ABOVE: GLENN HOWERTON IN IT'S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA. IMAGE COURTESY OF FX
It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia's Dennis Reynolds, the aging lothario/oily bartender, might be the most despicable television character of the 21st century. He's a raging narcissist and sexual predator who hoards sex tapes with unsuspecting victims, ostensibly wooing them through his D.E.N.N.I.S system of seduction, or with the implication of "implied danger." He's also been briefly addicted to crack and dabbled in prostitution. Yet, as portrayed by Glenn Howerton, he's funny. Very funny. Through deft comic timing and an indefatigable desire to humiliate himself, it's a credit to Howerton that fans constantly forgive Dennis' amorality and criminal transgressions with laughter or an audible, "Holy shit!"
Pushing the limits has always been the goal for Sunny Executive Producer Howerton and the gang (show creator Rob McElhenney and Charlie Day), three actor friends who, sick of getting forgettable roles, teamed up and created It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia as a big middle finger to the notion of traditional sitcom. After the eighth-season premiere last week on FX, Interview caught up with Howerton to discuss the evolution of Dennis Reynolds, his favorite episodes, and when it's time to close the doors on Paddy's Pub.
DREW FORTUNE: With the premiere of season eight, what kind of emotions got stirred up? Did you ever think the show would make it this far?
GLENN HOWERTON: No, I didn't think it would last this long. I was actually really proud of the show right from the beginning. I thought it was really funny and it felt very original, so I thought it would be gone for sure. [laughs] "There's no way they'll let us keep doing this! This is actually good." That's just my biased opinion. But I didn't think it was gonna last this long. Of course I hoped it would, but I feel very grateful and I'm so happy that people have our same strange sense of humor.
FORTUNE: I was at the LA premiere, and you and Charlie seemed genuinely moved when you looked out at the crowd of family, friends, and crew. What's the most rewarding part of the creative process?
HOWERTON: It's all rewarding in very different ways. Anything that you really pour your heart and soul into, like we have with this show, is always rewarding. The most rewarding thing is probably making each other laugh, only because I have such tremendous respect and admiration for both Rob and Charlie, and also, as performers, Kaitlin [Olson] and Danny [DeVito] as well. Whenever I can make them or the crew laugh, then I know we're on to something and that's extremely gratifying. Then, to have the extra level of having fans and the audience embrace it adds a whole level of gratitude to the experience.
FORTUNE: Did you have the character arcs down from the beginning? Your character Dennis has grown from casual narcissist into full-blown sociopath.
HOWERTON: [laughs] No. I remember some reviews from the first season, they were pretty mixed and some people really got it and loved it and others were like "This is terrible." I remember reading a few reviews that said, "We can't really tell the difference between the three male characters." Even though I think there were subtle differences in the beginning, I think we really latched onto what we found particularly funny about each character. They've become more heightened since then. We've really embraced what makes these characters individuals and what makes them different from each other. It was more of an evolution than something we had pre-planned.
FORTUNE: What was the spark that brought you guys together and has continued to keep you together as a unit?
HOWERTON: More than anything, I think the spark was us wanting to be proactive about our careers as actors. Amongst the three of us, Rob was really the only one who aspired to be a writer. Charlie and I might have toyed with the idea, but there was certainly the glamorous idea of writing our own material. It really came out of necessity. As actors, we were frustrated at always being at the mercy of someone else. Every audition was like a job interview. We thought, "What if we can create our own opportunity? What if instead of complaining about the auditions we're getting, we put our money where our mouth is. Let's see if we can do it and do it better. We won't be asking other people for work, we'll be putting ourselves to work." I think that was the impetus, more than anything else.
FORTUNE: It reminds me of Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn with Swingers. They were getting shit parts, so they decided to make their own thing.
HOWERTON: Yeah, it was the exact same spirit that went into our thinking. I think that's a perfect parallel.
FORTUNE: Season Eight seems to be the tipping point for a lot of sitcoms, where either shows should have ended, or lead actors depart, for instance The Office. Not that I'm impugning your show, but when will you know when it's time to end?
HOWERTON: [laughs] Well done. It's a very fair question. From the creative standpoint, and from the guy who's sitting in the driver's seat and actually doing it, we've started to feel it ourselves. We're aware of it, and we're conscious of it. As long as we're still having fun, and we still feel that we can keep the ideas fresh, still have stories to tell and can keep the characters' perspectives fresh, then we'll keep doing it. We feel more freedom on this show than I think other shows may feel. We've somehow managed to create an environment where we're able to take the characters to places that I would say are more diverse than other shows are able to take their characters. I won't say that our show takes place in an alternate universe, but it's a little more absurd than some other shows, and it allows us to explore a wider range of territory. That helps keep it fresh, and we're going to keep doing it until we're sick of ourselves.
FORTUNE: The laws of physics apply, but any sense of societal boundaries really doesn't apply. You guys are kind of like South Park in that sense.
HOWERTON: Yeah, I think it comes from our desire to test how far we can go with a certain character's mentality. One of the rules that we always follow is that no matter how crazy characters may act, and no matter how absurd or strange their actions may be, that it's justified in the character's mind why they are doing it. Not to get all heady about it, but it's fun for us to test how far we can go with things while still keeping it grounded enough that you believe that the character really believes that what he's doing will get him what he wants. It's a personal challenge to us to see how far we can go with that. These characters are very extreme archetypes of a certain type of personality. It's us pushing as far as we can push. I think that's what we do by nature as artists.
FORTUNE: What are some of your personal favorite episodes? Did they begin like any other episodes, or do you think karma was at work?
HOWERTON: I like some of our more grounded episodes, like "The Gang Hits the Road." It's an episode in Season Five where the gang goes on a road trip. It's such a simple episode and I like the simplicity of "Mac's Banging the Waitress." One of my personal favorites that I never hear anyone or any fans talk about is from Season Three, "The Gang Sells Out." It's the episode where we all start working for the oldies rock café and we kinda screw over the waitress who's working there. But, I also like when we take big risks and big swings at things, like last year with the "Trapped In the Closet" episode. It was a really big swing. We're doing it again this year with one of my favorite episodes from this season, which is our third episode and is literally a full-on Halloween episode. We're taking a big risk. It's not a rinky-dink, hit-the-road kind of episode. I'm really excited for people to see it.
FORTUNE: In terms of critical reception, at this stage in the game are you able to shrug off negative reviews and just embrace the positives? Or does it still sting?
HOWERTON: [laughs] It always stings a little bit when somebody doesn't like what you put out there, or at least it does for me. I don't take it too much to heart, and it doesn't change anything. There are certain people whose opinions I really respect, and other artists, writers and creators I have in my life. But, first and foremost, I respect the opinion of Rob and Charlie more than anyone. That's who I will always look to, in terms of this show. If I think it's funny, and those guys think it's funny, that's the only barometer that I use. I think it would be impossible for me to try and please anyone besides the three of us. It's what we've done from the beginning. It's always been our goal to make the show that we want to make, and fuck everybody else. We've stayed true to what we think is funny.
IT'S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA AIRS THURSDAY NIGHTS AT 10 PM ON FX.