Parody and pop-culture references are a staple of televised comedy, though there is a careful balance that has to be maintained in order to prevent irritating memes like Family Guy‘s Peter Griffin’s constant “Hey, remember when?” gags. While some shows are entirely based in a spoof format (Archer, Brooklyn Nine-nine), others try to use pop culture as a way to relate to audiences.
The FXX sitcom, now in its 11th season, is known for its acerbic wit and over-the-top characters. The “Gang” — sociopath Dennis Reynolds, aspiring actress/comedian Deandra “Sweet Dee” Reynolds, closet homosexual/karate enthusiast Ronald “Mac” MacDonald, illiterate rat-smasher Charlie Kelly, and master schemer Frank Reynolds — all have their own takes on pop culture and society that don’t necessarily involve including the average viewer. They either skewer standard perceptions of entertainment or overreact to them, and seeing pop culture through the lens of five socially irredeemable maniacs is a wild ride.
Almost every episode of the long-running series contains at least one small pop-culture gag, but there are some that stand above the rest. These episodes are either entirely based in parody or are so deeply referential that they might as well be parodies. Occasionally, the formula fails, as was the case with the fifth episode in Season 7, “Frank’s Brother“, which attempted to spoof jazz clubs, South American drug cartels, and flashback episodes of other shows. The result was a mess of bad taste. Thankfully, “Frank’s Brother” is an anomaly in an otherwise solid library of ridiculous, hilarious, and often offensive satire. Here are the top 10 It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia spoof episodes, chosen based on how much content is parody, how well the content is spoofed, and general entertainment value. (Extra points given for taking jokes a little too far, which is what Sunny does best.)
10. Season 3, Ep. 4: “The Gang Gets Held Hostage”
In this episode, the gang gets held hostage by the milk-drinking, incestuous McPoyles in retaliation for the gang ruining one of the McPoyles’ chance at being a football star two episodes earlier in “The Gang Gets Invincible“, which itself spoofs the Mark Wahlberg movie Invincible. Like many of Sunny‘s spoof episodes, “The Gang Gets Held Hostage” pokes fun at a number of pop culture entities instead of adhering to one direct parody.
The McPoyles force the gang to do a number of tasks in order to be allowed to live, satirizing the reality television show Survivor. Dee develops Stockholm Syndrome and goes Patty Hearst on her fellow Paddy’s Pub crew. Frank goes on a long Die Hard-style adventure in which he crawls through vents, walks on broken glass, and eventually tapes a gun to his back in order to shoot at the McPoyles and rescue his friends. He even shouts “Yippie ki-ay, Mr. Falcon” at the McPoyles, a direct reference to the bad television censorship of Bruce Willis’ line in Die Hard 2.
While the episode is one of the funniest in Season 3, the jokes that land the best aren’t based in parody but in the McPoyle’s weirdness or the gang’s willingness to sell one another out in order to survive. Throughout the course of the episode, each member of the Paddy’s Pub crew betrays at least one of the others in an attempt to better themselves, and Dennis goes so far as to try and seduce the mute, unibrowed Margaret McPoyle. “The Gang Gets Held Hostage” shows the potential the Sunny gang has for parody, but still has room for improvement.
Best Moment: Mac’s response to Charlie’s query on whether or not a butthole can rip: “Like tissue paper.”
9. Season 2, Ep. 5: “Hundred Dollar Baby”
“Hundred Dollar Baby” takes on the Rocky franchise, Fight Club, The Karate Kid, and Million Dollar Baby in an episode about Dee and Charlie both training to be fighters. Dee trains under Frank to fight the daughter of his old nemesis, Bobby Thunderstorm, while Mac and Dennis train Charlie to fight in an underground men’s fight club. Both Dee and Charlie eventually suffer at the hands of their trainers and abuse performance enhancing drugs to comical results.
Dee and Charlie both have tremendous amounts of rage in the episode, likely fueled by their abuse of steroids. Dee threatens her opponent with “I’ll eat your babies, bitch,” while Charlie doesn’t understand that he’s meant to take a fall in his fight and becomes a force of destruction (especially toward sub sandwiches).
While the episode directly and indirectly spoofs fight films, some of the jokes are too easy and obvious. There’s an extended training montage including a run up some famous stairs, a handful of direct dialogue references, and Dee’s opponent breaks her neck like Hilary Swank’s character in Million Dollar Baby.
Best Moment: Charlie stuffing a sandwich into his mouth and laughing maniacally while under the influence of way too many steroids.
