[20 November 2013]
Mel Brooks’ farcical western comedy, Blazing Saddles (1974), contains the following classic exchanges:
[African American] Sheriff Bart: Mornin’, ma’am. And isn’t it a lovely
Elderly White Woman: Up yours, n——-r.
Later, after Sheriff Bart saves the town:
Elderly White Woman: Good evening, Sheriff. Sorry about the “Up yours,
n——-r”….Of course, you’ll have the good taste not to mention that I spoke to you.
Sheriff Bart: Of course.
As politically incorrect as these lines may be, they are also a hilarious and highly effective evisceration of racism, at the same time. Obviously, it’s not funny that a person of privilege is denigrating another and using the most vicious of words to do so. The joke is that the person of privilege is so shockingly ignorant and devoid of any capacity for empathy of another person. The elderly woman’s words go so far beyond mere offensiveness as to cross into pure absurdity. Perhaps the only thing really left to do in such situations is laugh. The joke is clearly on the elderly woman; even if she doesn’t know it, Sheriff Bart and the viewers, do. Whatever moral ground the woman may think she has is, through humor, exposed at its core for what it really is: ignorance, self-centeredness, and hate.
Pushing the bounds of political correctness is no easy task, and not everyone is Mel Brooks and Blazing Saddles co-writers such as Richard Pryor. Yet an unfortunate and sadly ironic byproduct of a more politically correct society has been to dissuade comic types from playing with those social third rails. Brooks himself has commented that he would have a hard time getting Blazing Saddles made today. (Weide, 2012)
As a result, we have often been left with the efforts of the less nuanced and less talented artists. There are the comedians that have cloaked hate in a thin veil of “pushing the envelope”, like an Andrew Dice Clay or, more recently, a Daniel Tosh, of “rape joke” infamy. Others perhaps use straight shock to cover up a lack of actually being funny, such as so many radio shock jocks, though Howard Stern is very funny—when he isn’t solely discussing penises or graphic sex. To others, the test is perhaps the difference between The Simpson’s (clever), and Family Guy (less clever, more crude), or perhaps comedian Bill Maher at his best (smart, incisive), versus Bill Maher at his worst (crass, misogynist).
Thankfully, perhaps no TV show in history has pushed the PC-line to greater effect than the lovable crew of morons on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has managed to steadily grow a loyal fan base, and evade censors, long enough to air their 100th episode on 9 October, most for FX and now for the FX spin-off channel, FXX. At this point, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is a bona fide cult classic and perhaps a minor TV institution. Last season and the current one, in fact, have found the show hitting a new stride and it may be as strong as ever.
The show was originated by friends and co-stars Rob McElhenny (a Philly native and “Mac” on the show), Glenn Howerton (“Dennis”), and Charlie Day (“Charlie”), in 2005. Their crude, self-shot pilot quickly launched them from budding actor buddies to industry players. The show also features co-stars Kaitlin Olson (“Sweet Dee”, now McElhenny’s real-life wife) and diminutive comic legend, Danny Devito (“Frank”). For the uninitiated, the five lovable losers run what is labeled by a fictitious bar/restaurant critic in one episode, “The Worst Bar in Philadelphia”. The group otherwise occupy their lives with pointless exploits and one lame, boneheaded scheme after another.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has mastered those most un-PC corners and back alleys of comedy. The show has famously been described by The Philadelphia Inquirer as being “like Seinfeld on crack,” a tag-line so good FX kept it. (Storm, 2008). To be clear, on only one episode did two of the lead characters actually smoke crack cocaine, and only one became addicted, but, all-in-all it is a helpful description.
There are several reasons why It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia works so well. First, to really be insensitive and non-PC the good way, actors and writers actually have to be quite sensitive. Only when a show knows precisely where those PC-lines are can they then really push things in the opposite direction as far as possible. That is, creating characters that are mind-numbingly self-centered and inconsiderate of others actually takes immense amounts of self-awareness and consideration. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia knows exactly how to be incredibly crude and sensitive, at once.
