‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’: The Women Responsible for Mac and Charlie on Being the Worst Moms in TV History
When it comes to TV’s greatest mothers, people usually think of Mrs. Cunningham (Happy Days), Carol Brady (The Brady Bunch) or even Marge Simpson (The Simpsons, duh — or is it doh?), all of whom are incredibly nurturing and exactly who’d you want as a mom. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum are Mrs. McDonald and Mrs. Kelly from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Mac’s mom, played by Sandy Martin, is an unloving, chain-smoking former Jiffy Lube manager who speaks in a series of grunts and who once burned down her house with a cigarette. Charlie’s mom, played by Lynne Marie Stewart, is a good deal more maternal, but her high-strung emotions and prolific sex life have permanently distorted Charlie’s view of healthy relationships and left him in the dark as to the identity of his father until well into his 40s.
Alone, these two terrible mothers were hilarious supporting characters on It’s Always Sunny…, but in Season Six, they shacked up together, thus creating one of TV’s most enduring odd couples as well. While their presence on the show isn’t as regular as fans might like, Martin and Stewart will be returning for the upcoming 16th season of It’s Always Sunny…, which begins on June 7th.
In time for the show’s return — but more importantly, just in time for Mother’s Day — both Martin and Stewart recently joined me on a Zoom call to share what it’s been like to be the worst mothers on television.
To start things off, I’d love to hear how each of you got your respective parts on this show.
Stewart: I have a friend named John Brace, who was a technical director with the Groundlings, and his best friend is the casting director John Papsidera, who had me come in to read for the episode “Charlie Gets Molested.” I was supposed to cry in the audition. I thought, “I get to be dramatic,” so I started crying, but because John is a friend, he thought it was really funny that I was crying. Then, when the guys saw it later, they thought I looked like Charlie Day and that I could be his mother.
Martin: For my part, I was in the park walking my dog with my friend, and we saw this couple that knew him and they chatted for a bit. I didn’t know them, but it was Charlie Day and Mary Elizabeth Ellis. As they were breaking up the conversation, Charlie said, “You were the Grandma in Napoleon Dynamite?” I said “Yeah, I was.”
From there, Charlie said, “I have this little comedy we’re putting together. It’s not a big big deal, but it looks like it’s going to happen. Would you be interested in taking a look at the script?” I said, “Well, sure, you can send me that script, whatever.” Then he sent it, I thought it was funny and the rest is history. They just gave it to me.
What were some of your earliest experiences with your characters?
Martin: In the first show I did, in Season Two, I had no idea that Rob would change things up. He told me, “Instead of saying this line, just say (grunt).” So I did it, and they thought it was funny. Next thing I know, I’m doing (grunt) and (growls) and (groans) instead of dialogue, but I didn’t mind at all. I began doing it on every show. I got an email once telling me, “You’re the only woman I know who can do 90 different grunts for a character.” And I wrote back, “I hope you’re enjoying it, because I am.”
Stewart: We all find Sandy hysterical, but Rob, particularly. I can’t tell you how many takes he’s blown because of her. And those guys are the writers, producers and directors, so if they want to goof around, nobody stops them. So many times, Sandy will go (grunt) and Rob will just break and go hysterical. We just sit and wait until he stops laughing — and we love that. We love that we all laugh at each other.
What about you, Lynne? What are your early memories about playing Charlie’s mom?
Stewart: I remember asking questions in the beginning that they couldn’t answer — like, “Who’s my husband?” and “Where’s my husband?” They just hadn’t dealt with that yet. Then in one episode, Danny DeVito was my lover, and that’s how Frank produced Charlie. He told me to get an abortion, and the abortion didn’t take, which I hid from him.
Martin: You old horndog!
In the episode “Mac Bangs Dennis’ Mom,” Glenn Howerton’s character tries to sleep with both of you to get back at Mac. Do you have any memories from those scenes where he’s trying to seduce you?
Martin: I turned him down because he was ugly — he’s an ugly man.
That porch was, rumor has it, Rob’s childhood home. That’s what I heard. There was also a family in there now renting the place while we were outside going, “You’re ugly. You’re an ugly man. Get your hands off me.” He even puts his hand on my knee, I look down at the hand and go, “Ugh, you’re so disgusting.”
Stewart: (Laughs) To tell you the truth, he’s so attractive, I don’t know why I turned him down!
The two of you were originally separate characters; then Sandy, your character burned down her house and moved in with Charlie’s mom. Ever since, you’ve always appeared together. How did that change feel?
Stewart: I was very excited, because it meant that we’d always be together. Instead of doing one thing with one of the boys — we call them boys, even though they’re men — we were a team now, which excited me because I love working with Sandy. We’re friends on- and off-screen.
Martin: I like coming in with her because we’re as different as night and day. She’s an old horndog, and I’m a grouchpants. She says I can’t smoke in her house, and then I reach across the table with my cigarette, knocking some ashes onto her plate. She hated that! Then she says, “She smells,” and Rob goes, “No, she doesn’t — that’s my mother!” Then I say, “Are you kidding? I fucking stink!”
Do you ever blush at the material you’ve been given?
Stewart: I had to describe sleeping with Sandy’s husband and another prisoner, and it was very graphic. Everybody was quiet on the set. It was like I was doing porn. Afterwards, people were coming up to me and saying, “You’re a really good sport.”
Martin: And I just kept eating my dinner during her whole thing.
Stewart: That was the only time I hesitated a little, but I got through it.
Martin: I have a little anecdote too. I’m from Philadelphia, and my mother lives in the rural area outside there called Spring House, Pennsylvania. She said to me once, “How come you never tell me to watch that show?” I said, “Because you never watch anything I do.” But she said, “Well, people are talking about something with Philadelphia in the title. Maybe I’d like it because it’s about our hometown.” I told her, “Well, if you want to watch it, it’s on Tuesday nights.” Then she told me that she was going to have some friends over to have pizza and watch it. I wasn’t in the one she was going to watch and I told her that, but she said, “Let me just see this show.”
When it was over, the phone didn’t ring, so I said to myself, “I guess I better man up and call.” I called her and said, “What did you think?” She said to me, “Don’t ever tell me about that show again! It was the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever seen in front of my friends.”
In the Christmas episode, we learn about the strange traditions each of your families had. Mac’s mom and dad would go from house to house early on Christmas morning, taking gifts from their neighbors. As for Charlie, his mom was a sex worker, having sex with a revolving door of men who dressed like Santa, each of whom gave Charlie a Christmas gift.
Sandy: I loved that one.
Stewart: Yes, I took quite a few Santas up to my room in order to get presents for my son, who I adore. I think Sandy and I did what we had to do to get presents for our boys.
Can we talk about the episode “Old Lady House,” which was sort of your Golden Girls-type parody?
Martin: We shot that on a dime, and we did it in one day. That’s a good example of the freedom they give us. The guys weren’t even there that day; the director just had an outline, and Lynne and I just had a lot of ideas we put together. That’s the kind of improv I love doing and having Lynne as a foil is a godsend.
Stewart: We’re so happy we found each other!
I’m sure you can’t reveal anything about the new season, but what was it like to return to the role after a fairly long hiatus?
Stewart: It was like going home again.
Martin: Actually, it was like putting on an old flea-ridden coat and going out. I’ve really gotten into those sounds I was making, so it came right back to me.