8. Season 7, Ep. 1: “Frank’s Pretty Woman”
Another episode that directly references what it’s spoofing in the title, “Frank’s Pretty Woman” details the madness that ensues when Frank declares he is marrying a prostitute named Roxy and the gang tries to clean her up like Julia Roberts’ character in the famous romantic comedy. Roxy is nothing like Roberts’ character, however, as she smokes crack, drinks heavily, and behaves boorishly enough to offend some members of the gang.
A side-plot involves Charlie trying to introduce Frank to someone better through a complicated date scheme where Frank acts as the charming limo driver and Charlie gets sick on the date. Charlie acts as Hoss Bonaventure, a Texas oil tycoon, a “southern gentleman” trope popularized by characters like The Dukes of Hazzard‘s Boss Hogg. Charlie’s plan to look sick backfires, however, as he swallows fake blood capsules and ends up vomiting fake blood all over his date.
This episode parodies its content more lightly than others, but is a turning point in the series’ tone, diving into much more disturbing territory when Roxy dies of a heart attack during Frank’s proposal and the gang leaves her body in the hallway.
Best Moment: Dennis completely resigning himself from trying to help Roxy when she addresses him as “babyd***.” Charlie’s copious blood-vomit is a close runner-up.
7. Season 9, Ep. 8: “Flowers for Charlie”
“Flowers for Charlie” references the short story/novel “Flowers for Algernon,” in which a mouse is genetically modified to be more intelligent. In the episode, Charlie is selected for a research project and given pills to increase his intelligence. Charlie begins to leave his friends behind and develops mysterious side effects while going through the experiment. He even dismisses the Waitress, a woman he has stalked and obsessed over for nine seasons because he finds her to be vapid and irritating while on the medication.
The subplot for the episode revolves around Dee, Dennis, and Mac trying to catch a rat in Paddy’s Pub. The rat easily outsmarts their various attempts to trap him and the three end up high on gasoline on the floor, with Dee’s hand stuck in a glue trap.
“Flowers for Charlie” was written by Game of Thrones scribes David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and features a cameo from Charlie Day’s Pacific Rim co-star Burn Gorman as the scientist running the experiment. The episode pokes fun at the “smart pill” trope used in a number of science fiction entities (Limitless, The Bourne Legacy, The Lawnmower Man) with a character who has a well-established history of being illiterate, uneducated, and terrible at problem-solving. Charlie is a special kind of stupid, and his take on what it is to “get smart” is a lot of fun to watch.
Best Moment: The final few minutes of the show reveal a (somewhat obvious) twist, but the funniest moment comes when Dee has been sitting with her arm in a rat hole for hours with her hand stuck to a glue trap and Frank suggests she “let go of the trap,” which in turn frees her.
6. Season 6, Ep. 9: “Dee Reynolds: Shaping America’s Youth”
Season 9, Ep. 9: “The Gang Makes Lethal Weapon 6”
The gang at Paddy’s Pub created two sequels to the Lethal Weapon movie franchise over two separate episodes, but it makes sense to combine them both into one entry, as they both essentially do the same thing.
In “Dee Reynolds: Shaping America’s Youth,” Dee invites the kids in her high school drama class to the bar to show them a movie in an attempt to earn their respect. Instead of showing them a classic film, however, she is forced to show the teens Dennis and Mac’s Lethal Weapon 5. Mac and Dennis switch roles halfway through the short film, and Mac wears blackface any time he is depicting Danny Glover’s character. Frank stars as the villain and Charlie plays a henchman, all with comic effect. As Frank was the financier of the film, there is an extended (and awkward) sex scene in which he bangs a prostitute. The back office of Paddy’s serves as both the police station and the villain’s lair (complete with a giant green-screen shark tank). Brief clips of Lethal Weapon 5 are shown in the episode, but the entire 14 minutes are available on the Season 6 DVD and Blu-ray.
“The Gang Makes Lethal Weapon 6” expands upon the gags from the previous Lethal Weapon episode. The gang is unable to finish Lethal Weapon 6, however, because Frank pulls out as financier after they refuse to let him do another sex scene, this time with on-screen penetration. Lethal Weapon 6 features more violence, bad acting, and blackface than its predecessor, though it lacks the charm of the earlier episode.
This is also one of the show’s most direct spoofs, though it is the gang themselves, not the creators of the show, spoofing Lethal Weapon.
Best Moment: Frank’s super-creepy love scene in Lethal Weapon 5, which strangely mirrors the repeat love scenes Tommy Wiseau performs in the cult classic The Room.
