If nobody likes a smartass, how can Joel McHale’s year be explained? Since The A.V. Club spoke with him last summer, McHale added to his weekly gig hosting The Soup on E! with a never-ending stand-up tour, a role in Steven Soderbergh’s new film, The Informant!, and the lead in a new show on NBC, Community. Written by Dan Harmon (co-creator of The Sarah Silverman Program and Acceptable.TV) and directed by the Russo brothers (Arrested Development), Community casts McHale as a fraudulent lawyer sent back to community college to earn his degree. There, he forms a study group with some typical community-college students, including a welcome Chevy Chase as the creator of award-winning moistened towelettes. Community shares Arrested Development’s quick pace and off-kilter humor, which makes it a kindred spirit to the other shows in NBC’s Thursday-night lineup, The Office and 30 Rock. And in a fall season that lacks much excitement, Community could stand out simply by being a smart, funny show in a low-ambition crowd of retreads. Its success partly rests on McHale and his ability to go beyond the smirking sarcasm that’s made The Soup a cult favorite, to portray a character whose snide exterior masks real vulnerability. His rare turn as a straight man in The Informant! should help, as McHale plays one of the FBI agents flummoxed by Matt Damon’s shenanigans as a flighty whistle-blower. During the run up to Community’s debut and the opening of The Informant!, The A.V. Club talked to McHale about why he doesn’t mind not being the moral center of Community, and how he stays sane with such a busy schedule.
The A.V. Club: How did Community come about?
Joel McHale: Well, thankfully, in the last three years, because of the popularity of The Soup, I’ve been able to audition for big roles in pilots. I prayed to get into those rooms when I first got here, just to be seen. So I did a thing called The IT Crowd a few years ago. I did a thing called Giants Of Radio which didn’t go, and then last year I did The Informant!, which is obviously a movie, so it took me out of pilot season. Then this year, I read a bunch of scripts again, and Community was the funniest script I read, and the soundest script I read. I read it on a plane, and the person next to me was watching What Happens In Vegas on their laptop, and I was laughing out loud, which I don’t do much while I’m reading, because I feel like it looks like I’m an insane person. So I was laughing out loud, and the guy next to me was getting pissed because I was interrupting his romantic comedy, and I thought that was honestly very ironic.
AVC: “I’m watching a romantic comedy. I don’t want to laugh, dammit!”
JM: “I’m concentrating!” So then I met with the producers, I read with them, I did a work session with them, and then I did a network test. Then they offered me the role. It was one of those things where I went in, and they were like, “Can you wait here?” Then they brought me back in and said, “All right, you can do it.” I was, obviously, thrilled. Then we shot it, and then you sit there and you wait for the pick-up, if you get the pick-up, so it’s all these hurdles you have to go over to get on the air. Then once you get on the air, your chances of getting out of your first season are so slim. So I feel like it’s like some sort of Navy SEAL obstacle course where, at every part, you almost die.
AVC: You can never get comfortable.
JM: Right, because as soon as you’re not drowning, you’re dying of hypothermia, but then you need to disarm the bomb. But we’re here, and everyone’s already talking very positively about the show, but it hasn’t aired yet, so we’ll see.
AVC: The consensus for the fall schedule in general is that there isn't a lot of stuff that’s very interesting, but Community has a good buzz around it. Do you think a weaker fall schedule helps Community, or hurts it?
JM: It’s funny, because I had not even thought about the other shows that are coming out. I’ve been so focused on just making sure that I know my lines in the scenes that I don’t speculate about the other things. You think about a show like Seinfeld or Cheers, and those were not hits out of the gate, you know? They took a little bit of time to age, like a fine wine, and then they became two of the most famous television shows in history. So we could be having a different conversation in 10 weeks, and see where on the road of popularity [we are] and whether the shows are high quality or not.
AVC: People always like to say that Cheers and especially Seinfeld wouldn’t survive now because networks are too antsy in demanding an instant hit, but Community is going up with The Office and 30 Rock, which are both shows that aren’t necessarily hugely popular, but NBC is giving them time to grow. That has to be encouraging.