Secondly, these low-lifes are, in fact, ‘relatable’. At some level. Indeed, as nasty, narcissistic, and as big of screw-ups as these characters are, against all odds the show also deftly manages to keep them lovable. Not unlike a show like Seinfeld, quite common human foibles are greatly exaggerated for comic effect. For most of us, trying to hide our human glitches and to always otherwise appear perfect can really be a drag.
Humans like, and perhaps have a deep need, to be able to laugh at themselves. Preferably maybe we would not have as much to laugh at as a George Costanza, or any of the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia Gang, but still. It is a relief to laugh. While the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia characters are certainly not “everyman” or “everywoman”, they are not completely foreign, either.
One classic example of both the qualities of sensitivity and relatability of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, comes in the Season 7 episode, “Sweet Dee Gets Audited”. Here, Dennis and Frank have a discussion concerning a plan to skim money for themselves from the bar. Their morally and intellectually warped conversation quickly and predictably degenerates, though somehow it actually falls into an intimate discussion of sorts—and Dennis begins to do some soul-searching. It results in a self-awareness that is otherwise completely out-of-character for the series:
Dennis: That’s easy. I can do that, Frank. That’s what I’m good at. But I am going to need a business card, ’cause I want to be able to hand that shit to people so they know that I’m in a place of power.
Frank: It’s not important!
Dennis: (angered) It’s important to me, Frank! And I know that what’s important to you is money and power. But I don’t want power. Because, with real power comes real responsibility. And I don’t want any of that shit. I just want the money. And the illusion of power… and puss.
Frank: What? Yeah?
Dennis: Hell, I don’t know, Frank. I don’t know, man.
Frank: What… tell me. Tell me.
Dennis: I need something. I mean, I got this, uh, this giant, gaping hole inside me. And I’m…I’m always trying to fill it with something. I like to call it my, uh…my “God Hole.” And I think a lot of people in this world, they…they fill it with religion. But I don’t believe in God.
To interject for a moment, if anyone in this group were ever able to sustain any such self-reflection, the show would implode. No such worries here though, as the conversation concludes:
Frank: ...but you want to fill it [the God hole] with pussy.
Dennis: (smiling) Yeah.
The real genius of this scene is the ability to balance such startling depths of idiocy with some actual existential insight. Crude? Certainly. Still, think about it: every single human on the planet has at some level—albeit with far more dignity than Dennis—tried to fill a “God hole” with sex. Fact.
Once It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has identified these human deficiencies and certain lines of offensiveness, they really start to push. In the Season 6 episode, “The Gang Buys a Boat”. for example, Dennis, again, notoriously refers to an “implication” of sexual assault. The fact that the viewer knows that Dennis is not going to commit such an act is crucial. The joke is right on the edge, certainly, and it even rides along the edge for a while, but it really never crosses the line.
The episode begins with “The Gang” collectively purchasing a decrepit boat, which Mac and Dennis envision as a “P-Diddy-style party boat” that is guaranteed to help them score with the ladies. The “implication” comes about when Dennis exposes a new level of depravity that even his buddy Mac isn’t sure what to do with:
Dennis: Think about it. She’s out in the middle of nowhere with some dude she barely knows. She looks around her, what does she see? Nothing but open ocean. “Oh, there’s nowhere for me to run, what am I gonna do, say no?”
Mac: Okay…that seems really dark though.
Dennis: No, no, it’s not dark. You’re misunderstanding me, bro.
Mac: I think I am.
Dennis: Yeah, you are. ‘Cause if the girl said no, then the answer obviously is no. The thing is that she’s not gonna say no, she’d never say no…because of the implication.
Mac: Now, you said that word “implication” a couple of times. What implication?
Dennis: The implication that things might go wrong for her if she refuses to sleep with me. Now, not that things are gonna go wrong for her, but she’s thinking that they will.
Mac: But it sounds like she doesn’t wanna have sex with you.
Dennis: Why aren’t you understanding this? She doesn’t know whether she wants to have sex with me, that’s not the issue.
Mac: Are you gonna hurt women?
