“It’s Always Sunny” and Why We Laugh at Bad People
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is arguably one of the most successful comedies of the new millennium. It is set to tie The Adventures of Ozzy and Harriet as the longest running live-action sitcom and has enjoyed an abundance of critical acclaim (The Hollywood Reporter). The show, which details the lives of the five owners of Paddy’s Pub in Philadelphia, has done this seemingly despite the fact that the main characters, Dennis (Glenn Howerton), Dee (Kaitlin Olsen), Mac (Rob McElhenney), Charlie (Charlie Day), and Frank (Danny Devito), are some of the worst people ever put on screen. Each of the five main characters, commonly referred to as “The Gang,” have several negative character traits that make them objectively bad people. For instance, Dennis is a vain and aggressive sociopath, Dee is short-tempered and violent, Mac is an ignorant religious zealot, Charlie is an emotionally unstable stalker, and Frank is a greedy hedonist. This, in addition to several other negative traits and a lack of shame or self-awareness, has led “The Gang” to commit several repulsive acts during the series’ run including locking people in a burning apartment, taking out a life-insurance policy on a suicidal man, and creating a funeral for a non-existent baby to avoid getting arrested for tax fraud (Wikipedia).
At first, it may seem strange that comedy audiences would enjoy watching people exhibit behaviour that would horrify or anger us in real life. This becomes stranger still when considering that many comedies throughout history have found success with bad people as main characters such as Archie Bunker in All in the Family, Eric Cartman in South Park, and Rick Sanchez in Rick and Morty. The purpose of this article will be to use It’s Always Sunny as a case study to determine why audiences respond positively to bad people and/or behaviour in comedies. This will involve examining several theories on humour and fiction-writing and applying them to examples from the show. Through this analysis it will become clear that audiences respond positively to bad people in comedies because they release tension, allow us to confront uncomfortable truths, and vandalize social norms. It will also become clear that audiences will only tolerate bad people in comedies if they are prevented from achieving their goals and maintain moral order.
Release of Tension
One of the ways we can understand the appeal of bad people in comedies is by examining an evolutionary reason for why we laugh at all. In particular, many experts believe that “laughter is a release of tension on discovering that a perceived threat is not a threat at all.” (Carr & Greeves, 20). An example put forth by the book The Naked Jape by Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves is an early human being chased by a wooly mammoth and laughing when it falls over and knocks itself out (Carr & Greeves, 20). In this instance, the person is experiencing a release of tension (the odd incapacitation of the mammoth) from the threat of being trampled. The tension release theory of humour is supported by the fact that the neural networks for fear, pain, anger, and laughter develop simultaneously and use many of the same pathways (Carr & Greeves, 19-22).
This theory can be used to account for why audiences respond positively to the main characters in It’s Always Sunny when considering how they interact with tension. In particular, the show frequently uses the characters’ immorality, incompetence, and ignorance to undercut or release tension from tense situations or topics. For instance, It’s Always Sunny has had full episodes that address subject matter like abortion, gun control, and serial killers. Despite the tense nature of these topics, “The Gang,” because of their negative character traits, never treat them seriously and in doing so release the tension they build. For instance, the abortion debate is undercut by Mac and Dennis using it as a way to pick up women at rallies, the media frenzy over the gun control debate is undercut by Frank using it for financial gain, and the concept of serial killers is undercut by Dennis, Dee, Charlie, and Frank mistakenly trying to analyze, defend, or entrap Mac while they argue with each other in a real serial killer’s apartment. In situations like these, tension can only be released if the characters are bad people that disregard the seriousness of the subject matter. Conversely, the same situations featuring characters that are good people would lose much if not all its comedic potential as they would either try to avoid the tense subject or give it respect which would then maintain the subject’s tension. For example, if Mac and Dennis respected the seriousness of the abortion debate in “Charlie Wants an Abortion,” they would not use it as a method to pick up women at rallies and a core comedic plot-line of the episode would be lost. In essence, the less respect characters give to important or serious subjects, the more potential there is to create humour by releasing tension.
