Why Hasn’t Cancel Culture Come For “It’s Always Sunny”?
Even after 14 seasons, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia continues to be funny, innovative, and deeply offensive. How does a show so politically incorrect survive for so long?
I don’t know how we’re going to explain a show like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to younger generations. The concept of the show is simple enough — a brother and sister, their dad, and two friends hang out at the bar they own all day, getting into hijinks. The episode descriptions, however, are impossible to describe without cringing.
“A guy dies in Paddy’s Pub. Dennis and Mac use the guy’s death as an excuse to get close to the guy’s attractive granddaughter. Meanwhile, Charlie discovers that Dennis and Dee’s grandfather was a Nazi,” reads the IMDb synopsis of Season 1’s “The Gang Finds a Dead Guy.” Another episode synopsis from Season 3, “Sweet Dee’s Dating a Retarded Person,” reads, “While Dennis and Dee try to figure out if the rapper Dee is dating has a mental handicap or not, Charlie, Mac, and Frank try to start their own band without knowledge of how to play musical instruments.” Please trust me when I say this episode is a classic, not because of the Dee plotline, but because Dennis and Charlie sing a song about the “Dayman, fighter of the Nightman” while huffing silver aerosol paint out of a sock.
The show, which premiered in 2005, is about five bad people being bad in every sense of the world: They’re racist, sexist, abusive little shits who should, by any other metric, make for an absolutely miserable television-watching experience. I mean, Mac does blackface, for Christ’s sake. In 2013!!!
And yet it’s one of the funniest shows on television. Its 14th season premiered Wednesday night on FXX, making it (along with the 1952–1966 sitcom, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet) the longest-running live-action comedy in history.
Amid renewed conversations about cancel culture, and complaints that it is keeping comedians — particularly straight white male ones — from making the work that they want without censorship or disruption from the politically correct–obsessed left, it’s remarkable that a show like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has lasted this long. I hope it never goes off the air, and judging by how pliable the creators seem to be, and how willing they are to adjust what they consider acceptable, it really might go on forever.
Created by longtime friends Rob McElhenney (who plays insecure Mac), Glenn Howerton (possibly murderous Dennis), and Charlie Day (pathetic Charlie, of course) and featuring Kaitlin Olson (selfish, selfish Sweet Dee), It’s Always Sunny premiered in 2005 with a seven-episode season. Debuting just months into the second term of the Bush presidency, the first season is jarring to watch now as it engaged in a kind of realism that the creators would smartly drop in later episodes. In the first episode, Charlie starts dating a black girl just to prove to his long-standing crush, the Waitress (she never gets a name, like many of the women characters on the show), that he’s not a racist after he uses the n-word in front of her. Still, it’s utterly unclear how an episode where one of the white main characters says a racial slur made it to series, never mind one that’s lasted four-fucking-teen seasons.
They’re racist, sexist, abusive little shits who should, by any other metric, make for an absolutely miserable television-watching experience. And yet it’s one of the funniest shows on TV.
In fact, the earlier seasons of It’s Always Sunny are virtually impossible to defend. Mac’s apparent gayness is played for laughs, as if being in the closet or having sex with men is a punchline unto itself. It’s clear that the show is trying to make Mac’s hypocrisy the butt of the joke — he’s wildly anti-gay while also constantly humping his male friends — but it doesn’t land quite right, considering how gross his friends find his sexuality. When Mac starts dating a transgender woman, the gang call her a slur instead of her name and joke about her genitals.
Dennis is, clearly, a rapist, and one episode in particular from Season 5 — “The D.E.N.N.I.S. System” — gives us a clear look at how truly deranged he is when it comes to dating. (In another episode from Season 6, Dennis tells the gang that he likes to bring women to a boat on a date because of “the implication that things might go wrong for her if she refuses to sleep with me.”) He very clearly hates his dead mother and sister for no reason other than the fact that Dennis very clearly hates all women.
Throughout the series, Charlie’s poverty and childhood history of being molested is mined for laughs. Charlie is often not really in on the joke, but he’s terrible too: In Season 3’s “The Gang Solves the North Korea Situation,” he ends up dating a much younger girl because he can’t tell how old Korean girls are. (Not to mention his pursuit of the Waitress has troubling harassment connotations — she issues multiple restraining orders against him, all utterly futile. He and the gang won’t leave this poor woman alone, eventually driving her back to alcoholism.)
In more than one episode, siblings Dennis and Dee pretend that Dee is “mentally retarded” in order to get welfare so that they can, eventually, get more crack. She’s a failing actor who does characters like “Taiwan Tammy” and “Martina Martinez,” which both look and sound exactly as bad as you think they would. Dennis and Dee’s father, Frank (Danny DeVito), who makes his debut in Season 2, makes countless corrupt business deals after meeting someone “at the titty bar,” accidentally kills a woman, and is constantly, constantly talking about “banging whores.”
It’s Always Sunny’s execution is often flawed, at least when you look at the show with the benefit of hindsight, but its intent has always been to make you hate its main characters. “We’re certainly not lauding characters for their homophobia or misogyny or casual racism,” McElhenney told Rolling Stone earlier this month. “People will watch the show and say, ‘Well, clearly the characters are homophobic, but the writers and/or creators and/or directors are not.’ That’s the most important aspect for us.” And as the show has aged and its cast has only become more depraved, the writing has become more precise, and there’s even less ambiguity that you’re laughing at the racists, never with them.
The longer the show has gone on, the more thoughtful It’s Always Sunny has been about the target of its jokes.
