Rob McElhenney Advises TV Creators to ‘Make What You Want to See’

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“In the Envelope: The Actor’s Podcast” features intimate, in-depth conversations with today’s most noteworthy film, television, and theater actors and creators. Full of both know-how and inspiration, “In the Envelope” airs weekly to cover everything from practical advice on navigating the industry, to how your favorite projects are made, to personal stories of success and failure alike. Join host and Awards Editor Jack Smart for this guide on how to live the creative life from those who are doing it every day. This episode is brought to you by AppleTV+.

Rob McElhenney’s credo has always been “make what you want to see.” It’s the advice the actor-writer-producer keeps coming back to in his “In the Envelope” interview: “Just make it. People either rise to that challenge or they don’t. The truth is that you just don’t have any more excuses.” 

In the current era of accessible filmmaking technology, he adds, aspiring storytellers can shoot their projects on smartphones with better cameras than McElhenney had access to in early seasons of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” the FXX comedy he co-created with Glenn Howerton. “You gotta find the perfect confluence of making sure that you’re giving yourself a break, that you’re not too hard on yourself,” he tells Backstage, “but also recognizing when you gotta stop making excuses, stop being lazy, and just go do the thing.”

The hit show that put McElhenney on the map was initially born out of his love of classic sitcoms, from “Family Ties” to “Friends”—but flipping the premise of a loving group of friends on its head, “essentially satirizing a sitcom,” he says. Starring McElhenney, Howerton, Charlie Day, Danny DeVito, and Kaitlin Olson (McElhenney’s wife), “Sunny” is soon to become the longest-running live-action comedy in American TV history.

Growing up in the show’s titular city, McElhenney remembers rehearsing plays at an all-girls school as well as being inspired by the sitcoms his family would gather to watch—but never realizing one could lead to the other. “There was such a vast divide between me even considering acting and what acting was, certainly in the Philadelphia Catholic school circuit,” he says. “I was never putting two and two together. It just didn’t really make sense to me because, California, it may as well have been on Mars.”

All that TV watching, however, would later inform his abilities as a screenwriter and show creator. “I don’t have any formal writing training, but I noticed that I was able to write a scene, just by instinct, and I don’t think I was born with that. I think it was something that seeped into my subconscious over hours and hours and hours of watching television.... I don’t allow my children to watch as much TV as I watched, so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it! But if you are looking to get into television writing, number one, without a doubt, watch as much television as you possibly can.”

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After a starry-eyed move at age 18 to New York City, where he used Backstage to audition for commercials, McElhenney eventually experienced an all-too-common phenomenon for early-career actors: filming one scene in a buzzy movie, only to see that scene cut. “It’s absolutely devastating, it happened twice,” he remembers. “There’s no sugarcoating, it just feels terrible.”

But now having worked on both sides of the camera and audition room table, McElhenney says breaking into the biz requires such setbacks. “You look at people’s careers who you want to emulate and say, ‘Oh, that person had a very interesting career,’ and you realize that most likely, definitely, there were ebbs and flows,” he says. “Some people handle that with class and dignity, and some people crumble. I think it’s what your expectations are and how tethered you are to reality and grateful for what you have when you have it. And then also, what’s your plan for when it does end?” 

The newest wave in McElhenney’s ebbs and flows is AppleTV+’s “Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet.” Co-created alongside Day and Megan Danz, and starring Ashly Burch, Jessie Ennis, Imani Hakim, David Hornsby, Charlotte Nicdao, Danny Pudi, F. Murray Abraham, and McElhenney as Ian Grimm, the egotistical creative director of a video game studio, “Mythic Quest” feels, other than its ultramodern setting, like a classic ensemble comedy.

How does the cast, from their very first episode, have such chemistry together? That’s the ineffable magic of casting, says McElhenney with a laugh. “You just don’t know why or how things coalesce in the way that they do. But when they do, you don’t ask questions and you just write to it! And you recognize that it’s lightning in a bottle, so just try to harness it as much as you can.... We knew we had a show after the first scene.”

For more of McElhenney’s insights on writing, acting, and navigating Hollywood, listen to his full interview at any of these podcast platforms.

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