“I build worlds.”
That’s how a creative director at Ubisoft introduced himself to Rob McElhenney when the actor was visiting the company to discuss the possibility of making a show about the video game industry.
With those three words, the idea for Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, Apple TV+’s first comedy series, was born. On the show, McElhenney, best known as one of the stars and cocreators of FX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, plays Ian Grimm, the egotistical mastermind of the titular World of Warcraft–style game who’s trying to manage his team of engineers, producers, writers, and monetizers while dealing with trolls, Nazis, employee unionization, the industry’s gender inequality problem, and “time to penis,” a.k.a. TTP, an actual issue in which developers have to account for how long it will take users to turn a new game feature into a phallus.
The nine-episode season, which premiered Feb. 7, combines a genuine appreciation of video games with an unsparing eye toward all its flaws and eccentricities, thanks to a writer’s room filled with avid gamers and comedy veterans, including cocreators and Sunny veterans Charlie Day and Megan Ganz.
Just before the show’s debut, Fortune caught up with McElhenney in New York to discuss his hesitation about working with Apple and what the company chose to censor, the lines between satire and political correctness in Sunny, and working with Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham, who plays a George R.R. Martin–like author whose substance abuse has reduced him to writing video game plots.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
So you got the idea from this Ubisoft guy who told you, “I build worlds.” How did the show develop from there?
Well, we knew that we wanted to make a show in the area of the gaming industry, but we weren’t 100% sure of the specifics of it. We also knew that it was important to us to stay away from anything we had seen before, which was mostly popular culture, whether it was movies or television shows, that took a really cruel vantage point and just marginalized what it is to be a part of that community. We wanted to do something that felt fresh and original, and ultimately what that meant was that it celebrated the industry for all its positive elements and then all of its faults. Because if we did anything short of that or if we erred to one side, then it would be pandering in either direction. If we know one thing about the gaming industry, we know that they do not like to be pandered to, and they can smell it a mile away.
So we started just knocking around some different ideas, and we knew that these creative directors were really fascinating personalities because you have to be so driven and so passionate because it’s a five-year-long endeavor. You are building worlds. Even though this guy took such stock in his own vision and ability, he wasn’t wrong—he really is building a world that millions of people across the globe are going to be playing in. That is just a fascinating character because you have the confluence of so many different things. One, extreme talent and ability and passion, which is just fun to watch, and this intense narcissism, which makes them very difficult to deal with. Ultimately, it’s a multifaceted character, very different from the character I play on Sunny.
How much homework did you have to do about the gaming industry?
Quite a bit, yeah, and that was really important to us. You’re always going to have to take artistic license, and I think that the audience has come to expect that. Nobody wants to actually watch the process of game development because that would be essentially boring [Laughs] We have 25 minutes to tell a story, and so you want to just take snippets of it, and yet you also want it to feel as authentic as possible.
So we brought in as many experts as we possibly could, from game devs to lead programmers to creative directors, to people that work in HR to monetization managers from all different studios, and we had our resources with our friends at Ubisoft. We talked to as many people that would talk back to us. It was also important to us to make sure that people who did not play games, who aren’t gamers, could enjoy it as well. That’s why we made a concerted effort to bifurcate the writer’s room, have half hard-core gamers and other people who maybe had never played one in their lives.
With Sunny, you have the veteran presence of Danny DeVito. Here you have F. Murray Abraham. How do they compare?
Well, they both bring a certain amount of gravitas and cache and dramatic heft. And Danny obviously, over the course of his career, has leaned a little more heavily into comedy than Murray has, but both of them are obviously deft and incredibly talented comedians and invaluable for so many different reasons. Honestly, it wasn’t a conscious decision. It wasn’t like we were like, “Oh, well we have a formula on Sunny, bringing in somebody like that, so let’s do it.”
We just thought, Wouldn’t it be funny? It was actually less influenced by Danny and more influenced by George R.R. Martin, who I’ve hung out with many times over the last few years because I’m good friends with Dan [Weiss] and Dave [Benioff], who made Game of Thrones. I was always just kind of very fascinated with George, who’s obviously an immensely talented writer and certainly is nothing like [Abraham’s] C.W. in real life. But we were thinking what if after the first in the series of the Game of Thrones books, [George R.R. Martin] just fell into a well of depression and alcohol and cocaine and then found himself writing for a video game company? That was our launching-off point.
What are the starkest differences between writing this and Sunny? Did you have to sort of recalibrate yourself in a way to write for these characters instead, opposed to Mac, Charlie, Dennis, and Dee?
