Brecht’s Alienation Effect in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Bertolt Brecht once said that “[t]heatre consists in this: in making live representations of reported or invented happenings between human beings and doing so with a view to entertain” (“A Short Organum for the Theatre” 180). Brecht died August 14, 1956, but his words still remain largely relevant today (Encyclopedia Britannica). At the time of Brecht’s death, the television set was just beginning to gain widespread popularity. Since 1956, TV hasn’t replaced theatre, but it has provided an outlet and a voice to thousands of writers. Rob McElhenney, the creator of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, is one of those writers. While McElhenney isn’t quite a descendant of Brecht, he has created a television show that actively incorporates features of Brecht’s epic theatre, whether McElhenney’s aware of it or not. Through political satire, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia incorporates Brecht’s “alienation effect” to address a variety of relevant political and social issues in the United States (“A Short Organum for the Theatre” 192).
In 2005 the pilot episode aired of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. In 2017, the show is on its twelfth season and counting. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia follows the “Gang” which consists of Mac, Dennis, Charlie, Dee, and after season one onward, Frank. Rob McElhenney plays Mac, Dennis is played by Glenn Howerton, Charlie is played by Charlie Day, Dee is played by Kaitlin Olson, and Frank is played by Danny DeVito. While McElhenney is credited as the creator, Glenn Howerton and Charlie Day are also writers for the show (IMDb It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has become a cult favorite over its twelve seasons and hasn’t been known to shy away from relevant political and social issues. As a perverted version of a sitcom, the show typically tackles social and political issues through the lens of comedy and satire. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s prime goal seems to always be to entertain, which Brecht would approve of. Over the span of its twelve seasons the show has managed to address an array of grey areas, from evolution vs creationism to gun laws in the United States. Addressing these kinds of issues can be a risky endeavor, no doubt, but the show has managed to do so and remain successful. I posit that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has managed to remain popular and beloved by fans because it has addressed political issues by “making live representations of reported or invented happenings between human beings,” just like Brecht did in his own writing (“A Short Organum for the Theatre” 180). As a playwright, Brecht focused intensely on engaging his audience. Brecht was concerned with engaging his audience mentally, though, instead of trying to gain their empathy. Brecht employed a tactic which he referred to as the “‘alienation effect’ (A-effect)” (“A Short Organum for the Theatre” 192). Brecht defined this tactic: “[a] representation that alienates is one which allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar” (“A Short Organum for the Theatre”192). If implemented correctly, the alienation effect allows an audience to be freed from “socially conditioned phenomena,” enabling them to see the political or social message in a work of art (“A Short Organum for the Theatre”192). The writing staff of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia takes a similar stance, which is evident in the traits of each character in the show. To avoid viewers empathizing with any character, most of the Gang possess at least one repulsive flaw to disconnect the audience from that character. Mac is both homophobic and also quite possibly a homosexual. Dennis is narcissistic, egotistical, and an alleged rapist. Charlie stalks a waitress he’s in love with who despises him, as well as huffs glue and toxic chemicals to get high. Dee is similar to Dennis in that she is both narcissistic and egotistical, as well. Frank is constantly trying to dupe the Gang and everyone else around him in some monetary scam. Finally, every member of the Gang is an alcoholic. These alienating traits make it hard for a viewer to empathize with any member of the gang because very few people, if not none at all, wish to be an alleged rapist or an alcoholic.
