Two years ago, when Joel McHale landed the part of shamed lawyer Jeff Winger on the NBC series Community, he didn’t quit either of his day jobs, which included a busy stand-up career and his hosting gig on the E! clip show The Soup. Now, with the little-watched but critically acclaimed Community in its third season and a burgeoning film career, McHale has had to face the realities of trying to keep all his irons in the fire: He’s scaled back his stand-up gigs, and he doesn’t watch any shows for The Soup, something he used to do along with the staffers who compiled clips for each episode. But, as he says, being too busy is a good problem to have. Just before Community’s season three première, McHale sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about why he’s not obsessing over Community’s ratings, why he still does The Soup, and how his Catholic upbringing keeps him humble.
The A.V. Club: Have you gotten to the point where you and the cast and creator Dan Harmon just aren’t worried about how big the audience is for the show anymore?
Joel McHale: It’s not in the forefront of everyone’s mind making the show at all. When we’re there, we are focused on trying to execute Dan’s scripts, and the writers’ scripts, well. That’s it. And we have a great time on set. We get along very well as a cast, and they often have to get us to focus, because we’re goofing around so much. It makes work a joy being around these people. As far as the ratings go, other than doing things like this and NBC promoting it, there is nothing we can [do]. So all we can do is go out and hopefully execute the script well, and then it’s out of our hands. So you know, if you sat there and worried about ratings, and not focused on the jokes you were telling, then you would be telling some pretty bad jokes.
AVC: Can you imagine if a Community episode got 21 million viewers, like Two And A Half Men? What would everybody’s reaction be to that?
JM: My reaction would be like, “Wow, I can’t believe so many people left their TVs on by accident.” And, “Dear lord, Access Hollywood must have had a seriously awesome story to have a lead-in like that.” At 8 o’clock, our lead in is, you know, entertainment news, so I’m just like, “Wow, I guess Mark Steines really killed it on that story.” So my reaction would be, “Oh, well, I guess Ashton Kutcher has been added to our cast.”
AVC: Which episode from last season would you consider the essence of Community as a show?
JM: Well that is hard to say, because there have been so many different episodes and so many great, in my mind, great moments. It would be very hard to pick one. The ones that pop to mind are the Dungeons & Dragons episode. That was really great. Chevy [Chase] did an amazing job in that. What was great about that is that there were real fates, with Fat Neal being suicidal, and then it was all about Dungeons & Dragons. For dancing around what was a very heavy subject matter, I thought the writers wrote these jokes that avoided all the pitfalls of making jokes about suicide, or about someone who is suicidal.
I loved the hospital documentary episode. I thought that Donald [Glover]’s performance in that was just off the charts. And boy, for me and Danny [Pudi], I liked the My Dinner With Andre episode. That was really good. But it’s just hard to say, because there are episodes, like when Gillian [Jacobs]’s character Britta starts dating the guy from the Balkans, and he turns out to be a war criminal, I thought she just executed that so well and was so funny. So good.
AVC: It feels like you can pinpoint an episode in which each of the cast members stood out, during the season. Is that how you think of it?
JM: I guess that’s how I’m thinking about it. Because it’s just hard to put my finger on one episode that completely tells the story. Because I think that Alison [Brie]’s performance in the part one of the [season finale] paintball episode was fucking amazing. She was really a badass. But it’s just hard to come up with all those. Shirley’s, I mean Yvette [Nicole Brown]’s stuff about being pregnant and her husband Malcolm-Jamal Warner, that stuff was great.
AVC: Does it feel like the show’s building a bit of a world now, outside of the study group? Will we see more of that in season three?
JM: Well I think each season [Dan] has done things where he has taken all the characters that have been introduced and he then puts them into an episode. Like the final episode of the first season, almost all of our recurring characters were there, and then definitely the paintball episode, everyone was there, including Anthony Michael Hall. This year is no different. So the difference is that last year, Pierce was the antagonist, and he was up against Jeff. It was Pierce and Jeff versus each other or versus the group. There was a big question as to whether Pierce would stay. Now it is different, because the antagonists are outside the group: John Goodman and Michael K. Williams. So the antagonists will be not within our group, but outside, because it couldn’t keep going. With Pierce, it had to come to a resolution. So I think it’s really smart that they made the antagonists outside of the group so the group kind of comes together around those things.
