It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has always been a show that does not shy away from controversial topics, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the musical episode “The Nightman Cometh” (S4E13) exists. “The Nightman Cometh”—written by Charlie Day, Glenn Howerton, and Rob McElhenney, and directed by Matt Shakman—is consistently on Best Of It’s Always Sunny episode lists, and for good reason: it is that classic It’s Always Sunny combination of over-the-top comedy with incredibly dark undertones, and it manages to squeeze comedy gold from subject matter that really should not be funny at all.
“The Nightman Cometh” follows the rehearsals for and performance of a musical that Charlie Kelly (Day) has written seemingly out of nowhere. However, the musical actually has its roots in a Season 3 episode. One of the songs from Charlie’s The Nightman Cometh was based on a song co-created by Dennis (Howerton) and Charlie in the incredibly problematic and horribly titled episode “Sweet Dee’s Dating a Retarded Person” (S3E9). Sometimes, especially in earlier seasons, It’s Always Sunny misses the mark in its attempts to be edgy, and this episode is a prime example of that. It is worth noting that in an interview with GQ for an oral history of the episode, Howerton stated, “[the episode title is] one of the few regrets I have. I would change that title now. I do find that title offensive, personally. At the time I don’t even know what I was thinking.” While the plotline of Dee (Kaitlin Olson) and her new boyfriend is best forgotten, the parts of the episode regarding Nightman/Dayman form the foundation for the musical episode to come in Season 4.
In S3E9, The Gang decides to start a band. Dennis is excluded from the original trio of Charlie, Mac (McElhenney), and Frank (Danny Devito), who form a band called Chemical Toilet. Charlie writes a song, “The Nightman,” but Mac and Frank are horrified by its content (which they understandably believe is about Charlie being raped) and kick Charlie out of the band. Listening to the lyrics of the original “The Nightman,” one can hardly blame them for assuming the worst:
Nightman, sneaky and mean
Spider inside my dreams, I think I love you
You make me wanna cry
You make me wanna die
I love you
I love you
I love you
I love you, Nightman
Every night you come into my room
and pin me down
with your strong arms
you pin me down
and I try to fight you
you come inside me
you fill me up and I become the Nightman
It’s just two men sharing the night
It might seem wrong
But it’s just right!
It’s just two men sharing each other
It’s just two men like loving brothers
One on top and one on bottom
One inside and one is out
One is screaming he’s so happy
The other’s screaming a passionate shout
It’s the Nightman
The feelings so wrong and right, man
They’re feeling so wrong and right, man
I can’t fight you, man
When you come inside me
And pin me down with your strong hands
And I become The Night
The passionly passionate Nightman
Charlie doesn’t see any problem with these lyrics (and will feel similarly when confronted about the content of the songs featured in “The Nightman Cometh”), and he continues to work on the song on his own. After Dennis is briefly allowed into the band only to be kicked out as well, he goes to Charlie and they work on a new version of the song together—a version that will become the iconic “The Dayman.”
“The Nightman Cometh” begins with Charlie excitedly informing The Gang (sans Frank) that he has written a musical. Being the terrible people that they are, they immediately assume that Charlie must have some sort of malicious goal in mind. “Who’s the mark?” asks Dennis. “Whose face are we shoving it in?” asks Dee. “Who are we doing it versus?” asks Mac. The Gang’s shenanigans always involve some sort of scheme or vendetta, so obviously they assume that Charlie’s musical is no different. But Charlie insists he has no ulterior motive here: he just wrote an awesome musical and he wants to put it on. Charlie threatens to give their parts away to other people, which is the only way to get The Gang on board because if there’s one thing you can count on in It’s Always Sunny, it’s the utter narcissism of The Gang always taking precedence.
At the first rehearsal, The Gang is already beginning to steamroll Charlie and insert their own interpretations and visions for their characters into the show. Dennis is angry that Mac is getting the good parts, Frank wants to play his part in the nude, and Mac makes some interesting executive decisions about playing The Nightman wearing cat-eyes and doing karate across the stage. Dee’s concerns about her character being in love with a little boy are warranted, given some of the lyrics she has to sing in “Little Baby Boy”:
I need you
want to make
love to you boy
Dee stops rehearsal to confront Charlie about the nature of these lyrical choices, but he explains to her that the boy is not a literal child but the inner child of a grown man. Throughout the episode, Charlie seems completely oblivious to the fact that all of his lyrics read a lot differently than he’s intended, and that is where a lot of the comedy in this episode comes from—that disconnect between Charlie’s intent and the reality of what he has written, which is essentially a full-length musical about child sexual abuse and pedophilia. In the GQ oral history, Day addresses this directly:
Any time we deal with that kind of subject matter, I like to think it’s coming from a more intelligent place. A rape joke is not remotely a funny thing; a man writing a musical that he thinks is about self-empowerment, and not realizing that all his lyrics sound like they’re about a child being molested, is a funny thing. The joke is coming from confusion and misunderstanding, which are classic tropes of all comedy.
What It’s Always Sunny (mostly) does so well is to make these kind of jokes land, and “The Nightman Cometh” is the perfect example of this. You shouldn’t laugh at “Tiny boy, little boy, want to make love to you,” but you do.
Dee is still incredibly uncomfortable with “Little Baby Boy” and attempts to get Charlie to cut it and give her something else to do, but Dennis wants to keep the song in (not because he sees no issue with it but because he simply wants a larger part in the play). At this point, we get to experience an interesting shift in the power dynamic of The Gang. Throughout It’s Always Sunny, Charlie is always on the bottom, being bossed around and mocked by the rest of The Gang. Here, Charlie holds all the power: it’s his musical, he wrote it, and he decides who does what. He counters Dee’s attempts to cut the song by playing on her desperation to be an actress (another running gag throughout the show) and tells her that she can either sing the song he wrote or nothing at all. Of course, she chooses to sing it despite her reservations, because she craves the spotlight just as much as Dennis does (if not more).
