Pushing envelope? ‘Sunny’ shreds it

By Rick Bentley

The show has seen lots of growth since it first aired, the network president said.

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Danny DeVito is dressed in a dark, monklike robe and sports trollish makeup. He looks like he has donned a children’s Halloween costume version of the garb he wore as the Penguin in “Batman Returns.” The costume is for a scene being shot in a stuffy elementary school auditorium for the FX Network series “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”

DeVito’s scene is in an amateur opera, written by one of the characters in the show. And as is typical for the TV comedy, there is no subject that is off limits.

“I got a troll in my hole,” DeVito’s character of Frank Reynolds warbles while berating Dennis (Howerton), who is dressed like a little boy. The pair play father and son in the cable comedy and the opera they’re in is so bawdy that it would give Rigoletto even more reason to cry. The subject is sodomy.

Television shows that test the limits of what can be done or said are described as having “pushed the envelope.” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” hasn’t just pushed the envelope. It has ripped a hole in it, torn the envelope into little pieces and tossed the scraps in the face of the viewer. Those without a dark sense of humor should keep on surfing through the cable channels.

The cable comedy — and it is a comedy — is about four friends and is set in the floundering bar they own in south Philadelphia.

The show has found enough viewers willing to laugh at jokes about racism, abortion, underage drinking, death, molestation, the handicapped, terrorists and sex offenders.

The first of the 13 episodes for Season Four air at 10 and 10:30 p.m. Thursday. The FX Network has already ordered 39 more episodes to be broadcast over the next few years.

Out of context, the show topics come across as controversial. Even in context, they’re STILL controversial. But the willingness to be different is what attracted executives at FX to put the series on the air.

“‘Sunny’ has seen very significant ratings growth in each of its first three seasons on the air.

It consistently ranks among the top series downloaded on iTunes and also on Hulu. And it’s also one of the top-selling DVDs for Fox Home Entertainment,” says John Landgraf, president and general manager of FX Networks.

He could have added that the series already has become a hit around the globe, thanks to the airings, downloads and DVD sales. And “Sunny” is legendary in Hollywood because the first episode was produced by Rob McElhenney, Day and Glenn Howerton for about $200. The budget is a little higher these days, but the show still has that YouTube kind of feel.

The cast and crew have been inside the auditorium for three days. Black paper has been placed over the small windows in the doors to keep outsiders from peering in. Three cameras are focused on the cast as they run through another performance of “The Night Man Cometh.”

Work finally comes to a halt as the cast and crew break for lunch. DeVito heads to his trailer while the show’s other stars gather around a metal picnic table that sits just outside a classroom. Large umbrellas are moved into place to block the hot August sun.

Howerton is not the only cast member in strange garb. Charlie Day, who plays Charlie, is dressed in a bright yellow tuxedo. Mac (McElhenney) sports a Ninja outfit and contact lenses to give him cat eyes. And Sweet Dee (Kaitlin Olson) looks like Cinderella on crack.

The cast is not taking the show lightly just because the FX Network has ordered so many episodes.

“There is always a concern that we not get too silly. There has to be a reason the characters are doing what they are doing,” says McElhenney. “In terms of development of the show, you could not have gotten away with an episode like this in the first season of the show. In some sense, you haven’t earned the right.

“The audience doesn’t know the characters well enough to go along on a ride like this. But as you get into the characters and the story more, the opportunity presents itself.”

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.