AVC: Was there a bit of fatigue with always making Pierce the jerk last season?
JM: No, there was zero fatigue at all. It just played out. They wrote it perfectly, I think, to play out to the end of the season. It ended on a real cliffhanger, whether he was coming back or not. So no, there was no fatigue, it’s just that it played itself out. In real life, you either end the relationship with the person or you come to an understanding and you move on with them. So I don’t think it would have made sense to keep going.
AVC: Are we going to see more of you and Alison’s character try to figure out what’s going on between the two of you?
JM: Yes, you will see more of that. Definitely.
AVC: How has Dan tried to figure out how to play that out and not make it like a “will they/won’t they” situation?
JM: Boy, that’s why Dan and the writers are really good, and they’re not going to. And so far, in the seven episodes that I have—we’ve shot six and read seven—they’re not going to dole it out all at once; Dan has never played up the “will they/won’t they” with anybody really, on purpose. So it’s being done slowly, which is correct, because if you set off all the fireworks at once, then it’s going to get real boring after that, or that storyline would be. But Dan, the first year, with Britta and Jeff, there was a bunch of “will they/won’t they,” and Dan’s such a genius, he goes, “Oh, they will,” and they immediately had sex and then it turned out all last year, they were having secret sex. So he takes those old models of television and turns them upside down. That’s why Dan is so brilliant. I’m sure he will do the same with this one. I just don’t know where it’s going yet.
AVC: Is Jeff still trying to reunite with his father and figure out that relationship?
JM: Yes. Apparently, from what I understand, and I don’t know yet, but you’ll meet Jeff’s dad.
AVC: And you don’t know who’s playing him yet?
JM: I don’t know, no. Not yet.
AVC: Are we in store for more big, concept-type episodes? Or are we going to see smaller, day-in-the-life of the study group type of stories?
JM: Well, I think it’s always both. Like last year, we had things as big, obviously, as the paintball episode, and as small as the “bottle episode.” There’s no requirement that we need to do this many big ones and this many small ones. So, you know, I can tell you that it’s been both so far. Dan and the writers and the creators, they have always... just to do a big episode for the sake of doing something big is going to be boring. But if the story calls for it, then it could be a sweeping epic, or it could just all take place in the study room. So it’s going to be both. The stories don’t hinge on how big it is; the stories hinge on the relationships between the characters and that. So if they need to go to the island of Tortuga in Pirates Of The Caribbean, then they’ll need to. Or if they need to go buy pencils, then they’ll do that.
AVC: Did the relations between the characters, and the writers knowing the characters, seem to develop early? Last year’s episode where everyone got drunk was very character-driven.
JM: I would agree. You know, I think Dan never tries to go through regular television construction. He just kind of goes like, “Yeah, a study group would get drunk together, probably.” I know that personally, that the cast got along very well up from the beginning, and so we were all very comfortable with each other to do stuff. I think it’s just kind of like, “It’s playtime.” It’s like a big sandbox to kind of explore all sorts of different parts of the relationships and locations. So yeah, we always got along and trust each other a lot, to go anywhere with these characters. I mean, the naked pool scene in the first season, that was kind of nuts. But there was a lot of character stuff going on, and as to why all that was happening.
AVC: How tough was it to keep the whole Cougar Town crossover quiet?
JM: We were so busy that I don’t think we even thought about it. That worked well, because no one said anything, and no one tweeted anything. They were there very briefly, we got them in and got them out, but not a lot of people noticed it, and no background actors tweeted it. So it just kind of all worked well. I think it just stayed low on the radar. I suppose if we had Tom Cruise guest-starring, that would be a lot harder to hide, but yeah, it worked out really well. And Bill Lawrence was really gracious in letting us use Busy [Phillips] and Dan [Byrd], then having Danny on Cougar Town, it worked great.
AVC: What has John Goodman’s influence been on the set?
