Last year at this time, Rob McElhenney was waiting tables in West Hollywood and about to call it quits on the life of a struggling actor.
On Aug. 4, he’ll revel in the premiere of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” a half-hour comedy centered on a group of friends who own a bar that he created, wrote and stars in for FX.
It’s the first TV project that the 27-year-old has written and FX immediately fell for the $200 pilot shot on camcorder.
At a time when HBO is taking heat for ordering a few too many vanity projects (“K Street,” and”The Comeback”), and even FX is rolling with uberproducers like Steven Bochco, “Sunny” is a potent reminder of what cable does best: unearth the lesser known gems whose creators can’t get a meeting with the Big Five.
And they don’t come any more unknown than McElhenney.
Last year, he was living in a Los Angeles guest house — “guest garage, really,” he says — and in serious financial trouble. His two biggest credits were roles in Brad Pitt starrer “The Devil’s Own” and “Wonder Boys,” — that is, before both parts were cut from the final version of the films.
Stalled and frustrated, he called his manager at 3 Arts, Nicholas Frenkel, also the rep for “Sunny” co-stars Glenn Howerton and Charlie Day, and said he was going to write a TV show.
“I remember saying, ‘Rob, TV is a tough business.’ He’d had a feature script optioned but it fell apart,” Frenkel says. “But I knew he couldn’t just sit around and wait for the next audition, so I told him to go for it. They shot it on their own and when they brought it back I said, ‘Holy shit, this is a TV show.’ ”
The pilot scored McElhenney representation with Endeavor partner Ari Greenburg, who got the project in the door at a number of places including FX. Cabler immediately took to the project, asking for a rewrite. Days later McElhenney was given $400,000 to reshoot his pilot.
“I remember saying to the executives, ‘Wow, I can do a whole season’ for this much,” McElhenney says. “My manager was like, ‘What are you saying? Shut up!’ ”
“Sunny,” which stars the real-life buds as owners of a dive, has a “Seinfeld”-like quality.
“It isn’t really a show about anything,” says McElhenney. “It follows these young guys, who you don’t want to like because they’re sort of despicable but you can’t help but like.”
Episodes deal with racism, homosexuality, abortion and terminal illness but in an apolitical, goofball kind of way.
In an episode about underage drinking, for example, the guys serve liquor to a young crowd only to get caught up in the world of high-school cliques. The underage drinking is simply not the point.
“Sunny” will lead out from “Starved,” the second comedy FX is launching this week about friends with eating disorders. One of the encore runs will, however, get a second prime lead-in in “Over There” on Wednesday nights.
FX prexy-general manager John Landgraf says the net essentially gave McElhenney free rein over the project — despite his inexperience running a show.
“I’ve had a strong feeling my whole career that bringing showrunners in over the creators, which is a typical process in network TV, doesn’t often result in the best show,” Landgraf says.
“When you find something like this, you trust the creator to see his vision through. From the original tape, ‘Sunny’ had its own rhythm and unique tone. It was rough only from a technical standpoint.”
Landgraf adds that “Sunny” would have to bomb to get cancelled.
“It would have to rate really poorly for us to not pick it up for a second season,” Landgraf says. “That said, there’s never been a hit scripted comedy on basic cable. We think this show is really good, so we’re just looking for a decent ratings performance and hoping people find it along the way.”