Confrontation of Uncomfortable Truths
In addition to direct comedic enjoyment, releasing or undercutting tension also allows us to relieve mental stress by intellectually and/or emotionally confronting uncomfortable truths (Rowe & Regehr, 448, 450, 455; Watson, 38). These confrontations are facilitated by the fact that joking releases the inherent tension of uncomfortable subjects and in doing so makes them more intellectually or emotionally approachable (Rowe & Regehr, 448, 450, 455; Watson, 38). For instance, medical professionals describe how dark humour can be used to allow them, their colleagues, and their patients to confront situations like death and disease (Rowe & Regehr, 448, 450, 455; Watson, 38). The ability to confront these situations lowers the amount of mental stress they can impose on an individual and makes said individual more calm. It should be noted that the releasing of tension from uncomfortable subjects does not belittle the seriousness of the situation. For example, a patient joking about their terminal illness is not an indication that they do not understand the seriousness of their condition but is rather a tool that can help them confront its seriousness.
We can see several examples of humour providing an arena for confronting uncomfortable truths and a means of relieving mental stress in It’s Always Sunny. For instance, the episode “The Gang Finds a Dead Guy” focuses heavily on death, a topic that is presumably uncomfortable for audience members. The discomfort with the subject and its existence in the real world presumably causes a viewer some degree of mental stress. However, the show is able to relieve this stress by having characters respond to it in irrational and immoral ways. For instance, “The Gang” responds to the potentially serious and stressful set up of a man dying at the bar by openly expressing their disgust towards cleaning the booth after the fact and by Dennis and Mac using the death to hit on the man’s granddaughter. The characters’ actions allow the tension and mental stress to be released as the seriousness of death is juxtaposed and undercut by “The Gang’s” complete lack of respect, self-awareness, and immorality. This type of release in tension and mental stress would be harder if not impossible if the characters involved were good people. For instance, if good people found a body in their bar, their reaction would be likely be to demonstrate respect to the subject by taking a solemn attitude towards cleaning up and not using the tragedy for their own gain. While this would be the “right thing to do,” it would also fail to release tension and would prevent mental stress relief.
Vandalizing Social Values and Standards
Another way we can understand why audience respond positively to bad people in comedies is by considering its connection to the “benign violation” theory of humour. Benign violation theory understands humour as the intersection between socially banalities, which are concepts and actions deemed to be normal, appropriate, or acceptable, and social violations, which are concepts and actions deemed to be strange, offensive, or unacceptable (McGraw & Warner, 9-15; Plester, 107). The theory explains that humour works when it successfully mixes elements from both states (McGraw & Warner, 9-15; Plester, 107). For example, a person eating a pie, by being extremely commonplace, would be too banal an action to be funny while a person falling asleep and suffocating in a pie, by containing extremely dark themes, would be too much of a social violation. However, a person getting hit in the face with a pie is funny because it violates social standards without introducing too much discomfort.
One concept that can be drawn from this theory is that, to some degree, taboo or offensiveness is inherent to functional humour. This aspect of the benign violation theory of humour can be used to understand the appeal of “The Gang” to comedy audiences. In particular, our standards of what makes a person good or bad are connected to our values and standards of appropriateness, good people tend to follow and respect these concepts while bad tend to people violate them. Therefore, it can be assumed that bad people in comedies, by violating social values and standards, provide more opportunities for benign violations than their more moral counterparts. This indicates that the same traits that makes “The Gang” bad people also allows them to violate numerous social norms and practices in a comedic context.
The theme of social taboo and benign violation is seen throughout various elements of the show from individual lines of dialogue to multi-season plotlines. One such example is “The Gang’s” treatment of Matthew Mara aka “Rickety Cricket” (David Hornsby). Throughout multiple seasons of the show, “The Gang” is seen ruining the life of Rickety Cricket as their actions transform him from a successful priest to a disfigured, drug-abusing homeless man. During this time, “The Gang” frequently berate Rickety Cricket (usually by referring to him as “street rat”), manipulate him into performing embarrassing or dangerous acts, and deny any responsibility for ruining his life. “The Gang’s” treatment of Rickety Cricket, while not being so aggressive or malicious as to be too socially unacceptable to be funny, perform benign violations on several social standards on the treatment of clergy and the homeless, manipulation, responsibility and simple manners. Conversely, if “The Gang” acted as good people and treated Rickety Cricket with respect, there would be no violation of social norms or values and would be too benign to be funny.
