Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, and Glenn Howerton originally met in New York, and by the time they made the move to Los Angeles, they happened to be sharing the same manager, Nick Frankel at 3 Arts Entertainment. But the trio had more than that in common. Despite notable credits—Howerton had done several episodes of ER and was a regular on the short-lived series That '80s Show, Day had done a multiepisode arc on Third Watch, and McElhenney had appeared in such films as The Devil's Own and Wonder Boys—the three were becoming increasingly frustrated with the kind of roles they were (and weren't) getting.
Rather than sitting around complaining, the actors grabbed their video cameras and shot their own television show. It was enough to impress the executives at FX Networks, who green-lighted a pilot and a first season of their comedy It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The show, which centers on the misadventures of four 20-somethings (Kaitlin Olson rounds out the cast), is proudly politically incorrect: It has tackled such sacred cows as cancer, molestation, and using a wheelchair to get free lap dances from strippers. Now in its second season (it airs Thursday nights at 10 p.m. on FX), the show has added Danny DeVito to the cast as Day's father.
Back Stage How did the idea to create your own show come about?
Glenn Howerton: We were all in various stages of our career, and essentially, what it all came down to was, none of us were satisfied with the kind of material we were getting our hands on as actors. We all wanted to create our own material, and Rob had written 10 pages of a scene about a guy who goes over to his friend's house and the friend says he has cancer and the guy keeps trying to wriggle out of talking to him about it. It was really funny, and we were so excited to shoot the scene, we said, "Let's make a whole script out of it." We tossed around some ideas, Rob went off and wrote the script, and we shot it. I guess the idea from the beginning was for Charlie and I to do as little as possible and yet to profit from it.
Rob McElhenney: I was lucky enough to find the two funniest people I knew in L.A. to work with me, so it worked out pretty well.
Back Stage And how were you able to shoot the pilot for under $200?
Charlie Day: If you have a video camera and you have a laptop computer and lamps in your house, there's no reason why it should cost any more. In fact, you'd be a fool to spend more.
Howerton: It just so happens that the concept of our show was very, very simple. It was about these guys and a girl. They were very dialogue-driven scenes about these people in their apartments. When they weren't in their apartments, they were just walking down the street. You can just run and gun that stuff, guerrilla-style.
Day: So it was just a matter of taking our home video cameras, pointing them at each other, saying the lines, and maybe occasionally calling a friend over to hold the boom mike. There was no lights, no sound, no craft services. Essentially, it was a home movie. If we go to another season, we should go back to holding the cameras ourselves again. We let other people hold them now, and sometimes I wish it was still us.
Back Stage How did the show go from a side project to a series on a cable network?
McElhenney: That happened pretty quickly. Once we had done the first episode, we thought it was funny and wanted to do another one. In the meantime we gave the first one to our manager, who gave it to his boss who's a partner at 3 Arts Entertainment. He gave it to an agent at Endeavor, Ari Greenburg, who said, "I could probably sell this thing." Within a couple of weeks, he had set up all these pitch meetings to networks. Instead of a traditional pitch where you go in and explain what you're going to do, we'd just show up with the DVD. Within two or three days of showing it around town, we had four or five different offers from networks. From that point on, it was just a question of where we wanted to go.
Howerton: But our choices got weeded down very quickly for us because we didn't concede anything. We told them, "This is the show we're going to make, these are the actors, we're the executive producers, we're going to write it." A lot of networks were a little wary about that, but FX said, "We'll go for it."
Back Stage Did you ever worry that a network wanted to buy the show but not use you as actors?
McElhenney: We didn't do this because we wanted to be TV producers. We did it because we wanted to make what we wanted to make. And if we couldn't do that, we just wouldn't make a show at all. It had nothing to do with ego; it was about what we find funny.
Day: I never worried about being replaced, because we were selling the chemistry of the three of us.
Howerton: Before they could even make suggestions, we made demands. So it didn't get far with a lot of places. FX said, "We don't want to change anything; we just want to cultivate what's on the DVD." It was extraordinary how quickly it happened. When you consider we finished shooting it in March 2004 and in October 2004 we were shooting the FX pilot, it was really fast.
Day: Of course, once we got the deal to shoot the pilot on FX's dime, we were essentially in the same boat as any other show in Los Angeles waiting to hear if we'd be picked up.
Back Stage With all three of you sharing writing and acting responsibilities, how does the collaborative process work?
McElhenney: Generally we'll sit around and come up with a bunch of different ideas, things that make us laugh. Then we'll knock around more of the specifics, and usually two of us will split off and break down a story scene by scene. Usually one person will write it. When we have a draft, it comes back to the three of us, and if there's a problem, we vote, two against one.
Day: It's very civilized. The three of us work very intensely on every script and editing every episode. For whatever reason, we seem to have a respectful dialogue and we trust each other a lot. When push comes to shove, we go with majority rules.
Howerton: Ultimately, I don't give a shit whether anybody thinks the show is funny if [McElhenney and Day] don't. I will always go with their opinion, and I trust them more than anyone else.
Back Stage How were you able to land Danny DeVito for the second season?
Howerton: We found out he was a fan of the show through John Landgraf, the president of FX, who's a good friend of his. We thought it would be a really good match. We decided to let Rob be our delegate and go talk to Danny, and he handled it really well.
McElhenney: I went over to his house and told him about the character. He hasn't done a TV show in over 20 years, so I was pretty excited. We didn't have time to be shocked when he said yes because we only had him for a certain amount of time, like, 20 days, and had to get to work.
Back Stage Do you think going from guerrilla-style shooting to a network show has changed the feel of the program?
Howerton: Well, we still like to move fast. It kicks the energy up, and we were surprised at how excited Danny was about it.
Day: We don't have a huge budget. In some ways it still feels like we're doing the same cheap, run-and-gun show. Maybe it will start to feel like something else when my paycheck reflects it.
Howerton: Sometimes those limitations end up helping you. A lot of times when you're given limitations and boundaries, you end up finding far more creativity. And good acting and good dialogue don't cost anything.