“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” returned this week with one of its most ambitious seasons yet, opening an unprecedented 12th year with “The Gang Turns Black,” an episode in which the gang takes on racial prejudice from a brand new perspective. It’s an storyline that found its most brilliant touches, the creators admitted, after they decided to do the “hard” version of it.
For a full spoiler review of “The Gang Turns Black,” TV Critic Ben Travers has you covered. But IndieWire was also on the “Sunny” set during the episode’s production, speaking with the cast between takes in Paddy’s Bar (a set which star Kaitlin Olson later admitted, after 12 years, feels like home).
From there, we could hear the gang belt out the opening number, a jaunty “Wiz”-inspired tune (and in fact, lyrics from the first song, including “When you’ve just turned black and you can’t go back, then you know you’ve got to find out the rules,” were stuck in our head for months afterward).
The episode’s musical element is one of the pillars that makes it memorable, but as co-creators Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton revealed, it wasn’t part of the episode’s original pitch — for reasons that originate in the show’s ongoing creative process.
After 12 seasons, Day said they’re still finding new ways to surprise themselves: “Rob, or the Chernin brothers, or whoever pitched the ski one [Season 11’s ‘The Gang Hits the Slopes’], said, ‘Hey, what about a ski episode?’ And you think gosh, that’ll be exciting. We’ll shoot on a mountain, and you look at some old ski movies and think stylistically, we could hit upon that.”
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But according to McElhenney, there’s another way that the creative team works to keep things fresh. “Oftentimes when somebody suggests something, one of us goes, ‘Ugh, it’s just gonna be so hard, I don’t know if I want to do that,'” he said. “That’s when you realize, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what we should probably do.'”
“That’s gonna be the good one!” Day interjected.
“That actually happened this year, with this particular episode,” McElhenney said. “It was not meant to be a musical, and we were just breaking the story and got to a point where Charlie said, ‘I think this only works if it’s a musical.’ And I was like, ‘That is just so much work, do you really want to do that?’ And then he sat down and wrote, I don’t know, like ten songs?”
“Yeah, ten songs,” Day agreed.
“He wrote ten songs in, like, three days!” McElhenney said.
This isn’t atypical for the “Sunny” creative process, Day explained. “Occasionally one of us will get super inspired by something, and then you’ll say to the others, ‘Just leave me alone for a little bit and let me bring something back to you, and I hope you like it,'” he said. “I’m holding each episode to the standard of the two guys I make the show with, so when I bring it to them, there’s the hope that, ‘I hope they like these songs, and I hope they get what I’m going for with this.'”
Added McElhenney: “If I’m on set, and no one else is here and I’m responsible for the scene — sometimes, I feel more responsible to Glenn and Charlie than I do to the audience, because I don’t want to come in and answer to them if I fucked it up.”
Another aspect to their partnership: After 12 years, the core trio have learned to use each other as a support system. “The good thing about having sort of three of us to carry the work in the writers’ room — I mean, we have a whole staff of people, some who have been with us for a really, really long time,” Howerton said. “So I know that as an individual, I have a lot of support. If I’m going nuts — I did it last year, actually. I had some family stuff going on and I was like, ‘I’m going crazy. I need to just disappear for an entire week.’ That is a lot to ask of these two guys. To their credit, they were like, ‘Go do your thing.’ They took over. That happens all the time.”
Howerton and Olson also agreed that it was incredibly important to have time for working on projects outside the show. “I think we would all probably go insane. And it wouldn’t give us anything to write about,” Howerton said. “You can’t just keep writing and writing and writing. You have to live your life and do other things and have other experiences. Otherwise, you have nothing to say.”
“And you have to also be excited to come back to it,” Olson added, “to miss it a little bit and to be excited to come back.”
None of them anticipated that the show would be a part of their lives for at least a dozen years. “Marrying one of these people [McElhenney] and having kids with him and building a whole life — [‘Sunny’] represents a lot, a big huge part of my life,” Olson said.
But how much longer can “Sunny” go? It’s a tricky question, but they all have similar answers. “From my perspective, and I can only speak for myself,” McElhenney said, “if we’re still having fun, we still enjoy the process, we still think we can make fresh, creative, and different episodes, and the audience is still there, why would I ever want to stop? This is what my dream was.”
Said Day, “I also think that it’s a mildly arrogant practice to just up and walk away from a show that a network is still willing to make, because we employ so many people other than the five of us. There are certain people who only work on our show year round, and if we’re still able to do it, and have a reasonable life outside of it, to walk away purely for creative reasons puts a lot of people out of work.”
“I want to quit while I’m ahead, that’s just part of my personality,” said Olson, who also stars in the new Fox comedy “The Mick.” “I feel like that in any aspect of my life. As long as I think we’re making really funny shows, I’m happy to keep doing it. If it starts to feel boring to us or old to us and it’s not as exciting, I would like to stop because that’s the whole point.
“That’s one of the things that I’m most proud of, that we all feel very fortunate and happy and lucky that we still get to be doing it,” she continued. “And then when that stops, I think we should stop.”
Day said there may come a point in time when the “Sunny” gang “can’t justify it anymore… But I currently feel as though, if they’re willing to pay us to do this, and the fans are there, and the show’s still good, and we’re employing all these wonderful people year after year, we almost have an obligation to do it.”
“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” airs Wednesdays at 10:00 p.m. on FXX.