Talking to Glenn Howerton About Season 9 of ‘It’s Always Sunny,’ the Element of Surprise, and His Dream Episode

Dennis “Golden God” Reynolds, America’s favorite maybe-sociopath, returns tonight on the ninth season premiere of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. He’s played to perfection by Glenn Howerton, who promises even more vanity, sadism and darkness in the coming season.

Howerton and the rest of “The Gang” (Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, Kaitlin Olson and Danny DeVito) have big things in store: They’re now the anchor for FX’s brand-new sister channel FXX (which boasts “More X”), and will play host this season to some illustrious new guest writers (Game of Thrones’ David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) and guest stars (Josh Groban, Seann William Scott and WWE veteran “Rowdy” Roddy Piper). I had a chance to talk to Howerton earlier this week about season 9, keeping Sunny fresh, and the dream episode he has yet to write.

How does it feel to be entering season 9? Is it still as exciting as it was the first time around?

[Laughs] It is still as exciting. It’s exciting for me because each one of these episodes is one of my little babies. We don’t do that many, so it’s like a special time of year for us. And I’m really excited about the episodes — I mean, I think they’re great. I really think they’re as good as they’ve ever been.

I think so, too. The quality seemed just as high this past season as it did in seasons 3 or 4.

Well, I’m glad to hear you say that. We’re still pretty excited every year in the writers’ room, and we still have a lot of ideas, so it’s fun. I’m happy to hear that people still like it, that there’s been no drop in quality after this many seasons.

Do you like that the door is open for more seasons beyond the 10th, or does part of you wish the show could go out in its prime?

I’m of two minds about it. There’s always something to be said for going out on a high note and everything, but on the other hand, because we do so few of them, I don’t ever feel like we’re at the risk of burning ourselves out. It seems like people are still pretty excited every year for the show to come out. It’s obviously pretty rare for a live-action show to still be on for 10 seasons, but because we do so few, it’s not a large portion of the year that we’re on the air. So I think if there’s an appetite for more, and we’re still excited about doing them, then we’ll keep going as long as we can.

Do you feel like there’s still a wide range of scenarios you could put The Gang in?

I mean, it’s always a challenge. We’ve said in many interviews that we don’t try and top ourselves — we always get asked that, like, “How are you going to top yourselves? Last year you did this, this and this.” But we don’t ever set out to top ourselves, or at least we don’t think we do. I think on some level, you kind of have to move the bar a little bit further each time only because with us, we really like to surprise people. Because our show, I think, has had a lot of shocking, surprising moments in the past, in order to keep surprising people, you’ve got to constantly push yourself further and further. So I think that’s what becomes almost more difficult than coming up with scenarios — just figuring out a way to keep things fresh, keep things surprising.

How do you keep things surprising?

[Laughs] The advantage that you have on a young show when people don’t know the characters is you can surprise people, because you’re constantly learning new things about the characters or you’re surprising people with what the characters will do. But the advantage that you have with a show that is, I guess, as old as ours, or as seasoned as ours, is that people do have a lot of expectations going in as to how the characters are going to behave in any given situation. So by averting those expectations, or doing the exact opposite of what you would think a character would do, it becomes a new way of surprising people and getting those big laughs. It’s just a different challenge.

OK, I’m dying to hear about the “Flowers for Charlie” episode.

Rob [McElhenney] had met [David Benioff and D.B. Weiss] at a dinner party once, and I guess they confessed a lot of mutual love for each other’s shows. We found out that they were big, big, big Sunny fans — as a matter of fact, they’re kind of like rabid Sunny fans, which is really funny because most people probably wouldn’t think of them that way. So I don’t remember exactly how the idea of them actually writing an episode came up, it must’ve just come up in conversation, but they took it very seriously. They came and pitched it to us; it was kind of based on the book Flowers for Algernon, and ironically, the main character’s name in that book is Charlie also. Their idea was to do an episode where an experimental pill has come out that can increase your intelligence, and they are looking for a subject to test it on, and they find Charlie is the perfect subject. And so they begin testing this drug on him, and the results are actually pretty spectacular. I won’t say much more than that, but it was a great idea for an episode. They did a fantastic job — we didn’t have a whole lot of rewrites to do on that one.

Does it take on any of the same writing style as a Game of Thrones episode?

