By LYNN ELBER, AP Television Writer
LOS ANGELES — “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” star Rob McElhenney got fat on purpose and to make a few weighty points.
He wanted to flesh out the idiocy and vanity of his sitcom’s character, Mac. He wanted to satirize the glam appearance of TV actors, no matter how mundane the part they’re playing. And, as a bonus, he threw in mockery of society’s obsession with looks.
What he didn’t intend with his 50-pound weight gain for the upcoming season is to make fun of obesity, McElhenney said. Online observers and some fans have expressed concern that “Sunny” is taking cheap shots at the overweight, which McElhenney called upsetting.
“It’s never been the intention of the show to be mean-spirited. The characters are mean-spirited. The show is satire,” he said.
No kidding. One hallmark “Sunny” episode saw Mac and Dennis (Glenn Howerton) attend opposite sides of an abortion rally to pick up women. Another episode had them explore using wheelchairs as a way to get sympathy and women.
McElhenney, 34, creator of the sitcom that returns to FX on Sept. 15, was willing to share how he packed on the pounds (and now is shedding them). First he detailed how inspiration struck.
Watching what he described diplomatically as a “very popular show,” he noticed that two of its stars looked artificially younger from one season to the next. More channel flipping brought him to a rerun of “Friends” and a reminder of how the cast grew better-looking from year to year.
Nicer teeth, hair, wardrobe and bodies “might work for a show like ‘Friends.’ But with ‘Sunny,’ the way the characters abuse themselves, they wouldn’t wind up looking better, they would wind up looking way worse,” he said.
That notion is unthinkable in the network TV world, which seeks out attractive people and makes them as likable as possible. But it fits nicely with the “Sunny” comedy ethos: making its characters head-smackingly obnoxious and strictly non-aspirational as, in part, a slap at the network model.
Other actors have plumped up for roles that couldn’t be played thin, including Renée Zellweger, twice, for “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and its sequel, and Robert De Niro for his Oscar-winning turn in “Raging Bull.” McElhenney tried to get his fellow co-stars, including his real-life wife Kaitlin Olson, Charlie Day and Howerton, to join him in his self-prescribed metamorphosis. They declined.
Danny DeVito got an automatic pass because he’s never pandered to Hollywood expectations.
Alone, the 5-foot-9, 162-pound McElhenney set off on the path to a bigger future. It made sense for his character, who regularly makes noise about putting on body-builder mass while “all he does is abuse his body with food and alcohol,” he said.
He more than doubled his daily food intake to about 5,000 calories, trying to keep it relatively healthy by eating lean protein, brown rice and vegetables.
“It was more about the volume of calories rather than just eating crappy food,” McElhenney said. Regular check-ups ensured he wasn’t pushing his cholesterol or blood pressure up.
He added weightlifting to ensure somewhat even distribution of bulk rather than just ending up a skinny guy with a big gut, although his belly reached fairly impressive proportions.
He didn’t shy away from going public, at one point running into Jon Hamm of “Mad Men.”
“He looked at me and said, ‘Dude, wow,'” McElhenney recalled.
It took him five months to gain the weight, which he retained for more than two months of filming. When that ended about a month ago, he went on the food wagon and has lost nearly half of the 50 pounds so far. Visitors to Comic-Con in San Diego can check out his progress at Sunday’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” panel session.
For the record, wife Olson said it’s irritating to see his rapid weight loss but she “loved” the bold creative move.
“I was so proud of him. That’s a lot of work. He was miserably full every day for months,” she said in an e-mail. “Plus, have you seen his butt? It looks way better with a little girth.”
McElhenney gave himself and his character a complete makeover, letting his hair go long and greasy and adding a “Paul Bunyan-esque beard” for effect.
“That’s been part of the experience that’s pretty fantastic, embracing the lack of vanity,” he said, which is especially anarchic in appearance-centric Los Angeles.
If any detractors choose to target him or the show for alleged fat-bashing, McElhenney suggests they direct their efforts elsewhere.
“You pick up a magazine, turn on the TV, go to a movie and you see people not representative of what people look like. … If a defamation league is going after someone, go after the people who put these images in and say this is an ideal,” he said.
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