A show right up his alley

Times Staff Writer

DANNY DeVITO is pacing up and down a downtown Los Angeles alley, waiting for his cue to break up a fight between two crackheads and two swindlers. DeVito, the pro, isn't nervous. He just has loads of creative energy, an unstoppable flow that provokes him to intermittently rag on his one-time costar the Governator, riff on a mystery liquid falling from above, and impersonate his favorite TV character -- Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland on Fox's "24") -- between takes for his new television gig on FX's rogue comedy "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia."

Since "Taxi" left the air in 1983, the actor who turned Louie DePalma into one of the most unredeemable and memorable characters on the small screen has guest-starred on many sitcoms but has never taken on a regular role. But DeVito, who has been busy producing and directing films and television shows, says he couldn't turn down the opportunity to join this cast of actors who write and produce their own show.

"It's not so much that I've purposely stayed away, it was more about doing other stuff," says DeVito, 61, sitting for the first time in the Irish pub that is the center of the show. The interior set for the pub is inside the old Los Angeles Herald-Examiner building, just a couple of blocks from the alley where DeVito's character, Frank, intervened in a family dispute of sorts.

"I've thought about coming back in the past," he says. "But I was waiting for something to come along that was unique and fun, because that's the thing about life -- you never know what's going to turn around and make you feel good. This is the first time I've had where the writers and creators of the show are actually in the show with you. There's no middle man. And that makes it fun. The only experience I've ever had that was anywhere near it was 'Taxi' because 'Taxi' was insane for its time and this is off-the-charts insane for its time."

"Sunny" is the story of four friends and siblings from high school who own a dive bar in Philly and are "crawling their way down the ladder. You leave them alone, and they're going to find the bottom," DeVito says. Last season, the foursome's adventures led Mac (Rob McElhenney) and Dennis (Glenn Howerton) to try to pick up women at rallies on both sides of the abortion issue; Sweet Dee (Kaitlin Olson) to enlist a black friend to help promote the bar as diverse; and the entire gang to open the pub to underage drinkers to provide a "safe haven for these kids to be kids."

But the show also has heart and soul, and, most important in this era of comedic slim pickings, it has voice. Its characters, Mac, Dennis, Dee and Charlie (Charlie Day), fit the FX banner to a T: attractive and sometimes even well-intended adults who are clueless about how their character flaws get them into trouble.

"I would argue that there are a lot of likable qualities in the characters," says Olson, 30, a week before production of the second season concluded in May. "They're not trying to be mean. They're lovable."

"Likable doesn't mean nice," adds Howerton, also 30.

When the series returns June 29 for 10 episodes, the crew will have a fifth wheel: Frank, the wealthy and past-midlife-crisis-stricken father of Dennis and Dee, who moves from his cushy suburban home to the city to try to recapture his youth and reconnect with the children he ignored for most of their lives. Frank starts working at the bar, pushing his kids to leave it and follow their dreams: of becoming a vet (Dennis) and becoming an actress (Dee).

"He wants to get back to his roots; he's made a lot of money, but he misses that kind of action being on the front lines of life," DeVito says. "He's getting rid of everything, his money, his home, his car, his stuff and especially his wife (Anne Archer). He's missing being with his kids -- which are these two crackheads -- and the traditional stuff that life is made of in his mind. But they don't want him insinuating himself in their lives at this point. Imagine being 30 years old and a guy who didn't pay a hell of a lot of attention to you is saying he wants to come in and bond with you."

With their own crazy logic, the siblings' new grand plan involves collecting unemployment and, when that runs out, dipping into crack so they can somehow get welfare until they get back on their feet. Hence, the crack-induced fight in the alley over -- what else? -- Frank's money.

"They happen to get addicted to crack in that particular episode, but when we come back in the next one, it's all gone," McElhenney says. "Just like last year. The idea is that the characters are so self-involved that the next day, they're on to whatever is in front of their face."

Dee and Dennis may not want Frank around, but McElhenney, 29, the show's creator and show-runner, sure wanted DeVito. The struggling actor had been waiting tables a year earlier and was tired of waiting for his big break, so he fleshed out an idea he had for a short film with his buddies Howerton and Day, filmed it with a video camera, decided it might fare better as a series, and sold it to FX. Although it's widely reported that the pilot cost $200 to make, they say the figure is more like $85 -- the only money they spent was on tapes. McElhenney, Howerton and Day write the scripts, star in the show and produce it. Olson was hired to be the fourth sidekick after FX bought the show.

At the end of the first season, which drew a modest average of 1.1 million viewers, FX President and General Manager John Landgraf and McElhenney decided they wanted to add a member to the cast, a role to be played by "a big-time comedian, and I thought of Danny," says Landgraf, who was the founding partner of Jersey Television, sister company to DeVito's Jersey Films. McElhenney was all for it and wrote DeVito a long letter and met with him in his home to "beg" him to join the show.

"I knew that Danny really liked the show, so we arranged a meeting with him and Rob, and Danny loved Rob and he loved the idea," Landgraf says. "But admittedly, bringing Danny into that, I was a little bit nervous. Not because Danny's not brilliant or hilarious, but because I thought it might feel grafted or inorganic and also because he's my friend and I wanted him to have a good experience."


'We got so lucky'

AS elated as they were, McElhenney, Howerton and Day also felt the pressure.

"Bringing a star into this mom-and-pop style of shooting could have been a disaster," says Day, 29. "It could have ruined it. And we were nervous, you know. We had never worked with the guy. But he was fantastic, a real asset to the show. We got so lucky."

Whether it was shooting a promo that involved beating up one another and diving into the frame on his stomach or screaming his head off at his children, DeVito was up for anything.

"It was such a benefit to our show because it's that playful spirit that hopefully makes our show what it is," Howerton says. "As heavy and dark as the topics we deal with may be, one of the things that make it palatable and light and funny is that there is a sort of childish playfulness to these characters and a childish naivete."

To accommodate his busy schedule, DeVito's scenes for the 10 episodes were shot in a three-week period, meaning all 10 scripts had to be ready before he arrived and everything was shot out of order. The long hours and intense schedule bonded the five actors, with DeVito behaving paternally toward his younger colleagues, Olson said. On his last day, he gave the four of them video iPods and invited them to a barbecue at his house.

"These guys are inventive, they've got a great spirit, and their work ethic is off the charts," DeVito says. "And I'll tell you something, the way they've done this, it sends a great message out there to people who are talented and creative, to go out and take initiative.

"There are many brick walls for all artists, but when you see the courage and insight that it took to get this show on the air, I just can't say enough about it. What a ride."

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