“Who am I supposed to vote for? The Democrat who is going to blast me in the ass? Or the Republican who’s blasting my ass!” Over the course of more than a decade on the air, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has—deservedly—developed a reputation for dedicated crudeness, sweeping political incorrectness and gratuitous nihilism. Sometimes veiled by its crass exterior, however, is its willingness to get political. Season 2’s cynical interpretation of the reality of American politics as “one big ass blast” is just one example of the show’s penchant for incisive political commentary, conveyed through scathing satire and absurdism. Over twelve seasons, It’s Always Sunny has tackled an impressive array of politically-charged issues, including abortion and gun rights. But the uniqueness of It’s Always Sunny may reside in the fact that, as a sitcom first and foremost, its commentary is secondary to its comedy. By prioritizing humor over politics and avoiding the traps of partisanship and elitism, the show manages to examine the faults in our society and normalize complex political issues in an easily palatable format.
Promoted as “Seinfeld on crack” by its network, FXX, the long-running sitcom follows the misadventures of “the Gang”—the five depraved proprietors of Paddy’s Pub, a dilapidated Irish bar in South Philadelphia. There’s Charlie, the lovable illiterate; Dennis, the narcissistic loser; Dee, Dennis’ twin sister and a delusional drunk; Mac, the contradictory Catholic; and Frank, the wealthy degenerate who abandons his expensive lifestyle to live in glorious squalor. The show’s humor relies on the ridiculous, and frequently leans on vulgarity and crudity for comic effect. A typical episode finds the Gang and its constituent members inventing new and more outrageous ways to exhibit vice in all its multitudes. As Emily Nussbaum writes in the New Yorker, It’s Always Sunny is part of a rising breed of “dirtbag sitcoms”—“crass, confident comedies that feature idiotic characters but are not themselves idiotic.” In many ways, the show’s crude humor helps to normalize and simplify the complex political issues that it examines. Subtle political and social criticisms couched in willful ignorance, moral degeneration, and gleeful idiocy allow the show to avoid any accusations of elitism or excessive preachiness. Indeed, the show’s express purpose is not to effect social or political change. Instead, it offers a rare lens through which we can see how public policy affects the average Joes and plain Janes of America.
The Gang on the Issues
In the show’s second episode, the Gang tackles both sides of the abortion debate. In accordance with his Catholic beliefs—but mainly in order to impress an attractive staff member at an anti-abortion organization—Mac signs up to attend a pro-life rally. Enticed by Mac’s description of the female “talent” on show there, Dennis decides to join him at a demonstration between the two opposing sides of the abortion debate, but in support of a woman’s right to choose. Dennis’ initial pick-up attempts are unsuccessful, however, and he is convinced that his prospects would be brighter on the other side of the fence with the pro-lifers. Admitting that he “[doesn’t] really have any convictions,” Dennis tries to scale the fence to hop over to the other side. But in a satisfying twist, as he climbs the fence, he is pelted with eggs by pro-life demonstrators. The situation soon erupts into a veritable pro-choice versus pro-life egg-throwing conflagration, and Dennis, caught in the middle—literally ‘sitting on the fence’—is left with egg on his face. In the episode, just like in real life, there was no middle ground to be had in such a divisive and visceral issue.
The show also presents a deceptively-nuanced breakdown of America’s gun-rights issue in Season 9’s “Gun Fever Too: Still Hot,” which aired less than a year after the Sandy Hook school shooting. Dennis, Dee, Mac, and Charlie all find themselves ‘hot’ about the topic of gun ownership—but whereas Dennis and Dee are outraged at how easy it is for anyone to walk into a store and buy a gun, Mac and Charlie advocate for flooding Philadelphia’s streets with firearms (“We gotta get more guns on the streets!”). Each side decides to take matters into their own hands to prove a point—Dennis and Dee try to prove how easy it is to acquire military-grade weaponry (“Now theoretically, would I be able to slaughter a room full of innocent people with that weapon?”), while Mac and Charlie become vigilantes and patrol the local middle school with a samurai sword and a pistol. Ironically, their respective misadventures lead the teams to backtrack on their original positions and switch sides. Dennis and Dee become convinced by the common catchphrase that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, while Mac and Charlie discover the dangers of a weaponized citizenry when their attempted training of middle school students to use common objects as weapons goes haywire. Throughout the episode, clichéd arguments bandied about by Second Amendment zealots and anti-gun advocates alike are simultaneously satirized and dismantled.
The Gang in 2017
In its most recent season, It’s Always Sunny has ratcheted up its political commentary. The Season 12 opener was a quasi-musical that found the Gang “turned black.” After an incident with lightning and an electric blanket, each member of the Gang wakes up to find themselves in African-American bodies. The emotionally-charged episode dissects race and privilege by exploring the rules of being black in America—Charlie, Mac, and Dennis try and get into Dennis’ locked car, but the guys, who now appear black to bystanders, end up getting arrested by police. Later in the episode, the Gang tries to go into a closed electronics store, and the fearful owner calls the police. As the cops approach the store, they mistake a toy train that Charlie is holding for a gun; Charlie is shot four times, in a chilling closing sequence that evokes the death of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy who was killed by police in a park in 2014 for waving around a toy gun. (It’s Always Sunny previously touched on the issue of officer shootings in Season 4. Unable to believe that taxes alone don’t cover hospital stays, Mac exclaims, “You don’t pay a fireman to put out a fire!” With childlike innocence, Charlie adds: “Or a cop to shoot a guy.”)
