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Kaitlin Olson on Improv, It’s Always Sunny, and Her New Sitcom The Mick

For over a decade, Kaitlin Olson has been a pivotal part of one of TV’s most stellar sitcom ensembles, playing It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s caustic, put-upon bartender Deandra “Sweet Dee” Reynolds. An alumnus of the prestigious Groundlings improv troupe, Olson’s place in modern pop culture is secure thanks to Dee, a brilliant comic creation whose deep neuroses and self-delusion make her hilariously awful.

Now, Olson is venturing to other side of TV production with The Mick, a new Fox sitcom set to debut on New Year’s Day. Co-created by brothers (and Sunny veterans) John and Dave Chernin, The Mick stars Olson as Mackenzie “Mickey” Murphy, a rowdy party girl who assumes guardianship of her obscenely rich niece and nephews after her multimillionaire sister flees the country. While Sunny was created by her husband and co-star Rob McElhenney, The Mick is Olson’s first time anchoring a major project, and in her capacity as executive producer and leading lady, she’s pushing to bring the kind of edgy comedy she’s mastered on Sunny to network TV.

During a break in her hectic shooting schedule, Olson spoke with Vulture about the differences between Dee and Mickey, getting pushback from Fox, and whether her young co-stars get the show’s very frank jokes about sex and drugs.

How much input did you have in developing the Mickey character?
John and Dave came to me with a fully formed pilot script, and I really loved it, so in terms of creating the character, I think they were about 80 percent there. It was such a good script. I couldn’t say no, then I sort of massaged it into my own thing. But producing does give me the ability to have some creative control, in terms of the content and hiring the actors and editing. I just feel like it helps make it the show I want it to be. When you’re just acting in something, you kind of do what everyone tells you to do. I mean, that doesn’t happen on Sunny. I can bring my own aesthetic to that. But this has sort of become my baby. We’ve really become a good team, John and Dave and I. It’s nice because there’s three of us, so if two of us agree on something the other person is just out. [Laughs.]

It probably helps that they’re Sunny veterans, too.
They wrote on Sunny for many seasons and the episodes they wrote are some of my favorites. They’re also just really amazing, fun guys to hang out with. They’re good friends of mine. It was a pretty easy decision to do this show. We’re a good match. We have the same sense of humor, and they want to make the same show that I want to make.

You seem to be working on a much larger scale with The Mick. What’s it like jumping to network TV?
Yeah, and it pops up in different areas. Like marketing and publicity. I’m finding myself doing a lot more for this show than I’ve ever done before. When we started Sunny, we were the teeniest, tiniest little show with no budget. We can do a lot more in season one of The Mick. Now that Sunny is in its 12th season, we’re able to work with bigger budgets and do some bigger things, but certainly I’m feeling the difference being on a network show versus being on cable.

Has your experience on a lean, low-budget show helped to make this production go faster or run smoother?
Y’know, it’s really a different animal. On Sunny, we’re not working with kids every single day, and that’s certainly something that has to be taken into consideration. On Sunny, the main actors are adults and we’re all friends and we all have the same sense of humor, so there’s a lot of improvising. That’s limited a little bit here. We do work with the kids a bit on improv, because I still want to be able to do that and I want them to feel the freedom to do it. But it’s very new to them. They’re used to being told what to do and not really having an opinion on it. I encourage them to bring their own energy. If they have their own ideas — or what they think their character would do in a certain situation or what they think their character would say — then we can play around a little bit. But that mainly means that the days run longer. Sunny is a well-oiled machine by this point, so we get in and out. We’re still finding our way on The Mick. But that also makes it more fun, because it’s still really fresh and new.

Mickey isn’t exactly like Dee, but both are pretty willing to indulge their urges without a second thought. As an actress, how do make sure you’re not repeating yourself?
That was definitely my main concern when I first read the script. I thought it was really funny, and I knew I could make it special, but I thought hard about whether I could make Mickey different from Dee. The main difference for me is that Dee is deeply insecure, and everything she does stems from her desire to make the rest of the gang like her and want to include her. That’s the only reason I can wrap my head around her staying in this bar for 12 years. [Laughs.] They’re completely disrespectful to her, but she just wants them to be proud of her and like her. Mickey honestly does not care what anybody else thinks about her. She is completely independent, and does whatever she wants to do. She’s much stronger than Dee. I think Dee is hilarious, but she’s a very weak character.