JM: Yeah. You look at something like The Office that was ripped by critics when it first came out, and then—I don’t know when the switch or the click happened, but all of a sudden it became terrific. They have such good people on that show. So I think it’s always like they yank things that… you never know. Seinfeld could never exist now… Well, maybe it could. Mad Men, I think, is the finest drama on the air. It’s an incredible show. It doesn’t get the biggest viewers, but it’s on AMC, so maybe they do give it a better chance. I don’t know. But then you look at Friday Night Lights, which is a great show, and it didn’t do well in the ratings, but they gave it a lot of chances. I feel like being on that Thursday night is going to give us at least somewhat of a better advantage. If they leave their TVs on by accident after The Office is over, they’re going to watch us. That’s the motto. “Accidentally leave your TV on.”
AVC: Had you worked with Dan Harmon or the Russo brothers before?
JM: No, I hadn’t, and boy, what a freaking dream come true. The Russo brothers are awesome. From Arrested Development to Welcome To Collinwood, they just are great directors, and they’re so giving, and they’re not domineering, but they know when to really direct and when to ease off. It’s just been great, and they make it an easy environment to work and do comedy. They have the same sort of Steven Soderbergh feel, where you kind of get the feeling like, “Hey, we’re just having a good time, and let’s make something really funny and really good.” Dan Harmon, he’s like Gandalf in a weird way, in that he has the vision, the thing that’s just in him, of this show. He’s so passionate about it, and he knows it, so you can ask him anything, and he’s already 12 steps in front of you. This is the guy that created The Sarah Silverman Program, and he created that Heat Vision And Jack that didn’t make it a few years ago, which is like the most famous un-picked-up pilot ever.
AVC: The online shorts with him at greendalecommunitycollege.com are pretty funny, where he isn't the dean, but—
JM: He’s like the czar of student relations. He’s so funny. He’s painted these characters, and they’re so strong, and there’s no gimmick to this show. There’s so many shows that have the hook, and the hook only sustains itself for so long, and then it goes away. But this is just strong characters in a situation that is completely believable: a study group at a community college. And Dan went to a community college.
AVC: There was a Community-inspired story online to the effect of “Are community colleges in on the joke?”—as if there’s this deluge of community-college shows and movies out there.
JM: It’s so odd. Many reporters are like, “So are you guys going to make fun of community colleges?” It was such a weird, hostile attack approach. Just like in M*A*S*H, they were like, “Are you making fun of the Korean War?” “No.” “Are you making fun of doctors?” “Uh, not really…” Or like Cheers, you’re like, “You making fun of people that go to bars?” So what did they think our show was going to be? So a community college is somewhere that is a huge cross-section of America, and I thought it ironic that you have to have about as diverse a cast in television history if you want to do a show about community college. I’m just amazed that we’re all English speakers.
AVC: One thing that was surprising is how quickly the pilot moves. There are no scenes of you being disbarred or being told you have to go to community college. It's just bam, there you are. Do the other episodes have that kind of pacing?
JM: The other episodes, I think, go that fast, and Dan assumes the audience just will pick it up, which I agree with. He’s just like, “Yeah, it’s not going to be hard to explain. It’s this guy, he needs to be back in college. We’ll just get him there.” And then the Russo brothers, when they’re editing these things, they just know what they’re doing. And you can watch that pilot, it’s 26 minutes long, actually, it isn't 22. It’s longer than most of those, and it’s packed with great laughs, I think. Because a pilot is a marketing tool as well as the first episode of the series, it had to do a lot in that first episode. But I think the pace worked well.
AVC: Jeff Winger has the same kind of base-level sarcasm that you radiate on The Soup, so is he a pretty easy character for you to get into?
JM: Yeah. People in other interviews have been even more blunt, where they’re like, “Hey, this guy’s an asshole.” When I read the character, I was like, “Oh, thank God.” It’s not one of those shows where here’s the guy, he’s the normal one, and everyone else around him is insane. And here’s his hot wife. He’s going to be fat eventually. It didn’t have that thirtysomething guy, everyone else is crazy, and why can’t he find love? That was every pilot that I read.
