It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia as Social Commentary

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It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is an interesting show to consider while thinking about social commentary on television. Generally speaking, comedy is a very powerful space in which to comment on society because, in its wit and whimsy, it is not considered a threat to the standing social order (According to Mac in the episode “Paddy’s Pub: Home of the Original Kitten Mittens,” what do people love more than comedy?). It’s Always Sunny, with its crude, raw humor and ridiculous situations can seem to the viewer mindless, a barrage of voices yelling over one another with no underlying intentions other than comedic entertainment. Another interpretation is that the messages are so obvious (I keep in mind here episode titles such as “The Gang Gets Racist”, “Charlie Wants an Abortion”, and “Dennis and Dee go on Welfare”)they are ineffective, tongue in cheek, even mocking of the messages themselves. I would argue however that It’s Always Sunny is both of these things and for that reason it is a show that can truly be considered an effective method of social commentary. This is because the audience is both aware and entertained; the viewer does not feel manipulated or bored. In this way It’s Always Sunny serves both purposes, that of a forum for entertainment and that of a forum for social commentary.

It is interesting also to explore the concept of comic relief, the necessity of humor in the digestion of serious issues. It is written on the Wikipedia page for “Shakespearean Fool” that “clowning scenes are intended as an emotional vacation… they appear in Shakespeare’s tragedies most often straight after a truly horrific scene” (Wikipedia, Shakespearean Fool). Shows like Always Sunny forego the dramatic scenes altogether, dealing with a serious issue entirely with comedy. In this format, the audience is exposed to an intense, dramatic, and totally serious problem yet is never forced to deal with it in a serious way. In this way a sober message is delivered but the viewing public is not molested, if you will, left feeling violated by the on screen display. For example, in the episode “The Great Recession” the character Frank loses all of his money in a pyramid scheme, and, totally unable to help himself given the economic circumstances, he tries to hang himself. It doesn’t sound funny, in fact it reflects an increasing trend of suicide during times of economic downturn (check out this article, Economic Crisis Increases Stress and Suicides at http://www.depressionforums.org/articles/1254/1/Economic-Crisis-Increase-Stress-and-Suicides–/Page1.html). The scene itself however is humorous, silly even, as Frank’s neck is so thick his attempt is thwarted (you can watch it here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKZ_TjlQ4dc). The audience is left laughing but with a lingering unsettled feeling, one which stems from the reality and severity of such a situation.

Creator of the show Rob McElhenney situates Sunny within the realm of social commentary with his statement that “there always interesting things to deal with [in the show] as long as American culture continues!” Every episode finds its basis in a particular aspect of culture and exploits it, makes it almost surreal with pageantry. It is this process of pulling out perhaps un- or under addressed social problems that makes comedy, and more specifically Sunny so able to impact its viewership. By focusing in on one issue per episode, be it gun control, underage drinking, or homelessness, the show is able to really articulate said issue, forcing it into the minds of the audience for later contemplation.

The blogging community has latched on to It’s Always Sunny, hailing it as a more complex, sharper Seinfeld or South Park. One blogger writes that this is because the show “is hilarious but smart, and subtle” (http://www.comicbloc.com/forums/showthread.php?t=63804). Bloggers and a cult following of hardcore fans were responsible for the show taking off in the first place which makes it an exciting discussion point for those interested in television. One comment on the IMDB page for the show describes Sunny as “cleverly written” and praises the creative control allowed due to the creators also being the actors and assistant producers (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0472954/#comment). A particularly interesting blog entitled “Modern Media” looks at Sunny from a more academic point of view. The author refers to the show as a successful satire which “brings to light some of pressing issues of our time, while disguising social commentary in hilarious and absurd comedy” (http://whatmodernmedia.blogspot.com/2009/11/satirical-success-its-always-sunny-in.html). She goes on to address the fact that Sunny considers social issues from multiple perspectives, referencing the episode “Charlie Goes America All Over Everybody’s Ass” which addresses smoker’s rights from the view point of non smokers as well as smokers. The episode takes it one step further by putting the ideal of total American freedom under the microscope. The gang decides to have an “anything goes” situation at the bar which starts as all fun and games but ends with drug addicts shooting up, incestuous siblings making out, and finally a fatal game of Russian roulette (http://www.hulu.com/watch/26320/its-always-sunny-in-philadelphia-too-much-freedom and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b8FT3blpT0A ). This is a perfect example of Sunny, and comedy on television, as social commentary.

So how and why is comedy able to play such a role, to be simultaneously immersed in and beyond culture to the point that it is able to comment on it? First, and most importantly, humor is persuasive(http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/0/9/0/8/6/p90861_index.html) . According to this study, humor has persuasive capacities because it gives the impression of non mediation, a sense of naturalness despite the theatricality and excessiveness. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is over the top and unrealistic, but the comedy itself feels real and unforced, thus the show is particularly powerful in reference to social commentary. The “Modern Media” blog entry also points out that the show always revolves around Dennis, Dee, Charlie, Mac, and Frank, or “the Gang” which creates a relatable and accessible group mentality. Additionally, the characters are not glamorous or made to embody unattainable beauty; rather they are too short, too tall, have silly tattoos and subpar wardrobes. “The gang” are just like you and me, awkward, quirky, and ever so slightly insane. The ability of the audience to identify themselves in the characters (or at least more so than in other more distant, high production television) is yet another way in which the show provides an active way for the audience to participate in social commentary.

In conclusion, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is an active forum for social commentary, one that reflects the concerns of the creators and the audience. Comedy has been a powerful social tool throughout the ages (despite Aristotle’s preference for drama) and Sunny is one more example of how comedic convention has adapted to changing technology yet is still able to perform the same function, that of social commentary.

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