Acknowledging that fact, it’s easy to see how McElhenney and the writing staff of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia apply similar writing strategies that Brecht applied in his own plays. However, this is not the only connection to Brecht’s alienation effect that can be found in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. In season nine, episode two, “Gun Fever Too: Still Hot,” the Gang takes sides on the issue of gun laws in America. Frank goes on a local news station to tell his tale of bravery against a group of muggers. He claims he was saved by his “pieces,” advocating that the citizens of Philadelphia go to Gunther’s Guns so that they don’t have to be a “victim” and can “fight back” against crime. The rest of the Gang watches the broadcast and is all in agreement that they’re “hot” on the issue. They presume they’re hot for the same reasons, but it turns out that Mac and Charlie want “more guns on the streets” while Dennis and Dee think it’s “way too easy for anybody to just walk into a store and get a gun” (00:00:40-00:02:00). The Gang splits off and tries to prove to each other that they’re correct on the matter. However, just the opposite happens. Charlie and Mac try to teach students from a local school how to wield various makeshift weapons, which turns into a bloodbath. Dennis and Dee try to buy a gun from Gunther’s and are denied based on their criminal records. Then they try to steal an assault rifle from a gun show, which causes all of the attendants to draw their own weapons on Dennis and Dee. After their multiple failed attempts to buy an assault rifle, Dennis and Dee realize that the “only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” (00:18:15-00:18:26). Once they’ve all flip-flopped their positions, they immediately turn against Frank. They confront Frank and to their confusion find that he’s loading up a truck with water filters. Dennis and Dee try to get Frank to go to the gun rally Frank organized, but Frank replies “I’m not gonna go down there, there’s gonna be a bunch of nuts with guns — too dangerous” (00:19:20-00:19:30). Frank goes on to explain that he bought a stake in Gunther’s Guns, got everyone scared so they’d buy guns, and made a fortune. Now, he’s on to a different scam: pretending Philadelphia’s water supply is tainted so that citizens buy his water filters. Dennis accuses Frank of being like the NRA, to which Frank replies “yeah, little bit like the NRA, little tiny bit. But I think of myself more like Al Gore. He got everybody worked up over global warming, then he made millions! Everybody does it. Liberals, Conservatives, doesn’t matter. This is America, you’re either a dupe-r or a dupe-e. I’m a dupe-r. You guys are the dupe-es! I gotta go” (00:19:42-00:20:08).
This dialogue from Frank is extremely blatant and sounds in tone like a direct statement from the writing staff. Most Americans are familiar with Al Gore, global warming, and the perception that politicians are money-hungry crooks. Danny DeVito delivers these lines in a comical manner because the show’s primary objective is to entertain, similar to Brecht’s objective with his own plays. However, these lines say a great deal about politics in America, which takes a viewer out of the fictional realm of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. As mentioned before, the perception that politicians are money-hungry crooks has been rooted in American culture for decades. Furthermore, Frank’s dialogue works on another level. Frank inspires the Gang to act, to try to incite change. However, Frank admits it was all a scam proving the Gang’s efforts to be a waste of time. Essentially, Frank created an elaborate distraction while he profited off of people’s panic. Politicians are accused of this same act constantly. Donald Trump has recently called out NFL players like Colin Kaepernick for being disrespectful towards the American flag. “Wouldn’t you love to see some of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired! He’s fired’” (Trump’s Attacks On The NFL Distract The Press). Trump is effectively controlling the media with his boisterous statements. Brett Edkins explains that “Trump has good reason to distract the press. His preferred candidate is poised to lose Tuesday’s Senate Primary election in Alabama. The Graham-Cassidy healthcare bill is one vote shy of failure, and Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation is picking up steam” (Trump’s Attacks On The NFL Distract The Press). Frank and Trump operate in similar ways. By controlling the media, they both have an easier time getting what they want. Frank’s dialogue alienates viewers because it directly relates to viewers’ real, everyday lives. It isn’t line of dialogue that solely exists in the fictional world of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, it’s a blatant statement from the writing staff that groups like the NRA, and people like Al Gore and Donald Trump, manipulate the media to their own benefit. Frank makes a brazen statement about real world events. By doing this, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia follows in Brecht’s footsteps. McElhenney and the writing staff are showing viewers a relevant problem in American society, but they manage to do so in a comical, entertaining manner via their political satire.
Another example of how It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia incorporates Brecht’s alienation effect comes from season eight, episode 10, “Reynolds vs. Reynolds: The Cereal Offense.” The title gets its name from a car accident that occurs between Dennis and Frank. Dennis is stopped at a traffic light when Frank hits him from behind. Both Dennis and Frank are uninjured, but the interior of Dennis’ car is damaged. Except the only reason the interior was damaged was because Dennis was eating a bowl of cereal while driving. Dennis demands Frank pay for the damages, but Frank considers it reckless to drive while eating cereal in the first place. The only solution the Gang can come up is to have an impromptu court case. Dee supports Dennis, while Mac and Charlie support Frank, but they all agree to hear each other out before making a final decision. Quickly, Dee and Dennis try to tear Mac and Charlie apart, preying on their differing opinions on religion and evolution. Mac, a devout Catholic, insists that “evolution is bullshit — it’s not real” (00:11:43-00:11:54). This comment enrages Charlie and causes Frank to call for a recess. Frank explains to Mac that Mac needs to seem credible to Charlie if Frank wants to win the case. Mac’s solution is to try to persuade the rest of the gang that evolution isn’t real. Mac comes out with a poster board presentation for the rest of the Gang and says “I’m not going to stand here and present some egghead scientific argument based on fact. I’m just a regular dude. I like to drink beer. I love my family. Rock, flag, and eagle. Right, Charlie?” Mac continues to say Dee and Dennis (“liberals”) are trying to assassinate his character, but dismisses their attempts when he says “I won’t change my mind because I don’t have to. Because I’m an American. I won’t change my mind on anything regardless of the facts that are set out before me. I’m dug in. And I’ll never change” (00:13:06-00:13:41).
