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Rob McElhenney takes his a-holes seriously

The Mythic Quest and Always Sunny creator wants to mine laughs from life’s complications

Actor Rob McElhenney looks to camera with a large cheering group of people in medieval costume cheering behind him Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon | Source photos: Maarten de Boer / Lionsgate, 3 Arts Entertainment, Ubisoft Film & Television/Apple
Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

Rob McElhenney has had the same conversation around ten thousand times over the last year. A fan will praise him for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, his FX comedy that’s set to become the longest-running sitcom in TV history. Then they’ll add, “I saw Mythic Quest, and ... I can’t believe I loved it!” But why wouldn’t they love a fresh sitcom from the brains behind It’s Always Sunny? Well, it’s about video games.

“And I’m like, ‘Did you like The Office?’” McElhenney says. “And they’re like, ‘Oh my God, the American Office? I love The Office!’ And so I say: ‘Great. Do you love paper? Because that’s what they did in that office!”

Mythic Quest, the Apple TV Plus series that McElhenney co-created with Always Sunny’s Megan Ganz and Charlie Day, is set in a video game studio, and centers on the team developing, designing, and marketing a game. And even one season in, with a second arriving on May 7, the actor-producer understands the hesitation; video games still have a difficult-to-shake mainstream stigma, like they’re an all-or-nothing proposition, demanding laypeople go all in, or go away. But it’s an obvious misconception.

“You say you like Sunny?” he continues. “Great. Are you so obsessed with watching television shows about bars? Of course not! It has nothing to do with that. You’re watching the show for the people.”

A pattern emerges when talking to McElhenney about his work: “Yes, and yet.” A character is an asshole, but also not. Mythic Quest is a show about video games, but not really. He never wants to lose sight of the complexity of human beings — even the cartoonish ones he writes and plays — and he’s compelled to remember that his perspective as a white guy in his 40s is a limited one.

That awareness is driving a sense of humor that is heady, humanist, and, against the odds, funny.

When It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is mentioned in conversation, a question often comes up: Why hasn’t cancel culture come for the series?

Any Always Sunny viewer can relate to the struggle of describing what happens in a given episode without feeling something akin to shame for enjoying it. The protagonists are openly misogynistic, homophobic, and terrible in all of the ways a person can be terrible. Marathoning the show from the beginning in 2021 means wincing through jokes that, due to shifting social mores, have been deemed unacceptable. But as Always Sunny goes on, the characters and scenarios the Gang encounters lead the show’s creative team to also deem those jokes unacceptable. The comedy has evolved, because the filmmakers have grown, even while the characters have not.

Always Sunny could easily be an animated series — the Gang will never grow out of their habits. Which is fine by McElhenney; he’ll happily tell stories about insufferable jerks who hang out and hatch schemes at a Philly bar for another 20 years. But Mythic Quest affords him the space to tell stories about, as he puts it, “real human beings.” It’s a warts-and-all modern workplace where gender equality, creative egos, and worker exhaustion are at the forefront. Those social issues become a springboard for great jokes. In an early episode, the team’s attempt to squash an in-game neo-Nazi problem quickly escalates into a debate about whether manspreaders should also be banned from the game. (Yes, the team decides, because they’re just as bad as the Nazis.) Key to Mythic Quest, says McElhenney, is that all of these discussions lead people to change.

In Mythic Quest’s second season, the characters struggle to evolve. It isn’t easy for them — one running gag sees the employees of Mythic Quest Studios asking whether a thing they just said or did will get them canceled. As their studio’s financial success leads to promotions and changes, some of the characters learn that their behavior doesn’t necessarily translate into new contexts where they have more responsibilities. This is particularly true when it comes to Poppy Li (played by Charlotte Nicdao), an underdog engineer who vies for control over Mythic Quest’s creative vision, only to learn that her antics read very differently now that, in season 2, she’s a boss alongside McElhenney’s big-headed Ian.

“I mean, she’s an asshole,” McElhenney laughs. “But she’s not! All of a sudden, she’s been given this enormous amount of responsibility, which she’s always wanted and asked for. But what comes along with that responsibility is not necessarily something she really thought or wanted, and then she has to know how to act or react with zero role models. She’s only ever had one job in her entire life, and her role model was [Ian]. And it winds up becoming this self-fulfilling prophecy where you are becoming your own boss, the boss you hated, but it’s the boss you know, so you think that maybe it’s just the way [people are supposed to] boss. And the cycle creates a toxic environment.”

