‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ Creator Rob McElhenney Shot and Recast the Pilot 3 Times Because ‘It Wasn’t Good Enough’

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is going into its 15th season. So co-creator Rob McElhenney can look back on the TV series‘ humble beginnings. He and creators Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton made their pilot in 2004 while McElhenney still had a day job. They kept shooting it over and over again, too. 

Rob McElhenney and Kaitlin Olson
Rob McElhenney and Kaitlin Olson | Patrick McElhenney/FXX

McElhenney was a guest on the Smartless podcast on June 7 talking about his Apple TV+ show Mythic Quest. He did tell the story about buying a video camera to make the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia pilot and recasting several roles. 

Rob McElhenny was a waiter making ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ on the side

Today, directors like Steven Soderbergh can make feature films on an iPhone. Before McElhenney hit it big, he had to buy a video camera to make his It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia demo.

“The show is so old that it is well before iPhones,” McElhenney said. “Smartphones didn’t even exist. This was in 2004. I just went to Best Buy and I was working at a restaurant at the time. And I took out a credit card and I just bought a camera. Then we just learned how to edit on our Macbooks.”

Why Rob McElhenney shot the ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ pilot at least 3 times

McElhenney wasn’t satisfied with the first cut of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. He asked his friends to reshoot it again, but he couldn’t pay them. 

“We realized it wasn’t good enough so we shot it again,” McElhenney said. “Then we realized it wasn’t good enough so we shot it again and we would just keep shooting it whenever people were available in our various apartments. We had different iterations. At one point I had a different person playing the character that I wound up playing who then moved on to being a different character on the show. He wasn’t able to reshoot it for the third time because his girlfriend was in town.”

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia gang is surprised
L-R: Rob McElhenney, Danny DeVito, Kaitlin Olson and Glenn Howerton | Patrick McElhenney/FXX

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It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia was just a side project until it wasn’t anymore. McElhenney even shot episode two before he pitched it to networks.

“We were never thinking we were making a TV show,, we were just trying to make something fun and something good,” McElhenney said. “We just kept iterating because  it wasn’t good enough and then finally we thought it was good enough. Then we thought wow, this could be a TV show but if we’re going to try to sell it, we should make a second one so that we can prove that a waiter can be a showrunner. I think I was 25 or 26 at the time. So we wanted to make a second one to have this package we could take around town.”

The first episode was still a VHS tape 

Not only did McElhenney make It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia on video, but he screened it that way too. McElhenney said 2004 era DVD-Roms wouldn’t always play in studio DVD players, so to be safe he brought a VHS tape to every meeting.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: Rob McElhenney
Rob McElhenney | Patrick McElhenney/FXX

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“This is how long ago it was,” McElhenney said. “Even though DVDs did exist, at the time, when you burned them off of Macs, you couldn’t count on them. They were unreliable so we had to transfer it to a VHS tape. So I had a VHS tape which we would take around. Over two days, I took it to seven networks and we had offers from all of them except one. Fox. Fox just didn’t get it.”

Source: Smartless podcast