Before landing the role of all-around pop-culture maven and audience surrogate Abed on Community, Marquette University grad Danny Pudi was best known for two short-loved recurring roles on other shows with significant college-based plotlines: Greek and Gilmore Girls. He also starred in any number of failed pilots and short films, plus a direct-to-DVD sequel to the film Road Trip. He usually ended up playing a stereotypical Indian character, in spite of his extensive theater training and work with the Second City comedy troupe in Chicago. Since Community began, Pudi has become arguably the show’s breakout star, a character who often says just what viewers are thinking, and the guy whose encyclopedic knowledge of TV and films allows him to navigate the show’s stock sitcom plots. Pudi recently talked to The A.V. Club on the set of the show’s second-season Halloween episode, “Epidemiology,” about his Polish dancing background, the evolution of Abed, and why he’d like Community to take on either a ninja movie or a Western.
The A.V. Club: The Spandex bodysuit you’re wearing is very impressive.
Danny Pudi: [Laughs.] I’m glad you noticed. This is week three of my fashion experiment for season two. Week one was spacesuit. Last week was leather pants and wig. And this week is Spandex and scuba gear. This reminds me of my dance days back in college, where they’d be, like, “5, 6, 7, 8, Pudi!” then make me do weird modern dancing.
AVC: Were you really into dance, or was it just something you did as part of your major?
DP: I actually started out with dance. My mom put me in dance classes when I was 5 years old. It was actually Polish dancing, as a kid, folk dancing, which was great. Especially when you’re the brown kid, they make you go in front all the time and do the solos. [Speaks rapidly in Polish.] “…You’re lazy!” [The instructor] was always yelling at me for being lazy. He’s like, “5, 6, 7, 8, go.” And he had a huge mustache. But he taught me discipline. And he was always yelling at me, “Come on, come on. Why aren’t you smiling?” And then he’d be yelling at me and telling me to smile. So it’s a great way to teach me to enjoy dance. [Laughs.]
Then I danced for eight to 10 years after that, and I danced again all through college; tap dance, jazz, musical theater. But I’ve always loved to dance. It’s kind of the first way, in many ways, that I could get into character, physically, in my body.
AVC: So how’d you move into acting?
DP: In high school, I started acting out a lot. I realized detention was great. But I also realized that I didn’t really have an outlet. I needed to do things, and I was goofing around, and my friends were always daring me to do stuff. I started leading pep rallies and things like that, and in college, I got into theater more, started doing a little bit more comedy. And then in college, I won the Chris Farley Scholarship at Marquette, and that kind of put me on the path toward Second City and directed me a bit more, which was great, because I needed some focus. I was always a huge fan of Saturday Night Live as a kid. Monty Python, those kinds of things, I really responded to, I was really awake to them, but I didn’t necessarily know what the path was.
My mom and my family were an immigrant family, so it was always education first, and then goofing off. That kind of thing. So get your degree, then you can do your other things. Thankfully, I was able to go to Marquette University and get my education, a Catholic education, so I could please my family, because I think they wanted me to be a priest. Then through that, I was able to go to Second City and start learning a little bit more about sketch comedy and acting and doing a little bit more theater, and then that led me out to Los Angeles.
AVC: Both you and Community creator Dan Harmon are from the Midwest. Is there a connection there based on that?
DP: We never even connected it until afterward. We both realized he’s from Milwaukee; I lived in Milwaukee when I went to school. He went to Marquette for a year; I went to Marquette. So there’s a lot of similarities, but I think here, if you look around the cast, everyone’s from somewhere else. It’s sort of like Greendale, sort of this group of people that are outsiders, coming from all over the place and jumping in together. Yvette [Nicole Brown]’s from Cleveland. The Russo brothers are also from Cleveland. Donald [Glover]’s from Atlanta and New York. Gillian [Jacobs] is from Pittsburgh. It’s kind of nice that we have this group of people who really do represent, in many ways, a lot of different regions across America. Not just their characters, but the actors do too.