In this, and other explorations of the toxicity inherent in the creative process, McElhenney and the Mythic Quest team are specifically satirizing the kind of behavior they want to avoid as creatives. “This is the thing I think can and will continue to set us apart from other versions of this that I’ve seen that have driven me insane,” McElhenney says. “Which is that there is some sort of character who’s at the moral center of a story like this, who proves to the characters and the world that a certain behavior will actually not only be ethically and morally right within the context of the story and the world, but also will wind up creating the best product as well. And I think that’s bullshit.”

Many people have asked him about one Mythic Quest moment in particular, a scene in which Rachel (played by writer Ashly Burch) drives Ian to the office in a Porsche because her boss doesn’t know how to drive a stick-shift car. Ian and Rachel are at the opposite ends of the org chart, as well as the ideological spectrum. She’s younger, openly liberal, queer, and a person of color. She’s also wracked with anxiety over what she wants out of her career. So when Ian asks her point-blank what she wants to do in the company, she panics, unable to wrap her head around what she perceives as the entitlement to be able to think in such terms. They ultimately argue about privilege, and what it means to advocate for yourself.

“And I’m like, ‘Oh right, right! That’s hitting a nerve, and the reason that hits a nerve is because it’s born out of a real conversation,’” McElhenney says. “And in it, neither one of us was right. But neither one of us was wrong. And I think that’s the difference between pandering, and actually showing real people having real conversations, and then an opportunity for growth.”

Ian Grimm has a conversation with Poppy Li in Mythic Quest season 2. Photo: Apple TV Plus

These conversations are the secret to McElhenney’s success — and also not his individual success at all. They’re a credit to his practice of working with people who are different from him, and to his willingness to listen to them and learn from their feedback.

“There’s an altruistic endeavor there,” he says, “to help build and engender empathy and passion. But there’s also the very real and practical side of that, which is that it also happens to make for the best show, because the characters themselves are also coming from different points of view.

“Sure, I can sit down and guess what a 23-year-old Black lesbian who grew up in L.A. might say in a given situation, and I might even get it kinda close! But without at the very least having someone in the writer’s room I can turn to and say, ‘Hey, I know we share a lot of things as human beings, but this very specific point of view, I do not share with this character. Can you actually help me and I can help you, and we can work together to make this feel like an authentic voice?’ When you do that, when you create that environment, you start to have really fascinating conversations that are not poisoned by any judgment, because we’re all there for the same purpose.”

Maybe the most arresting thing about Rob McElhenney’s collaborative work these days is the way it seems geared toward making viewers reconsider the most problematic people they know. In the latter half of season 2, Mythic Quest dives deep into the background of C.W. Longbottom (F. Murray Abraham), an HR nightmare with a mindset firmly rooted in the 1970s, and cemented in place with bygone debauchery.

Because he’s a product of his time, and he’s seemingly uninterested in adapting to present patterns, Longbottom might be the show’s easiest target. He probably should’ve washed out of polite company and professional spaces a long time ago. But to McElhenney, he’s an important part of the wider project of Mythic Quest, an extreme example of the kind of empathy he’s exploring.

“I think that’s what we really strive to show in Mythic Quest,” McElhenney says. “That there is no person who is wholly one thing. They are very, very complicated and complex people.”

Ian Grimm and Poppy Li sitting next to each other in Mythic Quest season 2 Photo: Apple TV Plus

He sighs heavily for this next part, noting that it’s going to make him sound “incredibly soft.” But he inhales, and goes for it:

“I think ever since I had my kids, I can’t help it — I do this with people in real life, I also do it with characters, because you kind of have to love every character you’re writing. You can’t hate them; you have to find something that you love about them, no matter how abhorrent they may be. I just always picture that character as somebody’s son or daughter. They were once a little baby. They were once 1 year old, they were once 2 years old, and nobody’s born evil. And nobody is born broken. Things happen — whether it’s biological or environmental — something happens over the course of someone’s life that then pushes them in certain directions, and then they make their decisions based on that. [...] It’s hard for me as an artist to then pass judgment on you as you try to figure out who you are. I’m just trying to present you as a real person.”

But again: There’s that caveat, the one that’s always present. Empathy, and yet:

“It’s a nuanced conversation. I’m not suggesting that there’s any level of truly abhorrent behavior, abusive behavior, that should ever be tolerated. But at the same time, to then suggest that their canon of work is ‘actually now garbage’ is just objectively false. Does that mean we need to celebrate it? No. Maybe we just never talk of it again, maybe we don’t continue to patronize it, absolutely.

“But to then look back, or even currently look and say, ‘Well, now that I see that person’s a monster, therefore their art is shit, or I’ll never stay in one of their hotels, or I’ll never want to — I just think that’s a dangerous way to think about humanity. We’re messy. We are messy.”