JM: Oh, he fits in perfectly. His character is amazing and incredibly original. I truly think that John Goodman is one of the best living actors on our planet. He takes, no matter what role he’s in, no matter how big or how small, whether he’s leading a movie or has a small part in a movie, he fills up the character, and it’s just bursting with originality. He’s so interesting to watch, and I think his character is going to blow people away. So far, I’ve had no scenes with him. I’ve gone and watched him work, but I’ve had no scenes with him, and I’ve been begging them to put me in some. I always say, “Let me just have some scenes with him so I can tell my grandkids.”
AVC: Do you think NBC, knowing that it has this night of quality comedy, means you’re in a fairly safe harbor, or are you always going on the assumption that this could be the last year of the show?
JM: Oh, well, I was raised Roman Catholic, so I believe that the light that my car is parked by is going to break through and crush me. I don’t plan on anything happening. But it’s one of those things where, once again, there’s no way to know. I mean, there’s no way to know, until they say it’s cancelled or it’s going to be picked up. You just don’t know. Obviously shows that are wildly popular hits, you know they’re going to probably be picked up. But you just can’t make that call. I get to work every day, and until they tell me to stop doing it, I’m going to keep doing it.
AVC: Is that Catholic upbringing why you decided to keep plugging away with The Soup and keep going out for as many roles as you can?
JM: I mean, you could say yes, but I’m joking about those things. There’s many different reasons, but I love doing The Soup, and all the writers are my good friends, and I really enjoy doing it and it doesn’t take that much time, so why quit? So that’s great. E! has been very good to me and very accommodating, thank God. But as an actor, getting work is really difficult. I wasn’t going to quit something that was working for something that may or may not work. Thankfully, Community is working. And we’re just kind of like, “Well here we are working on this season, and I’m still under contract with E!, and NBC is very good to let me still continue to do it. So hey, I’m gonna keep going until someone tells me to stop.”
AVC: What in the schedule allows you to do both? You’ve mentioned before that you’re assigned to shows to watch, just like everybody else on the staff.
JM: No, I don’t watch any of the shows now. I don’t have time to sit down and watch three hours of TV a day anymore. Those days are gone. Those have been gone for a while. I’m up to date on everything that’s happened, and I know kind of what’s happening. But as far as being the one that trolls through four hours of the Today show, I just don’t have the physical time. So I have the greatest staff ever, and there’s 12 or 13 staff members, and then a bunch of interns, and they cover everything. There is a shit-ton of television to go through every day. So yeah, without that staff, the show would be one-fifth of what it is.
AVC: How hard was it for you to put the stand-up career on the shelf for a while?
JM: Well, it freed up some time for me to sleep and see my family, so it wasn’t that hard. I still do colleges and stuff like that, but it’s not like a real tour. I’m not hitting the road every week, because I just don’t have the physical time. So as far as letting go, I’m still [satisfying] my jonesing to perform, but that happens every day, thank God. I can’t believe how blessed I am. So it hasn’t been that bad, because my life is so busy that it’s worked out. I’ll go back to it once I have time, if I have time, but focusing on the two TV shows and all that takes up an enormous amount of time, and most importantly, seeing my wife and children.
AVC: When stand-up comedians come off the road to do TV and movies, many say that they start to lose either their desire to do it, or their desire to keep a new act going. Do you want to keep it fresh until the time comes when you can go back out more often?
JM: I still write stuff, and I go and work bits out and stuff when I have time. But if I’m going to a specific college, then I will write jokes for that college, amongst my material. I kind of tailor it to wherever I’m going, and then there’s like my regular act. But as far as those bits go, I always want my act to evolve and all that stuff, and yeah, it’s harder because you’re not out all the time doing it, but you know, it’s a good problem to have.
AVC: With what went on with The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills, is The Soup staying away from that show?
JM: No, we didn’t stay away. I think we made a quick comment on what happened, and then we just watch the show, and if something ridiculous happens, we put a clip of it on. In no way, obviously, did we make fun of the suicide [of Russell Armstrong]. No, that would be horribly distasteful. But you know, if they still have the show and are running new episodes, then if there’s something ridiculous on it, we’re going to show it. We pick our battles in different things. That’s one of those topics that is pretty rough, and you know, we’re a comedy show. So it’s not like we’re there making in-depth, brutal editorials about things. I think we gave it as much time as we give almost any other show.