It’s fun, and with Dan, it’s great because we do have that connection and the Midwest thing. With many of your characters, you rely on who you grew up with and who was around you. Milwaukee, Chicago, there’s great characters.
AVC: Could there possibly be a Polish dance instructor with a giant mustache on the show?
DP: [Laughs.] If there could, [Pudi’s childhood dance instructor] Pon Richard’s gonna get a cut. I was actually at a Polish wedding last weekend in Colorado with a few of my friends who all did Polish dancing together. Ola and Tasha, congratulations Ola and Tasha. [Speaks in Polish.] We sang Polish Christmas carols and Polish dance songs in the back of their shuttlebus. They still dance with Wesoly Lud, which is the group. You’ve heard of them? [Laughs.] Who hasn’t heard of the famed Wesoly Lud of Chicago’s South Side? They still dance with them, and they asked if I would be interested in dancing with them again, and maybe doing something. I mean, my skills are a little bit, you know, they’re not as good. I’m rusty. With the krakowiak, mazurka, ah, my mazurka’s decent. But I would love to. I still do it. Well, we did at my wedding.
As far as I know, they’re still dancing. They’re very much part of that whole old-guard Polish culture. They left right before 1989 when the wall crumbled, so they’re still very stoic. Like, my Grandma was always hiding money because I think she was afraid the communists were going to come and take it. It’s kind of that; that’s the mentality in some ways.
Like my babysitter, when I got married, yelled at me because I was dancing. I was trying to do a worm on the ground, it wasn’t a good worm, but she picked me up and she said “Daniel, [speaks Polish angrily].” And she kept yelling at me, “This is embarrassing. This is your wedding day. Take this day seriously” in front of all my friends, and I was like, “This is awesome. That was my babysitter from when I was 8 years old yelling at me in Polish in front of all my friends and my wife.”
My wife said, “What was that crazy old woman’s problem?” I told her, “Oh, that’s my babysitter. She just wants me to take this day seriously.” [Laughs.]
AVC: How much do you know about the pop culture referenced on the show?
DP: It varies. Certain episodes, I feel like I really get it, like this episode, ’cause it’s Aliens. Great movie. I mean, Dan and the writers are geniuses at putting stuff in, so I’m always like, “Oh crap, what does this reference, and what does this reference?” There’s a couple episodes where it was Indiana Jones. Those are the ones that I definitely get. A lot of them, I get, but in this one, my homework right away was “Okay, I gotta rent Aliens again and rewatch it.” Netflix queue. We watched Dawn Of The Dead in the [cast] trailers again, just to kind of refresh.
I think the great thing about this show is that you don’t need to know, necessarily, every reference, but it’s so helpful when you do. For me, as an actor, I need to know. I need to really know what I’m saying, because with Abed, there’s always a specific reason why he’s saying it. He doesn’t just throw around pop-culture references to be like, “Hey, guess what I know.” It’s very much, “This is what I notice between you two characters, which is similar to what happened in Aliens with Ripley’s character and Burke.” That kind of thing. I’d say 60 percent maybe, is what I know?
AVC: Abed is the outsider character. What would you say his journey has been so far?
DP: I was just thinking about this. In many ways, Abed has a knack for being able to pinpoint characters’ behaviors and stuff, because he doesn’t adhere, necessarily, to certain social cues, and he’s comfortable with being the outsider kind of looking down. But at the same time, it’s lonely. It can be tremendously lonely for him, and he has this urge to connect with people, too. He doesn’t necessarily understand why people are not being honest with each other, for instance. Why would you not be honest with someone? When Chevy [Chase]’s character came in one day, and we all thought he was dead, and he’s like, “You guys thought I was dead!” and I said, “I did.” And everyone was mad at me, and I’m like, “Why? I did think he was dead.”
