Terrible People in Comedy: A Review of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

by Katherine Walker
30 May 2014

Ethos has been interested in comedy lately. To continue the trend, I want to talk about terrible people in comedy, called in other venues “white-trash comedy” (which I find problematic for a whole host of social and economic reasons). Critics are certainly right in locating a shifting emphasis in television and film to characters who seemingly lack a moral compass. Shows like Eastbound and Down, Arrested Development, and particularly It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia have picked up on our penchant for laughing at the foibles of those who flippantly joke about rape, homophobia, or the gun debate. This response is perhaps prescriptive, or maybe we need something to feel better about ourselves, a “at least I’m not that bad” antidote. In any case, these “terrible-people comedies” pry open and expose contemporary social and cultural shortcomings and selfishness in a way, I want to argue, that is smart, evocative, and enjoyable alongside their heavy-handed critiques.

charlieIt’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia originated as a low-budget series on FX in 2005. The show, created by Rob McElhenney (who plays Mac) and produced by McElhenney, Glenn Howerton (Dennis) and Charlie Day (Charlie), pushes against expectations with the pranks of their friend-group, which includes the delightful Danny Devito as the animalistic, disgusting Frank. With episode titles like “Charlie Got Molested,” “Mac Bangs Dennis’ Mom,” “Charlie Goes America All Over Everybody’s Ass,” and “The Gang Finds a Dumpster Baby,” there are many cringe-worthy moments that demand reflection on why we do in fact gasp before laughing at certain one-liners, such as when Dennis and Dee attempt to get on welfare and eventually become addicted to cocaine: “Hi. Um, I’m a recovering crackhead. This is my retarded sister that I take care of. I’d like some welfare, please.” This moment, staged amid impoverished families and the disabled, with Dennis and Dee clearly unimpaired and only seeking a free ride, is shocking for its unabashed way of baring systemic and social problems in our welfare system. Even the explicit disregard for women displayed in the show gets pushback from the female characters, whom I would argue are at the very least redeemable in articulating their own desires and exerting their own sexual energies towards the men they want. Artemis, for example, boldly advertises her open sexuality: “It’s time to take off my bra and blast my nips.”

Why are shows like It’s Always Sunny so popular? Entertainment Weekly recently listed the show as number seven in its “26 Best Cult TV Shows Ever” list, while Slate’s David Thomas Tao awards the lead characters the flattering label “delightfully debauched.” And there’s no sign of stopping. We need more shows that prod and probe our sore spots, shows unafraid to weigh in on and uncover our sensitivity around issues that are real problems. Racism, homophobia, classism, ableism: all come under scrutiny in comedy about awful individuals, its misanthropy and biting satire producing that cringe, laughter, and, hopefully, introspection.

Katherine Walker is a PhD student in English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She serves as Editor of Ethos, GPSF Vice-President of External Affairs, and works for the McNair Scholars Program. She researches early modern science, demonology, and folklore, looking particularly at how discourses of animistic or preternatural ecologies operate in drama.

One Comment

  1. This show is a very easy way for white people to feel less guilty about being the racist, ableist (Because we all know this is the ‘joke’ oppression and despite the T4 programs during the Holocaust and american eugenics programs where disabled people were forcibly sterilized and Alexander Graham Bell’s treatment of deaf students or the ADA being passed in 19 fucking 90 after disabled people CRAWLED to washington dc it’s clearly just a ‘overly sensitive special snowflake’ issue with no actual meat in history), sexist, homophobic, transphobic pieces of shit that they are. Because let’s be honest here, you can say that you’re not as bad as like Hitler or something. But that doesn’t mean anything if you’re born after 1960. Even if he was a modern politician, it would still be too obscure in a culture that is as politically aware as it is to assuage any guilt. Instead, the characters provide tangible ‘people’ of sorts to say that are the ‘real’ bottom stoop that you are somehow better than. You don’t have to look at your own actions when you can laugh about people who are literally so faulty, narcissistic and self-centered that it’s very strange that they can even call eachother friends. This kind of commentary isn’t raunchy because it uses blackface (which btw who the fuck are white/non-black people to even comment on it?) or retard in medical use or has one character treat rape as normal (with dennis even pulling out ‘rape’ gear in season 7 episode 14? the high school reunion one.). It’s reactionary to social consciousness as a movement AT ALL. Of trying to bring up any narrative that goes against the status quo. It paints a picture of ‘the worst out there’ as a reason why you should be greatful that you’re sexist pig ‘friends’ in your social circle just make nasty comments but don’t threaten to actually rape you. It’s the same thing as MRAs or ‘anti-feminists’ complaining about women in third-world countries that we both know that on any given other day they give zero shits about because ‘greedy’ first-world women (and they don’t really mean white feminists TM either) want things like ‘paid maternity leave’ and ‘equal pay’. If I had to cut out every TV show that didn’t use disability as the least common denominator for ‘acceptable’ punchline (mental or physical), I would never be able to watch TV again. The same could be said of any TV show that was 100% white cast or ‘lowkey sexist’ or pulled the ‘hahah isn’t it so funny that outsiders THINK that we, two hetero men, are in a homosexual relationship’ card. There is a lot that goes under the radar when you’re not actually a part of that oppressed miniorty. But don’t sit here and try to sell me on this bullshit idea that this white-male-cheeto-dust-smeared-redditor catered show is in some way “”progressive social commentary””, we both know that is absolute utter bullshit.

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