5. Season 9, Ep. 6: “The Gang Saves the Day”
“The Gang Saves the Day” takes place mostly in the daydreams of the gang as they are trapped in a convenience store during a hold-up. Each of them has their own idea of the perfect way to save the day, and each heavily references pop culture in some way. Dennis is shot in the head and enters a coma, after which he is nursed back to health by a beautiful, busty nurse. Mac is a karate-action hero, talking in a gravelly voice like Christian Bale’s Batman and fighting like Neo from The Matrix.
The two parodies that shine, however, are Dee and Charlie’s daydream realities. In Dee’s, she is a successful actress playing a butler on a show called “Covington House,” similar to ABC’s 1980s’ sitcom, Mr. Belvedere. She dresses as a man and speaks in a (poor) posh British accent. She ends up being so successful that she marries Josh Groban, her object of adoration from earlier episodes.
Charlie’s daydream is animated and is based on Pixar films including Up and Ratatouille. Charlie works hard, makes friends with the rats he previously smashed, and the rats help him win the heart of the Waitress. They end up married, have lots of children, and grow old together. Eventually the Waitress dies and Charlie is left old and alone, much like the opening sequence of Up, and the house then flies away on balloons. It’s surprisingly sweet and sentimental for Sunny, especially in an episode that features Dennis being shot in the head and Dee being eaten alive by police dogs.
Best Moment: Charlie introducing the Waitress to his horde of cartoon rat friends. It’s probably the cutest thing Sunny has ever done, in its own weird way.
4. “A Very Sunny Christmas”
Ah, the Christmas special. A well-loved, oft-abused diversion used in sitcoms to celebrate the holidays and do something a little different. Sunny‘s Christmas special is longer than a typical episode at 43 uncensored minutes. (The ability to swear beyond what’s allowed on cable TV comes into play well at the end of the episode, when Dennis tells Frank to “go f***” himself.)
“A Very Sunny Christmas” revolves around the gang’s personal Christmas memories and problems. For Dennis and Dee, Christmas is a terrible time filled with disappointment, as Frank would leave empty boxes under the tree for them or buy gifts they wanted for himself instead. The episode begins with Frank arriving at Paddy’s in a Lamborghini Countach (Dennis’ dream car), carrying a designer purse that Dee covets. The siblings decide to try and convince Frank of his wrong-doings, A Christmas Carol-style, by showing him how awful he is through past, present, and future. They even reunite him with his old business partner, Eugene, in an attempt to teach Frank about the Christmas spirit.
Mac and Charlie are also trying to recapture the Christmas spirit, though they go about it a little differently. At Mac’s house, Mac recounts the Christmases with his father where they would break into other people’s houses to get their gifts. This depresses Charlie, so they head to his house only for him to remember that his mother used to invite a number of sketchy Santa Clauses over on Christmas. They then go to the mall in a last-ditch attempt to find the Christmas spirit, but instead Charlie attacks the mall Santa, screaming, “Did you f*** my mom?” at him and biting him in the throat.
Frank ends up having a strange little trip in which he ends up in a claymation world reminiscent of the classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Christmas cartoon. He even encounters a little elf friend, whom he berates. The clay gang eventually take turns attacking Frank with gory results and he ends up trying to make things right as a result. (This of course backfires, and Eugene steals everything Frank buys for the gang.)
Best Moment: Frank attempts to eavesdrop on employees at his old business in order to hear them say negative things about him, at Dennis and Dee’s insistence. To do this, he sews himself into a leather couch and hides in it during a Christmas party. Later, he emerges from the couch as if he was being born, naked and covered in sweat.
3. Season 10, Ep. 4: “Charlie Work”
“Charlie Work” is unique in this list because the episode doesn’t spoof content so much as it does style. The entire episode focuses on Charlie as he attempts to prepare Paddy’s Pub for the health inspector, despite the fact that the rest of the gang seems to be doing everything they can to make things harder. With the gang wrapped up in some kind of airline miles/raw steaks/chicken scheme, Charlie is left to take care of Paddy’s problems all by himself. The episode is shot in long tracking shots, referencing the seven minute single shot in season one of True Detective and the critically-lauded film Birdman. The soundtrack to the episode also mimics Birdman.
In addition to long tracking shots and soundtrack, Dennis also references True Detective by doing his best Matthew McConaughey impersonation for the heath inspector, repeating the catchphrase “Alright, alright, alright” despite the fact that no one else has any idea what he’s doing.