Because of that, because of Abed’s sort of peculiarities there, prior to Greendale, he probably had a lot of difficulty connecting with people or being part of groups, teams, things like that. I think that the great thing about this group is that we really allow people’s flaws. We accept their flaws, because we all know “Holy shit, we got a bag of flaws right here, too.” If we allow Señor Chang with us as our teacher, if we allow, some of the character stuff—Pierce coming in with earnoculars, we’re building a boobatron robot in an episode—and we just allow it because everyone else is like, “That’s crazy, but I got my own journey that I’m trying to figure out too.”
I think that’s kind of a great thing about a character like Abed; he’s able to come into this group, and despite his flaws, like anyone else, he’s able to learn from the group, and they’re able to learn from him. Which is the first time in his life, probably, that people are listening to him and looking to him, even starting in the pilot when Joel’s character says to him, “I see your value now.”
As far as changing, he’s getting into film more, he’s starting to do things that he wants to do more. I think prior to Greendale, his dad was probably like, “Okay, it’s time to make falafel. Go! Go! Abed! Falafel time!” I think he was on that road to fulfill his parents’ expectations, or his father’s at least, which was run the family restaurant, make sure your father is happy, and then figure everything else out after that. Along with starting to study film, he’s starting to build friendships. Troy is like his best friend, and I don’t know if he’s had a really, really good friendship like that.
AVC: Will we be seeing “White Abed” again?
DP: I hope so!
AVC: You played that part, right?
DP: I did, I did! There was actually a really funny response right after that, where people were, like, “Was that Andy Samberg?” or whoever. And I was like, “Oh cool.” because while I was doing it, I was like, “This is such a struggle,” because that episode for me was White Abed doing an impression of Jeff Winger, doing an impression of Don Draper, doing a vampire. And by the end of it, I had to really try to distinguish each character and make sure there was a specific reason for each one. So that was fun. And I think the wig helped. I think I’m on wig number five. I just wore another wig last week.
I think that’s one of the great things about playing Abed. I think in many ways, I’m sort of a blank canvas, because in many ways, I’m just observing the world and the people around me and their characters and letting them kind of explode off me and to find out why they’re doing what they’re doing. But then every once in awhile, I get to take on a whole new character.
AVC: When you first read the pilot, did you think it was going to get this wacky, this goofy, this over the top?
DP: I didn’t. I knew immediately that this was a show I needed to be a part of, and I wanted to be a part of. I hoped, I just hoped, hoped, hoped, that I would get cast. More than anything, I was just “Please cast me.” And there’s always a danger as an actor, because the casting process is so hard and I was tremendously nervous, because I wanted it so bad.
I knew right away, because of the relationships and because of this character and how he really sees the world and how openly honest he was right away. His opening monologue is, “My name is Abed. My dad is angry, but not angry at the world, just angry at my mom for leaving him.” It told me right away how much was going on in this character’s head, and I was just, “God, I want to play that character.” And beyond that, I wanted to be a part of an ensemble cast. It’s such a wonderful, beautiful thing to be in a comedy where you’re working and watching amazing actors, working with amazing material, and you’re able to jump in and bounce off it.
In the pilot, I just wasn’t sure how out there it was going to be. It was very real, still, just in the study room, and you kind of explore these characters. Now, it’s sort of evolved in many ways, but it’s still, at the base of it, very grounded, very real. It’s all about these characters and what drives them. But then we get to go and do a paintball episode. Or we get to go to outer space. Or we get to do zombie stuff. And I think people might look at it and be like, “Oh, it’s crazy. It’s zombies.” But at the base of it, there’s always a story.
In this relationship, we’re exploring Troy’s friendship with me, and also the struggle for a young man growing up being a nerd vs. being cool, and your perception of that. So there’s always things like that there at the base which allow us to go to these kind of crazy places. To me, there’s nothing more exciting than every week being, “What am I in this week? Okay, leather pants and a wig? Okay. This week I’m in a scuba outfit and I get to fight zombies?” To me, it’s such a gift. I almost don’t want to tell anyone, or don’t want to say anything, because I feel like it could be pulled out from underneath me at any time.
AVC: You did the action episode. It sounds like you’re doing some science fiction and horror. Which genre would you like to see the show drift toward?