Not in the least bit. We didn’t want to do a Game of Thrones spoof, and I think that was the last thing in the world that they wanted to do. I think one of the main reasons they wanted to write an episode of our show was to flex different muscles as writers. I mean, I can’t think of two more opposite shows from each other. We were just so shocked that they wanted to or even had the time to do our episode. But I think it’s a testament to how talented those guys are, that they came in and wrote an episode of a totally different show.

Is there anything new you still want to explore with Dennis? Do you see him becoming even more of a sociopath?

You know, I don’t know that it’s so much a question of whether he actually becomes more of a sociopath as much as it is a question of how much of it are we actually going to see, how much of it are we going to reveal. We talk about it every year, we even have this conversation of like, Is this guy a legitimate sociopath? Is he a rapist? Is he a murderer? I don’t know that we’ll ever answer that question definitively, just because I don’t know if that’s as much fun as leaving it a little bit of a mystery. But we’ll definitely be seeing more of that behavior this season. To me it’s very, very funny, the thought that this guy could be all of those awful, awful things, but I don’t know how funny it would be if you knew for sure.

Do you identify at all with Dennis’ better qualities?

First of all, what “better qualities” are you referring to? [Laughs]

Well, he’s very funny.

Yes, he is. Well, you know, I can say that when he gets angry, when he gets frustrated about things, there’s usually a little bit of the real me coming through in those situations. I think in a lot of ways — not the really sadistic, sort of rapist side of Dennis, but the other qualities — the fragile ego, the vanity, all that kind of stuff, I think those are definitely qualities that I myself possess. I just don’t possess them to the degree that he possesses them. So he just becomes a little bit of an outlet for me to express my darker side. I’m not “that guy,” but I guess you could say that I have some of those qualities.

What’s your dream Sunny episode that you haven’t made yet?

Oh my God, wow. OK, I’ll tell you, actually: I would love to do an episode where we show how The Gang actually first got the bar, you know, back in our early 20s. And we’ve talked about doing that for awhile. The tough thing is, we look our age — it’d be tough for any of us to play 23-year-olds. Not that I want to get too caught up in stopping ourselves from doing an episode just because we maybe don’t look young enough, but at the same time, it would be good to figure out a way to make ourselves look younger. I really love the idea of doing an episode where we show the origins of Paddy’s, and that’s something we haven’t done yet. But maybe we will.

I hear you’re a big Breaking Bad fan. Would you ever want to try a dramatic role?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny, none of us are comedians. My background is not as a comedian, or in comedy, really, at all, even though I love doing comedy. I think it would be a little bit of a challenge for audiences at first to not see me as Dennis — that’s always the danger when you do a show like ours for as long as you’ve done it.

I saw Coffee Town, and you actually were pretty convincing as a decent person.

[Laughs] Well thanks, I appreciate that. I thought that would be a good opportunity to show a less psychopathic side of myself.

Is that where you met Josh Groban? I saw that he’d be on Sunny this season.

I’d actually met Josh before. I met him at a Rufus Wainwright concert once — this was after we’d already done an episode of Sunny where we established that Sweet Dee’s character was obsessed with him. I asked him if he’d seen the episode, and he had, because he’s a fan of the show, which I thought was really cool. We actually hung out a couple times, and then when his name came up to be part of Coffee Town, I already kind of knew the guy, which was pretty awesome. And he’s just a super, super cool dude and really, really funny. I thought he was great in Coffee Town.

He was. I read somewhere that he tried to play his character like the lead singer of Creed.

[Laughs] That’s really funny. I don’t know that I knew that’s what he was doing, but now that I think about it, that seems about right. Yeah, I’m excited — I don’t know when we’re going to air his episode, but he’s really, really funny in it.

So which episode from the new season is your favorite?

That’s a tough question to answer. But I am really, really, really excited about the season opener, “The Gang Broke Dee.” I think that episode is on par with the best episodes that we’ve ever, ever done. It’s just super funny, and it’s surprising, and Kaitlin [Olson] is amazing. I mean, last season was one of my favorite seasons we’ve ever done, and I think this season’s on par, man. I’m really, really excited.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia airs Wednesday nights at 10 on FXX.

Meera Jagannathan is a freelance writer and grad student living in Syracuse, N.Y.

Talking to Glenn Howerton About Season 9 of ‘It’s […]