Let me preface talk of the Always Sunny writers room with a few notes. First, this was my first scripted TV writers room, which means we could have started every day with a John Denver singalong followed by a breakfast of scrambled songbird eggs and I would have registered that as normal. Second, I’m skipping over some parts, because it’d be a shame to have a season of great weirdo comedy given away by a blog post. Third, I am a lowly staff writer on the show. That means that after a certain point in the production process, I wasn’t privy to decisions about the creative direction of the show. I just know what my job was.
As I mentioned previously, Day One was light, mostly hellos and what’s your name agains and discussions of things we’d watched or read recently that we’d liked. We ended the day with the guys in charge leading a discussion of where the show ended season 12 and some must-answer bigger drivers for season 13. What were we going to do about the Dennis question? What about Charlie and the waitress? Does Mac have any adventures with his newly-admitted sexuality? How do we incorporate current events into the show, if at all? We all pitched ideas, and the assistants and interns took turns writing them down.
It’s like being in the most entertaining meeting you can imagine, except it lasts for six hours.
From there, discussion opened up to more general pitches, and the guys wrote the ones they liked on brightly colored notecards, in a shorthand that sans context was completely indecipherable. One notecard read "Frank Unleashed." I was in the room when that idea was pitched. Every night I looked over the notes the assistants had written the previous day. For several weeks, I was completely mentally engrossed in the creation of the show. And yet, if you held a gun to my head today and demanded I tell you what “Frank Unleashed” means, I could not tell you. That memory has gone away. I’m sure it’s in our Dropbox folder, somewhere.
We did this for a few days. We’d show up in the morning, sit around the big table, pitch extremely wild shit for the extremely wild characters to do for a few hours, have lunch and talk about our lives, and then sit around the same table for a few more hours, pitching even more wild shit. Because we were in brainstorming mode, almost everything got written down on a notecard, even if it was very vague, like "Nobody is in charge."
After each day, some of the producers would stick around and arrange the cards into groups that felt related. A few days of this meant we had an entire bulletin board of pink and orange notecards, some clustered into tangentially related subject areas.
The first pitch days are long meetings of excited creative people with wacky ideas and quick brains. It’s like being in the most entertaining meeting you can imagine, except it lasts for six hours. At the end of the day I’d feel like I’d been at a party I probably should have left several hours before, not because I wasn’t having fun, but because I had to wake up and be semi-functional the next day. I’d go to sleep most nights at 9 pm.
By the second week, the people in charge had decided there were a few subject areas that were important to them and exciting to the writers: the episodes that would go on to be episodes 1 and 2 of the season. Then they split the room in half, with Rob [McElhenney] leading one room and Charlie [Day] taking the other, and the rest of the writing staff divided between the two of them.
Each room did what’s called "episode breaking," which is pitching out the plot, beat by beat, as a group of writers, trying to find the funniest possible way to tell a story in a way that made sense within the universe of the show, what each character wanted at the beginning of the episode, how they’d go about getting it, how their motivations would reinforce or conflict with each other, whether or not we’d bring back a side character from a previous episode or season, whether there’d be a guest star. Some writers naturally have a knack for breaking episodes, others have to work harder. Either way, it’s more difficult than it sounds. Each episode would take at least a three to five hours worth of combined work to fully “break.”
Once that was done, Rob and Charlie would switch rooms, and each room would pitch "their" episode to them. Both would give notes to the other room, and then both rooms would work on addressing the notes. Then, the room leader would assign writing the episode outline to one of the writers in the room. That writer would take the beats from the whiteboard and flesh them out into a more cogent episode synopsis.
Being out on script is not relaxing. It felt, to me, like study days before finals.
Meanwhile, the writers who hadn’t been assigned an outline in their groups would reconvene under Rob and/or Charlie, who had picked a few more topics or episode directions for potential episodes three and four, and the whole room would pitch on each. The room would be divided in half again, different combinations of writers this time, and the process would begin again. (We didn’t write the whole season in the order it is planned to air; some episodes that were written earlier got moved to the end, and vice versa.)
Writers assigned an outline were given a few days to work on it. They’d turn it in, get notes and take another pass, or turn it in and the whole room would pitch jokes on it. Once the outline was in good shape, Rob and Charlie would send that writer to script.
"Going to script" means getting pushed out of the office for five days to write an entire episode of television. (Half kidding. We could actually come into the office if we wanted; most people just choose to work on it from home or, as one writer preferred, from a quick out-of-town vacation.) Being out on script is not relaxing. It felt, to me, like study days before finals.
Once the writer finished their script, they’d turn it in, get notes, take another pass, turn it in, etc. At any point in the process if the writer got stuck or if it felt like the story could be better, the producers would sometimes bring outlines or scripts back to the entire room to pitch jokes or help refine the outline.
We finished writing almost the entire season before 8 weeks was up. The time flew by. I flew back to New York.
That’s a pretty skeletal overview of how this particular season went down without much specifics. Next time, I’ll go into how we went about writing the first block of episodes in the season. And coming up after that:
1. What argument over a movie rendered the writers room in half?
2. Whoa, what’s the story of the prop in the first episode?
3. And more.
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.