Editor's note: Erin Ryan began writing for It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia in 2018. In our five-part series, she chronicles her experience joining a comedy series in its 13th season.
It’s impractical for ten or eleven people to team up and write a script. So, once an episode has been broken, the powers that be hand it off to an individual writer or writing team to be outlined and finally written.
I was assigned the episode where the gang solves the bathroom problem. It’s called, predictably, “The Gang Solves the Bathroom Problem.”
We decided during the story breaking process that they’d be spending the episode entirely in Paddy’s, which served the story better and also kept us on “our” sets, which is cheaper and less time-consuming and disruptive than, say, scouting and shooting in a hotel conference center or building an entirely new environment for the characters.
The Gang Solves The Bathroom Problem, like every episode, has fingerprints from every writer on it, traces of inside jokes from the room or from staffers’ lives or conversations
The episode was originally going to take place inside Paddy’s over the course of twelve days. But not long into breaking it, we realized that we would have a very difficult time coming up with twelve days’ worth of screwing around in Paddy’s that the gang hadn’t already done in the twelve previous seasons of the show. And because they’d already tried to solve problems entirely inside Paddy’s (notably in "Reynolds vs. Reynolds: The Cereal Defense" and "The Gang Gets Quarantined"), we had to be careful to keep it distinct.
So rather than days, it became hours. And rather than two sides fighting for the heads and hearts of the rest of the gang, the episode was more about each character individually grappling with a complicated question they were ill-equipped to engage with intellectually or emotionally. Which, I guess, puts them in the company of a large swath of American lawmakers.
"The Gang Solves The Bathroom Problem," like every episode, has fingerprints from every writer on it, traces of inside jokes from the room or from staffers’ lives or conversations that spilled into the afternoon from lunch time. That’s why this one contains constitutional law, gender identity, Jimmy Buffett, a toilet gun, and poop jokes.
My background in political journalism/ opinion-having meant that I have long been interested in the way the constitution has been used to uphold or deny rights, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time around people arguing about this. I’ve also noticed that even people whose job it is to cover current events find the justice system and the Supreme Court opaque. The smarter and more well-informed a person is, the more they tend to see nuance and complexity in the constitution. The stupider, well: opposite. And because The Gang consists of sociopathic dumbasses who occasionally experience spells of trying to do their own warped version of the right thing, it wasn’t hard to imagine how they’d handle a complicated question like the issue of bathroom access for people with different gender identities. They’d handle it poorly. Just like just about everybody.
On a more granular level, as we were pitching we decided that this episode would give fans a chance to see something they hadn’t before: inside one of the stalls in the women’s bathroom. Spoiler: Turns out, it’s actually pretty clean in there!
But why Jimmy Buffett? you might ask. Because of a very common misconception it turns out a lot of people have about one particular song. One of the more interesting days in the room was when one person pointed out to the rest of us that the Pina Coladas song was not, in fact, by Jimmy Buffett. It was some British guy named Rupert Holmes. Rupert! F–ing! Holmes! What?! So, of course that ended up making the episode, somehow, with the gang believing it to be an analog to people deciding to live with their differences in opinion rather than what the takeaway should have been, which is that everybody is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.
The hardest part of actually writing a Sunny script—besides making it funny—is keeping things as tight as possible. There’s no need to use ten words to say a line that could have taken two.
Once we’d broken the episode in one of the breakout rooms, I took to my office and squinted at the board beats until I was able to make an outline out of it. Then I turned it into Charlie [Day] and Rob [McElhenney], who gave it a once-over and a couple of notes. Then I took another pass. They gave me the green light, and I went off to script, which means I went home and spent five days alone slowly going insane, until my whining brain produced a workable episode of TV.
The hardest part of actually writing a Sunny script—besides making it funny—is keeping things as tight as possible. There’s no need to use ten words to say a line that could have taken two. There’s no need to include throat-clearing opening words. Sunny characters speak to each other in rapid fire back and forths, not Sorkinesque soliloquies. So once I was actually sent off on script, I had to sharpen my knives and cut some stuff out.
I had to cut second-tier jokes that weren’t unfunny but weren’t lifting as much as the jokes that did the best in the room. I had pitched a joke about Cricket (David Hornsby) thinking that the tampon machine was a "needle recycler," because the idea of a tampon dispenser being filled with used needles makes me want to claw my own face off, but I had to cut that one because it took too much time. I had to cut things that didn’t advance the plot. I had to write 22 minutes of TV in 25 pages or less.
Before I turned a draft in, I had another writer take a look at it. She’d written on a few seasons of Sunny and was more well-versed in the lore of the show than I was. She gave me notes that were extremely helpful. I took another pass and turned the damn thing in.
Rob and Charlie delivered their notes to me in tandem, in a short meeting that began with somebody firing up the Pina Coladas song on a small speaker and Charlie joke-singing it to me as I sat down with my laptop. I took their notes and did a quick revision, which they accepted.
As the other writers turned their drafts in, we all filtered back into the office and pitched on episodes that the guys wanted to tweak. One day, as I sat in my office, Charlie knocked on my door and let me know that we were just about done writing the season and that I was free to go after I met with him and Rob to discuss how things had gone.
And, like that, writing for Sunny was all over. It had only been about six and a half weeks, the best professional experience of my writing career, in a career that has, luckily, been full of positive professional experiences.
I hope you like watching Season 13 as much as we liked making it.
Erin Ryan is a writer, podcaster, and political commentator who lives in Los Angeles. In addition to her work on Always Sunny, she hosts Crooked Media’s Hysteria and occasionally appears on Pod Save America and Lovett or Leave It. She is currently working on Rob Mcelhenney and Charlie Day’s forthcoming Apple TV project. Her writing has been featured by The Daily Beast, The New York Times, Playboy, Runner's World, and other places. Erin was born and raised in Frederic, Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Norte Dame. In her free time, she sometimes sleeps.
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia airs Wednesday nights on FXX.