Always Sunny's Glenn Howerton: 'The characters can be horrible misogynists, we the writers are not'

Figcaption Always Sunnys Glenn Howerton The Characters Can Be Horrible Misogynists We The Writers Are Not
Posted at: Author: Rain TV UK

A P Bio is the funniest sitcom you aren’t currently watching. Tucked away without fanfare on Sky Comedy, it’s a fast, smart, silly show about a disgraced Harvard professor who finds himself forced to teach at an Ohio high school. Its impressive cast boasts Patton Oswalt, Paula Pell and a smattering of infuriatingly talented teenagers.

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But at the centre of it all is Glenn Howerton, playing a sociopathic and embittered professor called Jack Carson Griffin. If that sounds familiar, it might be because Howerton has spent the last 16 years playing a sociopathic and embittered bar owner on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. You might sense – and I certainly feared – that Howerton picks these roles because he also happens to be a embittered sociopath. It turns out he gets that a lot.

“It’s weird when I post pictures of me and my family online,” he sighs from his home in LA. “People are like: ‘I don’t get that. You guys look happy and she seems like she loves you.’ It doesn’t compute with the characters I play, because I’m nothing like them.”

In person, Howerton is pleasant and chatty, and gives every impression of being an entirely regular family man. As we talk, he sits in front of one of the most meticulously curated Zoom backgrounds I have ever seen; a dark wood shelving unit studded with decanters and vintage cameras and a single vinyl copy of The Dark Side of the Moon. The morning we speak, he has been working on a screenplay that he is loth to discuss, shrugging that “I write screenplays all the time, and nothing ever happens with them”.

With season three of AP Bio about to debut in the UK, fans of Howerton’s trademark malevolence should be aware that the show is not quite as nasty as it was when it first began in 2018. Jack Carson Griffin’s original motivation – to destroy the career of his rival as violently as possible – has all but dropped away, leaving a charmingly knockabout workplace comedy in its wake. Howerton says that his character’s main story arc is a man who is falling in love with his home town. The humour, however, lies in the fact Griffin instead believes his narrative is far more exciting: “that he’s this hotshot Harvard philosophy professor who’s better than this,” Howerton says. “But he’s got a girlfriend he really loves and students he really likes, so he’s constantly at war with himself.”

Despite being cancelled – and then swiftly uncancelled – after its second season, AP Bio has now been renewed for a fourth year. And, just to keep him busy, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has also been renewed for four more seasons. How many will that take you to, I ask. “God, I can’t even keep track any more,” Howerton sighs.

Howerton turns 45 this year, and he has been co-writing, co-producing and starring in It’s Always Sunny… since his 20s. Now the longest-running live action comedy in the history of US television – 18 seasons and counting – it’s a grubby yet hilarious series about four narcissistic monsters who, funded by Danny DeVito’s grotesque father figure, set about following their whims to their hideous conclusions. If you have seen it – and really who hasn’t by now? – you’ll be aware that Howerton’s Dennis is easily the most villainous figure of the lot. Take, for example, one of his most sinister speeches, in which he advocates for taking drunk women back to his newly purchased boat and sailing into the ocean; the rationale being that they’ll have to sleep with him because of the “implication” that they’ll have nowhere to run if things take a bad turn.

The “implication” speech took place many years before #MeToo and, although all the other characters make a point of being horrified by Dennis, it is hard to see it making it to air now. The key to Sunny’s longevity is arguably its subtle accommodation of shifting tastes. Over time, the show has deliberately chosen to soften its characters. For instance, Rob McElhenney’s character Mac, whose latent homosexuality was the butt of several jokes throughout the years, ended a recent season with a startling, joke-free and genuinely touching interpretive dance sequence about his identity. Even Dennis, who is almost inarguably a sexual predator, has seen his rougher edges blunted by fatherhood.

