Interactivity and Awkward Comedy: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia Live!
Drew Morton / UCLA
“I suggested that the scene be staged in the center of the auditorium to re-create the same circumstances under which a real boxing match takes place. Thus we dared the concreteness of factual events. The fight was to be carefully planned in advance but was to be utterly realistic…While the other scenes influences the audience through intonation, gestures, and mimicry, our scene employed realistic, even textural means…Illusionary scenery gave way to the realistic ring…and extras closed around the ring.”-Sergei Eisenstein,1 “Through Theater to Cinema.”
“[“The Nightman Cometh” is] sort of like a hybrid of Al Jolson and Bell Biv Devoe, with just a little bit of Aaron Copeland and a dash of Yanni.”-Charlie Day,2 executive producer/writer/actor of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
On the nights of April 18th and 19th 2009, the cast of the FX Network program It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005-Present) performed their season four musical inspired finale “The Nightman Cometh” live at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, California. Tickets to the event quickly sold out with tickets being scalped on Craigslist for upwards of $150 which prompted me to ask myself “What is this audience expecting?” Filing into benches atop the rather intimate venue (capacity of roughly 400 people), I found the surrounding benches inhabited by a handful of the character actors who inhabit the show’s signature location, Paddy’s Pub. The question became more personal: “What was I expecting?” Leafing through the paper program made by the always awkward Charlie Kelly (Charlie Day) and finding the show’s musical numbers listed, I assumed it would simply be an embellished version of the musical that occupied the final ten minutes of the episode (also titled “The Nightman Cometh”). As the band began to play the show’s title music, the show’s wannabe thespian Artemis (Artemis Pebdani) came on stage and filed through a series of presentation cards: “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. 7:15 P.M. On a Friday. Philadelphia, PA.” it became clear that this would not just be an extraction of the musical from the episode but a live re-enactment of the episode itself.
Live re-enactments of television programs do not seem to be out of the ordinary. For instance, such events have taken place at San Diego Comic Con and a live read-through of the Family Guy (Fox, 1999-2002, 2005-Present) episode “Airport ’07” was filmed and accompanies the DVD release. Yet, what I found odd about “The Nightman Cometh” was the role the audience played in the production: spectatorship with a dash of interactivity. As the show progressed and Charlie asked his unwitting love interest, the waitress (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), to attend his musical, the event fell in line with the narrative trajectory of the episode with the audience simply filling the role of a non-diagetic audience. Yet, once the musical section of the episode commenced and the Waitress sat down on the bench next to us, the mode of spectatorship the audience was engaged in began to shift. We became part of the diagetic world through this staging technique and all I could think of was Sergei Eisenstein’s theatrical production of The Mexican, no doubt an odd high/low connection given that “The Nightman Cometh” has several musical numbers about raping a small boy.
As Eisenstein describes in the quotation that begins this article, his staging of The Mexican involved a similar shift. Instead of staging the play’s climactic battle in a ring spatially segregated from the audience, he staged it directly in the venue. This resulted, according to Eisenstein, in a transition of space and the audience’s engagement as “In the fight scene the audience was excited directly…Illusionary scenery gave way to the realistic ring…and extras closed around the ring.”3 Yet, as Eisenstein notes in his further description, this type of staging can be problematic as the shift allows actuality to overpower the production and take “things into its own hands.”4 A similar result occurred with “The Nightman Cometh.” Once the audience had been cued and invited into the diagetic world of the performance, they felt encouraged to interact on a greater scale. Laughs and claps of encouragement gave way to shouts and chants. As Charlie sprang into the musical’s final number, in which he proposes to the Waitress and is rejected, the audience turned on the Waitress (who was still sitting amongst them) and screamed “No! Say yes!” and “What a bitch!” There was a slightly awkward pause as cast discarded the reaction and finished the performance as written, pushing against the audience’s interactivity.
I found this interaction telling not only for its shifting mode of interactivity but as a wider implication of the relationship between televisual liveness and contemporary audiences. In the live re-enactments I’ve encountered, the audience dynamic falls more in line with television programs that tape in front of a live studio audience. Contemporarily, live tapings seem to have become increasingly less common for non-variety show programs, It’s Always Sunny included. This aesthetic trend in sitcoms seems to emphasize the contemporary approach to comedy as emphasizing the awkward à la Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO, 2000-Present) The Office (NBC, 2005-Present), and Eastbound and Down (HBO, 2009-Present). In this form, the audience has to ride out the time and space following a joke, which is normally embellished by silence that both underscores the awkwardness of the situation and provides a placeholder for laughter. The cast of It’s Always Sunny seemed to literally have a hard time re-formatting their interactions because the live audience had fixed themselves onto a handful of memorable moments such as Frank Reynolds (Danny DeVito) singing “The Troll Toll” and Mac (Rob McElhenney) showcasing his “cat eyes” and raping Dennis (Glenn Howerton). The audience’s interaction, even when drifting towards minimal interactivity of cheering, laughing, and the occasional quotation, came close to derailing portions of the performance.
Yet this spectrum of interactivity produced a space for the awkward where it had been previously absent. On the show It’s Always Sunny, discomfort is a product of the removal of the audience but in the stage version, the instatement of the audience produced a similar characteristic in the performance. This is not a critique of the cast’s performance but a point meant to illustrate that one of the essential traits of It’s Always Sunny rests in this awkwardness, as expressed via its political incorrectness and lack of a laugh track. The stage version was in need of a similar formal characteristic to underscore discomfort and the cast produced an environment for one. Did they realize this potential when they staged the show in such an Eisensteinian fashion? Perhaps their discomfort was a performance as it is on the show itself. Artistic intent may be irrelevant in this context. The audience wanted awkward and awkward is what they got.
1. The cast of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Please feel free to comment.
I am not surprised at all that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia pulled a move like this. I find the show to be a very smart, witty, and edgy comedy that reminds me of Seinfeld if his group was a sociopath; so to see a raunchy comedy move to the theatre scene goes right in with the irony that is It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. As a huge Always Sunny fan, I have bought all the seasons and remember this being in the behind the scenes of season four, but never truly thought about the staging being a factor in the interaction of the audience.
While I do agree that an act such as putting the waitress in the audience would raise social interaction between the performers and guests, I wonder if it is the sole purpose as you propose. I am curious if it is not so much the staging but the format and style in which the show is produced. As an irreverent comedy, it would be safe to assume that it would attract a much more irreverent crowd. I would also take into account; that as you said, it was a small personal audience of 400. This means that fanatics of the show would most likely be the ones lining up first to see it, as I saw on the behind-the-scenes on the show’s DVD. The pure nature of seeing a show live puts a neutral audience in the surrounding prompting more room for interaction with consequences. It’s the act of seeing the waitress and not having the pixels of you’re TV blocking you that prompts the interaction, not the act of her sitting in the audience. Had she just made an appearance on stage in the end, I believe the audience still would have urged her to say yes.