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Frank Reynolds as Diogenes the Cynic

photograph of Danny DeVito at ComicCon panel for IASIP

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (IASIP) has returned for its sixteenth season. The show, which follows the exploits of five alcoholic, narcissistic Philadelphians who run the constantly failing, but never seemingly failed, Paddy’s Pub, is the longest-running live-action sitcom in American TV history. The quintet, otherwise known as “The Gang,” consists of Dennis (a psychopathic, womanizing barman), Mac (the insecure, self-appointed bouncer), Charlie (the glue-sniffing, paint-drinking, unstable janitor), Dee (the petty failing actress and waiter), and Frank (a degenerate millionaire chasing his sense of youthfulness).

Over the seasons, The Gang has done everything from the mundane, like trying to pass a health inspection or play a board game, to the fantastically bizarre, like influencing the 2020 presidential campaign or kidnapping a critic who gives their bar a lousy review. Yet, unlike so many other long-running shows, IASIP is as funny, imaginative, and even at times, emotionally devastating as it’s always been (arguably better).

Now, the show’s potential for philosophical intrigue hasn’t gone unnoticed. One of the entries in the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series is It’s Always Sunny and Philosophy: The Gang Gets Analyzed, and the hugely popular Wisecrack youtube channel has (at the time of writing) four videos dedicated to IASIP’s philosophical and cultural impact. What I want to do here, though, is not a broad exploration of the show’s themes nor examine one specific fight The Gang has (like whether we can trust science). Instead, I want to highlight how Frank’s behavior and attitudes emulate the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic (AKA Diogenes the Dog) and what we can learn from the pair of miscreants.

Diogenes was born in 404 or 412 BC on the coast of the Black Sea and died in Corinth in 323 BC. He founded the philosophical school of thought known as Cynicism, which espouses a rejection of conformity and, instead, insists that for us to live a good life, we must live according to self-generated internal laws and ideals. This need for self-government might strike some as rather mundane. After all, many of us want to live free from others telling us what to do, and the idea of bucking authority isn’t precisely original nowadays. But for Diogenes, it was not enough to be part of a counterculture; one had to reject society’s very foundations.

Diogenes lived his philosophy, unlike other philosophers who shared it via their writings. He begged for food, lived in a wine barrel, masturbated in public, urinated on those he didn’t like, and walked backwards through the streets to highlight, even debase, the norms governing people’s behaviors. He wanted his fellow citizens to see that the rules they mindlessly follow constrain them, make them unhappy, and force them into evil lives. Diogenes thought that if we could all see the rules we follow without even knowing they’re there, we would be able to live according to nature. We could reject the allure of power, money, or fame and instead live in the moment. We could embrace life’s simple pleasures and live free from the subversive control exercised by society’s requirement for conformity.

Indeed, his disdain for traditional authority was so great that, when Alexander the Great visited him at his barrel and asked if Diogenes wanted anything from the ruler, the Cynic responded by saying, “Yes, please stand aside. You are blocking my sunshine.” Let me make this clear. When offered anything that a king could provide – riches, property, titles, women – Diogenes wanted nothing more than for Alexander to get out of the way so he could continue to enjoy the feel of the sun on his skin.

Ultimately, Diogenes wanted to shirk society’s chains, live in the moment, enjoy life, and not spend his time preoccupied with what others thought, or, surprisingly for a philosopher, to waste time pondering the big questions. What mattered to him was the here and now and nothing more.

And this leads us to Frank (played to perfection by Danny DeVito). Frank is a former businessman who, upon joining The Gang at the start of season two, is going through a bitter divorce from his wife. After The Gang initially rejects him (despite him being Dennis and Dee’s father), he manages to work his way into their fold by purchasing the land on which Paddy’s Pub sits. Being incredibly wealthy, Frank is the money man for the group, funding their schemes and bailing them out of financial trouble when needed (or, more accurately, when he chooses to).

