7 It’s (Not) Just A Joke! It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Absurdist Political Satire

Alyssa McAuliffe

Still from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, “Gun Fever Too: Still Hot” (Season 9 Episode 2).
Still from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, “Gun Fever Too: Still Hot” (Season 9 Episode 2).

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, although a far cry from the beloved family-friendly 1950s series The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, will be tied with the latter for the longest running, live-action sitcom ever with its recent 14th season renewal. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia follows the misadventures of “The Gang,” a group of four degenerate 20-somethings who co-own a dive bar in the middle of Philadelphia. Unlike many other American sitcoms that can attribute their longevity and consistent popularity to relatable, endearing characters and funny yet lighthearted plotlines, this show finds its stride with some of the worst people on television doing the most outrageous, unsettling things every single episode. Dennis Reynolds (Glenn Howerton) is a veritable sociopath who prides himself on his (sometimes imagined) ability to manipulate women. His sister, “Sweet” Dee Reynolds (Kaitlin Olson), is incredibly volatile and best compensates for her insecurities by hurling insults at everyone around her. Mac (Rob McElhenney) and Charlie (Charlie Day) are a dynamic duo whose collective intellect amounts to that of an impressionable, easily distracted child, and Frank is the estranged, equally ridiculous, sometimes-father of the Reynolds siblings.

Although it may seem too ridiculous and offensive to have any real-world merit, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia often tackles extremely difficult, pertinent social issues with biting satire. The line between transgressive comedy and satire is often blurry in this show, but among the anarchy and debauchery lies a grim analysis of society as it exists today. Whether there is any hope for reform is up for debate – It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia may simply hold a mirror up to viewers, saying “look how terrible we all are.” This dark sitcom reveals why many of our country’s most divisive political issues – like gun control, gay marriage, and welfare – provoke years of unproductive, irrational debate and yield little cultural progress. By reducing opposite ends of extreme viewpoints to the absurd, this sitcom actually facilitates healthy political discourse, even if the characters themselves never seem to escape the chaos.

While It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia did not necessarily start out as a political satire, it has certainly garnered the most buzz over the episodes that address hot button social issues of the time in controversial ways. In “Gun Fever Too: Still Hot,” the Gang makes its second attempt to reach consensus about gun rights and gun control in America. After watching Frank (Danny DeVito) vehemently promote the second amendment, a gun and a hoagie in each hand, on a local news station, each character exhibits an intense emotional response. Dee and Dennis want all guns off the streets; meanwhile, Charlie and Mac agree with Frank and embark on a mission to get more guns to the public, including in local schools. Neither pair has engaged in any research on the subject of gun rights or gun control, yet both camps are undoubtedly convinced that they are on the “right” side. Sound familiar? Welcome to the state of American politics as it stands today.

Still from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, “Gun Fever Too: Still Hot” (Season 9 Episode 2).
Still from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, “Gun Fever Too: Still Hot” (Season 9 Episode 2).

The emotional (over)reaction that each member of the Gang displays in response to the gun control issue serves as the catalyst for subsequent attempts at political action, but unsurprisingly, neither team has considered the validity of alternative viewpoints. Dee and Dennis spend the day trying to prove just how easy it is for anyone, including potential mass murderers, to obtain this kind of weapon; they do not, however, experience any luck, both siblings being denied at every turn because of concerning background checks or refusal to pay exorbitant fees. Meanwhile, Mac and Charlie try to incorporate armed security into a middle school’s defense plan for shooter situations and find that the kids are unsettlingly violent. After attempting to train the students in offensive measures with everyday objects that could be used as weapons, the two men flee the bar in fear while Charlie screams “imagine if they had guns!” As Charlie, Dee, Mac, and Dennis each come to terms with the reality that their poorly researched opinions may not have any merit, viewers begin to question their own preconceived notions about hot button issues. Since the “increase in the viewing [of] political satirical shows increases the level of political socialization,” the sarcastic humor found in this episode may spark real life conversations about gun control that avoid the pitfalls of unwavering political alliances and introduce more middle-ground ideas (Nazir).

At the end of “Gun Fever Too: Still Hot,” the Gang meets back up again with each side having completely switched its original opinion about gun control, still all just as emotional and with the same radical views. They then reconvene with Frank, who reveals that his whole righteous television stunt was actually just a ploy to get gun rights activists all fired up: “I bought a stake in Gunther’s Guns, I got everybody angry and scared, they bought the guns, I made a fortune.” The Gang is visibly upset by this new information – they went to all this trouble to prove each other wrong, and the person who got them all “hot” in the first place has no moral ties to the issue whatsoever. Frank continues:

I think of myself more like Al Gore. You know, he got everybody worked up over Global Warming, then he made millions. Yeah, everybody does it – liberals, conservatives, doesn’t matter. This is America! You’re either a duper or a dupee. I’m a duper. You guys are the dupees!

