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.
It’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.