Last week, WMMR and the Preston & Steve gang threw a party to celebrate this city’s biggest cultural export since Rocky: the demented television comedy It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Think I’m overstating the show’s significance? The screening at the Trocadero drew more people than I’ve seen at most concerts there recently, and when the sneak preview of tonight’s season premiere began, the well-oiled crowd fell silent, save for the laughs, of which there were many. Its Facebook page boasts 2.5 million fans, and it’s poised to become the longest-running, live-action comedy in basic-cable TV history.
Of course, you might not be happy that Philadelphia is becoming synonymous with Mac and the Gang. Tune in to FX this evening and you’ll be treated to a heartwarming tale in which Frank, played by Danny DeVito, falls in love with a hooker who’s less like Julia Roberts and more like JWoww on crack. Last season, Dennis thought he impregnated his sister; in another episode, Mac, played by St. Joe’s Prep grad and show co-creator Rob McElhenney, made a Lethal Weapon sequel and starred as Danny Glover—in blackface. If you’re easily offended—or even if you’re not—you might think the show errs on the wrong side of the “good taste” line. In some cases, you may be right.
That’s probably why McElhenney and company haven’t been given a key to the city, even though they deserve it. Think about the red carpets that were rolled out for other shows set in Philadelphia: David Morse’s Hack and Kim Delaney’s Philly come to mind. Combined, they lasted three seasons. By comparison, Sunny is entering its seventh, with more on the way. McElhenney’s bar in Old City, Mac’s Tavern, is modeled after the trashy tavern on the show and attracts fans from around the country. The cast still makes its annual pilgrimage each summer to shoot here, despite the cost. That authenticity shows—while Bradley Cooper’s Limitless was largely filmed here but designed to look and feel like New York, on Sunny, you can tell which South Philly block they’re standing on, and landmarks like the Reading Terminal Market haven’t been green-screened in.
I interviewed McElhenney back in 2006, on the eve of the show’s second season. He graciously put up with my questions about his resemblance to a certain child actor who saw dead people and talked about begging DeVito to join the cast, which turned out to be a stroke of genius. The show was still finding its voice, as many great ones do early on (Seinfeld was a ratings flop in its first year and Cheers was nearly canceled). McElhenney described the show as “four degenerates who own a bar in South Philadelphia”; with DeVito, the number is up to five, but otherwise, his description holds true. Back then, McElhenney was just hoping he could make their meager budget stretch for a full season; now, the show is a bona fide cult hit. With Will Smith long lost to Hollywood superstardom, only the Roots could compete with Sunny in terms of representing Philly on a national stage—and in a big way, literally (in a De Niroesque turn, McElhenney gained 50 pounds this season, simply because he thought it would be funny if his character was unexpectedly obese this season). If you’re not part of Mac’s Gang yet, tonight’s the night to see what you’ve been missing.