We laugh at this outrageous turn of events, but is it really that unprecedented? According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2015, “only 19% of Americans today say they can trust the government…“just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (16%)” (People-Press.org). This deep-rooted mistrust is exploited in this episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia through Frank’s manipulation of the Gang and the rest of the cable-news-watching public.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia relishes in the extreme. Dee, Dennis, Mac, Charlie, and Frank, along with an outrageous cast of special guests and season regulars, all constantly push everyday scenarios to the “nth degree.” That is part of the fun, and it is likely one of the reasons the show maintains such a loyal fan base. The Gang’s antics are hilarious because they are so incredibly ridiculous – it is a play on traditional conventions of drama, and nothing is safe from the chaos these characters create, including the political. In an interview with Vice series creator Glenn Howerton, he remarks that “Usually the answer to any extreme political viewpoint is somewhere in the middle, but that’s just not the way we operate. That’s kind of how we are now, two opposing sides screaming at each other and never backing down. It’s horrible for our country, but it’s really fun for our show.” Howerton’s comment, although made in jest, actually speaks to a very real and very grave phenomenon in present American society.

This episode is a perfect example of how polarizing social issues like gun control can be, and it certainly proves that these radical viewpoints, much like those we see in real life, do little, if anything, to promote compromise or execute successful government action. The fact that these characters who are so deeply attached to their beliefs at the beginning of the episode completely flip-flop by the end of one day exemplifies the idea that neither side has definitive answers. These social issues are far too complex for consensus to be reached in one go or, in this case, in one episode. But is there really any hope for compromise when, as political commentator John Avalon argues, “politics follows the lines of physics. Every action creates an equal and opposite reaction. And the extremes incite each other” (Rettig)? Since the Gang has the collective attention span of a small child, the end of this episode means the end of their gun fever. That is not the case, however, for American citizens and politicians today.

While “Gun Fever Too: Still Hot” shows how unfettered emotions and the dismissal of alternative opinions contribute to political stalemates, other It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia episodes argue that the worst offense may be complete ignorance. In “Mac Fights Gay Marriage,” Mac, a deeply indoctrinated Catholic, tries to convince Carmen, a transgender woman with whom he once had a relationship, that her recent marriage to a man is considered a gay marriage. With Bible in hand, he tells the couple, “I am about to do you guys a huge solid… In the eyes of the Lord, your marriage is an abomination, and if you don’t get a divorce, you’re going to hell.” Mac chooses to ignore the fact that he also had relations with a person who was, by his reasoning, male. As Carmen points out, “Look, if anything, you’re the one that slept with me when I was a man.” When Carmen’s new husband reads another quote from the Bible, one that allows the beating of slaves without punishment as long as the slave does not die, Mac backtracks and frantically asserts that this part of the scripture is different and does not apply to modern times. The hypocrisy in Mac’s argument is blatant. He confounds his disappointment in Carmen never calling him with his blind religious beliefs, and the result is a hilariously one-sided debate.

Still from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, “Mac Fights Gay Marriage” (Season 6 Episode 1).
Still from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, “Mac Fights Gay Marriage” (Season 6 Episode 1).

Though studies have proposed that “some forms of humor may facilitate audience acceptance of the very ideas the satirist intends to disparage,” It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is absurd enough that the majority of viewers recognize the irony and laugh at how unashamedly uninformed the Gang is (Gring-Pemble). Mac masks his own internal conflict about his possible homosexuality with anger and ignorance. Once he realizes that he is fighting a losing battle, Mac laments “Now you’re calling me gay, telling me I’m tripping, and trying to confuse me with your liberal biblicisms!” Carmen’s husband suggests what fans of the show have suspected for many seasons: “Man, my guess is you’ve been confused for a very long time.” Mac’s tactic to save the sanctity of marriage (in his eyes) is common in political debates. People often lash out because of internalized fears or biases, not because agreed-upon, “true” facts are being denied. Seeing Mac’s outrageous embodiment of this should improve the ability of viewers to recognize such behavior in real life – it might even encourage them to reevaluate their own social prejudices.

In another episode, “Dennis and Dee go on Welfare,” Dennis and Dee do, in fact, go on welfare. This episode is just as offensive as it sounds, but the cringe-worthy humor found in this episode has a greater purpose. When the eponymous characters quit their jobs at the bar, they happily decide to file for unemployment benefits. Realizing this government program actually pays more than they made at the bar, Dennis and Dee figure they could take it one step further: welfare. In this episode, the naive brother-sister duo expresses a belief that many have in our society: that most of the people on welfare are actually content to be so and that welfare is a crutch for the poor that rewards laziness while leeching money from every other hardworking American. The ensuing disastrous events that plague Dennis and Dee – including the two trying to seem “worthy of welfare” by feigning a crack addiction then accidentally getting hooked – is an exaggerated take on the real life vicious cycle of poverty in which millions of Americans are trapped.

Still from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, “Dennis and Dee Go on Welfare” (Season 2 Episode 3).
Still from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, “Dennis and Dee Go on Welfare” (Season 2 Episode 3).