While this episode doesn’t contain a lot of spoof-style jokes or pop-culture references outside of its shooting style, it is one of the series’ best and features a number of great Sunny moments in a fast-paced, cohesive, Charlie-centric way that merits multiple viewings.
Best Moment: The entire episode is gold, but Charlie’s fury with Dee over her laziness and Frank covered head-to-toe in black paint, playing a clarinet to mimic the sound of a carbon monoxide detector are top contenders.
2. Season 10, Ep. 8: “The Gang Goes on Family Fight”
In this Season 10 episode, the Paddy’s Pub gang go on Family Fight, a clear parody of Family Feud. Each member of the gang has different ideas on how to win the game, and each has their own agenda. Dee has been starving herself to look thin on TV and is trying to do a “Jenny McCarthy thing,” Mac keeps getting the show confused with other game shows like Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, Charlie gives Charlie answers (with surprising results), and Dennis and Frank just want to win. Dennis, unfortunately, can’t handle the buzzer sound that goes off when an answer doesn’t show up on the board and he begins what will become a full-blown meltdown by the episode’s end.
Keegan-Michael Key does his best Steve Harvey impersonation as the host of Family Fight, conveying with exaggerated facial expressions his disbelief in the answers the Reynolds family gives. Unlike many of the individuals who come in contact with the gang, he doesn’t lower himself to their ridiculous behavior or somehow get wrapped up in it. Instead, he points out how insane they are and how much he wants the episode to be over so he can get away. When Dennis eventually breaks down and sobs on the floor after failing the speed round, Key seems almost delighted by Dennis’ pain. Dennis cries, “Don’t air this part,” and Key informs him that they absolutely will.
Episodes that take the gang away from Paddy’s can be hit or miss – the rest of the world usually just isn’t prepared for their special brand of awful. This particular episode, however, puts the characters that viewers have watched evolve over ten seasons into a well-known game show format, providing plenty of room for laughs and character insight.
Best Moment: When Charlie realizes why he’s been able to get at least one answer on the board every round.
1. Season 11, Ep. 3: “The Gang Hits the Slopes”
“The Gang Hits the Slopes” is 100% parody, a spoof on the 1990 film Ski School. The plot revolves around a skiing contest, with the winner deciding the fate of the mountain resort. Frank and Dennis are particularly arch in the episode, serving as the villains who wish to turn the lodge into a private resort. Dee and Mac just want to party because they’re on the famed Party Mountain, and Charlie spends most of the episode trying to figure out why everything is so weird on the mountain. While Charlie playing the straight man in any scenario is odd, it works because the whole episode seems a little unreal anyway.
Everything about Ski School is spoofed, from the bad late 80s’ clothes to the cheesy music to exact camera shots. Porky’s is also skewered when Frank’s old nemesis/ski instructor Drisko (played by Dean Cameron from Ski School) plays a “prank” by drilling a hole in the women’s showers. Charlie, Mac, and Dee point out that what he’s doing isn’t a prank, but actually sexual harassment. There are many tiny satirical shots at 80s’ and early 90s’ party movies throughout, and it is eventually revealed that Drisko is the mountains’ chief sex offender.
In an episode where everything seems a little fantastical, one of the funniest bits involves an announcer telling the tourists at the lodge all about the skiing contest, as well as the antics of the gang. Charlie finds this disturbing and questions Dennis about it before deciding he wants to leave to find Mac and Dee. As he is leaving, the announcer tells everyone that he is leaving and has decided to not compete in the contest. Charlie, bewildered, shouts at Dennis, “He knows my name! He knows my name!”
Charlie eventually figures out the “magic” of the mountain when he is seduced by the beautiful Tatiana, hired by Frank to convince businessmen to invest in the mountain. Tatiana and Charlie proceed to have sex in a number of positions in front of a fireplace and on a bearskin rug, in what is one of the series’ most explicit (but hilarious) sequences. Charlie then decides to race for the mountain after Drisko is arrested to ensure that the magic continues.
The magic, it turns out, is something entirely mundane, and the weirdness of the episode is explained away by Frank at the end. The episode has no real impact on the characters and is a little different in tone than most of the other episodes, but it is a ridiculously fun 30 minutes and one of the series’ best.
Best Moment: This episode has a lot of great moments, from Dee asking to be removed from “the sex offender team” to Dennis telling Tatiana about how she can only feel his sexual power once she is clean (and channeling his inner Patrick Bateman), but the final shot in Charlie’s sexcapades with Tatiana takes the cake. Charlie sits nude before a roaring fireplace, atop a bearskin rug, playing a saxophone while Tatiana lovingly runs her fingers over the instrument.
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