In the 72-year history of TV’s situation comedies, one show now has a top spot.
“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” (10 and 10:30 p.m. Wednesdays on FXX, then on Hulu) has started its 15th season. That puts it above “Ozzie & Harriet,” as the longest-running sitcom (cartoons excluded). And yes, that surprises:
– Some of the show’s stars. Glenn Howerton and Kaitlin Olson (shown here, second from left and center) have never seen “Ozzie & Harriet” – which ended a decade before they were born.
– John Landgraf, the boss of FX and FXX. This success, he said, would have seemed “impossible when we first watched the pilot shot on a home camcorder and made for $200.”
At the time, the big studios were having no luck getting laughs. “Friends” had just left, “Big Bang” was a year away; only one sitcom (“Two and a Half Men”) was in the top 24 in the Nielsen ratings.
And then, Langraf said, came guys with “zero professional writing, producing or directing experience.”
Rob McElhenney (left) had created a show that he would star in with his friends, Charlie Day (right) and Howerton, who are also producers and writers, and with McElhenney’s then-girlfriend. In real life, all were struggling Hollywood actors, so that’s what the show was about.
Landgraf liked the humor, but not the setting; the show was moved to a bar in Philadelphia, McElhenny’s home town. Landgraf also wanted the actress recast; Olson showed up, nervously.
“I hate auditioning,” she told the Television Critics Association. “I am the worst possible auditioner.”
Still, she’d had some success in comedies, as a regular in Kelsey Grammer’s short-lived sketch-comedy show and a couple seasons of “The Drew Carey Show.” Then she was an outsider at “Sunny” auditions.
“It was the first and maybe only time I was excited for an audition,” she said, “because I loved the material …. I knew that I was going to have fun with it.”
She did. “After (I read) it once or twice, Rob asked me to just put the script aside and basically do the scene again, but just improvise it with Charlie.”
Olson quickly decided she liked these people. Now she and McElhenney have been married for 13 years and have two sons.
Landgraf had one more change: Starting with the second season, he convinced Danny DeVito (second from right) to join as Frank, the father of Dee and Dennis (Olson and Howerton). Best-known as the caustic Louie in “Taxi,” DeVito fit into what McElhenney calls a show “about the worst people on the planet.”
“Sunny” is made quickly, allowing actors to do other shows. Olson was “The Mick” for two seasons on Fox; Howerton has starred in four seasons of “A.P. Bio” for NBC and Peacock. Day co-created and produced “The Cool Kids”; he and McElhenny created and produce “Mythic Quest,” an Apple TV+ show which McElhenny stars in.
The “Sunny” seasons are short … or less. The show skipped 2020 entirely and is doing just eight episodes this year – packed, two-per-Wednesday, only into December.
But those episodes have extra oomph. The first two had big-laughs; coming are:
– A flashback episode (10 p.m. Dec. 8, repeating at 11:03, 12:06 and 1:09), showing how the gang bought the bar. It has Day do some roller-skating and lets Olson flash two opposite personalities.
– An episode (10:30 p.m. Dec. 8, repeating at 11:35, 12:38 and 1:41) that has Frank try to replace Dee with a monkey. That required some animatronic tricks.
– The episodes that follow, pretending the gang is in Ireland. “We just needed to be somewhere else, to break some stories,” Day said. In its 15th season, a show can use some fresh settings.