And Jeff is not the moral barometer of this show. Britta, the girl [Gillian Jacobs], is. He has always been a “the ends justify the means” guy. He could care less about who he hurts, and that all changes or begins to change in that pilot, where for the first time in his life, “If you don’t pass these classes, you will not continue to be a lawyer.” So for the first time, he’s like, “I’m trapped.” It makes him start thinking. So it appealed to me greatly, because the character is written with great jokes, and he gets to do something, it’s not just “Everyone’s insane around me!” He actually has to try and better himself. So just like we all as human beings sit there like, “Nah, I probably shouldn’t eat this, but I’m going to!” “Ah, I shouldn’t smoke this—I’m going to smoke it every day! Probably four or five times, and buy packs of them!” You always have these plans, “I’m gonna get better.” And now he is forced to. So yeah, it really appealed to me in that sense. I knew playing him would be a ton of fun.
AVC: Community has 12 episodes this season. American network TV has pretty rigorous schedules, like 22, 26 episodes a year. But The Soup is on virtually every week of the year. Obviously the shoots are longer and more grueling, but still demanding. Does The Soup’s schedule keep you in shape for this?
JM: It definitely keeps my muscles flexed. It’s a completely different set. Obviously there’s no audience, there’s multiple takes, there’s a lot of time in between setups. So it’s completely different, and what took me a while to prepare for was the hours. It just took me a while to get used to. I kind of likened it to doing two-a-days with football, where the first couple days, you go, “Holy crap, we’re going to do this every day?!” And then by the end of the two weeks of two-a-days, you’re like, “Pssh, let’s do this three times a day. I don’t care. Let’s go lift weights and eat something.” This is the fourth week, and now I don’t even think about putting that much time in. So, yeah, I do feel like stand-up and The Soup have always kept me in shape, but as far as acting, it’s just different. I have to really think about what this guy is thinking and all that. It’s not just, “How do we tell another Miley Cyrus joke?” But gosh, for however how long this goes, I’m having the time of my life.
AVC: It seems like things are going well for you, especially during the past year. What happened?
JM: I attribute it to the slow-but-steady growth of The Soup's audience, much like a glacier that is slowly moving forward. The Soup has never grown in leaps and bounds; it’s always kind of crept up on you, like a fungus or an infection, and then all of a sudden you have to have your toes cut off. So there’s that. And then doing The Informant!, now that it’s coming out, obviously all the press that is involved with that. And then the stand-up stuff has grown only because I’ve gone out every freaking weekend, because I’ve got to pay for that remodel.
AVC: The Informant! has a pretty amazing cast of comedy ringers, including Patton Oswalt, Paul F. Tompkins, Tommy Smothers, and Scott Adsit. Not necessarily people you would expect from Soderbergh.
JM: That’s why I think Steven Soderbergh is the living genius that he is. I don’t think any other director would think to cast the movie the way he did. He thought—and I’ve seen the movie, and I think rightly—that in a dark comedy, comedic actors who are for the most part playing it straight, the comedy can seep out. Because I’m not sure exactly how, but that’s what I got, is that the comedy kind of seeps out of them. And it is a dark, dark comedy, but when you look at what happens in the story, it’s pretty serious. I mean, the guy tried to commit suicide at one point.
AVC: There’s a whole episode of This American Life based on this story, too.
JM: There’s even crazier stuff that happens in the book. You couldn’t include everything. It really is just that cliché of, “You could not write twists and turns like this.” I mean, the guy would call The Wall Street Journal every time he had a meeting with the FBI where they said, “Do not tell anyone, or this will jeopardize the entire case.” He would call up The Wall Street Journal and tell them everything. The guy would wake up at 4 in the morning and dig holes in his backyard, looking for tunnels. He was crazy. He was undercover for the FBI, working for this huge company, he decided because he was working for the FBI, that he should pay himself another salary. And so he began embezzling money from his company, thinking, “This is my FBI pay.” And then he was investing that money in those crazy Nigerian schemes, where you get those letters like, “Just send me $10,000, and I’ll send you a million bucks.” With every level, you’re like, “Well, it can’t get crazier than that.” Then it is. And Matt Damon’s performance is just amazing.
AVC: Speaking of Paul F. Tompkins, do you have any thoughts on what appears to be the demise of Best Week Ever?
JM: I heard about that. How long ago was that now?
AVC: A couple of months maybe?
JM: Is it done? Or is it just on hiatus?
AVC: It looks like it’s done, or they’re going to bring it back differently, but it sounds like he won’t be a part of it regardless.
JM: Well, I have always said, the more people that are commenting and making fun of what’s happening on television these days, the better. It’s a little crazy, with the advent of so many channels and so much cheap programming, the egregious, offensive things that are being put on the air.