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'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia': A low-budget hit

The irreverent comedy is lighting a path for scripted TV's survival.

September 25, 2010|By Meg James, Los Angeles Times

Most popular prime-time shows aren't run by a producer and star who has to finish shooting by 6 p.m. to rush to a night job waiting tables.

Then again, most shows aren't like "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia."

The irreverent comedy — created by Rob McElhenney, 33, who six years ago was making ends meet by working at a restaurant — revolves around a clutch of morally challenged misfits who own a dingy bar in South Philadelphia. McElhenney and two buddies write and star in the series, which this month began its sixth season on the FX cable channel.

"Sunny" has defied the odds in Hollywood. It spawned a fervent following by wading into taboo topics, including abortion, homophobia and child molestation. It overcame weak ratings and doubts of executives within Rupert Murdoch's media conglomerate, News Corp., which owns FX.

Most important, the show has demonstrated that there's a way to make low-cost, high-quality, scripted comedies at a time when studios are struggling to rein in costs.

Now, other networks are seeking to copy the success of "Sunny." They also want to produce a half-hour comedy for $400,000 per episode — about one-fourth the industry average. The survival of Hollywood's bread-and-butter business of scripted TV depends upon it: audiences are scattering, cheap reality programs are multiplying and technology threatens to unravel the entire system.

"Television is not like making bluejeans; we can't make it in China," said John Landgraf, general manager of FX and a 20-year television veteran. "There is a labor base in America, here in California, and if we don't figure out different business models, then we won't be able to make as much content."

Landgraf worries a lot about how to make compelling shows at affordable prices. After he arrived at FX in 2004 — leaving his job as head of Danny DeVito's Jersey Television — he wanted to add comedies to bring new viewers to the network. FX had made a name for itself with dark dramas "The Shield" and "Nip/Tuck" but had no luck with lighter fare.

Its best effort, "Lucky," a show about compulsive gamblers, failed to muster high-enough ratings to cover the show's cost of $720,000 an episode.

"My belief was that we didn't have to spend that much money to make a quality comedy," Landgraf said.

About that time, McElhenney's agents were touting his concept for a show. Landgraf agreed to take a meeting "as a favor" to McElhenney's managers. It wasn't the usual show pitch. Instead of describing characters and plot lines, McElhenney popped a copy of a show he had made with his friends into the DVD player in Landgraf's office.

The 26-minute episode, called "Charlie Has Cancer," centered on three self-absorbed actors, played by real-life friends McElhenney, Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton. In the pilot, all were vying for the same role of a terminally ill patient, and Day's character, Charlie, fakes having cancer to enhance his chances. McElhenney wrote, directed and operated a video camera — and nobody was paid. Total cost: $100 for camcorder tapes and pizza.

Landgraf, a former NBC programming executive, was struck by the off-kilter humor and gave them $400,000 to reshoot the pilot with a professional crew. He didn't like the premise about struggling actors obsessing over their careers, so the characters were switched to running a dive bar in South Philly, where McElhenney grew up. A female lead was recast.

Landgraf gave the group a wide berth creatively, encouraging them to find their voice for the show.

Expectations were low. McElhenney, Howerton and Day were promising actors but had no experience producing television. When Landgraf ordered the first season, he set a budget of $450,000 per episode, less than a third the cost of a network sitcom.

To stay on budget, they cut corners. Network comedies typically take a week to shoot, but the "Sunny" crew shot scenes out of order and three episodes at a time. They used the old Los Angeles Herald-Examiner plant as a set, which was cheaper than a soundstage, and the stars shared a trailer, which reeked of urine. McElhenney estimated he earned $70,000 during the first season — on par with what a mid-level actor can earn per episode for a network show.

And, just to play it safe, he kept waiting tables at Cafe D'Etoile in West Hollywood. "They weren't paying us enough money at the time to completely support myself," McElhenney said. "I would direct episodes, produce and act and wrap shooting around 6 so I could go home and change into my uniform."

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