Did you play any characters like Dee and Mickey in your improv days?
Not specifically, but in Groundlings, you’re playing like a million characters and you’re all over the place. I like playing these characters who are just on the edge of ridiculous, but always grounded in reality. I would never want to come across as a cartoon. I think you can do that in a lot of different ways. There’s a really wonderful way to play dumb characters, as long as it doesn’t get ditzy. There’s a really great way to play an insecure character, as long as it doesn’t get wimpy. You know what I mean? That’s what I love doing — finding ways to make a personality as extreme as you can before it starts to get goofy.

Does Mickey spring from any personal experience, or is she purely imagined?
I’m fascinated by people who don’t care what people think of them, because I have spent pretty much my entire life trying to learn that skill. I grew up as a shy little girl who took note of everything you were supposed to do and not supposed to do. I recognized at some point in my 20s that that’s not how you have to live. I became fascinated by people who know how to be comfortable in their own skin, even when they know someone else is upset with them. I think that’s why I love this Mickey character so much. She really doesn’t care — and I do. But I’m getting much better at letting that roll off.

I don’t know, I’m getting very deep here. [Laughs.] This is something I’d talk about with a therapist. I’d just say that I’m fascinated with that personality. My husband has a little bit of that, and I respect it so much. He’s such a great guy, and a team player, and a wonderful boss, but he also actively practices being comfortable with people not liking him. He’s not a Mickey, though, don’t get me wrong.

Has it been tricky for you and Rob, juggling Sunny, your separate projects, plus raising your kids?
We thought it was going to be, but it’s just worked out that when I got really busy with The Mick, he was deep into writing the Minecraft movie and could make his own schedule. During the times when I’ve been gone in the mornings, he’s been able to be daddy and get them breakfast and get them dressed and get them off to school. And then I’m usually there at night. It’s working out nicely. Around the time I’m wrapping The Mick, that’s when he’ll go off and shoot the movie. Hopefully we’ll be able to keep balancing it. Right now we’re taking it one day at a time. The kids are our number one priority, so we’ll always make sure that one of us is there.

Living in L.A., have you met any kids as rich and spoiled as the characters on The Mick?
No, no. I have not come across children like this. If I did, I would not be friends with their parents for very long. [Laughs.] Look, I know very wealthy people, and they’re also really wonderful people with great values. I don’t think it’s about how much money you have, it’s what kind of person you are and what kind of parent you want to be. These kids are spoiled brats because they have horrible parents and terrible influences. Ultimately, I think that’s why this show works. You root for Mickey because she takes the place of two people who should not be parenting these children. Her sister and her sister’s husband are horrible, horrible people. I think that’s why the audience can be comfortable that the kids are left with her. Even though her way of going about it is ridiculous, she wants to teach them how to take care of themselves in the world.

Do the child actors know how raunchy the material is? Do you have to shoot around some things?
We’re definitely aware of working around Jack [Stanton], who’s only 8. I’m a mom of two little boys, so it’s really important to me that his mom and dad are comfortable with what we’re asking him to say, and what we’re letting him listen to. If there’s ever an uncomfortable situation that I’m not sure about or his parents aren’t sure about, we just shoot around him. Then Thomas [Barbusca] is 13, and, y’know, he’s fine. He’s been exposed to so many different things in his career. His mom is really cool with it. They understand that he’s acting and it’s not real life and he’s not a little kid. And Sofia [Black-D’Elia] is actually 25, so … [Laughs.]

Have you gotten any pushback from Fox about the show’s content?
Yep. [Laughs.] My answer is yes, we do. And I understand. This is going to be a tricky thing. We want to do something that they’re uncomfortable with, but that they ultimately really want. They need to trust us that we’re ultimately going to do it in a tasteful way, and we need to trust them that they know their audience. We’re in year one of a relationship and we’re just figuring it out with each other. So far, it’s been going really well.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Kaitlin Olson on Her New Fox Sitcom, The Mick