In Season 12, meanwhile, the show explores what it means to come out of the closet in 2017. Over It’s Always Sunny’s previous 11 seasons, one of the recurring narrative themes dealt with Mac’s sexuality. The show placed his overt Catholicism and ostensible hatred of homosexuality and gay marriage (as evinced in the aptly-titled episode “Mac Fights Gay Marriage”) in constant conflict with frequent homoerotic slip-ups (Mac to Charlie, in Season 2, on smuggling heroin: “This is the perfect opportunity to prove how hard we are and not have to shove anything into our asses!”). In Season 9, the Gang voiced their view on Mac’s sexuality: “I know we’ve never said this as a group, but Mac’s gay.” In the next episode, however, Mac was once again purportedly straight, and the show reverted to stasis. But in Season 12’s “Hero or Hate Crime?”––an episode replete with gay slurs, falling pianos, unquotable profanities, and lottery tickets—Mac assertively declares his homosexuality. At first, it is a confession premised on self-interest; by professing to be gay, Mac can collect the winnings of a lottery ticket. But after coming out in name only, in order to claim the money, Mac decides that he would rather stay out of the closet. He admits that he is gay, and self-triumphantly declares, “Gay Mac rules! Gay rich Mac!”
As Daniel D’Addario writes in TIME, Mac’s coming out is significant because it didn’t have to happen. The easier course of action for the show’s writers would have been to maintain the status quo: to tease along the gags about Mac’s sexuality without ever making a definitive statement. After all, Mac has other reasons for existing on the show, and does not conform to the stereotypes of homosexuality that society prescribes. D’Addario notes that the episode is a commentary on the polite society we live in today: “Everything is permissible, so long as differences are never explicitly acknowledged.” Leading up to this episode, there had been no evidence that the Gang would have reacted untowardly if Mac came out of the closet. As so often happens though, things can manifest differently when they play out in real life. But Mac’s triumphant declaration pushed the show and its audience to confront the truth head on. That Mac came out, and the Gang (arguably the worst people in the world) plainly accepted his decision, is a message about tolerance for the rest of us.
The Gang in Real Life
Though It’s Always Sunny’s political depth may at first seem surprising, it is easier to understand when you consider that its actors have been extremely active in political and social issues in real life. Charlie Day, who plays Charlie on the show, said the decision to have Mac come out was a calculated one. “With what the sort of message is behind him making that decision, I think it actually does more sort of societal good to finally have Mac make that decision. So we decided, all right, let’s find a way to actually have that happen,” he explained in an interview after the episode aired. Meanwhile, Danny DeVito, who plays Frank, was a vocal supporter of Bernie Sanders during the primaries and frequently stumped for him on the campaign trail. Rob McElhenney, who plays Mac on the show and was raised by his mom and her female partner, invited a lesbian student from Pennsylvania to make an appearance on the show after she was told to leave her school dance for wearing a suit instead of a dress. The show’s entire cast also proudly marched at last year’s L.A. Pride parade—Kaitlin Olson, who plays Dee, wrote “Orlando” on her arm to draw attention to the horrific mass shooting at the LGBTQ Pulse Nightclub, and Glenn Howerton, who plays Dennis, wore a t-shirt that said “You Can Pee Next To Me,” in protest of bathroom bills restricting transgender rights like North Carolina’s HB2. Howerton later started an online campaign selling the shirts to raise funds for a LGBTQ rights organization in North Carolina.
The Gang Gets Unique
It’s Always Sunny is, of course, not alone in satirizing political issues and events on television. As the demarcating line between politics and satire becomes ever more blurry, dedicated political comedy shows like Saturday Night Live, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, and The Daily Show have assumed greater importance and enjoyed increased popularity. But despite how funny it may be to see Alec Baldwin strutting around as Donald Trump or Trevor Noah exposing Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts,” these shows concern themselves with the actions of elites and their complex politics, which presents a disconnect for the average viewer. It’s Always Sunny portrays everyday people, in everyday situations (albeit sensationalized to the nth degree). The proprietors of Paddy’s Pub may be borderline-sociopaths, but they are still normal people.
In addition, most political comedy shows have obvious liberal biases, and aim to promote a point of view that tends to alienate half of the country. SNL, for example, has overtly criticized the Trump administration for its alleged incompetence, discouraging conservatives to tune in and inhibiting its ability to promote constructive political discourse. As David Sims noted in The Atlantic, the show loses its political power when it “leans on presenting the Trump administration as cheerfully unaware or low on brainpower”—a “toothless approach that’s far easier for viewers of all political viewpoints to dismiss.”
The creators of It’s Always Sunny, however, despite their liberal leanings, have been careful to avoid letting the show become a vehicle for partisanship. Like it did in the gun rights episode and the abortion episode, the show consistently presents both sides of any given issue. As individuals gravitate towards echo chambers on both sides of the political spectrum, there is real value in the ability of a show like It’s Always Sunny to reconcile opposing viewpoints while still engaging a broad cross-section of America with important social and political issues.
It’s Always Sunny’s political criticism isn’t likely to cease any time soon. The show has recently been renewed for its thirteenth and fourteenth seasons, at the end of which it will equal the record for the most seasons by a live-action television comedy. And it is likely that the Gang will continue to have plenty of material to satirize in the future. As Dennis astutely noted, “There’s always some group of dum-dums doing something dumb”—and for that we should be thankful.
Image Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr