The Nightman Cometh: An Oral History of It's Always Sunny in Philadelph
From Ubiquitous@21:1/5 to All on Sun Oct 7 13:11:25 2018
Ten years ago, “The Gang” from Paddy’s Pub sang about troll tolls and
boys’ holes—and established the series as one of TV’s most daring
In the mid-2000s, after years of relying on re-runs of The X-Files, FX
found its voice. Following successful forays into edgy original
programming with The Shield, Rescue Me, and Nip/Tuck, the network took
a major gamble when it ordered a full season of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, a scrappy, taboo-busting comedy based on a pilot that
cost a whole $200 to produce.
The series premiered in 2005, yet flew largely under the radar, at
least as far as its creators and cast—Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton,
Charlie Day, Kaitlin Olson, and Danny DeVito—knew. But that would soon
Sunny's transformation from little-show-that-could to cult hit began in
2007, during the series' third season, with an episode that finds Dee
dating a successful local rapper. Not to be outdone, the rest of the
gang decides to start a band of their own, which cycles through a
variety of lineups, musical styles, and band names throughout the
episode (Chemical Toilet did have a certain ring). There was just one
problem: When they got into the editing room, they ended up hating the
"We thought it was terrible," co-creator Glenn Howerton admits. The
reason? Much of the storyline revolves around Dennis reminding his
sister that he went to school with her new beau, where he was known as
Special K because he is mentally challenged. Yet Sunny didn't go the PC
route in laying out the plot line; the episode was titled "Sweet Dee's
Dating a Retarded Person," a decision that Howerton still laments as
"one of the few regrets I have. I would change that title now. I do
find that title offensive, personally. At the time I don't even know
what I was thinking."
Offensive or not, fans loved the episode, and it remains an essential
part of Sunny canon for an even more important reason: The introduction
of the Dayman, a superhero-esque character born from the brain of
"Scott Marder and Rob Rosell wrote the episode and the lyrics: 'Dayman,
fighter of the Nightman, champion of the sun / He's a master of karate
and friendship for everyone,' " Howerton says, "which are just the
worst fucking lyrics ever, which is exactly what we wanted."
Those words set the stage for what would become "The Nightman Cometh,"
a hilariously bizarre musical episode that closed out Sunny's fourth
season on November 20, 2008. We gathered The Gang from Paddy's Pub to
relive the making of the irreverent rock opera.
After the unexpectedly positive response to "Sweet Dee's Dating a
Retarded Person," and the fun the cast and crew had creating original
music for the series, the decision was made to go one step further and
create a full musical episode—but one that felt organic to the tone of
the series. Which meant coming up with a plausible reason for why these barflies would suddenly be on a stage belting out tunes in princess
dresses and jockstraps. The idea that it was all part of an elaborate
prank with a rival bar was tossed around but eventually abandoned.
Rob McElhenney (creator, executive producer, writer, actor, Mac): That
was a point of contention and discussion, not only amongst ourselves
but also with the network. At that point we weren't at a place, as a
show, where we were just doing whatever we wanted and then finding ways
to justify it. We still felt constrained by reality.
Charlie Day (executive producer, writer, actor, Charlie): It became a
running joke in the script because they're constantly asking, "Why did
you write a musical?" And my character says, "Just for fun," and
someone says, "No one just does it for fun. Who are you trying to
Danny DeVito (actor, Frank): It started out with Charlie writing the
show, and he was going to do it with other people. [So] our characters insinuated ourselves into the show.
Glenn Howerton (executive producer, writer, actor, Dennis): We finally realized: Maybe Charlie writes the musical and our characters are just
so fucking vain that we can't stomach the thought of Charlie getting
other people to do it.
Day: It went back and forth, back and forth, so we landed in both
areas. Yes, the characters all just do a musical. You don't find out
until the end that this is just a really pathetic marriage proposal.
DeVito: Charlie wanted to show Mary Elizabeth [Ellis], The Waitress,
that he had something going on besides just killing rats and walking in
the sewer for fun with Frank.
Kaitlin Olson (actor, Sweet Dee): One of the things I love about this
show is that we constantly try to do completely different things.
Charlie's always making up songs, and he can play every instrument; he
kind of screws around like that anyway, so I thought it would be fun to
have him write a musical.
While the plot of "The Nightman Cometh" is largely nonsensical, the
comedic element hinges on the rest of the gang's confusion about
Charlie's script, which is meant to read like a romantic coming-of-age
tale in which a young boy enters into manhood. But to the rest of the
gang—and anyone with eyes, ears, and even a modicum of logic—it comes
off as a play about pedophilia and rape. Neither of which makes for particularly hilarious subject matter on its own. Which is why it was
essential that the episode's humor be built around the clear disconnect
between Charlie's narrative intention and the viewer's interpretation
of his dialogue and lyrics. It's a thin line, and one the series'
creators have learned to walk with master precision.
Day: Any time we deal with that kind of subject matter, I like to think
it's coming from a more intelligent place. A rape joke is not remotely
a funny thing; a man writing a musical that he _thinks_ is about self- empowerment, and not realizing that all his lyrics sound like they're
about a child being molested, is a funny thing. The joke is coming from confusion and misunderstanding, which are classic tropes of all comedy.
McElhenney: Ultimately, the question is always: "Well, what is the
joke?" If the character is being homophobic or masochistic or racist,
that can work. What _can't_ work is if the show or the writers or the
direction or the actor is masochistic or homophobic or racist. The
characters we're presenting are deplorable people who should not be
emulated. And _that's_ the joke.
Day: We've always prided ourselves on the thought behind the joke. You
can get away with things that are edgy and pushing the boundaries. I
just think that the intelligence has to be there.
Olson: We look back at some of our past shows and wonder if we'd still
be able to do that. I hope the answer is yes, because if you're paying attention, we're pretty good people with fairly liberal views on
things. We're making a social commentary.
Deciding to create a musical episode is one thing; successfully pulling
it off is another matter. Fortunately, the Sunny gang has some genuine
musical talent. Well, most of them…
McElhenney: I'm not musically inclined in any way, shape, or form. But
Charlie is an incredible musician, so he and [composer] Cormac
Bluestone wrote the majority of the music. In terms of lyrics, we all
had a hand in them. But Charlie definitely took the lead.
Day: I said, "Let me go off and write some of the songs and lyrics,"
and I went to the piano. We'd already had the Dayman song, so I pulled
out the "Troll Toll" and "Tiny Boy, Little Boy" songs.
Olson: I spent months waking up in the middle of the night singing
"Tiny Boy, Little Boy."
DeVito: I never stopped singing, "You gotta pay the troll toll to get
into that boy's hole." After that episode, wherever I'd go, people
would scream it [at me] out of windows.
Day: I contacted David Hornsby, a writer who plays Rickety Cricket on
the show. I got on the piano and plucked out some songs, and we kind of
made up what the characters are singing and doing as we went along. I
sent them to Cormac Bluestone and asked if he could help me do some arrangements for the songs.
Matt Shakman (director): "The Nightman" was part of Fred Savage's block
of episodes to direct that year. Because they were still tinkering with
it, they ended up moving it into my block—to my great fortune.
Howerton: We spent days rehearsing the musical before we ever shot
anything, rehearsing the music so that we had all the songs and all the
Shakman: We rehearsed on weekends and then took a full day off in the
middle of our shoot schedule—which is kind of unheard of in television
—and just worked on how you would rehearse the play.
Day: It wasn't really the most hilarious episode to film. It was pretty technical.
Shakman: I wanted it to exist as a full theater piece, so I brought in
100 background performers who had no idea what they were about to watch
and told the guys, "Just do it all the way through." I got Artemis
[Pebdani] to act like the stage manager of the event and actually come
out and do the speech that you always hear in shows about where the
fire exits are.
McElhenney: The audience didn't have any context, so I remember a lot
of confused faces as we were performing. People [who weren't familiar
with the show] were wondering why it was funny… But I always go back to
Glenn and Charlie; if they're still laughing, then I know it's funny.
As part of Charlie's elaborate marriage-proposal scheme, he brings in a
woman named Gladys at the last minute to perform the show's music. Mae
LaBorde, who was 99 at the time, played the role.
Olson: She was the best. She really enjoyed having some people to talk
to, so she took advantage of it.
Howerton: She just started improvising all this shit. Some of the
outtakes are unreal.
DeVito: She was very, very funny. She was an old character-actor lady;
she was really good.
McElhenney: She was so sweet. We would give her a line and she would
say it, and then she would just keep going and going and going.
