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'Always Sunny' creator Rob McElhenney on his pandemic purchase: a Welsh soccer team

 Elliot Lee moves the ball for Wrexham.
Elliot Lee moves the ball for Wrexham.

In 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, actor, writer and producer Rob McElhenney decided that he wanted to buy a sports team. He quite wasn’t sure where to begin, so the co-creator and co-star of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia did what anyone might do:

“I just took out a computer and I Googled, ‘How do I buy a sports team?’” he says.

As McElhenney dug further, he learned about a struggling football club in Wrexham, Wales. A working-class mining town, Wrexham reminded him of his hometown of Philadelphia.

The people of Wrexham “were so in love with their [football] club that it was clear that their identity was wrapped up in it,” McElhenney says. “And that resonated with me because of my love for the Eagles, the Phillies, the Sixers and the Flyers.”

McElhenney says he wanted to “bring hope to a town that had fallen on hard times just simply through energizing the football club that was at the center of that town.” He reached out to actor Ryan Reynolds, who agreed to become a co-owner of the team.

The FX documentary series Welcome to Wrexham, now in its third season and streaming on Hulu, chronicles the trials and tribulations of the team, its owners and fans. McElhenney says his main goal with the series is to bring more people into the sport — and into the town of Wrexham.

 “[The show] is, at its core, a love letter to working-class people,” he says. “I wanted people to fall in love with the town of Wrexham. But most importantly, I wanted them to see themselves in the town of Wrexham.”

 Rob McElhenney (left) and Ryan Reynolds celebrate the team.
/ FX
Rob McElhenney (left) and Ryan Reynolds celebrate the team.

Interview highlights

On the European football system, which allows teams to move to higher (or lower) ranked leagues depending on their record

I watched a few documentaries and learned about this system of promotion and relegation, which is a system that is anathema to American sports. Meaning if, you lose, if you come in the lower two or three places in any given league, you are literally kicked out of the league and pushed down and out. And then on the other side of that, if a team is in a league below and they finish in the top two or three, they are promoted to the league above. …

There are leagues in the English football system who are made up of people who have full-time jobs, who just get together on Saturdays and play football. And in theory, you could take one of those teams, invest enough capital and build enough infrastructure to take that team all the way from that league — maybe it's league nine, maybe it's league 20 — all the way up to the Premier League.

On inviting Ryan Reynolds to become co-owner of the team

I thought of Ryan because we were friends. We had never met in person, but we were friends via text. And not only did I enjoy his work, I thought that we would vibe. I think we have a very similar worldview. He has got a great reputation. I just think that he is an incredibly ethical person. I know that he is kind. And every interaction that we had via text was always super positive. And, of course, he's incredibly entrepreneurial, so I knew he would understand right away. …

I wrote Ryan an email at night. He lives on the East Coast and I was on the West Coast, and I wrote him an email that was very brief, but it was heart forward, not business forward. And I got a call from him, which he had never called me before, at 2:30 in the morning. And I missed it because I was, of course, asleep. But that means it was 5:30 his time. So once I saw that I had a missed call from him at 2:30 in the morning, I knew that he was in.

On including the people of Wrexham in the documentary

That's a testament to the producers of the show. In the field, they just did a fantastic job of going around, going into pubs, going into restaurants and asking, “Hey, who should I talk to? Who would be interesting? Who's got a great story to tell?” And, as we all know as storytellers, the answer to that question is: Everybody's got a great story to tell if you're willing to listen. There's not a human being on this planet that doesn't have a compelling story to tell if you know how to ask the right questions. …

They've had a rough go for a good 40 years. It's a coal mining town. And as we know, in this country, coal mining towns are going through a very difficult time. And ... there's still so much hope. And now, of course, there's a tremendous amount of dignity and respect, that they have for being from Wrexham.

On It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, now in its 16th season

We have a criteria we go through every year when FX picks us up. It's just a list that we go down and we have to check every one of those boxes for us to want to continue to do it. Number one is: Do we still have something to say? Number two is: Is there still an audience that cares? Number three: Are we having a lot of fun still? And four: Are they willing to pay for it? And if all of those boxes get checked, then we come back and do it again. … It seems like yesterday [when he began the show], but I was in my mid-20s and now I'm in my mid 40s and also I am in a completely different place in life.

On working with Danny DeVito on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

I’ve learned so much from Danny. I would actually put comedy lower on the list, only because the things I've learned from Danny in terms of life, in general, have been so profound. … It's hard to quantify. And I've asked him about so many aspects of life and comedy, of course, is a part of it. But I remember even early on him saying to me, “Hey, what should I say here?” Because we were adjusting the lines. And I was like, “Actually say whatever you want. … You're one of the funniest people in the history of the world, certainly [in] television. I can't tell you what to say here.” And he goes, “Aren’t you the writer? …Then tell me what to say. I came to the show because you are 25 and I'm getting older. And what I think is funny might be old and stale. And I want to keep learning and keep growing and being curious about the world as it evolves. And so I'm going to look to you to help me as I'm on that journey.” And what a powerful lesson that is to learn at 25 from a legend. And it's something that I hold sacred and try my best to emulate.

Lauren Krenzel and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Sam Briger
[Copyright 2024 NPR]