Affirmation of Moral Order
While the previous sections have shown how comedies lend themselves to immoral and ignorant characters, it does come with one condition. In particular, comedies, much like other fictional genres, cannot allow bad people to succeed. In television comedies, this typically takes the form of the character returning to a neutral state of being and/or having their poor actions affect them negatively. This pattern is similar to the Shakespearean notion of the Great Chain of Being, which demonstrates that any disruption to the natural hierarchy of natural and supernatural entities will be punished as order is restored. For example, Macbeth disrupts the Great Chain of Being by killing King Duncan and is himself killed as the rightful heir takes the crown order is restored. This creates a satisfying narrative because it reaffirms the audiences faith in the Great Chain of Being as well as concepts of good and evil. Conversely, if Macbeth keeps the crown at the end of the play, the Great Chain of Being remains disrupted and leaves audiences uneasy and unsatisfied. While there are narratives that can use a similar uneasiness and dissatisfaction to their advantage, such as mystery or horror, comedies almost always restore their order.
The main difference between the structure of modern and Shakespearean works is that the modern works replace the Great Chain of Being concept of order with modern moral codes. For example, when Wile E. Coyote tries to kill the Roadrunner, he is disrupting the modern moral code that killing is wrong. To restore order, the show depicts him constantly and spectacularly failing to kill the Roadrunner and almost always ending the episode in the same state as the beginning of the show. It should be noted that modern narratives can sometimes allow a bad person to succeed, but only if they perform a redemptive act. For example, several sitcoms allow selfish, sexually manipulative and/or promiscuous characters to have meaningful relationships if they demonstrate some form of selflessness or personal growth. Arcs like these allow the bad person to succeed because they reaffirm the moral order by submitting to it.
The fate of “The Gang” in It’s Always Sunny exemplifies this reaffirmation of moral order. The main characters are constantly seen failing in their various schemes, typically due to their own immoral actions or the actions of other members of “The Gang.” For instance, one episode focuses on Dennis attempting to manipulate one of his exes to sleep with him while helping Charlie manipulate the Waitress (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) into a relationship. This results with each member of “The Gang” failing to execute and/or intentionally sabotaging Dennis’ plan until he and Charlie both fail. In this instance, moral order is disrupted when Dennis and Charlie try to manipulate women into being attracted to them and is restored when they fail. Additionally, most of the main characters are seen constantly failing to reach their lifelong aspirations. For instance, until the last season, Charlie is seen constantly failing in his attempts to get together with the Waitress and when he does, he is shown instantly regretting it. The only member of “The Gang” that has arguably achieved their goals is Frank, who only wants to preserve his “fringe” lifestyle of abject poverty, substance abuse, and meaningless (usually purchased) sex. Frank is allowed to succeed because his goal of living poorly without any greater aspiration reaffirms “The Gang’s” position at the bottom of the moral order.
This article has outlined how the depiction of bad people in comedies like It’s Always Sunny can appeal to audiences by providing immediate enjoyment from a release of tension and a subversion of social norms as well as deeper mental stress relief from allowing audiences to confront uncomfortable truths. These were in addition to the condition that audiences will respond positively to bad people in comedies if they fail to succeed and reinforce moral order. As with any piece of media, it should be noted that none of these concepts work without a show that is excellently executed in all facets of production which It’s Always Sunny has been able to do for 12 seasons. It should be interesting to see where the show’s creators take the main characters in the coming seasons and what horrifying things we will find ourselves laughing at next.
Carr, Jimmy, and Lucy Greeves. The Naked Jape: Uncovering the Hidden World of Jokes. Penguin Publishing, 2007.
“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” Wikipedia, 6 March 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It%27s_Always_Sunny_in_Philadelphia. Accessed 13 March 2018.
“‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.’ Renewed for Record Tying Seasons 13 and 14” The Hollywood Reporter, 6 March 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It%27s_Always_Sunny_in_Philadelphia. Accessed 13 March 2018.
McGraw, Peter & Joel Warner. The Humor Code: a global search for what makes things funny. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.
Plester, Barbra. The Complexity of Workplace Humour Laughter, Jokers, and the Dark Side of Humour. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2016.
Rowe, Alison and Cheryl Regehr. “Whatever Gets You Through Today: An Examination of Cynical Humor Among Emergency Service Professionals.” Journal of Loss and Trauma. 15, No. 5 (2010): 448-464.
Watson, Katie. “Gallows Humor in Medicine.” The Hastings Center Report. 41, No. 5 (2011): 37-45.
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