Meanwhile, the two still (surprisingly) employed characters, Mac and Charlie, also make a visit to the “welfare store,” as they endearingly call it but not to get unemployment benefits for themselves. They want to exploit the other side of this program by hiring people involved in the “work for welfare” initiative, hoping that they will be able to acquire free manual labor since the employees would be paid by the state. Mac and Charlie, of course, take advantage of the two workers appointed to them and force them to scrub the urinals among other menial tasks. A grim reality sets in when the male worker injures his leg at the end of the episode after Frank coaxes the two to play football with him. Frank tells the female worker Maria to go grab them a few beers, but both workers reveal that they do not drink alcohol. Frank is astonished. “You don’t drink? Jesus Christ! You two are a couple of downers, huh? You work hard, you don’t drink. How’d you end up on welfare?” There’s the punchline. Now Frank, of course, does not really care (he answers his cell phone when Maria starts explaining her plights) and neither does any other member of the Gang. But members of the Gang are clearly terrible people – what does this say about the real-life Americans who share the same beliefs?

One of the key elements in this episode, especially within Dennis and Dee’s storyline, is transgressive humor. Although It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia hinges on smart, caustic sarcasm, its jokes do often toe the line between sarcasm and transgressive humor. When the Reynolds siblings are at the unemployment office trying to vie for their right to welfare, they both decide to take on different personas. By their reasoning, welfare is for “deadbeats,” so they have to look the part. Dee wears a bicycle helmet backwards and feigns mental retardation, and Dennis does the talking: “Hi. Um, I’m a recovering crackhead. This is my retarded sister that I take care of. I’d like some welfare please.” The scene is almost hard to watch, but it still makes viewers laugh because it is so absurd. In his essay “Breaking and Entering: Transgressive comedy on Television,” Michael V. Tueth says that “for transgressive comedy, the societal taboos and the misbehavior that satire wishes to end must remain, so that one can experience the delight of the entry into forbidden realms” (10). For It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to even exist in the first place, there must exist terribly ignorant, offensive people with extremely low ideals. The show’s creators seem almost willing to give in to the human degradation that plagues our society rather than to rise above it.

Still from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, “Dennis and Dee Go on Welfare” (Season 2 Episode 3).
Still from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, “Dennis and Dee Go on Welfare” (Season 2 Episode 3).

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is innovative in its approach to sensitive topics like gun control and gay marriage because it refuses to take itself too seriously. Since the Gang is comprised of terrible, outrageous, problematic people, viewers can more easily separate themselves from the characters and the actions they take; as seen in episodes like “Denis and Dee Go on Welfare,” however, sometimes the horror is far closer to home than we might like to think. Even if the show and its creators express little faith in society’s ability to overcome its weakest links, these politically charged episodes at least offer great examples of how not to act. Hypocrisy and ignorance are two of the greatest enemies of rational debate. The takeaway message from “Mac Fights Gay Marriage” and “Gun Fever Too: Still Hot” is that you should definitely not employ both when trying to prove a point.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has been capturing the attention of viewers for fourteen seasons. No longer is it merely a dark sitcom – it has now become the uncensored voice of a tired, cynical nation. The national conversation today is riddled with extremism and prejudice, and it is defined by debilitating political biases; a show like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia shows players on both sides of the aisle how absolutely absurd the polarization is. If people like Dennis, Dee, Mac, and Charlie keep adding vitriol and ignorance to our social and political landscapes, there may not be much hope for a change after all. With each passing season, the Gang becomes increasingly less stable and assuredly more insane. Perhaps we are all becoming victims of the chaos as well.

Alyssa McAuliffe is a senior at Wake Forest University from Wrentham, MA. She is an English and Communication double major.

Works Cited

Fingerhut, Hannah. “1. Trust in government: 1958-2015.” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. N.p., 22 Nov. 2015. Web. 18 July 2017.

Gring-Pemble, Lisa and Martha Solomon Watson. “The Rhetorical Limits of Satire: An Analysis of James Finn Garner’s Politically Correct Bedtime Stories.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 89.2 (2003): 132-153. EBSCOhost. Web. 23 June. 2017.

Howerton, Glenn and Charlie Day. “Talking Ten Years of ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ with Two of Its Stars.” Interview by Daniel Dylan Wray. Vice UK 19 Nov. 2015.

Nazir, Farrukh and Muhammad Bilal Bhatti. “Impact of Political Satirical Shows on Political Socialization: An Analysis.” Global Media Journal: Pakistan Edition 9.2 (2016): 1-9. EBSCOhost. Web. 23 June 2017.

Rettig, Jessica. “The Rise of Political Extremism and the Decline of Decency.” U.S. News & World Report. U.S. News & World Report LP, 8 Apr. 2010. Web.

Tueth, Michael V. “Breaking and Entering: Transgressive Comedy on Television.” The Sitcom Reader, America Re-viewed, Still Skewed. Ed. Mary M. Dalton, Ed. Laura R. Linder. Albany: State University of New York, 2016. Print.


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Culture and the Sitcom: Student Essays Copyright © 2017 by Alyssa McAuliffe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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