Day: They would say "action" and she was just, like, talking. She would
tell us that we're all wonderful, beautiful people and she was happy to
be there. Which was really charming but also very funny, because she
had lines and she wasn't saying them.
Shakman: When you get to be as old as she was, you can do whatever you
want… Just getting the lines out was very difficult. I remember being
backstage with her, talking about Calvin Coolidge, she just went on for
so long. It might've been the longest scene I've ever shot for Sunny.
"The Nightman Cometh" debuted on November 20, 2008, and became an
instant classic. But television is an insular medium for the people
making it. So the cast was as surprised as anyone when longtime friend
and musician Don McCloskey asked them to join him on stage in West
Don McCloskey (musician): I'd just seen the episode and texted Rob that
it was my favorite one. I said, "Look, I'm coming to the Troubadour,
would you want to sit in and do a song or two? Charlie is a musician,
he plays multiple instruments, and Glenn can play and sing. Artemis and
Mary Elizabeth had a band called Discount Cruise to Hell." We thought
it would be fun to have a grab bag of anybody who wanted to come up.
McElhenney: We said, "Sure, that sounds fun."
Olson: We were going to be there anyway, because we love watching Don.
I couldn't believe he wanted us to get up there, but we were excited
McElhenney: Don called the Troubadour and said, "My friends from It's
Always Sunny want to perform a couple of songs." The guy had never
heard of the show, but Don said, "I think it'll help sell tickets," so
he said, "Okay."
McCloskey: The guy asked me how I wanted it to be billed. I said, "Don McCloskey with special guests: Some of the cast members of It's Always
Sunny singing songs from 'The Nightman Cometh.' " Then LA Weekly puts
out "Cast of It's Always Sunny Performing 'The Nightman Cometh.' "
McElhenney: The guy called him back half an hour later and asked if
we'd want to do a second night. I said sure. We were just supposed to
be performing a couple of songs.
Howerton: They put it on the Troubadour website as "The Cast of It's
Always Sunny in Philadelphia Performing 'The Nightman Cometh' Live."
And underneath, in small letters: "With Don McCloskey." It sold out in
McCloskey: Slightly different, right? It was the fastest sellout in
Howerton: Now we've got, like, 1,600 people who are expecting us to
perform "The Nightman Cometh" live.
Day: It gave me great anxiety. I hadn't done anything on the stage in a
while, and the idea of being back in front of a room of people where
you can't cut and restart made me a little nervous.
McCloskey: There was a mad scramble. I talked to Charlie and Glenn, and
they said, "Let's just do it." Fans already bought the tickets.
Everybody was really game, so it evolved into an actual full-on
Howerton: We started talking about it and wondering if there was a way
to just do the whole episode live. Then we grabbed Matt.
Shakman: We resurrected the set, which, luckily, was still in storage.
We added some frames from the episode itself so that we had them
rehearsing it and talking about doing the show and then actually doing
the show, and we got it to be about 45 or 50 minutes, plus the opening
Howerton: We essentially opened for Don…or maybe Don opened for us.
Shit, I can't remember.
McCloskey: It became "The Nightman Cometh" show…with me opening my own
Olson: The second we started singing the first song, everyone started
singing along with us. I was blown away.
DeVito: Nobody knew what was going to happen. Then we had such a ball
Day: It was such a rush to have that interaction with the audience.
When you're making television, aside from someone coming up to you at
the airport or something, you don't really know the impact of your
show. You never have a large crowd of people screaming or singing
along. It was a glimpse into what it was like to be a rock star for a
minute, to have people singing your songs, and a really raucous crowd interacting with us. It was an adrenaline rush.
DeVito: You miss that interaction in movies and TV shows. We don't have
an audience; we have the crew. So we do a run-through for the crew and
they laugh—or not—and then we do it for the cameras. But in a theater,
there's that feeling of being out there. I don't think anybody expected
the amount of enthusiasm that our fans have.
McCloskey: Everybody knew all the words to every song. It was like The
Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Howerton: We were gobsmacked. It was the first time we felt like,
"People really love this show." To pour yourself into something the way
we have always poured ourselves into the show and have people love it
is the greatest feeling.
