Sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who sadly died while being detained by the white (now former) police officer Derek Chauvin, protests over racial inequality and police brutality have risen in recent weeks. The “Black Lives Matter” protests have put a renewed focus on depictions of blackface in the media. Recently, the streaming service Netflix pulled five episodes from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (Sunny). Now, for everyone who knows me, you will know that I am a massive fan of dark humour (I always give disclaimers before a game of “Cards Against Humanity”) and this satirical television show is one my favourites; but Netflix’s actions have made me start to question just how well the show handles controversial topics.
Sunny has been gracing our screens since 2005. Currently on its way into its fifteenth season, Rob McElhenney’s creation is a show that drips with amorality. A very creative and fresh television show, I think the main reason why it’s aired for fifteen years is that it’s not afraid to highlight issues that are often too uncomfortable to talk about. Topics of sexuality, religion, race, terrorism, abortion, politics, and social values, can indeed be sensitive subjects; but those are the exact issues that Sunny thrives off. What’s especially interesting is that this show has rarely received backlash for its controversial – and sometimes rude – humour. It got me thinking…how has a show that is so politically incorrect and offensive survived for so long?
From its very first episode, “The Gang Gets Racist”, Sunny showcased to its audience that it would be a show that would never shy away from delicate topics. I remember being shocked and a little horrified when they casually dropped the “N-word” in this episode, but I then realised “Oh…that’s the point”. The point is that they are terrible people and we should do everything in our power to not turn out like them. Once you have that moment, it’s very easy to get lost in the entirety of Sunny, laughing at their shenanigans while also constantly shaking your head at just how AWFUL The Gang actually are.
By creating such hypocritical characters, McElhenney and his co-stars/creators/writers Glenn Howerton and Charlie Day (who play Dennis and Charlie respectively) are relieving themselves of any liability to whatever they say. We as an audience know not to take what comes out of their mouths seriously because we are well aware that they are highly irredeemable people who often come out with preposterous and ludicrous statements. Most of the time, the jokes in Sunny aren’t horrible; the jokes are that they believe their actions aren’t horrible. The Gang are outrageously politically incorrect and Sunny doesn’t disguise this fact, it only draws attention to it, parodically making their arguments reach the point of absurdity. The absolute nonsense that The Gang gets up to makes it almost impossible for any sane person to actually be offended by the actions or opinions of the characters. Sunny isn’t the kind of show that provides a stimulus for social commentary, it’s just a horrible playground for The Gang to pretend they have the answers to questions they either clearly know nothing about, or are in fact not qualified at all to answer.
By now, everyone should be well aware of the racial insensitivity and consequences that come from putting on blackface. In Sunny, The Gang know that blackface is wrong but they believe there is a tasteful way of doing it. Two of the five episodes that were axed consist of “The Gang Makes Lethal Weapon 6” (Season 9, Episode 9); and “Dee Reynolds: Shaping America’s Youth” (Season 6, Episode 9). These episodes do nothing to promote or defend the use of blackface. In “The Gang Makes Lethal Weapon 6”, blackface is not what is funny about the episode. The comedic aspect comes from Mac (played by McElhenney) thinking there is nothing wrong with a white man playing the part of Danny Glover’s Robert Murtaugh. This episode doesn’t make fun of black people, like traditional minstrel shows were guilty of; it makes fun of Mac for thinking it was actually okay to do blackface when Dennis clearly pointed out that it was racist. Similarly, with other racial caricatures that Dee (Kaitlin Olson) adopts, like Martina Martinez and Taiwan Tammy (both from Season Four’s “America’s Next Top Paddy’s Billboard Model Contest”), Charlie points out how awful and racist it is. Again, you’re not supposed to be laughing with Dee for doing blackface, you’re supposed to be laughing at her and how terribly oblivious she is.
Now we focus on the extremely ambitious Season Twelve premiere, “The Gang Turns Black”. It’s a very bold start, and is one that provides commentary on the kind of people The Gang have grown up (or rather, digressed) to be after all these years. The Gang have excelled in becoming LGBTQ+ supporters now that Mac is (kind of) out of the closet, but they still have a thing or two to say about the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Of course, this isn’t the episode’s true agenda. Following an electric blanket accident during a viewing of The Wiz (which is a fantastic movie in its own right), The Gang are then shocked into a world where they’re trapped in the bodies of five African-Americans. This stunt was not achieved by blackface, but their transformations are either shown through mirror reflections or another character’s perspective. The comedic gag isn’t that they have turned Black, but it is the bonkers fact that they are trapped inside a musical and are singing against their will, spontaneously breaking out into song at nearly every moment. With “The Gang Turns Black”, Sunny isn’t pointing its fingers at Black people; it’s addressing the ongoing prejudices that meet African-Americans in their current society.
Throughout the episode, there is a lot of uncomfortable humour. Some examples are when Mac, Dennis and Charlie are questioned by the police as they think Dennis’ car is being broken into; Frank (played by the incomparable Danny DeVito) desperately wants to say the “N-word” because “[He’s] black now, it’s probably the only chance [he’ll] get to say it”; and Charlie immediately assumes that the Black child who has replaced him doesn’t know his dad. With these examples, The Gang try and fail multiple times to understand what it truly means to be Black in America. When Charlie is shot by a policeman who thinks he is holding a gun rather than a toy train, The Gang sing in a united panic, “We’ve just learned our lesson, and we want to go home,” with an added “White home!” by Frank. Of course, with this being Sunny, The Gang learning their lesson on racial prejudice is a total bust. They return to their white selves, with the entire episode turning out to be a visual telling of Old Black Man’s dream (bit of context: Old Black Man is a homeless man who Dee has to sleep in a bed with every night for a year as she lost a bet with Frank…don’t ask).
Upon Old Black Man attempting to recount his dream to The Gang, Dennis curtly interrupts with “Well we don’t give a sh*t because we don’t like hearing about people’s dreams”. Typically Dennis, this is a rude encounter and this is what’s funny about the episode. It’s clear that McElhenny, Howerton and Day wrote the episode to highlight the obliviousness of their characters and to present the disparity between how their whiteness allows them to lightly skate under the radar whilst others in American society struggle just because of the colour of their skin.
Full disclosure. I am mix-raced. I am in no means trying to defend It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphias’ use of blackface. I am just highlighting the point that there are ways in which satirical television shows and films try to incorporate race into their creativity. In terms of racial representations on a comedic platform, I hope it’s fair to say that when writers explore racial territories, they have an obligation to treat sensitive issues with – you guessed it – sensitivity. Even when the protagonists are hideously amoral creatures like The Gang, the story arcs they present should offer a moral viewpoint that requires the utmost care and consistency. The argument of where to draw the line between what is funny and what is offensive will never die down, but here’s my take: Humour is very subjective. Humour helps us live life more fully. Life should be laughed at. You have to laugh at yourself or you’ll go crazy.