Saturday, August 12, 2006

Its Often Funny in Philadelphia

The story behind the FX series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has already become legend in struggling actor/comedian/writer circles. A group of friends frustrated with the lack of opportunities for struggling actor/comic/writers spend the change in their pockets to film a pilot, send it into FX, win a contest and voila, are given a series. We saw something similar with the Project Greenlight series but what makes Sunny special is that we actually get to enjoy the finished project, as opposed to week after week of watching socially challenged film geeks hire their grandfathers as stunt doubles and fall further and further behind schedule.

The premise of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is three late 20-something guys, Charlie, Mac and Dennis, who run a bar in Philadelphia with the help of Dennis’s sister Dee. Early reviews of the show compared it to Seinfeld, and tossed about phrases like “edgy”, “politically incorrect” and “totally unlike anything that’s ever been seen on TV before”. These terms have all managed to become clichés, thanks I would argue, to Seinfeld, and the generation of snarky Yuppie comedies it inspired. What makes Sunny worth watching is that it’s actually funny. Really funny. Laugh until you can’t breathe, “I cannot believe I’m watching this happen” television.

Not only did these buddies manage to sell a TV pilot for which they are the main producers, writers and stars, but they even managed to add Danny DiVito to the cast. DiVito hit sitcom gold with Taxi twenty some odd years ago and has had no reason to return to television since. The lure of Sunny proved too strong to resist. DiVito plays the role of Dennis and Dee’s ne’er do well pop Frank who moves back to Philly to help them run the bar, a role he tears into like a rottweiler with a bloody steak.

One of the things I really enjoy about Sunny is the full minute of parental advisory warnings FX shows before each episode. First, an FCC add about the joys of using the V-chip to control children’s viewing habits, then a black screen with MA-VL and a lengthy definition of what that means, complete with voiceover. Unlike the joking tone that accompanies the warnings for shows like South Park or Jackass, these are straight up THIS PROGRAM IS NOT INTENDED FOR CHILDREN type warnings. I’ve always felt that FX is Fox’s attempt at correcting the karmic imbalance from Fox News. The message is clear: beware ye all who enter here. Should you become offended, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Well fine, you say. In a world where “edgy” is used to describe a program like Desperate Housewives, what is it that you’re telling me? A quick visit to some episode titles for It’s Always Sunny might be helpful. “Charlie gets Molested,” “Charlie has Cancer”, “Charlie Wants an Abortion”, “Dennis and Dee go on Welfare”, “Underage Drinking”, “Mac Bangs Dennis’ Mom” and “Charlie Goes America All Over Everybody’s Ass” are a pretty representative sample.

The first episode I happened to catch was “Dennis and Dee Go On Welfare”. When it was finished, I nearly wept with joy. I wanted to gift wrap it and send it via strip-o-gram to the Parent’s Television Council, in hopes that they might spontaneously combust, or just surrender all their TV sets and move their families to Alberta. I can explain to you what happened in the episode, but no part of my explanation will capture the genius and lunacy of the show.

Angry at the way Frank is running the bar, Dennis and Dee quit at which point they discover the joys of unemployment payments. Each decides they are going to use the unemployment to fund the pursuit of their respective career goals, vet and actress. Meanwhile at the bar, Mac and Charlie are tired of doing double duty covering Dennis and Dee’s old jobs, so they convince Frank to apply for a “welfare to work” program that would allow them to hire cheap government subsidized labor, who they have the unfortunate habit of referring to as “slaves”. When Dennis and Dee find their unemployment running out they panic for a way to continue on welfare and, after some wacky misadventures, find themselves addicted to crack. (I swear to you it’s funny) Meanwhile Mac and Charlie head down to the welfare office and ask the officer if there’s some kind of book they can look through to pick the slaves, um, laborers, that they want to come work for them. (I swear to you it’s funny, too).

In “Charlie Wants an Abortion”, Mac begins hanging out with anti-abortion protestors when he realizes that it’s a great environment to pick up women. He hooks up with a pro-lifer who rewards his passion for the cause with passion in the back seat of her car. The girl is, according to Mac, a total freak in the sack and the best sex he’s ever had. Before you roll your eyes, allow me to refer you to recent studies from Yale and Columbia universities which suggest that teens who take ‘abstinence only’ pledges are more likely to engage in both oral and anal sex.

This is the genius of It’s Always Sunny. Crack is not funny. Welfare is not funny. Abortion is not funny. But Charlie, Frank, Dennis, Dee and Mac ARE funny. They’re clueless, self absorbed and compulsively watch-able. What you realize watching this show is that while crack, welfare and abortion aren’t funny, America’s clueless, self absorbed attitudes about these things are in fact, hysterical.

The phrase “politically incorrect” is virtually meaningless in this day and age. When I attended college it was a loose collection of symptoms which led us to label the most benign issues controversial for fear of offending anyone and everyone from the Vegan Libertarian Front to the Campus Crusade for Christ. Lately it has come to define everything from what people used to call plain old straight talk to simply mean-spirited behavior. The best comedy which often earns the title “politically incorrect” is that which hits the Left and the Right equally hard. It shows that as long as we take them seriously, it’s the wing nuts from both sides that ruin life for the rest of us. The only solution for the rest of us is to join the circus and laugh them offstage.

It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is finishing up its accelerated summer season this week. I’m tickled to see that guest starring in the final episode is Stephan Collins, none other than the Reverend Cameron from 7th Heaven. My theory about FX being Fox’s karma bitch apparently holds for actors on the Fox network as well. Welcome, Reverend Cameron! It’s never too late to join the circus.

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