LOS ANGELES — The past year in California has been the driest in a century. But on a recent mid-November afternoon, California was starting to look a lot like … Ireland.
At least it was in the edit bay for “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” where visual effects artists were diligently tweaking the color scheme to better resemble that of the Emerald Isle. Slowly, the parched cliffs of Bodega Bay began to look like the grassy Slieve League cliffs. The golden, dusty hills of Sonoma County took on the verdant, rain-soaked hues of County Donegal. Several episodes of the coming season are set in Ireland, where they were also supposed to be shot before the pandemic intervened. That meant adding a lot of green and gray in post.
Clad in a black T-shirt emblazoned with a raised fist in support of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Rob McElhenney jumped up from the couch, as if yanked by an invisible string. He poked the screen with a decisive finger.
From left, Kaitlin Olson, Charlie Day, Danny DeVito, Glenn Howerton and McElhenney play the main ensemble of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” which has been renewed through Season 18.Credit…FX
“Can we make the mountain closer to a darker rock?” He sat down, then jumped up again. “Can we darken the sky?” Then again. “Is that enough of a pinnacle?”
A big sigh. A pause. “I love this job,” he said.
Offscreen, McElhenney, who created and stars in “Sunny,” is in the midst of his own transformation, and it’s a lot harder when what you’re poking at is yourself. When the show returns to FXX for its 15th season on Wednesday, it will officially dethrone “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” as the longest running live-action comedy series in American TV history, and it has already been renewed through Season 18.
For McElhenney, it’s a milestone. But it’s also a midpoint, and a cause for reflection.
He’s embarking on what he calls “the second half” of his career. Thanks largely to the longevity of “Sunny,” he is financially set for life — he doesn’t really need to do anything more. And yet, in the past two years, he has cocreated and stars in the Apple TV+ comedy “Mythic Quest”; codeveloped and sold a third, to-be-announced scripted show; recorded a “Sunny” recap podcast; and is currently filming the docu-series “Welcome to Wrexham,” which will chart his journey as the new co-owner of a Welsh soccer team.
“I’m only 44,” he said. “So, am I going to sit back and just wait to die?”
Those who know McElhenney know complacency was never an option. They describe him as “the most driven man I’ve ever met” (“Sunny” executive producer and star Charlie Day); “the captain that you want on your ship” (his “Sunny” co-star and wife of 13 years, Kaitlin Olson); and “the ‘Rocky’ soundtrack in human form” (Megan Ganz, who created “Mythic Quest” with McElhenney and Day and is also an executive producer on “Sunny”).
Indeed, the boundaries between work and home seem blurry. Earlier that morning, McElhenney had ushered me into a detached home office behind the house he and Olson share with their two sons in Brentwood. His work space, loosely inspired by a Pennsylvania log cabin, was recently enhanced with a section of the Paddy’s Pub set — complete with stools, flooring and a football-helmet-shaped neon sign — that he paid the “Sunny” art department to install.
A voracious reader — or, more often, listener — of memoirs by successful people (recent selections include one by the Nike co-founder Phil Knight), McElhenney speaks with a measured, academic eloquence. He pauses only to sip water from an oversized Mason jar or tend to Moose, his and Olson’s rescue cat, who has a penchant for breaking the “no countertops” rule.
He’s not actually funny. Or so he repeatedly insists. And he is given more to soft-spoken contemplation than to punch lines as he drifts through philosophical musings about power and ethics, about where he’s from and where he’s heading.
“Sometimes I find myself doing too many things because I’m just like, Oh, I’m here, and I have this opportunity and this access — I want to take it all before I die,” he said, adding later: “At what point does the accumulation of experience become greedy?”
The McElhenney origin story he tells is a hero’s journey built in the grand tradition of the American dream: An outsider from a working-class Philadelphia family defies the odds to charm the Hollywood suits and achieve huge success with his buddies by his side.
Growing up in South Philly, McElhenney clung to TV comedies as a source of escape and connection. When he was 9, his mother moved out to be with the woman who is now his stepmother, and he and his two younger siblings sought stability in NBC’s Thursday night lineup, religiously watching “The Cosby Show” and “Family Ties” with their father. During weekends at their moms’ house, it was “Golden Girls.”
Acting was initially a last resort. Small and not athletic but longing deeply for connection, the teenage McElhenney eventually abandoned his attempts to play a sport at his all-boys Catholic high school and answered the siren song of a nearby sister school, which needed boys for its production of Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.” After a brief stint at Temple University, he moved to New York and eventually Los Angeles to pursue acting.
The idea for one of TV’s most successful comedies was born modestly enough, coming to McElhenney in the middle of the night in 2004, two years after he moved to Los Angeles. He envisaged a scene in which a guy knocks on his friend’s door to ask for some sugar for his coffee. The friend tells him he has cancer. The first guy is really sorry to hear that — but he still needs the sugar.
As McElhenney put it, if the “maxim” of “Friends” was “I’ll be there for you,” then the one for “Sunny” would be “I’ll never be there.”
While living in a converted West Hollywood garage and working as a waiter, McElhenney approached his fellow aspiring actors Day, Glenn Howerton and Jordan Reid (then McElhenney’s girlfriend) with a script, and they shot the original pilot for “Sunny” on a hand-held camcorder. They shopped it around and, according to McElhenney, the fledgling FX offered the best chance for the team to retain creative control and to do the low-budget show their way.
“It was absolutely, 100 percent not what I was looking for,” John Landgraf, who was then president of entertainment at FX, said as he emphasized McElhenney’s total lack of experience as a writer, producer or showrunner. “But it was funny. He had a voice.”
