Fearless From the First Episode
Funny or offensive? How It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia toes the line.
The first episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (Sunny) is titled The Gang Gets Racist. Yep, without any sugarcoating, the show dives right into one of the most contentious issues in American society.
For context, the first episode aired on August 4th, 2005, on FX. With all that has changed over the past 15 years, it is unclear whether a network would be brave enough to air the same episode in 2020.
Sunny is a sitcom about five degenerate assholes known as “The Gang,” which includes Mac, Dennis, Charlie, Sweet Dee, and Frank, who live in Philadelphia and own a bar. Owning a bar allows The Gang to have access to all the alcohol they want and have ample free time to get themselves into trouble. Frank, played by Danny DeVito, was added in the second season of the show.
Funny or Offensive?
In 2020, with the renewal of Sunny for a 15th season, Sunny became the longest-running live-action comedy in the history of television. Sunny broke its tie with The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, which ran on ABC from 1952–1966. That fact alone proves the show’s popularity and funniness.
In the special features of Sunny season 1, the cast explains in their own words how they toe the line between funny and offensive.
Rob McElhenny, the creator/producer and the actor who plays Mac, talks about how the group sits in a room, and the ideas seem to get crazier and crazier until an episode comes together.
Charlie Day, a producer and the actor who plays Charlie, said, “Basically, I think if you make something funny, its in good-taste. If it’s unfunny, it’s in bad taste.”
Kaitlin Olson, the actress who plays Sweet Dee, talks about how the target of the humor is primarily the characters in The Gang. They are making fun of themselves and in a way that keeps the content from seeming offensive. Olson, when talking about what she hears from fans, goes on to say, “We get that a lot — I don’t think it’s mean, I think it’s funny.”
Glenn Howerton, a producer and the actor who plays Dennis, said, “Oftentimes, it really is about ignorance. I mean, when somebody is like unintentionally racist, that’s funny.”
Essentially the writers (most of whom are the actors) do not start with limitations in mind when it comes to how far they will go. Any idea, no matter how ridiculous, is welcome. Only after trying out their ideas do they decide whether it is funny or offensive.
Although Sunny’s characters have many flaws, they are not one-dimensional. The characters are just flawed people trying to navigate the world in the best way they can, which might explain the show’s relevance and success.
The First Episode: The Gang Gets Racist
To start the first episode, Dee enters the bar to find Mac, Dennis, and Charlie. She tells them that a guy she met from her acting class is coming to the bar. She asks, “So, could you guys try not to be weird?”
The guys are confused, and Dee does not explain as a black man enters the bar. The guys begin to confront the man, who they see as some sort of threat until Dee tells them that the man is Terrell from her acting class. The guys try to explain themselves, and Mac blurts out, to the chagrin of everyone else, “We just weren’t expecting you to be black.”
The scene happens fast for the characters, and between all the verbal gaffes, awkward pauses, and reactive facial expressions, it is expertly delivered, and I could not help but laugh.
The first scene sets the stage for the episode, and really the series. It shows a group of white people uncomfortable in the presence of a black man. Mac, Dennis, and Charlie are not trying to be racist, but they are so blinded by race they jump to conclusions about Terrell even though Dee had just told them he was coming. The scene captures a far too common dynamic between race in America. A dynamic that America in 2020 is still trying to address.
Mac, later in the first episode, says, “It’s 2005, Charlie, don’t you think it’s a little ridiculous you don’t have any friends outside your own race?” Mac’s words, unfortunately, would not be out of place in 2020 America.
Malcolm Barrett is the actor who plays Terrell, only appeared in the first episode. I remember, when I first watched the second episode, I was disappointed that he wasn’t still in the show. In a 2018 interview, Barrett said, “I can tell my demographic, white dudes knew me from Sunny in Philadelphia, black people knew me because I’m black.”
I think Barrett’s words, although said jokingly, point out that cultural differences in the United States still follow racial lines.