Columns > Published on February 24th, 2016

What ‘It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’ Can Teach Us About Writing Dark Humor

We are all going to die. If you think about this fact long enough, there’s a good chance you’ll curl up in a ball and sob into a bottle of liquor. Or maybe you’ll flip off the sun and laugh and tell the Reaper to start sharpening its scythe.

The things that terrify us can sometimes also be the same things that amuse us. Zero out of all shrinks agree that laughing into the face of death and depression can often become one of your strongest coping mechanisms, but that’s only because they haven’t figured out how to bill you for it yet.

Dark comedy is a special kind of medicine I would prescribe to anyone, and I know of no stronger example than It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, a show that has been on since 2005 and somehow has only gotten better with each new season. If you’re a writer interested in dark comedy, then consider this show essential homework. Binge the many, many seasons and learn how it’s done. This show has everything you need to write a successful dark comedy.


I am a firm believer that character makes plot, not the other way around. There’s a debate I notice from time to time about what’s more important: story or characterization. And to me, it’s simple: you don’t have a story without characters, but you can have characters without a story. If you have a great plot but characters as flat as week-old gas station fountain machine Coke, you’re not going to maintain much interest. But if you present characters who are interesting and entertaining, you can have the most vanilla plot and still earn praise.

For example, Deadpool is popular because Deadpool himself is hilarious, but did you pay attention to the actual plot? It’s terrible. We give it a pass because we’re too busy falling in love with the protagonist.

A strong character creates plot by action and reaction. Something terrible happens and the character reacts. As a reaction to this reaction, something else terrible happens, and the character is once again forced to react. And now you have a story.

This is the method It’s Always Sunny has perfected. Watch pretty much any episode and you’ll see it in play. There are five central characters who bounce off each other and create magic together. Each character is real and established. There’s Charlie, Frank, Mac, Dennis, and Dee--AKA, the Gang. Together they attempt to run a shitty, unpopular bar. Owning a bar works well for the writers of It’s Always Sunny, as it allows the characters to often go off doing their own things without having to worry about being fired like they would if they held other, more typical jobs.

They can begin with something small, which then spirals completely out of control through the characters’ poor decisions. Dark comedies shine the ugliest when centered around a cast of idiots and scumbags. And believe me, the characters in It’s Always Sunny are the definition of scumbag. The cast of Seinfeld are Teletubbies compared to the Gang. They are more self-centered than the goddamn sun. They will lie, cheat, steal, and inflict violence on anybody standing in their way to achieve whatever petty schemes they happen to be cooking at any given time.

This show isn’t about telling funny jokes, it’s about putting characters into funny, awful situations. The dark comedy in It’s Always Sunny works so well because despite how ridiculous and disgusting a situation may become, the characters react as if it’s absolutely normal behavior. Successful dark humor hits its highest when it is played as if there is actually nothing funny happening.

In “The Gang Gets Extreme: Home Makeover Edition”, the Gang decides to perform a good deed and give a poor, unfortunate family an extreme makeover. So, they abduct the family and unintentionally torture them while utterly destroying their house in an attempt to improve it. In the end, the family is traumatized and the house is no longer standing, but the Gang still feels justified in their actions. In fact, they’re confused about why they aren’t being thanked, why they aren’t the heroes here. They see nothing insane about their actions, which only makes the humor that much stronger.

But in dark comedies, it’s important to keep the word “dark” in perspective, and not forget something else very important:


Even when you feel like you’ve pushed the limits, there’s always a few more inches you can move. You want to make your audience audibly saying, “Holy shit, there’s no way this can get any more screwed up,” and consistently proving them wrong. With the cast of It’s Always Sunny, as well as the characters in so many other great dark comedies, everybody is generally a terrible person.

So it only makes sense to have them do terrible things. It’s important to always strive to outdo the characters’ levels of terribleness at any given moment. These types of stories must constantly make its audience guess what’s going to happen next. Begin with the predictable and quickly drag everybody down a trap door. Take the audience through unexpected twists and turns that don’t make any sense. Let them scream down tunnels that would cause even Salvador Dali to raise an eyebrow.

We are talking about a show that has featured its characters painting a discovered dumpster baby the color brown. Characters who have purposely gotten addicted to crack cocaine in order to have a better shot at receiving welfare. Characters who have hunted other human beings for sport and pretended to have cancer as a way to manipulate girls into liking them. Characters who have faked the death of a baby and filled its tiny coffin with the corpse of a dog.

The Gang are awful people, absolutely repulsive degenerates who could never possibly be liked or rooted for by an audience. Yet somehow...we do root for them. We root for these evil people. They make us laugh. They’ve grown on us. At this point, they’re practically family.

In dark comedies, everybody belongs to one big dysfunctional family.

About the author

Max Booth III is the CEO of Ghoulish Books, the host of the GHOULISH and Dog Ears podcasts, the co-founder of the Ghoulish Book Festival, and the author of several spooky books, including Abnormal Statistics, Maggots Screaming!, Touch the Night, and others. He wrote both the novella and film versions of We Need to Do Something, which was released by IFC Midnight in 2021 and can currently be streamed on Hulu. He was raised in Northwest Indiana and now lives in San Antonio.

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