FX paid them to shoot a more polished pilot and suggested it might have a better chance of standing out if they changed the characters from a group of self-involved actors in Los Angeles to a group of self-involved bar owners in McElhenney’s native Philadelphia.
As McElhenney, Howerton and Day waited to hear if the show would be picked up, FX came back with a question: Would they be willing to hire a different actress for the sole female lead, Sweet Dee, who served originally as a moralizing foil?
The guys agreed to find someone else, and Reid, who by then had split with McElhenney, was bumped, an experience she described in a 2016 essay for Observer as feeling like a betrayal by her friends. (Reid no longer begrudges the men for seizing their opportunity, she wrote in an email, and she and McElhenney each now say that they are once again friends. FX declined to comment on the casting issue.)
Olson auditioned and won the part, which was then reworked to match the debauchery of the male characters.
“Rob actually apologized to me that they didn’t do that already,” Olson said. “He definitely had a vested interest in making this character equal to the male characters, and it was very refreshing at the time.”
Sixteen years after its debut, “Sunny” remains resolutely committed to its brand of crass nihilism in an age of kinder, gentler comedies like “Ted Lasso” and “Schitt’s Creek.” But while “Sunny” remains intent on “satirizing ignorance,” as McElhenney put it, he also admits there have been missteps, like the treatment of a recurring transgender character, who was referred to as a slur in a way that made it seem as if the show, rather than the characters, was advocating her mistreatment.
“We can’t retroactively change things,” he said. “What we’ve done is adjust for them.”
For example, McElhenney’s character, Mac, went on a rocky coming out journey across Seasons 11 to 13 that then culminated in a tonal shift as he performed a poignant, four-and-a-half-minute interpretive dance after revealing his sexuality to his imprisoned father.
And then there was the blackface. In the wake of last year’s nationwide racial justice protests, Hulu, which streams “Sunny” in the United States, removed several episodes that depict characters, including McElhenney’s, in blackface. Rather than let the episodes disappear from collective memory, however, the “Sunny” team confronted them in a Season 15 episode that dives into issues of cancel culture, atonement and white saviorism as the characters film their latest sequel to the “Lethal Weapon” franchise.
This time, however, there are Black actors instead of blackface — including Geoffrey Owens, best known for playing Elvin on “The Cosby Show,” who had appeared in earlier episodes and in “Mythic Quest.” The new episode also has a Black director (Pete Chatmon) and Black co-writer (Keyonna Taylor).
Over the last few years, public discourse and their own evolving thinking convinced McElhenney and the rest of the creative team that they should diversify the show’s perspectives, though it was initially unclear how that would serve their bigoted main characters.
“At its foundation, it’s a show about five ignorant, white people, right?” McElhenney said. “So, at first we thought, well, how does it even make sense to have different points of view in there?”
“Then we were like, Oh my God, of course,” he added. “Who could better understand how it feels to be in the wake of ignorant white people than people who aren’t ignorant white people? Ignorant white men, specifically.”
Women and people of color have increasingly been added to the “Sunny” fold, a course McElhenney continued when staffing and casting “Mythic Quest,” which was recently renewed for a third and fourth season. A workplace comedy set at a video game company, it stars McElhenney as an egomaniacal game creator opposite Charlotte Nicdao, a Filipina-Australian actress in her first major Hollywood role.
Beyond McElhenney’s diversification efforts, Nicdao and Ganz said, he has also worked hard to offer guidance and opportunities for people who perhaps didn’t have as clear of a path forward in the industry as he did.
“As a woman, I’ve always felt uncomfortable asking anyone to take time out of what they’re doing to teach me something,” Nicdao said. “The thing that Rob has done is create this environment where I’ve never had to ask.”
“I have, for the first time, considered, oh, maybe I want to produce,” she added. “Maybe I want to direct. Maybe I would actually be capable of that.”
Likewise, Ganz, who met McElhenney when she joined “Sunny” as a writer and co-producer in 2016, said it was McElhenney who pushed her to make her directorial debut, in the second season of “Mythic Quest.”
“Rob’s like a supportive bully, in that he encourages you very aggressively to step outside of your comfort zone,” she said. “He believes in you maybe a few feet further than you believe in yourself.”
His belief in others overflows from the abundance of confidence he has long had in himself and in his ideas. And that self-confidence is infectious. A few years ago, the actor Ryan Reynolds slid into McElhenney’s DMs. He was a fan of “Sunny,” and they developed an online friendship strong enough for McElhenney to ask Reynolds if he wanted to join him in buying a Welsh soccer club called Wrexham and make a documentary series about the experience. This was before they had even met in person.
Reynolds said yes, and they’re currently shooting “Welcome to Wrexham,” for FX. It’s about a an underdog soccer team but also about “community and what we inherit and what we leave behind,” McElhenney said — the type of big-picture questions he often finds himself pondering in the hours between his 5 a.m. wake up time and his current nightly routine of drinking a large Manhattan and rewatching “Succession.”
As earnest as McElhenney is about the generous aspect of his second act — using his own success to create security and opportunity for others — he is aware that he’s partly motivated by self-interest. By elevating new talent around him, he is making his own projects better. It also makes him feel good.
“Am I doing it all in the service of something positive or good? I’d like to say that the answer is yes,” he said. “But sometimes, if I’m being honest with myself, maybe it is just that I don’t know what it is I’m looking for. Maybe when I find it, I’ll know.”