Definitely, definitely. It’s in season 14, and the characters on Sunny have evolved, or devolved, into ostensibly live-action cartoon characters, and that’s because we can get away with so many different things. People recognize that is an alternative universe. This is not a place that really exists—I hope it doesn’t—and that is how and why we are able to tackle some of the subject matter in the way that we do as satire. Whereas this show, we wanted to build a world that felt real to people’s experiences and that, at the end of the day, you could believe that this is a real studio, albeit taken to the extreme on many levels.
Here you take a serious, compassionate look at a lot of real-life issues like overworked employees unionizing, the effects of misogyny in the workplace, and the free speech rights of online Nazis. Is that sort of a corrective from what you’ve put into the world with Sunny?
[Laughs] No! I actually think it falls in line with exactly what we’re trying with Sunny. It’s just looking at it through the lens of a different prism. I think that the reason Sunny has succeeded for as long as it has is because people recognize that as abhorrent the behavior is of the characters, we are in no way glorifying that behavior. And that whilst the characters might be misogynistic and homophobic and sexist and racist or what have you, the show is not, and we’re satirizing those very things. That’s why when I hear people complaining now, “Oh, you can’t tell jokes anymore in this PC culture,” I just think it’s bullshit. It’s people who are lazy. They’re just hacks or they’re actually misogynistic, racist, or homophobic, and they don’t realize it. And that’s the truth.
Now, does that mean we haven’t missed the mark on Sunny over the years? Of course we have! Of course we have because we’re always trying to toe that line. Then, in retrospect, we look back and we go, “Man, that wasn’t great.” Our heart was in the right place, but that doesn’t mean that we didn’t hurt people. So, we have to go back and retroactively try and fix those things, which we have the benefit of doing because the show is still on the air.
With a show like this, now we have a little bit more maturity and a little bit more experience with that barometer of, “This is getting into an area that needs to be explored, but we need to have a deft touch because if it’s not explored correctly, it can come across in a way that we are not intending to come across.” When we’re dealing with, say, gender parity in the workplace, that’s something that the gaming industry, like a lot of industries, is struggling with. You can’t do a show about the gaming industry without addressing that and having white nationalists in the game. That’s a real issue that games are struggling with, that social media companies are struggling with, and it’s not so simple. While I might personally have a feeling on what should be done about it, it doesn’t necessarily line up with what’s constitutionally the correct thing to do. If you’re going to censor the viewpoints of anybody, whether you believe in what they’re saying or find them repugnant or not, where do you draw that line? Those are things that we want to explore in the show.
And then you put in swastikas made of penises.
[Laughs] Yes. Well, again, that’s also the nature of the business, which is so fun, is that that TTP [“time to penis”] thing is true. We didn’t make that up. That was something that Ubisoft told us about, and that’s a real thing in the industry. It’s just so funny that you have these billion-dollar enterprises and one of the things that they have to account for is when a new item is placed in the game, how quickly people are using that to make dicks. It’s so unbelievably childish and juvenile and yet it’s just undeniably funny.
On another note, what has the experience of working with Apple been like, especially as the streaming service is still so new?
So, we pitched the show to like the entire town, and we had multiple offers from a lot of streamers and a lot of traditional broadcasts. Apple was one of them, and I remember we really debated, “Should we do this?” Because we didn’t know and we still don’t know—it’s still a brand-new platform, and we weren’t sure how it was gonna work out. We didn’t know what the creative development system would be, what the platform was going to be, how it was going to be launched.
But we knew that if we were gonna do something new, maybe we should do something completely new and jump into the abyss of mystery and not really quite know for sure if it was all gonna work out, which is what you’re doing anyway when you’re making something. And then, if you’re going to bet on somebody, why not bet on a trillion-dollar company [laughs] and the biggest company in the history of humanity? You’re like, “Well, yeah, I’ll put my chips on that.” So, it’s been ideal. I mean, from the creative standpoint, they have literally allowed us to make the exact show we wanted to make, and I’m very proud.
But wasn’t it true that they wouldn’t let you do some nudity?
Yeah. They cut that out. So we had full-frontal nudity but it was with a game avatar. It wasn’t a human being. I talked about that with their standards department and the creative execs and kind of went back and forth on it. They were on the fence about it because they recognized where we stood and yet they also just didn’t want to open it up for other shows. From my perspective, if I feel like what we’re doing is pandering to some ridiculous moral authority police, then I’ll fight back. If it feels like it’s hurting the show to not keep it in, then I’ll fight back. But it’s like, really, where am I going to make my stand? Is this the time that I’m going to get up on my ethical high horse and fight anybody and everybody over seeing this dick and balls in the shot? No. So we let it go.
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