DeVito: After the shows at the Troubadour, I was like a dog after a
bone. I wanted to bring that thing out on the road, and I hounded
Buoyed by the success of the Troubadour events, the cast was approached
about taking "The Nightman Cometh" on the road. While the initial
proposal was to bring the show to 30 cities, the Gang ultimately
settled on six: New York, L.A., San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, and—of course—Philadelphia.
Howerton: Live Nation approached us about touring the show. We thought,
what better way to promote the fifth season of the show than to hit a
couple of cities, do a little tour, and get to play some iconic
Olson: I remember being really confused and thinking, This is quite a
stretch. I get that we didn't have tremendous ratings, but if this was
a ploy for that, was it going to be embarrassing? Are people going to
show up to watch it? Because I can't imagine anything more humiliating
than doing this thing live for, like, ten people in New York.
DeVito: My goddaughter was working [at Live Nation], and we made a deal
with them. It was so much fun. I got a bus. It was the year that we
were all floating around in diapers in the ads, and I had a friend who
did the skins of a bus. So I made a deal with him, and the whole bus
was skinned with us in diapers.
Shakman: We traveled around like rock stars. I mean, really poorly paid
rock stars in really bad buses and stuff. But we just carried our
little wares from town to town. It was a lot of fun.
McElhenney: The Masonic Temple in San Francisco was probably the
craziest show; people running up and down the aisles and security
having to come, and people trying to get up on the stage. It was wild.
DeVito: We played the Beacon Theatre in New York, where I once saw Bob
Marley play in the early '70s. I lived on 89th Street when I was
starting out, so this was my home turf. I invited everybody I could
think of to come. Some of my friends came backstage; they were like
deer in headlights. They had no idea what was going on.
Olson: It really gave us our first insight into just how many fans we
had. Because we were basically being told: Nobody's watching the show
but FX likes it, so that's why you're still on the air. We weren't
having huge ratings, but we had a big fan base. And those people
traveled and packed those theaters.
DeVito: There were people dressed as green men. They came dressed as
some of the characters. There might have been a couple trolls in there.
McElhenney: I would get pretty drunk before every live show. It felt
like it was in the spirit of the show.
Olson: Alcohol helps any and all performances. If the audience is
drinking, it's a good idea to have a couple beers.
McElhenney: Because I don't have any musical ability or aspirations to
have any, I didn't feel any pressure to be good. In fact, the worse I
was, the funnier I was.
In the ten years since "The Nightman Cometh" made its debut, nearly 90
more episodes have been produced. (Season 13 kicked off on FXX on
September 5.) Yet Sunny's offbeat musical has endured.
Olson: It was just so weird that I think _that_ got people's attention.
It was definitely funny. Rob and I, on Halloween, were out to dinner.
We looked out the window of the restaurant, and there was a whole group
of people walking by, each dressed as a different character. Every
Halloween my Twitter feed fills up with people who are dressed as the
whole crew from "The Nightman Cometh."
Shakman: It's still a wonderful surprise that it's out there in the
world. I'm in my office at the Geffen Playhouse now, which is a theater
I run here in Los Angeles, and I have a poster of "The Nightman" with
an amazing drawing of Rob looking out at me with his cat eyes. That's
looking down at me side-by-side with posters of plays by famous
Howerton: It's a really nice encapsulation of the character dynamics. I
think it's a showcase for what people enjoy so much about the
characters. It has a really good combination of the kind of cynicism
that the characters carry around but also…I think there's a weird
positivity to the characters. The characters always think that their
schemes are going to work. "This is going to be great. We're going to
McElhenney: Ultimately, in a show that is so inherently profane—and the characters are so difficult and hard to watch at times—the ending of
that particular episode was very sweet. You find out that Charlie's
doing the whole thing because he's in love with somebody and he's
asking her to marry him. Of course, the Sunny version of that is that
the relationship is exceptionally unhealthy and that she says no, but I
think his motivation comes from a really sweet place. So that buys us a
lot in the episode. Also, like it or hate it, we've always strived to
do something that nobody else is doing, and I think some people respond
to that. It just feels very specific to us and to the show.
Day: I think there's a certain inherent entertainment value in a
musical. Things are heightened just by the fact that people are up
there singing and dancing, and then who knows? If you can bottle up and
figure out why one thing hit versus another, you'd be the most
successful person in show business. I think it was just a great
episode, and it clicked with the audience.
Dems & the media want Trump to be more like Obama, but then he'd
have to audit liberals & wire tap reporters' phones.