Sunny delight … (l-r) Glenn Howerton, Kaitlin Olson, Rob McElhenney, Danny DeVito and Charlie Day in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Photograph: Everett/Alamy

“Certainly we’ve become a little bit more careful to make it clear that, while the characters can be misogynistic and racist and horrible, we the writers are not racist, misogynistic and horrible people,” Howerton explains. He is quick to add that the show’s sheer longevity works in its favour. “If we were to do some of those episodes for the first time now, people would be like: ‘Well, wait a minute, who are these people?’ But people now know who we are, and they know that our intentions are actually to skewer this sort of behaviour, not to celebrate it.”

Howerton has always excelled at playing bristling outsiders, something that might be down to his upbringing. Born in Japan to a US fighter pilot father, he had the childhood of an army brat, shifting through stints in New Mexico, Alabama, Virginia, South Korea and – when he was three – Felixstowe.

“Those were just really formative years for me, and there has always been a part of me that feels English,” he says of his time in Suffolk. “I mean, I started school in England. I went to British school and I spoke with a British accent when I was at school. It just feels like it’s in my blood, in a way.” However, he moved away aged eight, and leaving the UK sounds like it was just as formative as living there.

“I distinctly remember driving away from our house in England and just crying and crying in the back seat,” he recalls. “Because I had formed what I felt were lifelong friendships with the other kids in my neighbourhood. It really broke me for a second there.”

Has that feeling been carried through to adulthood? “Moving around definitely does make you very adept at learning how to try to fit in and change,” he admits. “But I’m still not comfortable making deep, deep connections with people, because there’s this part of me that feels like it’s just going to end at some point. It hurts too much, so I’d rather just keep everything kind of surface.” That’s quite a deep thing to tell a stranger, I say. “Well,” he laughs, “I think if you were to speak to some of my closest friends, they’d be like: ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, he’s not like that at all.’”

At the chalkface … the cast of AP Bio (l-r) Patton Oswalt, Mary Sohn, Glenn Howerton, Jean Villepique, Lyric Lewis and Paula Pell. Photograph: Robert Trachtenberg/Peacock/NBCU/Getty

I had planned to discuss Howerton’s Always Sunny co-star Rob McElhenney, in particular his much-publicised co-purchase – with Ryan Reynolds – of Wrexham football club. Specifically I wanted to ask him the question: What the hell is that all about? But as soon as the subject is raised, Howerton cuts in.

“What the hell is that all about?”he asks, just as bewildered as me. He hasn’t mentioned it at all? “No, he’s been scrambling to finish [his Apple TV+ comedy] Mythic Quest, so I haven’t spoken to him. I don’t know what the hell that’s all about. He’s not even a soccer fan.”

He isn’t a fan? “Well, it’s entirely possible that he was watching soccer and I didn’t know about it,” Howerton explains. “I mean, to Rob’s credit, if he’s diving into this, he’s going to go at it full steam. I’ve never known that guy to half-ass a single thing in his life. If anything, he pushes himself so fucking hard I worry about his health sometimes.”

Despite working on cult shows, Howerton has had plenty of experience dabbling in the mainstream, auditioning (unsuccessfully) for blockbuster movies including Superman Returns and Guardians of the Galaxy. He passed Chris Pratt as he exited the Guardians audition, and “I remember thinking: ‘Oh shit, that guy’s perfect for this.’” He ran into the writer Damon Lindelof after auditioning for Star Trek, “and he was like: ‘Yeah, man, we almost cast you as Captain Kirk, it was between you and three or four other guys.”

But the franchise-chasing seems to be behind him now. “I think it’d be super fun,” he admits, “but it’s also terrifying to me, because the level of celebrity that then gets foisted upon you when you do a movie like that is something that scares the shit out of me.”

Instead, Howerton finds himself in a great position. The shows he makes might not get the biggest audiences, but those who watch them have a habit of loving them with all their hearts.

It’s a very discerning crowd, I tell him.

“No riff-raff,” he nods.

AP Bio airs Monday 15 February, 9pm, Sky Comedy

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