Why the longest-running sitcom ever hasn't been cancelled (literally and figuratively)

Rob McElhenney and Danny DeVito in a typically tasteful episode of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia
Rob McElhenney and Danny DeVito in a typically tasteful episode of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia

The new series of the American sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – its 16th – confirms its standing as the longest-running live-action US sitcom of all time. (Its previous series having taken the record from the now-forgotten Sixties show The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.)

It has always been cult viewing in Britain, rather than a mainstream hit (it airs on Netflix), but those who love it – an eclectic range of viewers, who anecdotally include everyone from socially-conscious teenagers to middle-aged aficionados of sharply written comedy – will be eagerly preparing to binge the new series. And, undoubtedly, its fans will all be asking the same question, as they do every time it returns: how have they managed to get away with it, again?

For the uninitiated, Always Sunny – as it’s known by its admirers – revolves around the antics of “The Gang”, a mostly irredeemable group of narcissistic Philadelphia-dwelling sociopaths who run an especially squalid Irish bar that its owners are afraid to venture into due to the high incidence of casual violence that takes place within it. The Gang includes the lamentable Charlie, the angst-ridden Mac, the psychotic and violent Dennis and Dennis’s self-obsessed twin sister Sweet Dee, who is, of course, nothing of the kind.

In the show’s second series, they were joined by none other than Danny DeVito as Dennis and Dee’s supposed father Frank, who swiftly fit right into this sordid milieu thanks to his licentious, gun-toting ways. To describe the show as un-PC would be putting it mildly. Jokes that have long since been retired from public view for their unacceptability are cheerily exhumed here, whether it’s Mac donning blackface in the episode The Gang Makes Lethal Weapon 6 – he is, naturally, cast as Danny Glover’s character Murtagh – or a scene in the first series when Mac (the butt of much of the show’s most near-the-knuckle humour, and played by the show’s creator and Wrexham AFC co-owner Rob McElhenney) accidentally punches a trans woman in the face but justifies his actions thusly: “It’s a dude. She has a penis, so it’s okay.”

It is telling that Mac is threatened with violence by two outraged onlookers, rather than being allowed to get away with his actions scot-free. But even so the joke is presented purely as something both hilarious and outrageous, rather than deeply offensive. Yet this isn’t the half of it. Over the course of its 162 episodes (to date), there have been offensive, if often hilarious, jokes about everything from mental retardation to obesity to jihadism.  At least two characters have imitated Asian people, complete with comedy “yellowface” makeup.

Children have been beaten up, cancer patients mocked, homeless people abused and coerced into taking hard drugs. Some of the most uproarious moments have come about from situations that barely seem comprehensible in the course of a mainstream sitcom, whether it’s a depressed Frank trying and failing to hang himself (he is thwarted by his “thick neck”) or Mac’s showy outrage that Charlie, not him, was abused by their gym teacher at school, on the grounds that, in his words, he was “a cuter child”.

There is also Dennis’s patented pick-up trick – the so-called “D.E.N.N.I.S system” – which involves gaslighting and manipulating women into believing that they love him, so he can treat them even more appallingly than he has before. As one commentator put it, perhaps through gritted teeth: “Rape jokes are always dark. However, they become funny when used as a tool to reveal the inner dialogue of a possible serial-killer sociopath.”

To an extent, Always Sunny has managed to get away with its provocative content partially by dint of its longevity. Its first episode was broadcast in August 2005, which is a lifetime ago both in terms of social mores and comedic expectations. In this country, the ever-scabrous Peep Show was just entering its stride and Little Britain – which boasted its own blackface and transvestite characters – was on its third and final series. It was undeniably a time, on both sides of the Atlantic, when edgy comedy was seen not as outrageous and offensive, but as daring and innovative.

The controversial episode 'The Gang Make Lethal Weapon 6'
The controversial episode 'The Gang Make Lethal Weapon 6'

Nonetheless, Always Sunny was a world away from the kind of shows that were popular in America in the mid-2000s. The urbane and literate Frasier had concluded in 2004, as had Friends – in many regards, the antithesis of its Philadelphia-set successor. While those sitcoms had had their own issues relating to being entirely of their time – to watch Friends, especially, now is to enter into a maelstrom of gay panic jokes that might have seemed hilarious two decades ago, but now are somewhere between laboured and offensive – they were generally good-natured, and revolved around likeable and sympathetic characters who the viewers might generally have wished to befriend, had they existed in real life.

The Gang, however, is a bunch of largely irredeemable idiots who most people would seek to avoid at all costs, and that remains the key to Always Sunny’s enduring, perverse appeal. The humour, from a very early point in the show, comes largely from laughing at the incorrigible antics of the protagonists; the potential for true offence is largely removed through the cartoonish nature of their mind-numbingly horrendous actions.

Although the series has remained deeply in thrall to pushing the envelope, it has also subtly evolved in step with evolving tastes around the years. Carmen, the trans woman who Mac accidentally assaults in the first series, soon becomes a figure who is both considerably more dignified and intelligent than the morons who have insulted her, and they alter accordingly. By the sixth season, they are using her preferred pronouns and accepting her impending marriage as something essentially unremarkable.

