Why I LOVE “…Sunny In Philadelphia”
… Even though I hate the name.
I sometimes call the show just “Sunny”, but when I say “I was watching Sunny last night,” it feels wrong. Why is the name so darn long? I’d always wondered, but never cared to find out. Perhaps my love of the title music distracted or blinded me. But I had seen every season of the show four times over before I was told where its name came from. Apparently, back when Rob McElhenny (and co.) shot the pilot for the FX pilot contest, the show was titled “It’s Always Sunny in Hollywood,” and the main characters were aspiring actors. Who else would have all the time in the world to screw up their lives? The idea was that Hollywood is fake. We’re given this illusion that there’s always sun in Hollywood, when really, it can be a really ugly place to live. The characters believed it too, despite their situation. The pilot (shot on home video, later re-shot for the show as “Charlie Has Cancer”) was a smash hit and FX picked it up. When they did, FX talked it over with Rob, and Rob changed the characters from aspiring actors to bar owners and moved the setting to Philadelphia. Hence, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”. It wasn’t for another dozen episodes that I caught myself thinking about the title and I realized the title sequence for “It’s Always SUNNY in Philadelphia” is set entirely… at night. I had always been distracted by winter-Christmas feel and the sights of Philly I recognized from frequent (coincidentally) winter flights into the airport.
But I’m not here to explain the title or the origin of the show. I want to tell you how it became my favorite TV show (next to Malcolm in the Middle), and why I still love it.
The primary reason I watch the show over and over again…
…is that the show is LOUD. It’s the only show I can listen to on my phone over the noise of my morning shower. Much of the show is dialogue driven, like an improv show, so the jokes continue to land despite not having the visuals. Although I’ve seen it enough to know what I would see. Friends have said, “I can’t watch the show. It’s just a bunch of people yelling over each other.” If that’s not your cup of tea, maybe it’s not for you. But I like the fact that I don’t have to strain to hear the dialogue, and somehow, even with all the actors talking over each other, I can still hear everyone’s dialogue. That’s a testament to both the sound engineer, and the actors who are able to time their outrage on the fly.
But what’s the REAL key to Sunny’s success?
It’s passionate. The characters are passionate about their misadventures. They are completely committed to their bad ideas.
The characters are “yes” men. You can really see theater improv influences in the show: every character follows the “yes-and” rule – to their detriment (and our enjoyment). “Let’s sell gasoline door to door.” “That’s a great idea! We’ll rent a van.” / “We need to scare this Israeli landlord away.” “Let’s make a terrorist demands tape.” “Okay!”
It’s brilliant. In its own way. From episode 1, they nailed the sitcom formula. They’ll take a concept or theme like abortion, or racism, or saving the planet, and half of the characters will be passionately against it and the other half will be passionately for it. This allows them to explore both sides of the argument. Then they’ll both see the errors in their approach and in many episodes, the characters’ opinions will reverse. Just when you think one character settles into the other’s point of view, the other one switches sides… so they’ve settled nothing. It’s how they keep the characters in conflict, in a hilarious way.
What makes the show so funny? John Cleese said [Comedy isn’t watching someone doing something funny. Comedy is watching someone watch someone doing something stupid] (see our article on comedy). This is true. Sometimes it’s watching straight characters cope with the crazies. But after many viewings, I realized the core of Sunny’s humor is not just watching the characters do extremely foolish things, but watching these guys justify their actions. It’s as if they’re somewhat aware that their ideas may not make sense, but because they need to be sure of themselves, they convince the others of the merits of their bad idea – or at least they convince themselves. We get to watch these people perform mental gymnastics out loud. The actors and writers have a knack for pulling that sort of thing out in almost every scene. Perhaps the moment it became obvious to me was the house-party flyer scene (which turned out to look like a dick). Mac is reading the flyer out loud. “…Just a group of guys looking for other cool guys who want to have some fun at our party mansion. Again, nothing sexual. Underline.” Then Dennis says “I have NO problem with that.” As if to emphasize exactly what we’re all screaming in our heads: “How in the world do they NOT see how gay that sounds?!”
Why do I find it way funnier than Seinfeld? I mean the formula is the same: a group of really terrible people harping on the dumbest faux pas, finding humor in the little things. But where Seinfeld finds himself apathetic about most things, Sunny characters are passionate about everything. Sure George can get passionate (he’s actually the funniest character in the show), but Seinfeld (as George’s foil) neutralizes his passion by shrugging him off or by speaking in his boring, obnoxious voice, whining about or dismissing it. They just do things, which happen to be a little off or clearly the wrong approach. We laugh at the situational dissonance that they don’t notice their little social errors. But in Sunny, they do the wrong things… passionately. They don’t notice it either. But in Sunny, the artists call attention to it, and the characters justify it, and they push it beyond a comic happenstance (Seinfeld) to a hyperbolized cinematic event. At times, a spectacle. At best, Seinfeld is “haha funny”. Sunny is hilarious. It’s bursts of laughter back to back. The characters in Sunny aren’t foils to each other, but enablers. It’s “yes-and”, which lets things spiral out of control. If there were rational people in the group, if there were any “don’t”ers, things wouldn’t get as funny as they do.
