on struggling actors, the $200 pilot, and the queering of blue-collar masculinity on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”
One of the keys to understanding It’s Always Sunny in Philadlephia is the original pilot – the notorious “$200 pilot.” According to this much-mythologized origin story, the original pilot wasn’t set in Philadelphia at all; it was set in LA, and all the characters were struggling actors. FX agreed to produce the show on the condition that they set it in a different location because nobody cares about struggling actors in LA; Rob McElhenney decided on his own hometown, and thus It’s Always Sunny on Television became It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
This decision, which I’m sure everyone viewed at the time as a mere concession to a minor network note, had HUGE repercussions. To understand why, let’s examine one particular scene: the scene in which Mac first meets and flirts with a trans woman named Carmen.
The original pilot would end up being reshot as the Season 1 episode “Charlie Has Cancer,” and on the surface, the differences between the two versions are minor. The basic arc of the scene is the same in both: Mac starts out transphobic toward Carmen, then immediately softens and warms toward her as she flatters his ego. In the pilot, struggling actor Mac has this exchange with her:
MAC: “Is that a penis in your pants?” CARMEN: “Yes.” MAC: “You lied to me.” CARMEN: “No I didn’t. You lied to me. Pharmaceutical sales? Please! I saw you on that episode of Law and Order.” MAC: “No, don’t turn this ar–Law and Order?” [beams] “You saw that? Yeah? Really? Did you like…?” CARMEN: “You were really good, actually.” MAC: “You think so? I thought I was a little over the top.”
That’s the struggling-actor version. Now see how this scene was rewritten for the Philadelphia version:
MAC: “Is that a penis in your pants?” CARMEN: “Yes.” MAC: “You lied to me.” CARMEN: “No I didn’t. You lied to me. You don’t work out? Please! I’ve seen you at the gym. You’re ripped.” MAC: “No, don’t turn this around – wait.” [beams] “Really? You think so? I was afraid I was getting a little TOO ripped, you know?” CARMEN: “No. I like it.” MAC: “Wow.” [gazes at her, speechless]
What just happened here? In short, Rob/Charlie/Glenn have taken the vanity and insecurity of struggling actors – and instilled it instead in these blue-collar South Philly guys. The switcheroo is simple, but the effect is dramatic and destabilizing. We all know that struggling actors are always performing, always desperate for attention and validation – but suddenly, when you take the struggling-actor element out of the mix, it’s gender itself that becomes a performance. Mac’s goal in the LA version is to be a successful actor; his goal in the Philadelphia version is simply to be a man. All the men on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (but especially Mac and Dennis) constantly struggle to perform their gender, and when they fall short, the humor comes not from their lack of masculinity, but from the impossible demands of the gendered expectations to which they hold themselves.
I’m sure Rob/Charlie/Glenn weren’t consciously thinking about any of this when they decided to set the show in a bar in Philadelphia. But I believe this is the crucial decision that allowed the show to become everything it is now. I even suspect that Mac would never have become a gay character if the show hadn’t established itself from the beginning as a universe in which gender is malleable and toxic masculinity is a dangerous mirage. This is also why the D.E.N.N.I.S. System reads not as a misogynistic fantasy but as a blistering critique of misogyny and rape culture, and why the character of Dennis Reynolds investigates and satirizes the “ladies’ man” sitcom archetype so devastatingly that I can pretty much never watch How I Met Your Mother ever again.
(You could even make the argument that this is also why It’s Always Sunny has never successfully dealt with the topic of race – because investigating the construct of race isn’t baked into the central premise of the show the way investigating the construct of gender is – but that’s a topic for another day.)
In short: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, just like Shakespeare, understands that ALL human beings are struggling actors.