DP: Oh man, I don’t know. Already there’s been so many wonderful, wonderful things. What have we not done that I’d like to do? I’ve always been, as a little kid, just a huge fan of ninja movies, like karate and stuff. American Ninja would be great. Anything with a Bruce Lee-type thing? I’d love to play Bruce Lee. I think that’d be kind of fun, if we were all ninjas. When I was a kid, my brother and I would always be watching, like, Van Damme movies? [Laughs.] Not Breakin’, even though that’s where he started. But we’d be watching Bloodsport, you know, Lionheart, and kind of the slow-mo’s and karate things. That’d be kinda fun.
What else could we do? A Western? That’d be really dope! I was a huge fan of Deadwood, and I’m always a fan of period pieces, especially, I think, maybe I’m a fan even more as a minority actor, or someone of color. It’s like “Oh. Rome. Ehh, you’re not going to see me on that series.” Or Deadwood. You’re probably not going to see me on that series, you know? But within the context of Greendale, that could happen. So that’d be kind of cool. I dunno, Greendale goes to some old mining town in South Dakota? [Laughs.] We all strike it rich?
AVC: Every character on the show has a different relationship with every other character. Who in the cast have you not worked with as much, whom you’d love to have a storyline with?
DP: I think the two characters I haven’t worked with recently are Britta and Pierce. With Britta, I think that’s really an interesting relationship. She’s the one that started my film career. “For dreams.” She wrote me a check. So I think that’d be fun, because there’s kind of a motherly connection with Britta and also, it’s just an interesting relationship. That would be cool.
With Pierce… you don’t ever see Pierce and [long A, as Pierce pronounces it] “A-bed” together. There’s probably reasons for that. [Laughs.] But I think that’d be kind of fun, too. That’s the cool thing about our show, is that everyone does have unique relationships. You just kind of put people together and see what happens. You know, put them in a corner or put them on a project. Thankfully, it’s early on in season two, so I’m sure we’ll get there. The wheel is going to spin around.
AVC: You do a lot of almost breaking the fourth wall, but not quite breaking it. Do you ever wish you would just come out and break the fourth wall?
DP: I don’t wish it, but there are certain times where there’s just that moment where we could say “This is what’s happening here” as my character. I think that’s kind of the danger, but also the exciting thing about playing this role is that there could be a device where we’re doing something, and I could just say what we’re doing. But the reason I can say what we’re doing is because I perceive our story as being a TV show, so I find myself often, especially the more and more I play Abed, being “This is what we’re doing. This is what we’re doing.” I try to keep that inside my head, though. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you go read episode guides for shows you’ve never heard of just to have a better idea?
DP: I read a lot, and I watch a lot of TV and film now. That’s my homework. Like I said, my Netflix. I’ve watched Aliens a couple times this week, Dawn Of The Dead. And that’s what’s really cool too. It’s nostalgia, because I saw these shows, these movies, a lot of them, when I was a kid, and they’re different now when you watch them. I’m like, “Wow, I can’t believe my family let me watch that,” and “I must have missed that the first time around.”
AVC: If the show ran seven or eight years, where would you want to see Abed end up?
DP: Man, to me, that’s so hard to say, because the writers are constantly surprising us. I, personally, don’t like to know too much. I like to keep things surprising, because in many ways, it’s kind of like life. You can prepare all you want, but once the moment comes, I think it’s a lot more fun when you’re not really prepared for it, and you just have to deal with it.
So I don’t know. Who knows? Maybe we end up in outer space? I just love the way this is all going. I feel like we are learning and maybe eventually, Abed will have to move on from school. I don’t know if the falafel restaurant is his calling. We’ll see. Maybe he’ll have a family. Maybe he’ll be a huge successful filmmaker. Maybe he’ll do a film then about Greendale, about Community. [Laughs.] But who knows? I’m just excited because every episode is consistently funny and smart and challenging, which is great. I’m never bored, and I’m frequently exhausted. Which is a good thing.