In Season 6, Mac starts preaching against homosexuality when the trans woman he dated, Carmen, gets gender-affirming surgery and marries a cis man. Mac, furious that Carmen isn’t single for him to “bang,” argues that her husband is actually gay and harasses them at the gym with scripture to prove that they’re committing indecent acts or, as Mac says, “sex in the butt.” The gang treats Carmen with derision, as most people are treated on the show, misgendering her. But the writers are, at least, trying to work through the idea that it’s Mac who’s the actual asshole. The audience is supposed to laugh at him for his own small-mindedness and insecurity over his sexuality.
The longer the show has gone on, the more thoughtful It’s Always Sunny has been about the target of its jokes. While other people suffer at the hands of the gang, the writers have become more intentional about pointing out how these overprivileged white idiots get away with (sometimes literal) murder. In Season 12’s musical episode, “The Gang Turns Black,” the gang watches The Wiz, but thanks to a malfunctioning electric blanket (long story) they realize the world views them as black. (Blessedly, they are literally played by black actors rather than blackface, which again, isn’t a stranger to It’s Always Sunny.) They then spend most of the episode singing about racial politics and stereotyping and why Frank can’t say the n-word. (The episode ends with all of them getting arrested, and Charlie — who is played by a young black boy — gets shot in the stomach by the cops while holding up a toy train.)
It’s almost charming how “character development” in the world of It’s Always Sunny translates to everyone lowering the bar. The show strips away innocence for every character that gets more than three lines in an episode, making it clear that these are bad people with bad intentions and worse follow-through. Later seasons have tackled current events even more than previous ones did, like same-sex marriage, gun control, Dennis being a domestic abuser, and, of course, sexual harassment.
In last season’s “Time’s Up for the Gang,” all five of them are sent to a workplace harassment seminar after getting written up on a “Shitty Bar List of Unsafe Spaces for Women.” Throughout the episode, they all slowly realize that they need this seminar as Dennis recounts in terrifying detail the sexual harassment and assault laws for nearly every state. The episode ends with Dennis offering a PowerPoint presentation to his friends about why all their Time Is Up. “Women are right,” he tells the gang. “I mean, men are monsters. We’re constantly harassing them. I’m just saying, we need to be more careful so that we don’t get accused.” Mac suggests that they just stop harassing women; Dennis says they should take it “one step at a time.”
But perhaps the best evidence of It’s Always Sunny’s gradual evolution may be last season’s finale, “Mac Finds His Pride.” After 13 years of the show insinuating Mac is gay, and mining that as an easy punchline — Mac has a bike with a giant dildo attached to the seat, Mac writes a love letter to Chase Utley, Mac tries to kiss Dennis, Mac endlessly preaches from the Bible about the evils of homosexuality and then gets an erection — Mac finally comes out as gay, for real this time.
Mac designs a performance to finally come out to his father, Luther, a terrifying ex-con whose eyes pop out of his head and who, at one point, tried to get Charlie and Mac to smuggle drugs through their butts into his prison. The episode ends with a moving five-minute dance routine between Mac and professional ballerina Kylie Shea. Mac collapses into her lap crying, and Shea says, “It’s okay,” rain falling around them. The camera cuts to an agog Frank, in tears, who whispers, “Oh my god. I get it.” Mac gets a standing ovation. There’s no final punchline, no real joke, nothing to cut the tension or pull back from the brink of sincerity (even after Frank takes Mac to a sex party and wolfs down a chicken wing at the buffet). That’s it. Mac is gay and there’s no joke.
Maybe this is what saves It’s Always Sunny from being completely irredeemable: You’re not supposed to be on the side of Mac or Charlie or Dee or Dennis or Frank. You’re not really on anyone’s side — not on the side of Dennis’s ex-wife, who is slowly transforming into a cat, or that of the McPoyle twins, who have sex with each other and love to drink milk, or that of Dee, who eats a month-old cake she dug out from the garbage while smoking a cigarette and swigging whiskey from the bottle.
Cancel culture, ultimately, is little more than being accountable for your actions and having a public that — mobilized thanks to the democratization of the internet — can tell the market what it will and won’t stand for. Some creators are willing to rethink what they previously thought was acceptable, and find new ways to crack a joke. Others aren’t, or rather, don’t even have the capacity to do something new.
Cancel culture, ultimately, is little more than being accountable for your actions and having a public that — mobilized thanks to the democratization of the internet — can tell the market what it will and won’t stand for.
It’s Always Sunny is an offensive show. It likely would not (and probably should not) have premiered today, in the space we’re in now — “the climate is so hot,” as the show would put it. That’s proof of some kind of progress, but so is the show’s ability to improve on itself. If you hated it in Season 1, you’ll hate it in Season 14. But It’s Always Sunny is still a fine example of a show that grows with its audience instead of becoming more hostile, that learns its lesson without taking away from the brutality that made it great.
One of the most accurate depictions of depravity that It’s Always Sunny has captured is how terrible people are often more preoccupied with being perceived as terrible rather than working on themselves. Mac is afraid of being physically weak, Dennis of being seen as a predator, Charlie of being seen as a harasser, Dee of not being attractive to men, and Frank of being thought to be a child abuser. There are far greater and real things for the gang to worry about when it comes to their behavior — Season 14 kicks off with half of them trying to ensnare someone in a “meet-cute” (Charlie mishears this as “meat cube”) and the other half trying to get hot, liberal foreigners to move in and have sex with them.
But this is why It’s Always Sunny has lasted longer than sitcoms designed to show people growing and thriving. It was never about improvement or correction. It was only ever about pointing out the detritus of the human spirit, laughing at it, and then spitting at it while singing, “Go fuck yourself.” ●
It’s Always Sunny premiered during the Bush presidency. An earlier version of this post misstated who was president at the time.