and act in the tale of a troll that pimps out a little boy to the Nightman, until he becomes Dayman (ah-aaaah!), master of karate and friendship for everyone. Somehow, it’s less weird to explain that than it is to watch it.
The Gang’s One Videotape
After four seasons, Always Sunny made the transition to shooting in HD in 2009. The gang has never joined them, using the same duct-taped VHS camcorder since Season 2’s The Gang Goes Jihad, in which they tried to record a fake terrorist video. But you can hardly expect them to have upgraded cameras, as they don’t even seem to have bought more than one videotape for it either.
Aside from the Lethal Weapon sequels, all of their homemade videos over the years have been shot on the same tape, which means that their later efforts are often interspersed with a breakneck tour of their previous masterpieces as they’re taped over. These include ads for Kitten Mittens, Mac and Charlie’s homemade bodybuilding/bodyguarding supplement Fight Milk (CAW!) and numerous terrible characters created by Dee.
The fake ads are often the most clipped and memed parts of the show and with good reason – the consciously on-camera acting style that the characters take on, coupled with the ADD editing and graphics, keep the show in touch with its earlier, less slick roots, and serve as an occasional reminder of how the characters have been so developed without ever really changing one bit in the last 12 years. If it continues to this standard up to the end of the decade and beyond, we might still be watching these disgusting people when they’re in bath chairs.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia Season 1 to 14 are available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.