The past decade been a great one for comic performers on TV, from the deadpan insanity of H. Jon Benjamin as both Sterling Archer and Bob Belcher, to the Veep renaissance of Julia-Louis Dreyfus, to the sketch comedy brilliance of Amy Schumer, Key & Peele, and more.
But one performer who has been doing some of the most complex, wide-ranging, and consistently funny work on TV seems to fly under the critical radar: Kaitlin Olson, aka Sweet Dee Reynolds on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which starts its 10th season Jan. 14 on FXX. Like her castmates Charlie Day, Danny DeVito, Glenn Howerton, and Rob McElhenney (Olson’s husband), Olson is ferociously committed to her drunken, rude, borderline sociopathic character. But Olson has them all beat with her remarkable comedic range.
Though Sunny has a reputation as a yell-fest, Olson can get laughs out of the smallest, quietest performances. When “performing” (that is, hideously bombing) at a comedy open mic in the Season 4 episode “Dennis Reynolds: An Erotic Life,” Olson can barely be heard, projecting pure fear. When that fear makes Dee slouch into an uncomfortable dry-heave, you are convinced that Olson may shrink forever into an abyss of low self-esteem. Olson, a statuesque blonde, can make Dee seem as tiny as Ant-Man.
In other situations, Olson is a violent, confident force of nature. In “Bums: Making a Mess All Over the City,” from Season 3, Dee becomes a tornado of angry energy, bashing a masturbating bum with a trash can lid and yelling, “I don’t want to see you or your dirty balls in my alley again!” After a nightmarish experience in Season 7’s “The Gang Goes to the Jersey Shore,” she implores Mac with words that don’t look like much on paper but acquire a lunatic fury in Olson’s performance: “Get in the goddamn car you fat fatass fat fat ass!” As in the famous fuck scene in The Wire, Olson milks a minimal lexicon for maximum impact.
All the Sunny characters are awful people, but Olson can make you actually feel for Dee, as in a painful, quiet moment from Season 8’s “The Gang Gets Analyzed.” Dee has made the preposterous decision to bring the gang to her therapist, not to get the mental health services they sorely need, but to determine which of them should do the dishes after a dinner party that sounds about as pleasant as a prison riot. After ignoring or deflecting everything her therapist says, Dee ends up pleading over and over: “Tell me I’m good.” Dee may be an evil clown, but she’s still a human evil clown.
Speaking of clowning, Olson is a master of physical comedy. Whether she’s falling down a hill in heels, eating a sandwich like a demented bird, blowing snot on a pool attendant, crashing headfirst into a car, trying to raise her arms in an ill-fitting costume, or doing her trademark dry heave, she has a Michael Richards-like willingness to sacrifice her body for a laugh. If only she had his shelf of Emmys. Olson has more than earned them with bits like the dancing she does in “The Gang Buys a Boat,” an unforgettable synchronized number with a giant inflatable mascot.
My favorite Olson moment, though, is probably from Season 5’s “The Gang Hits the Road,” when a wasted Dee learns the hitchhiking teen she picked up is a runaway. This leads her to passionately sing along to Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train” while getting right in the kid’s face and also peeing in a jar—a jar she promptly throws out the window, hitting Mac, who was asleep in the backseat, in the face. It’s a vanity-free, virtuoso performance, one of many.
Last season’s “The Gang Broke Dee” was another Olson showcase. The episode begins with Dee in a deep depression—so bad that even her callous friends and brother are concerned. The gang tries to boost Dee’s preposterous attempts at stand-up comedy by booking her at open mics and supporting her. Thanks to the deadpan, ghoul-like performance of Olson, you can see and feel (and almost smell) Dee’s depression. And thanks to Olson’s skills, you also see real humor in Dee’s “the joke’s on me” female Rodney Dangerfield shtick.
Dee improbably catches on with the comedy crowd, surpassing local diarrhea comic Landslide and eventually getting an invite to appear on Conan. Throughout—as Dee jousts with her brother, sleeps with a disgusting agent, performs goofy sound effects, and awakens to the possibility of success—Olson brings vulnerability, anger, and real joy, not to mention a pretty strong send-up of crappy stand-up comedy. It’s a neat, multi-layered trick, making an unfunny stand-up comic funny and unfunny at the same time.
So why has Olson been overlooked by every award-giver and most critics? Probably for the same reason that the show itself doesn’t generally win awards (it’s only Emmy nominations have been for Outstanding Stunt Coordination for a Comedy Series or a Variety Program): It’s Always Sunny is gross, negative, trashy, and proud of it. And Olson’s performance is—brilliantly—all over the place: If you watch just one episode, you might think Olson can only play the wannabe actor, the drunken strumpet, the avenging bum-fighter, the Ponzi schemer, the weird dancer. You have to watch every week to see that she can do it all.