Back to passion. I think this is key. It’s the same key to the success as Malcolm in the Middle. (And why Tom Cruise movies always have a draw). People want to watch a character who cares passionately about something. It doesn’t matter what it is. If the character cares passionately about something, we find ourselves doing the same. It’s why evangelist and charlatans get so many followers – they care passionately about the bullshit they’re selling, and even though they can’t substantiate any of it, they try to, or speak as if it’s fact, and most people can’t help but assume there’s something there. Most people aren’t sure about everything (or anything, or some things) that they do in life, so they are attracted to those who are sure about what they’re doing. We follow the people who know where they’re going… even if it’s the wrong direction! It sucks, but it’s true.
The characters are generally sure of themselves. Even though all the guys dig on Dee and shoot her down, she proceeds without them. Instead of being a Debbie downer, Dee usually goes ahead with her plans despite the guys, which actually makes her more admirable.
That’s the other key to the show’s charm. Each character persists DESPITE their situation. And they rarely give up (during the episode). It turns out they always give up or fail at the end of the episode, but only after all the comedic routes have been exhausted. And sometimes one character giving up happens at the worst possible moment for another character. (Like when Dennis gives up on being a politician just after Charlie sold his Cabbage Patch kids collection to keep him in the race!)
The characters are doers. Every episode pretty much begins with “Heyo!! Look what I’ve got”. It’s usually an answer to the standing question “What are we going to DO today.” The characters are always looking for something to DO. And that drive is actually admirable. Say what you will about the quality of their character, but these guys are doers. If they have a problem (usually with somebody) they DO something about it. Although usually, it’s the wrong thing! They’re fighters. The same is true with the kids in Malcolm in the Middle. But it can’t be said about the characters in Seinfeld; only, possibly, George.
The reveals. For a show with a low budget and single-cam, they have some well-timed visual gags. Like the hospital scene when Dennis and Dee have a long argument with their dad after he suddenly shows up in their lives after so many years apart. They expose some deep-rooted family issues, and Dennis and Dee storm off wishing never to see their dad again. Then… the camera pans over to Mac and Charlie who we now realize were watching the whole ordeal. Mac breaks the silence with “That was awkward.” They do it again in front the lawyer in one episode, and again when Mac, Dennis, and Charlie are arguing about whether the building they’re in has helicopter pad on the roof, and the conversation ends with “Let’s table the talk about the chopper on the roof, and hear the man out”, at which point the camera reveals a salesman was in the room the whole time, unable to stop them from rambling on and on in their own conversation. They really know how to set up a joke with a simple visual punchline (often times cued in by a character).
A light approach to social issues. There are some topics that they really go over the edge, but something about the characters is disarming, letting the audience cringe (and laugh) without being offended. It’s exemplary in the first season particularly as they explored some touchy subjects like racism, abortion, cancer, and religion. How do they get away with it?
Each character has a redeeming trait that actually makes us root for them, despite the absurdity. Some of it is that we acknowledge that at least Mac and Charlie are too dim-witted to understand their faults (or actions), but they are trying their hardest, so (like children) we don’t (or can’t) judge them. Dee is always the odd-(wo)man out; she is generally shot down, ignored, or bullied by the boys, making us pity her, but she persists despite her situation (a comic hero), which actually makes us respect her. And Dennis is a douche. We’re supposed to really hate him, but we root for him regardless. Why? Because he’s so sure of himself. Which we respect (as I mentioned above, about passion), and lends itself to a certain set of comedic situations. And because he’s a douche, we’re actually satisfied when he gets his comeuppance.
Why do they never give up? Because they also live in denial, which allows them to persist for so long without admitting defeat or failure, and it keeps them from getting down on themselves, and keeps us from judgment. Malcolm in the Middle walks that fine line too. Hal made it obvious in a Christmas episode: “Dad you’re living in denial.” “The only way I survive is by living in denial. Come on! If I were to let reality affect me, I would have quit after the third child!” Our heroes never mope about their circumstance. They do something about it, or deny it. Denial can be really funny… when you’re not the one living in it!
It’s ironic. They’re all faulty people making bad decisions, but because they’re passionate about their actions, and they justify their actions, and because they each persist despite their circumstances (a quality of a comic hero), we can enjoy their shenanigans without feeling overwhelmed with disgust or pity or judgment.