The Days of Disco – An Interview with Charlie Day & Mary Elizabeth Ellis
You know that show that you love so much that you can’t believe that it actually made it onto the airwaves? The one that isn’t even on a paychannel, Comedy Central, or Adult Swim. It’s crass, but extremely well-written and it doesn’t pander to the mainstream television audience by diluting itself. When you watch it, you can sense that it is the result of an original idea followed through to the end with little or no corporate intervention and restrictions.
Oh, you do?! Now how about one that hasn’t been cancelled?
If you are still with me, you probably know about It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The FX Network program’s pilot was originally shot as a short film by 3 struggling actors in LA for no more than the price of the DV tape. They were then actually ballsy enough to try and sell it to networks by demanding positions as executive producers, head writers, and starring actors. It worked out and was so well received that Danny Devito actually returned to television just to be part of the cast.
If you haven’t seen it, or even if you have, I suggest that you save your tip money and go out and buy seasons 1 and 2 on dvd. Oh, you “need that money“?! No you don’t. Just smoke your friends weed. Bring the show over and they will be happy to kick down. The program has actually been Monster Fresh tested and approved to heighten the effects of chronic herbs. Your friends won’t kick you down? Sorry kids, but remember there are always knife hits.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Charlie Day, one of the 3 co-creators/writers/producers/stars of the show, and his wife Mary Elizabeth Ellis about their experiences as a couple and about starting the new third season, among other things. You may recognize Mary Elizabeth from the program, as well. She’s the one playing the coffee house waitress. Yep, that one. The one who Charlie (Day’s character) always tries to lay his mack down on, but she refuses to holla back. [If you haven't caught on yet, this is a Sucker Free interview]
[Monster Fresh]: I appreciate you guys doing this interview with me, especially because I know that I have totally slacked on it, but I recently threw my back out, because I am, apparently, out of shape. People ask me how I did it and I have to tell them that I fucked it up by just standing in place or, possibly, from looking at something. Do either of you have any ideas about something a little more hardcore that I could use as an excuse? You know, maybe something involving leg wrestling or a puma?
[CHARLIE]: You could tell people that you got bit by a snake in the back just before you killed your first snake.
[Mary Elizabeth]: Here’s my secret
I know that the cast resides in L.A. but how much of the program is, or has been, filmed in Philadelphia beyond the opening credits? Do you take any specific measures to include or exclude anything that would disrupt the impression that it takes place in the city?
I’d say 40 percent of what you’ve seen was shot in Philly. We go every season and shoot there for a few days. We put the scenes in each episode to give the show it’s Philly feel.
During the pilot shoot, my first cheese steak was at Pat’s. It hurt some and I cried a little, but I felt like an adult afterwards. I remember looking in the mirror to see if I looked older. The next year I had a salad b/c I was a g.damned actress on a Real TV show now and I had to be skinny. So I guess I never really gave Geno a chance. He seems like a good guy though.
I don’t care for cheese steaks. They make me shit my pants.
I know that you Rob (Mcelhenney) and Glenn (Howerton) were all actors in L.A. and that the original idea was to have your characters mirror just that. The idea to switch it up to bar owners in Philadelphia works great but I was wondering if there were any other suggestions that were toyed with before settling with that.
The Network didn’t want to make another show about actors in LA so we changed it. Rob grew up in Philly and we liked the idea of the characters running a dive bar there. It was a simple decision really.
I think they needed an occupation that would give them as much free time and ability to be fuck ups as being an actor does. There aren’t too many other feasible options.
So you guy’s just recently did a promotional road trip to different colleges, is that right?
We did a few colleges on the list but not all of them. The guys and I have been pretty slammed trying to finish this season.
Charlie and I had some other shit going on for a few of the first schools and then we had what felt like Pneumonia so we only made it to Penn. It was really fun though. People who love the show really love it and they are awesome! Of course, there are always the crazies who want any random person’s autograph just in case they may become famous one day far in the future and that is weird. You can usually tell they’re the latter if they look blankly into your eyes begging for a piece of your soul.
This hands on advertisement seems fairly innovative and personable and the concepts for the contests that have been set up to promote the show have seemed fitting as well, but have you had any suggestions thrown at you guys that you had to turn down flat for one reason or another? Anything along the lines of “It’s Always Sunny” in-soles or bondage gear?
We tried to do any advertisement they asked us to do this year. There was nothing too crazy. One guy did come to us with the idea of making Sunny pizza boxes and giving them to pizza places in college town but the Network didn’t go for it. I liked the idea.
As far as promotion goes, it sure has taken a step up, this season especially. The biggest issue that I have found is that so many people have said to me, “When is this fucking show on? I keep hearing about it but I can never find it.” I’ve also heard that word-of-mouth may have been a main factor in keeping you on the air past the first season. I imagine that there must have been points when you guys were concerned about contract renewals. Does FX offer the benefit of still being at the point where they can afford to take the time to push something like this that they believe in simply for its quality, without the same pressures as a larger network might face?
As for people not being able to find the show, don’t get me started. It drives me crazy, but now the DVD is out so that should help.
I’d like to answer that by commenting on how many people told me how excited they are to check out the show’s first season this year. Never heard of it before. So yeah, publicity stepped up a bit.
One cancelled show that I loved was The State. Both of you appeared on the same episode of Reno 911 (created by members of The State) back in 2004, where you played in-bred twins. That was 2 years before you were married. Were you already dating at the time, if so, how does something like that fire up a romance?