Dennis: I’m not gonna hurt these women, why would I ever hurt these women? I feel like you’re not getting this at all.
Mac: I’m not getting it.
That the über-shallow Mac actually evidences some, limited, moral compass further ensures that the show stays grounded on the good side of the PC-line. While Dennis is a rather disgusting man and beyond selfish, he at least explicitly understands that “no means ‘no’” and, further, he would not do that. That is not funny, whatsoever. But the rest of it is.
A final key to the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia crew’s success is that the characters never end the show having actually benefitted from their crass and devious actions. Indeed, in most episodes, The Gang sabotages themselves through their own selfishness and incompetence. Whether it’s staging a fake baby funeral to evade trouble with the IRS, or kidnapping the neighbor and cat of the previously mentioned critic, The Gang never, ever gets ahead. Often the people they attempt to take advantage of even benefit by the end of the episode.
In another episode from Season 8, one depicting a city-wide sanitation worker strike, Dee is talking to a group of mostly black, union sanitation workers and attempting to manipulate them for her own personal gain (The Gang is trying to capitalize on the strike with their own sanitation service). In a shameless attempt to curry favor, Dee hides her caucasian-ness with brown-face makeup to appear Latina. Though no one in the group even appears to be Latino, presumably brown-face, and non-caucasian-ness, makes her more acceptable. Due to the history of America and minstrelsy, everyone knows that black-face is never a laughing matter (right, Ted Danson?), and brown-face is apparently okay, even if just barely. Thus, the show goes that route. Ignorant, ridiculous, funny—and The Gang keeps their toes right on the edge of decency.
Later in the same episode, the four male stars are having a conversation in which decide to dump their garbage in the poor neighborhoods. As Mac explains, the poor “don’t mind living in their filth.” Here, in disparaging the poor, i>clearly the show has gone too far, right? But then Mac’s next line is: “I mean, why else would they choose to live that way?” That is, The Gang is too stupid to even begin to comprehend any aspect of poverty. Indeed, this crew is dumber and less admirable than any poor person ever. A homeless person would feel bad for these guys. The end of the episode sees the guys—understandably—being mobbed and attacked by the otherwise decent, blue collar, and mostly minority, union workers.
Does It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia ever cross the line? Most sane people would probably have to say yes. One controversial episode saw The Gang put on a musical: The Nightman Cometh (so popular it was turned into a real-world musical and performed in six cities). One of the central jokes is Frank’s butchering of the lyric “boy’s soul” so that it sounds like “boy’s hole”, which leads to an extended series of jokes and sight gags concerning the main characters and pedophilia. Is pedophilia ever not over the line? It’s a fair question. Still, in the show’s defense, the jokes are not about any actual child abuse. The humor is a byproduct of confusion over Charlie’s bizarre and dimwitted script, Mac and Dennis’ extreme self-absorption, and Frank’s general weirdness. By the end of the episode, The Gang comes out looking lamer than ever and no one is actually hurt—but them.
A much harder to justify example, however, also comes in Season 7 in which Frank dates and then becomes engaged to a down-and-out prostitute. Think Pretty Woman…on crack, but definitely literally this time. The drug-addicted prostitute is depicted having a drug-induced heart attack on camera. Eh…LOL? The joke is, presumably, ‘Look how wild and crazy The Gang’s lives are!’ Yet, here the show fails to find any real humor in the tragedy—a tragedy that actually plays out in the real-world every day. Instead viewers were just given the tragedy, and that’s not good.
All-in-all, however, what matters most is that the show has heart, brains and it’s generally a lot of fun. This is what consistently and undeniably shines through. These are, after all, the guys and gal that brought us Green Man, the Flipadelphia drinking game, and the breakout feline footwear product, “Kittens Mittons” [sic].
Again, like all great comedies—and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is often great, rarely examined human foibles are blown up as much as possible and into wild and crazy caricatures. In doing so, viewers are better able to identify injustices and their own weaknesses and society benefits. In the process of blowing these things up, the best comics stay within those outer limits of human decency. But just barely.