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‘Always Sunny’s’ Rob McElhenney changes it up for video game industry comedy ‘Mythic Quest’

Rob McElhenney of "Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet"
Rob McElhenney’s coarse antics on the long-running ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ might build a certain expectation for future projects. But his new co-creation, ‘Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet,’ will surprise you.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

You can’t blame people for being confused.

They’ve seen Rob McElhenney play Mac for 14 seasons on the FX sitcom he created, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” (in negotiations for its record-breaking 15th and 16th seasons). The sheer epic awfulness of those characters can’t help but foster certain expectations. Mac is obsessive, jealous, shallow and blithely destructive. But then in perhaps the series’ most celebrated scene, in which he comes out as gay to his incarcerated father, he performs a beautiful interpretive dance.

Then McElhenney co-creates a new series for Apple TV+, a workplace comedy called “Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet,” and rather than ridiculing the video gamers and programmers of its world as might be expected, the show depicts them with disarming thoughtfulness.

In an extended video chat, McElhenney seems sincere about the whole thing.

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“Does that surprise you, based on my work? Mostly I hear people say, ‘I thought you’d be a bigger ass,” he says with a smile. It’s mid-May and the world is smoldering but not yet on fire — George Floyd has not been killed by police officers and Black Lives Matter protests have not taken off, but the country is sheltering at home from the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a lot easier at this point than it will be soon to laugh at people behaving like the only lives that matter are their own.

Given the off-the-charts selfish and crazy behavior of the characters on “Sunny” (which McElhenney has said was intended partly as the opposite of the “Friends” theme song but also evokes a more-evil “Seinfeld”), one wonders if people expect the real guy to be a sociopath.

“I get that quite often,” he says, laughing happily in his, yes, sunny living room. “It’s generally not people who are fans of the show; it’s people who’ve seen a clip or heard of it and think it’s something it’s not. I think people who watch the show recognize what we’re trying to do with it.”

Apple TV+ series “Mythic Quest,” from the team behind “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” pulls no punches when it comes to game culture’s drawbacks.

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“Mythic Quest” and “Sunny” both spring from McElhenney’s sense of humor and are infused with his aesthetic. “Mythic” was co-created by “Sunny” costar Charlie Day and writer Megan Ganz. That’s where the DNA match ends.

“When I created ‘Sunny,’ I was 25 years old, and now I’m 43. I’ve grown and learned a lot of things,” McElhenney says. “The biggest and most important distinction, I think, is the characters in ‘Mythic Quest’ could exist in the real world, whereas ‘Sunny’ seems to take place on Mars or something.”

While it’s populated by distinct personalities, the new show generally avoids cheap shots like nerds living in their moms’ basements. Danny Pudi plays an icily efficient financial officer; newcomer Jessie Ennis steals scenes as an enthusiastically authoritarian assistant; Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham is a frequently intoxicated writer with delusions of grandeur; David Hornsby (Cricket from “Sunny”) is the good-hearted but nervous boss. Charlotte Nicdao is Poppy, the brilliant, highly driven and underappreciated lead engineer. McElhenney plays Ian (pronounced EYE-un), the creative director whose vision is surpassed only by his narcissism.

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Rob McElhenney plays the self-styled “World Builder” of the titular video game in “Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet” on Apple TV+.

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“The gaming industry is a global phenomenon, and you have people from all different socioeconomic backgrounds, cultural backgrounds, all engaging in play together,” McElhenney says. “It absolutely dwarfs our traditional entertainment business in every way — in economic numbers, in user numbers.”

The film industry set a record in 2019 with about $42.5 billion in global box office, while Nielsen’s SuperData estimates worldwide video game revenues to be more than $120 billion for the same year.

“It’s a massive form of communication. So we thought we should make it as authentic as possible,” McElhenney says, so “let’s make sure these [characters] feel like real human beings.”

The show is a comedy first, pulling laughs out of Poppy and Ian’s constant battles and other workplace dynamics. Perhaps the first season’s funniest episode deals with the real-life problem of abusive trolls — including neo-nazi groups — infiltrating the multiplayer games.

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The cast of the Apple TV+ comedy "Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet."
Real mature: Just another day at the office for the makers of the titular video game in the Apple TV+ comedy “Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet.” Left to right: David Hornsby, Charlotte Nicdao, Jessie Ennis, Rob McElhenney and F. Murray Abraham.
(Apple TV+)

Yet that personal “authenticity” is definitely present, especially in a standalone episode McElhenney directed and for which his sister, Katie McElhenney, was lead writer. It tells the story of the founders of the game that preceded “Mythic Quest” for their parent company, from their meet-cute to the beautiful early days of their romance as they struggle professionally, to the wild success of their product and the disintegration of their love.

“That dramatic episode right in the middle of the season sets the tone and the emotional stakes for comedy at the end,” Rob McElhenney says.

“We wanted to do something different. There are no rules anymore. I wanted to tell a story of heartbreak and loss, and the birth and death of a relationship as seen through the prism of a video game because I’d never seen that before. But then we wanted to use it as a tool to unlock the potential heartbreak between Ian and Poppy at the end of the season, and probably the entire series.”

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The show also put together an episode during quarantine that stands among the best “at home” entries this season.

“I was trying to get everybody back to work. That’s the truth of it,” McElhenney says. “There’s this misconception about Hollywood that everybody’s a millionaire and that we’re just a bunch of elites out here living in compounds and on our boats. The truth is, Hollywood is mostly made up of working-class people who are living, if not paycheck-to-paycheck, then month-to-month. When your industry shuts down, that’s a very scary proposition.”

Actor, writer and producer Rob McElhenney of "Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet."
Man on a quest: Actor, writer and producer Rob McElhenney’s new co-creation, “Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet” (Apple TV+), is a workplace comedy with surprising thoughtfulness and heart.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

One of that episode’s plot elements involves what becomes of a $600,000 charitable donation by the company. The show, with McElhenney and wife Kaitlyn Olson’s matching funds, raised that same amount for MercyCorps’ COVID-19 relief efforts.

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“We wrote it in three days and from conception to delivery was three weeks,” McElhenney says. Then he smiles and adds: “Make no mistake, it was a nightmare; it was absolute hell for three weeks.”

He insists “Mythic” will not interfere with “Sunny” as the latter becomes the longest-running live-action sitcom with its 15th season. He’s doing what he loves and isn’t running out of energy.

“We were in production of Season 2 of ‘Mythic Quest’ when we were shut down [by the pandemic] and we were in active negotiations for seasons 15 and 16 of ‘Sunny.’ As long as I’m drawing breath and people are watching it, I wanna keep making it.”

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Trailer for Season 1 of “Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet” on Apple TV+.

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