These lines are obviously a critique of ignorance in America. McElhenney delivers these lines similarly to DeVito, in the previous example, in the sense that both instances are meant to draw laughter, to entertain. However, ignorance in America isn’t necessarily a laughing matter. At a Minnesota town hall meeting, during John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, McCain was forced to stop some of his supporters’ hateful and ignorant comments about Barack Obama. One of his supporters commented that he was scared to raise his unborn child in a nation run by Obama. McCain, a Republican, was forced to defend Obama, and the truth, commenting that “he [Obama] is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared of as President of the United States,” which promptly earned McCain boos from his own supporters (McClatchy DC Bureau). Another woman later voiced her opinion on Obama saying “I don’t trust Obama…He’s an Arab” (McClatchy DC Bureau). In retrospect, after two terms of an Obama administration, these types of comments are clearly baseless and hateful. This type of ignorance in America has deep roots, as deep as the foundation of the nation. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia acknowledges its existence in this episode, and while Mac’s dialogue doesn’t mention specific real world occurrences, it’s obvious that the show is mocking American ignorance. When Mac asks for reassurance from Charlie, it’s almost as if he’s mockingly asking: “Right, America?” This type of appeal to the audience follows in line with Brecht’s direct addresses to his own audience, as seen in Man equals Man. Widow Begbick sings in the interlude “Herr Bertolt Brecht maintains man equals man” (Collected Plays: Two 38). Begbick directly explains to the audience what Brecht is trying to convey in his play. When Mac seeks reassurance from Charlie, it equates to a similar alienation effect, even if isn’t a fourth-wall breaking moment like Brecht had incorporated.
However, Mac’s defense of his beliefs actually turns out to be somewhat credible. Mac explains that “science is a liar, sometimes” (00:13:57-00:14:03). He references three key science figureheads throughout history: Aristotle, Galileo, and Sir Isaac Newton. He first explains that while Aristotle was thought to be the smartest man on Earth, he also thought that Earth was the center of the universe. Mac says that “everybody believed him because he was so smart” (00:14:00-00:14:10). Next Mac moves on to Galileo, explaining that Galileo proved the sun was the center of the universe, not the earth, making Aristotle, and everybody else on earth, “look like a bitch” (00:14:20-00:14:25). Then Mac says that Galileo thought “comets were and optical illusion” and “there’s no way that the moon could cause the oceans tide,” which everybody in Galileo’s time believed, because “he was so smart” (00:14:26-00:14:40). Mac continues, saying that Galileo was wrong and made everybody on earth “look like a bitch, again” (00:14:40-00:14:44). Mac then says “Sir Isaac Newton gets born and blows everybody’s nips off with his big brains. Of course he also thought he could turn metal into gold and died eating mercury. Making him yet another stupid bitch! Are you seeing a pattern?” (00:14:47-00:14:58). Dennis says he doesn’t and criticizes Mac, but Mac says that each one of the three scientists were supposed to be the smartest people on the planet, but they “kept being wrong, sometimes” (00:15:05-00:15:14). Mac then defends his faith in the saints that wrote the bible, which Dennis then criticizes: “you just read the words of a bunch of guys that you never met and you just take it on ‘faith’ that everything they wrote was true” (00:15:20-00:15:30). Mac then wonders why Dennis would have more faith in scientists than in saints. Dennis replies “because there are volumes of proven data. Numbers, figures, there are fossil records” (00:15:32-00:15:40). Mac then delivers his final point: “have you seen these fossil records?” Dennis replies that no, he hasn’t seen any fossil records in person, or sifted through the “numbers” himself (00:15:47-00:15:58). Mac drives the nail in the coffin at this point, “you get your information from a book, written by men you’ve never met, and you take their words as truth, based on a willingness to believe. A desire to accept. A leap of (dare I say it?) faith?” (00:16:05-00:16:30). This changes the entire Gang’s mind about evolution, except Dennis of course.