AVC: What is the most ridiculous reality show that you’ve seen come on in the last couple years that you’ve covered on The Soup?
JM: Oh, well I love Hillbilly Handfishin’. It’s a great show, and it’s a really funny show. You know, you’re not shocked [to see it], but it’s really fun to watch people try and grab fish out of a river next to a guy where it all sounds like they’re talking about grabbing a dick.
AVC: Do they realize what that looks like?
JM: If they don’t, then they’re not very smart. I’m sure they do. They must know. That show’s a lot of fun, so you can tell that they’re having a good time, so it makes it really fun. And things like Toddlers And Tiaras, as much as it gets criticized, is a very fascinating show. Because it is a world that a lot of people don’t know about, and it’s pretty fascinating to watch.
AVC: Do you think the people who made Gold Rush Alaska last year kind of knew that by calling something a “glory hole” it would get that kind of attention?
JM: That’s a good question. I don’t necessarily think the older people that live in Alaska know the double meaning of “glory hole.” We, of course, went all the way with it, and it was crazy. It became really funny when you put all the clips together.
AVC: Do you start to wonder sometimes if creators of shows are doing certain things, knowing that The Soup will pay attention to it, and it will get the show more publicity?
JM: Geez, I don’t know. It’s a good question. I mean, we’re not that high on the radar, so if a producer’s going about their show that way, well, I’m terribly flattered. But no, I don’t know.
AVC: Because it just feels like Hillbilly Handfishin’ is Soup-ready.
JM: Well, yes, it is Soup-ready. Yes. But if they create a show because of us, it’s once again, very flattering. Very thankful. Obviously, that was not the case, but it works out great for us.
AVC: How does a show land on The Soup’s radar? A show like Pawn Stars, which is extremely popular, isn’t on there that much.
JM: Well, it just depends on if it was interesting. We watch Pawn Stars every week, but if there’s something more ridiculous on Hillbilly Handfishin’, then we’re gonna show that. So it’s case by case and week by week. There’s point we’re like, “We’re not watching that show.” It’s just, you never know what the television gods will hand you. If the most ridiculous clip is on local Philadelphia news, then that will make it over a Dancing With The Stars clip, even though it’s less-watched.
AVC: Has E! ever given The Soup flak for making fun of Ryan Seacrest and the Kardashians? What do you think its motivation is letting you make fun of its shows?
JM: Well, I think that started with our old president, Ted Harbert, and it’s continuing with our new president, Suzanne [Kolb]. She’s been great. Ted kind of set the tone years ago, where if we couldn’t make fun of our network, then I don’t think the show would happen. Luckily, Ryan Seacrest was a terrific sport, and he’s even participated. So for that, I’m very thankful, and the Kardashians have come on before. So it is [an] “any press is good press” type thing probably. But we never said anything malicious about Ryan. We make fun of his height and his pile of money. I wish someone would make fun of me for the pile of money I had.
AVC: So his attitude is like, “All right, so I’m a little short and I’m rich. What’s the big deal”?
JM: Yeah, and it makes him very astute. He knows that people have made fun of him in the past for whatever, just like anybody in the public eye. He doesn’t shy away from it and is not offended by it. He makes fun of it, and just like he was really funny in Knocked Up, so it’s great that he has a really good sense of humor.
AVC: Especially because you and Kathy Griffin are alternating ganging up on him.
JM: Yeah, I mean, he has the last laugh. He is the one who’s taking over all entertainment.
AVC: You have a couple of projects on the way. How much time do you have to do movie roles at this point?
JM: Depends on the movie. Like last year, I shot Spy Kids on weekends and during a couple hiatus weeks, so that was really good. But yeah, last year I did Ted, and there’s no way I could’ve done that during Community, because that was a few months of shooting. Thankfully, a few of the movies that I did, like What’s Your Number? and The Big Year, those were just coming out now. I did both of those last hiatus. So, you know, I would love to do more movies. Community, I think, is very cinematic in the way it’s shot. It doesn’t look like other shows. So hopefully, [movie producers] go, “Hey, that looks kind of like a movie. We should put him in a movie.” But walking on the Community set, I really do skip to work. I can’t believe I’m this fortunate. It’s something I dreamt of, being a series regular on a really good show, and I’m really happy.