Importantly for us, though, Frank is The Gang’s most depraved member. He likes to live in the “Fringe Class,” where he can act without constraints and rules. He spends his time, almost exclusively, indulging in whatever desire comes into his head. This impulsive need is a reaction to his career and marriage repressing his urges over decades. But, after he steps back from his business and his wife indicates she’s leaving him, he decides he will let loose in his latter years. As he admits at a funeral, after confessing he wants to sleep with his former sister-in-law, Donna: “I don’t know how many years on this earth I got left. I’m gonna get real weird with it.” After Donna rejects him, however, Frank sleeps with Donna’s adult daughter, emphasizing that while he may be her uncle, they’re not blood-related.

In one of the show’s biggest mysteries, Frank gets stuck in a giant coil in a children’s play park, wearing only underwear. The Gang take advantage of his vulnerable state, mining him for business tips in exchange for helping him get free, which they immediately renege upon, despite his cries that there will be children in the park soon. The show never reveals how he ended up stuck, nor why he’s in his underwear, but given his bizarre predilections, one can imagine.

It isn’t just outside the home that Frank rejects societal norms, however. His vast resources mean he could live practically anywhere, yet, he chooses to move in with Charlie, the bar’s emotionally unstable janitor. They live in a one-room apartment, sleep on a pull-out sofa bed, urinate in cans, cut their nails with a knife, and play bizarre games like Night Crawlers, where they crawl around their apartment at night like worms. Their apartment is so unpleasant that, for them to fall asleep, the pair have to eat a can of cat food, huff glue, and drink enough beer to make them pass out. Yet, despite this, he loves living there and develops a close relationship with Charlie. He also enjoys pooping the bed occasionally because he finds it funny.

The list goes on, and picking these choice examples was a struggle. The ends to which Frank goes to enjoy his life are practically boundless. From hosting a beauty pageant so he can stare at women to buying a Lamborghini for no other reason than to annoy Dennis, Frank lives nowhere but in the here and now. After a lifetime of conforming, or at least trying to conform, to what society expects of him, Frank embodies Diogenes’s philosophy of freedom from expectations and the virtue of being in the moment.

From the outside, Frank’s choices are, for lack of a better word, disgusting. His bizarre lifestyle of roaming the sewers in the nude seems repugnant. Yet, Frank’s never been happier. Living as part of the fringe means he is free from worrying about others’ opinions and what society expects of him. He doesn’t have to engage in the pantomime of civility. Instead, he can just be who he is.

I should point out that Frank doesn’t fully conform to Diogenes’s cynicism. After all, Frank loves money, and for Diogenes, money is just another trapping into which we fall. But, I would contest that Frank reconciles a practical issue with the hard cynicism espoused by Diogenes. If one wants to live, then one needs resources. Without them, we die of hunger or thirst or exposure. One can beg as Diogenes did, but then we’re chained by our need to beg; we’re reliant on others. Diogenes liked to think he was truly free, but one can never be free of the material demands placed on us by the world. Frank’s money enables him to do whatever he wants in a way Diogenes never could. While the philosopher had to plead for food, Frank can choose to eat at high-priced restaurants, or he can choose to eat cat food or stuff he finds in the rubbish.

Finally, to emphasize the comparison, I want to reference something in one of the most recently aired episodes: Frank Shoots Every Member of the Gang. In this episode, Dennis and Dee try to relieve Frank of his gun by taking him on a day out and luring him into a false sense of security. This day consists of eating burgers in Dennis’s car, running under the bridge with his unhoused friends, and going to the beach. However, as the day goes on, Frank’s animalistic behaviors become increasingly apparent. He eats so fast that it seems like he might choke. He tries to get out of Dennis’s car by going through the window, on which he hits his head. He repeatedly urinates on fire hydrants. And when he gets to the beach, he starts yelling at it and firing his gun into the water. Indeed, his behavior is so animalistic that Dennis and Dee outright state that he’s turning into a dog.

Ultimately, to live like Frank and Diogenes would be a big ask of anyone. We like our creature comforts, from living in a house to knowing where our next meal will come from; these things bring us a sense of security. But, as both Cynics illustrate, such security may be expensive, and if one wants to be free from life’s shackles and ultimately happy, maybe the right course of action isn’t to dye your hair or buy a motorbike but instead, highjack a tour boat full of tourists so we can make sure we get to the cinema on time… or perhaps not.