There's more to Rob McElhenney these days than Mac.
The Philly native who created and stars as Mac in FXX's "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" is also Ian Grimm, the comically insufferable alpha dog of the Apple TV+ streaming series "Mythic Quest," which McElhenney created with Charlie Day and Megan Ganz.
A workplace comedy set in a video game studio, it enters its second season Friday, with a two-episode premiere that finds Ian (pronounced EYE-an) and his co-creative director, Poppy Li (Charlotte Nicdao) trying, not very successfully, to be creative together.
"It's Always Sunny," meanwhile, is expected to return later this year for its 15th season, when it will pass "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" to become TV's longest-running live-action comedy.
We spoke with McElhenney in mid-April about the new season of "Mythic Quest," his secret for a good night's sleep during the pandemic, and why he tries not to think about "It's Always Sunny" between seasons. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: You had done a special pandemic-themed episode of "Mythic Quest" last year, "Quarantine," and on April 16 you released a second special, "Everlight," that welcomed everyone back to the office. Is the new season meant to take place after the pandemic?
A: Yeah, the idea is that it's projecting into a future where we've returned to a sense of, quote, unquote, normalcy. We recognize that [in reality] that might not be for a little while. But we also felt, as we were writing the second season from our homes, in isolation, and realizing how tired of the experience we had become, that the audience was going to be in that position as well.
Yet we recognized that [we couldn't] just make an episode where we were back in this sort of fantasy future without at least paying respect to the fact that this transition would be difficult. So we wanted to make a special episode that sort of addressed it head-on. And look towards a much more positive and optimistic future.
Q: How do you see the arc of this season of "Mythic Quest"?
A: I see a story of characters evolving, and changing and progressing, which is such a different way of telling a story than the other show ["It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia"], where the characters never grow or change or progress in any way.
I think that a show like "Mythic Quest" allows us the opportunity to tell those kinds of stories. So I'm really excited about the fact that [for] all of the characters, not just Poppy and I, but Poppy and I most specifically, there's real change. You're watching people learn how to navigate life a little bit better than they did in season one.
Q: Did landing Danny DeVito as a regular on “It’s Always Sunny” all those years ago make you more ambitious in terms of casting? F. Murray Abraham is a “Mythic Quest” regular and you have another Oscar winner, William Hurt, guest-starring in an episode this season. And let’s not forget Snoop Dogg.
A: We actually have three Oscar winners in the season this year, because Anthony Hopkins was the narrator for the "Everlight" episode. So three Oscar winners and a cultural icon — that's a pretty good run at casting for the season.
But definitely. Our original conception of "Sunny" was this very small, sort of insular thing, and [that] it's grown exponentially year after year after year, certainly Danny's inclusion was the catalyst for that. We just thought, well, Danny's in a different stratosphere, he would never consider coming on to the show. And within a few hours of talking to him, when he signed on, it sort of validated what we were doing. And we've had a similar experience here, with Murray.
When we brought the original script [for "Mythic Quest"] to the casting director, Jeanne McCarthy, we said, "We want an F. Murray Abraham type for this role." And she said, "Well, why don't you send it to F. Murray Abraham?" We were like, "He'll never consider it." She said, "I think he would like this." Sure enough, a couple days later, he signed on.
Q: You're on the May cover of Men's Health — when did you become THAT guy?
A: I became that guy for like a good solid week, during "Sunny" a few years ago [in season 13]. That guy went away for a while, because that guy is so boring. And then a few years went by and they were like, do you want to do the cover of Men's Health? So then that guy came back for like another like two-day period. And then that guy got put on a shelf again, because that guy is so unbelievably dull, because all he does is work out and eat the most boring food you could possibly imagine.
Q: Still, Ian's torso is practically its own character in "Mythic Quest" — did deliberately gaining weight for one season of "Sunny" change the way you looked at your body?
A: Yes, I'm fascinated with the way bodies are portrayed, and certainly the way that we portray our bodies, on television shows. I also like the idea of experimentation. And because I've been doing "Sunny" for so long, and now because "Mythic Quest" is starting to really hit its stride, I realize that what I'm doing on a daily basis is just looking for new challenges. And body transformations are just an extension of that.
Q: So how much are you working out these days?
A: I will say that I had the benefit of being in the pandemic. I was feeling all the anxiety that other people were feeling and I wasn't sleeping at night. So what I found that I had to do was work out really hard every day, no matter what. That might be in just the house or going for a run or whatever. And I was sleeping better at night. So the more I worked out, the better I felt, which is, you know, not a novel concept. Turns out that it's actually true.
Q: You're writing, producing, and starring in two different comedies, on different platforms, during a pandemic. What's that been like?
A: It's been a godsend. I mean, I continue to do the thing that I love to do. And I recognize how fortunate I am. I wake up every day and I'm grateful for the fact that we get to continue to make these shows.
For the first six months, we made one episode, while we were in quarantine. Nobody left their homes. But as the industry started to gear back up, and certain industries were allowed to function, certainly not normally, but in a way that allowed us to make our shows, then we were able to go back to work. And it was truly a wonderful experience to see all these people again, albeit in masks.
Every time they would say "Action," we'd take the masks off, and pretend like we were normal for 35 seconds, and then we'd put the masks back on.
Q: Does knowing already that "It's Always Sunny" has been renewed for three more seasons beyond this year make your life easier or harder?
A: You know, I try not to think about future seasons of "Sunny." It was probably season 5, season 6, something like that, where I realized that I was walking around on a daily basis, thinking about episodes for "Sunny." And we would be in between seasons. And I realized that if I don't compartmentalize and stop my brain from continuing to think about next season that I was trapped in this prison of always thinking that I needed to work.
As an actor, as soon as somebody says "Cut," my job is over, I get in the car, I go home. I can't act anymore. If you're a writer and you don't find ways to compartmentalize, then you'll drive yourself crazy.
So when I think about "Sunny" for next season, there's almost like a mental block. And I think the same way for "Mythic Quest." I just pretend like it doesn't exist until the first day in the writers' room and then I come in and guns are blazing.
Q: So you agreed to do four more seasons of "Sunny" without thinking about it.
A: Exactly. Truly the way I think about it is that season 16 is Rob 2022′s problem. Season 15 is Rob 2021′s problem. We start writing in three weeks.