We were dating at the time and asked if we could go in together. We got to choose to either play a victim or perp, so we decided to be brother/sister lovers. Obviously, right? It was so fun to improv with Thomas Lennon, Ben Garant, and Kerri Kenney. What a great feeling to crack them up. It’s been one of my favorite acting experiences so far, because I was obsessed with The State, as well. We shot so much more than what aired. It was a rad experience.
Nothing says, “This is the girl I want to marry” like pretending she’s your sister and making out with her to get a job.
Mary Elizabeth Ellis, when researching your name via google, I found out that you died at the age of 80 from a sudden illness, that you were born a “Free black in Lynchburg VA in 1835,” and that you have a background in theater, as does Charlie. Did you originally have a focus on stage work or did you always plan on going into film and Television?
I am an enigma wrapped in a riddle smothered with rhyme. I started on stage and continue to work on stage actually-doing plays with Red Weather Theatre in L.A. and my band/performance art group The Discount Cruise to Hell. Check that shit out. I just really love exploring acting and I’m no Naomi Watts apparently. Where are all my fucking starring film roles?! Can I not play opposite a gorilla or Viggo Mortensen? David lynch- call me!
Actually, I know that you are from Mississippi. All that I know of Mississippi, unfortunately, comes from 8-Ball and MJG songs and from what I learned from a woman in her 50’s that I sat next to on a Greyhound heading to Nashville from Atlanta. She told me that she grew up eating Cougar meat. What’s the craziest beast that anyone ever tried to serve you?
That woman was either crazy or she ate all the cougar before I was born ‘cuz I ain’t never et cougar. There is, however, a delicious recipe for “Cooter Pie” and “Mock Cooter Soup” in my favorite cookbook which is entitled “White Trash Cooking.” My mother offered it to my boyfriend in high school, and I was mortified. Now I make a pretty sweet M.C.S., if I do say so myself.
How do you enjoy playing someone who despises Charlie?
It tears me up inside.
I thought that I had seen your character listed as “Vanessa” or something somewhere before, does your character still not have a name, or am I still tripping in a Phish lot somewhere?
Oh, I think we’re all in that Phish lot sir. I believe it’s a plot point. Don’t screw it up.
Your character seems to show up just often enough to be effective as a “straight man,” or, in this case, just someone with average enough ethics. Is that how you view your role on the program?
Oh no- I have a whole back-story about what the waitress does when she isn’t where the cameras are catching the action. Oh man, I need some more work.
The characters often encourage each other to do horrible shit, but they can also at times prevent each other from it. It seems that one tactic that has been used, especially at the beginning of this new season, is to separate each other so that they are able to take things to the extreme levels that each character is capable of without any outside force to prevent them from going there.
I wish I had some force. Any kind of it.
You guys seem to use a few other characters at times as more ethical characters to play off and redirect energy in the script. Stephen Collins has appeared on the program, as well as Dennis Haskins and Lynne Marie Stewart. It’s clear that Danny (Devito) has taken openly to the scripts without hesitation, but do you find that these other actors welcome an opportunity to work in a forum that would, otherwise, not be expected of them at this point in there established careers?
People love to act on the show ‘cuz it is a very actor friendly set. We encourage these established actors to play with the dialogue in ways they might not always get to. But I can’t say that for sure, because I never worked on 7th Heaven or Saved By the Bell.
Lynne Marie Stewart was part of the Groundlings improv group, as was Kaitlin Olson, and Brittany Daniel was on That 80’s Show with Glenn. Is that how they were brought into working with you guys on the program?
Lynne Marie and Kaitlin auditioned, but Brittany was friends with Glenn so we just asked her to do the part.
I’ve noticed that you’ve been able to experiment with adding more background characters in scenes, as well as messing around with inner dialogue and acid tracer effects this season. These things seem to add to the show without fucking up its consistency. You’ve even pulled off some pretty bold moves, as in making Frank Charlie’s Dad and killing off Dennis and Dee’s mom, without missing a beat. How much debate goes into what to use that will help enhance the show without destroying it?
A lot of debate goes into the writing, but I don’t think a show can be destroyed. It’s a TV show not an embryo.
This season you made an episode availabe on Myspace that hasn’t even been aired and are now airing new back to back episodes every week. Was there a particular strategy behind that?
The Myspace episode leak was the Networks idea. I guess it had something to do with building hype.
You guys have always done the writing yourselves. Was it hard to add some writers this year?
It was easy to bring on new writers, but we still worked a lot on each episode.
As a wife who never sees my husband, I say, bring on more writers and editors. Please sweet Jesus.
I have one last question. You guys really seem to jab at each other in person like you do on the program, if not more. I know that you like to bust on Rob for being mistaken for Haley Joel Osment. Is Glenn’s girlfriend in a Trojan condom commercial, or does she just resemble that girl?
The Haley Joel Osment thing is crazy, one time we got off a plane in Philly and some woman cornered Rob insisting he was Haley. He denied it, but Glenn, Kaitlin, Mary Elizabeth, and myself confirmed the woman’s suspicions. As for Glenn’s girl being the Trojan girl, I don’t think that is the case, but it could be. That’s not the kinda thing you run around telling people.
I have no idea, but Jill is totally hot and she can be in my Trojan commercial anyday.
(It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia airs @ 10pm Thursday Nights on the FX Network)