Another point of contention in “The Nightman Cometh” is the song “Troll Toll,” in which Frank (who plays the troll) is constantly messing up the lyrics to the song. Instead of saying, “You gotta pay the troll toll to get into this boy’s soul,” he sings it as “boy’s hole.” This is an instance where the lyric itself is not sexually explicit but Frank’s screw-ups are making it so. It’s the opposite of what is happening with “Little Baby Boy,” where the lyrics are stating something graphic despite Charlie’s intent. Here, the lyrics are actually not explicit; Frank is just making it weird because he is eliding the words to create something horrific. It’s even funnier because he just can’t seem to get it right (and doesn’t even realize he’s doing it).
This is followed immediately by Mac addressing the elephant in the room. He tells Charlie, “I think we need to be very careful about how we do the rape scene.” Of course, Charlie has no idea what he’s talking about because, in his mind, there is no rape scene. Mac (and everyone else’s) interpretation of the scene is that, after The Nightman pays the troll toll, he rapes The Boy (Dennis). To Charlie, though, he isn’t raping the boy but becoming him. The disconnect between how Charlie interprets his work and how every single other person that reads it interprets it, in addition to how frustrated Charlie is that no one seems to get it, is the darkest of comedy, but “The Nightman Cometh” makes it work. Again, this should not be funny, but it is.
While we don’t fully learn Charlie’s true intent until the end of the episode, we do see him go find the love of his life, The Waitress (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), to give her a ticket to the musical. The Waitress, as always, wants absolutely nothing to do with him or his musical, but she agrees to attend after he promises her that, if she goes, he will never bother her again. It becomes clear at this point that Charlie didn’t just write the musical for no reason, as he claimed at the beginning of the episode, but as a way to impress The Waitress. And that’s no surprise because even Charlie (who is the least terrible member of The Gang) doesn’t do things without some ulterior motive.
There is typical It’s Always Sunny-level chaos the moments before the performance is set to begin. After The Waitress arrives, as promised, and sits in her reserved seat in the front row, Charlie is ready to start. He makes a last-minute change to have an elderly woman, Gladys, play the piano instead of himself, which throws the group off a bit. Dee insists on adding a song she wrote (whether Charlie likes it or not), and Dennis is having a bit of a panic attack about performing. Mac is the only one who seems remotely calm about the whole thing. He just wants to pop his cat-eye contacts in and get his Nightman on.
Dee’s impromptu addition to the musical is basically a disclaimer about how she doesn’t have sex with children and is available to any grown men who may be interested, which infuriates Charlie and brings mockery from Dennis and Mac. When Mac finally does get on stage, he is greeted with laughter, which stage manager Artemis (Artemis Pebdani) sees as a good sign. But the laughter upsets Charlie, who continues to insist that The Nightman Cometh isn’t a comedy even though literally everyone else finds it ridiculous—including The Waitress, whose reactions are cut to throughout the performance. She looks fairly horrified but not at all surprised by Charlie’s magnum opus. After all, she is familiar enough with The Gang’s nonsense that pretty much nothing would shock her at this point.
The “Troll Toll” number goes off pretty much as expected, with Frank continuing to botch the line and Mac adding in some karate choreography before mounting Dennis. It’s basically exactly what Charlie told them not to do and he is fuming backstage. When Dennis transforms from The Boy into The Dayman, he and Mac can’t help but bicker on stage before The Dayman vanquishes his foe and launches into the iconic number, “The Dayman,” which we first heard in the Season 3 episode:
Fighter of the Nightman (ah-ah-ah)
Champion of the Sun (ah-ah-ah)
You’re a Master of Karate
After what was supposed to be the closing number, Charlie’s endgame reveals itself as he descends from the rafters and performs a surprise musical number to the surprise and confusion of the rest of the cast. He reveals himself as having been The Boy the whole time and ends his tune with a marriage proposal to The Waitress (which she obviously rebuffs). And thus ends “The Nightman Cometh”—or so the cast thought.
Musician Don McCloskey, who is a friend of the cast, texted Rob McElhenney after he had seen the episode for the first time and asked if they wanted to perform a few songs with him at an upcoming show he had at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. This spiraled quickly into reports that the cast of It’s Always Sunny would be performing “The Nightman Cometh” live. Tickets for two nights sold out almost immediately, and so the group decided to just do it. The initial performances in L.A. were huge hits, with the cast shocked to hear the audience singing along. The success of the Troubadour shows led to an additional six performances in cities across the U.S. as the cast was promoting the upcoming fifth season.
It would have been incredible to be able to catch one of the few live performances (and if you were one of the lucky few, I’m jealous) but we all still have the episode that we can revisit over and over again. Like many episodes of It’s Always Sunny, “The Nightman Cometh” only gets funnier the more times you see it. It’s hard to pick a favorite moment, but for me, the “Troll Toll” performance is the best scene in an episode full of great scenes, both because Danny Devito makes a perfect troll and because Rob McElhenney with cat-eye contacts doing karate will never not be hilarious. But the real comedy in “The Nightman Cometh” comes from Charlie Day, who performs his role in earnest. You have to feel bad for Charlie, who truly believes that his musical is a coming-of-age story and not one long rape scene. Like so much in It’s Always Sunny, it shouldn’t be funny, but it is.