This is yet another example of Brecht’s alienation effect being incorporated into It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Mac is seen, at first, as an ignorant American. He uses the political tactic of dog-whistling to gain the approval of Charlie, using code words like “rock, flag, and eagle” that Mac knows will enrapture his prime audience. But then, as Mac continues, he becomes increasingly credible. All of a sudden this seemingly ignorant, laughably close-minded individual starts to miraculously sound lucid. As a viewer, it’s difficult to not give Mac some credit, even if you support evolution. Mac makes the fair point that unless you’re the scientist yourself, or the saint yourself, you are forced to take other people’s words on faith. Glenn Howerton, who plays Dennis and also writes for the show, fielded a question on Twitter about this episode and Mac’s argument specifically. Howerton remarks “[w]e worked very hard on that scene to make the most credible argument we could for Creationism” (@GlennHowerton 10/18/17). He continues in another tweet “[w]e felt it was important to represent both sides as convincingly as we possibly could. Which was admittedly not easy” (@GlennHowerton 10/18/17). It’s clear that the writing staff of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia takes their political satire seriously. It’s their art, their voice, their vehicle to entertain and create change. They want to fairly represent issues, while simultaneously presenting a critique of their society. Evolution vs. creationism is still a topic of debate in America and it finds relevancy in many different discourses. Merriam Webster cites “two recent examples of creationism from the web” (Merriam Webster: Creationism). The first is from the Smithsonian and states that “[t]he culturally conservative party has vetoed same-sex marriage legislation, opposes making abortion legal, and its members deny climate change and have supported the teaching of creationism” (Lorraine Boissoneault). The second source explains “[s]chool choice critics point to the fact that most private school don’t need state accreditation to operate and that some private schools teach creationism in science classes” (Emily Swanson). From these two examples it’s evident that the evolution vs. creationism is an extremely politically charged issue, one that’s capable of dividing political parties. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia doesn’t want its viewers to pick a side in “Reynolds vs. Reynolds: The Cereal Offense,” the viewer isn’t supposed to empathize with Dennis or with Frank. Instead, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia alienates its viewers from the characters and plot by introducing a relevant, real world topic of debate.
Bertolt Brecht outlined his theory of the alienation effect in “A Short Organum for the Theatre” over the course of two years, 1947-1948 (“A Short Organum for the Theatre” 180). While Brecht may have intended for the alienation effect to become incorporated primarily into plays, it can be found in TV shows as well. From gun laws to evolution, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has addressed many relevant political and social issues through the lens of political satire. When the show does address relevant political and social issues, they alienate the audience from the characters and the plot to ensure the audience sees the political or social commentary being presented. In this way, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia incorporates the alienation effect, a key feature of Brechtian theatre, into their TV show.
Brecht, Bertolt. “The Modern Theatre is the Epic Theatre.” “A Short Organum for the Theatre.” Brecht on Theatre: the Development of an Aesthetic, edited by John Willett, Twenty-Sixth Printing, 1996.
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Bertolt Brecht.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 29 Aug. 2017, www.britannica.com/biography/Bertolt-Brecht.
“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (TV Series 2005– ).” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt0472954/?ref_=nv_sr_1.
“Gun Fever Too: Still Hot.” It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, created by Rob McElhenney, season 9, episode 5, FX, 11 Sep. 2013.
Edkins, Brett. “Trump’s Attacks On The NFL Distract The Press.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 24 Sept. 2017, www.forbes.com/sites/brettedkins/2017/09/24/trumps-attacks-on-the-nfl-distract-the-press/#7530b1a31402.
“Reynolds vs. Reynolds: The Cereal Defense.” It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, created by Rob McElhenney, season 8, episode 10, FX, 20 Dec. 2012.
Talev, Margaret, and William Douglas. “McCain Gets Boos at GOP Rally for Defending Obama.” Mcclatchydc, 10 Oct. 2008, www.mcclatchydc.com/news/politics-government/article24504583.html
Howerton, Glenn (GlennHowerton). “We worked very hard…” 10 October 2017, 1:00 PM. Tweet.
Howerton, Glenn (GlennHowerton). “We felt it was…” 10 October 2017, 1:01 PM. Tweet.
“Creationism.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, 10 Dec. 2017, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/creationism.
Lorraine Boissoneault, Smithsonian, “Why the New U.K. Political Coalition Could Undermine Peace in Ireland,” 5 July 2017.
Emily Swanson, The Seattle Times, “AP-NORC poll: Most Americans feel fine about school choice,” 12 May 2017.