In the 12th season Mac came out as gay – thereby nullifying the running gag about how the ostensibly heterosexual character finds himself constantly either having sex with men, or it being assumed that he is. McElhenney justified the decision for his character by explaining: “We weren’t creating a gay character for comedic effect, that was there just to be gay and to be funny because he was gay, but a very complex, very disturbed, very f___ed-up and awful character, who happens to be gay.”

That, in a nutshell, is why Always Sunny is so successful. However outrageous its gags are, they are always rooted in a carefully observed psychological reality for its characters. On the occasions that a mark is overstepped, redress is made. After Mac’s notorious blackface antics, a subsequent episode, The Gang Makes Lethal Weapon 7, offered a mea culpa of sorts, as the gang hire an appropriate African-American actor to play the Murtagh role after acknowledging the tastelessness of what they have done. It is perhaps unsurprising that five episodes of the show, ranging from the fourth to the 14th series, are currently unavailable on Netflix. Jokes about blackface apparently remain unacceptable, even in this context.

As McElhenney said in 2021: “I find that my barometer is off for what’s appropriate sometimes in situations because, like, we’ve spent 15 years making a show about the worst people on the planet, and because it’s satire, we lean so heavily into this idea.

Mac meets a trans woman in another notorious episode
Mac meets a trans woman in another notorious episode

“We are always, like, right on the razor’s edge, but that’s the only way that satire works,” he went on. “And then I go and do something else, and I may be pitching something, and then I realise, like, oh, it’s wholly inappropriate for the show what I’m doing because these are supposed to be real human beings, whereas, on Sunny, they are cartoon characters, and we can get away with a whole lot more.”

McElhenney is a wiser man than the character he plays. Just as the similarly near-the-knuckle South Park has managed to escape cancellation through a mixture of knowingly over-the-top outrageousness and by being a literal cartoon, so the overblown antics of Always Sunny evade being genuinely shocking simply because they are so knowingly unbelievable. It gleefully walks the tightrope of provoking its audience and still having them come back for more.

When compared to something genuinely demanding, such as Chris Morris’s Brass Eye, its shock tactics seem almost quaint in comparison. But that is how a show like this runs to 16 seasons. You would not bet against it continuing to run for some time to come: the acceptable, if dirty, face of non-cancellable humour, writ large.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia streams on Netflix in the UK and on Hulu in the US

Shock tactics: the cast of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia - FX PRODUCTIONS / Album
Shock tactics: the cast of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia - FX PRODUCTIONS / Album

The five most offensive Always Sunny episodes

1. Sweet Dee’s Dating A Retarded Person

(Series 3, Episode 9)

The character of Sweet Dee (Kaitlin Olson) very seldom lives up to her name, but her behaviour in this episode is appalling, even by her debased standards. When she begins a relationship with an amateur rapper known as Li’l Kevin, her brother Dennis informs her that the musician was in fact someone who they both knew when they were younger, and who was, in his parlance, “an actual retarded person”. Insults and slurs fly around the issue of mental disability as if they were going out of fashion.

2. Charlie Got Molested

(Series 1, Episode 7)

From the very outset, Always Sunny…was unafraid to delve headlong into issues that most other sane, or cautious, sitcoms would have avoided like the plague, and ‘Charlie Got Molested’ deals with the taboo topic of child molestation with all the subtlety and good taste that remains its hallmark. The pitch-black laughs in this episode come with the rivalry that develops between Charlie and Mac when they learn that their old gym teacher has been arrested for suspected child molestation. As an outraged Mac remarks: “If the McPoyles got blown, and Charlie got blown, then why didn’t I get blown?”

3. The Gang Gets Racist

(Series 1, Episode 1)

You can’t say that the series didn’t warn you. From its very first episode, which premiered in August 2005, Always Sunny…revelled in jokes about race, sexuality and fascism, with its characters using the n-word and making abhorrent comments about lynching and rape. Regarded with hindsight now, it’s almost quaint compared to some of the more shocking developments in subsequent shows, but it was a useful indicator for where creator Rob McElhenney’s intentions lay for “The Gang”.

4. The Gang Goes Jihad

(Series 2, Episode 2)

A mere half-decade after 9/11, when the topics of radical Islam and jihad were all but taboo in any non-current affairs show, America’s most cheerily offensive comedy flew a figurative plane through a skyscraper with a riotously bad-taste episode that managed to insult virtually every ethnicity and minority imaginable, as an Israeli businessman tries to buy up land next to the Gang’s bar. In retaliation they create a muddled but undeniably vile mock terrorist video to scare him away from his intentions.

5. The Gang Makes Lethal Weapon 6

(Series 9, Episode 9)

Blackface, as a tool for comedy, has been verboten now for years; its last mainstream cinematic incarnation, with Robert Downey Jr in Tropic Thunder in 2008, is now seen as beyond the pale. Which is why it’s little surprise that Always Sunny’s most offensive episode, in which the characters don blackface in order to produce an amateur sequel to Lethal Weapon for a lecherous financier, has now been pulled from Netflix and other streaming services. What is most incredible is that its makers ever believed – in 2013 – that this kind of humour would not provoke controversy on the grandest of scales.