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Looking At The 'Sunny' Side Of Life

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is not your usual formula for a successful sitcom, a bunch of friends in a bar who make jokes about abortion, cancer, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But for the show "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," it worked so well that when the fourth season starts tomorrow night, the producers will be feeling particularly secure. That's because the show has already been renewed for four more seasons. Joel Rose explains.

JOEL ROSE: The characters on "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" seem to spend almost no time waiting on customer's at Paddy's Pub which they own. But they do spend plenty of time drinking and hatching tasteless, unworkable schemes like picking up women at an anti-abortion rally.

(Soundbite of sitcom "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia")

Mr. ROB MCELHENNEY: (As Mac) You got to come with me to one of these rallies. They're having another one on Saturday. These chicks are everywhere.

Mr. GLENN HOWERTON: (As Dennis) I'll jump onboard with that.

Mr. MCELHENNEY: (As Mac) Yeah.

Ms. KAITLIN OLSON: (As Dee) Are you actually going to throw away all your convictions for a chance to get laid?

Mr. HOWERTON: (As Dennis) I don't really have any convictions.

Mr. ROB MCELHENNEY (Creator, Co-writer and Co-star, "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia"): We never think how can we push people's buttons or how can we just be shocking for the sake of being shocking?

ROSE: Rob McElhenney is the show's creator, co-writer and co-star.

Mr. MCELHENNEY: It just so happens that people aren't doing comedy about abortion or cannibalism or waterboarding. And that to me doesn't necessarily mean that there aren't aspects of those subjects that are funny, it just means that people are too uptight.

ROSE: McElhenney and a couple of friends produced the first pilot of the show for 200 bucks and started shopping it around. Cable channel FX decided to take a chance.

Mr. JOHN LANDGRAFF (President, FX Networks): There was really no indication that this would ever be something that was a commercial success. But it was really funny.

ROSE: FX president John Landgraf says the ratings improved somewhat during the second and third seasons, at least in part because veteran actor Danny DeVito joined the cast as Frank, the estranged father of the characters Dennis and Dee.

(Soundbite of sitcom "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia")

Mr. DANNY DEVITO: (As Frank) Your mother's dead.

Mr. HOWERTON: (As Dennis) Oh, my God!

Mr. DEVITO: (As Frank) No, she's not dead. We're getting divorced, though.

Mr. HOWERTON: (As Dennis) Why?

Ms. OLSON: (As Dee) Why?

Mr. HOWERTON: (As Dennis) What?

Ms. OLSON: (As Dee) What?

Mr. HOWERTON: (As Dennis) Why would you say that she's dead?

Mr. DEVITO: (As Frank) That's a business tactic. You drop the bomb, then you soften the blow. You never tried this?

ROSE: The ratings still aren't great, but DVD sales have been brisk. And "Sunny" has built an especially strong following with younger audiences. It was the most-watched show of the last two months on the ad-supported Web site, Hulu. All that was enough to convince FX to buy four more seasons of the show at a time when the overall market for sitcoms is shrinking. And that's welcome news for fans of the show at the real Paddy's Pub in Philadelphia.

Ms. LIZ STUART(ph) (Grad Student; Fan, "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia"): It almost makes you feel better about your life because all these people are kind of screwing around with their own life. They don't ever learn from their mistakes either. They just keep going and going.

ROSE: Grad student Liz Stuart owns the DVDs of seasons one and two.

Ms. STUART: So many of them were really good. The one where Mac dates the transitioning male to female, that one was really funny.

ROSE: "Sunny" isn't the only show on TV that plays homophobia, sexism, and racism for laughs. But its elaborate plotlines take the approach to new highs, or lows, which is what fans like Kevin Swan(ph) find so appealing.

Mr. KEVIN SWAN (Fan, "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia"): One show where they had (unintelligible) stop underage drinking by opening up the bar and let all the kids drink in the bar and find a place for them. It was just like - it was just so wrong.

ROSE: Especially when the underage drinkers in the bar start hitting on the owners.

(Soundbite of sitcom "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia")

Ms. OLSON: (As Dee) Trey asked me to prom last night. This is getting really weird.

Mr. CHARLIE DAY: (As Charlie) That girl, Sara, asked me too.

Ms. OLSON: (As Dee) You're kidding?

Mr. HOWERTON: (As Dennis) What? No, we can't go to the prom. That's pathetic.

Mr. DAY: (As Charlie) What do you mean we? Who asked you?

ROSE: It might have taken viewers a little while to warm up to characters who are vain, dishonest, and spectacularly insensitive. But creator Rob McElhenney says the audience seems to get the joke.

Mr. MCELHENNEY: People might see these characters as being deplorable. But we also don't put them on a pedestal. They're losers in a bar, and they'll never change. And they'll always be losers. And I think that ultimately the audience understands that, and that's why they go along with it.

ROSE: And it's why "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" will be going along for at least four more seasons. For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose
Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.