Joel McHale has the coolest jobs in HollywoodWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | email@example.com
His “Community” character, Jeff Winger, bristles when called a “hipster,” but Joel McHale’s biography damn near defines the term.
McHale, 39, was born in Rome, Italy, so he has a classic European pedigree. He played football as a walk-on for the University of Washington, so he has athletic cred. His acting roles include “Spider-Man 2,” “The Onion Movie” and “The Informant!” so his choice of material marks him as a savvy collaborator. His TV appearances include “CSI: Miami,” “Will & Grace,” “Pushing Daises” and voicing skits on “Robot Chicken” but are topped by his 7-year stint as pop culture commentator on E!’s “The Soup” and the NBC college-based comedy “Community,” which co-stars such hipster icons as Chevy Chase and “The Hangover” breakout star Ken Jeong.
On the show, he gets the girl(s), dominates the paintball showdowns and plays billiards naked, which he can do as he has a physique more like the statues of his native Rome than the majority of stand-up comedians (he was one of People’s “Sexiest Men Alive” in 2009).
Oh, and he lives with a gorgeous wife and two kids in the Hollywood Hills.
In short, McHale has parlayed his smirking, pop culture-referencing personality into a Hollywood dream life. During the Aug. 29 opening skit at the Emmys, McHale danced and sang “Born to Run” alongside Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey, Betty White, Jon Hamm and the “Glee” cast, the latest sign of his rise to the upper tier of Hollywood’s It List.
During a recent telephone interview to promote his Sept. 4 appearance at Caesars Windsor, McHale talked about gearing up for the fall premiere of “Community,” in which he plays a lawyer sent to a lackluster community college to finish his degree.
“We started shooting three weeks ago; we just completed everything for the first episode. Betty White guest stars,” he said.
McHale said White was “terrific” to work with and he also shot an episode with an “80 pounds lighter” Drew Carey. He said he remains “blown away” by the level of writing “Community” offers him as an actor.
“After reading the pilot, I was so excited to try to get the role,” McHale said. “Creator Dan Harmon is a genius; he wrote the pilot and is highly involved in the process. Episodes like the ‘Modern Warfare,’ with the paintball tournament, or the one where Abed runs the campus by controlling the supply of chicken fingers, I am just always amazed at what they come up with.”
McHale said one of the new season’s early highlights is an “Apollo 13” episode.
The script read-throughs are “like a Christmas gift,” McHale said.
“You don’t know what you are going to get, but you know you are going to be happy,” he said. “Working with Chevy Chase, who has the greatest stories in the world and is someone I grew up with, is like, ‘Hey, you don’t know me, but I’ve known you for a long time. I can quote almost the entire script of ‘Fletch’ to him, so I’m sure it becomes a little creepy after awhile.”
While McHale’s Winger is on the surface callow and self-absorbed, he is also the not-quite-heart-of-gold leader his group of misfit friends depends on. That creates some specific acting challenges, McHale said.
“I have never done anything like this,” he said. “I have been in plays and a lot of leading roles, but this is different. You can’t play Jeff as a straight jerk, or people won’t watch. The guy could be a complete jerk, but the reason he has done so well in his life is that he was a successful lawyer; he could convince and charm people, and I keep that in mind. He can get people to agree with him, but at the same time he has a lot of base motivations, which Britta [a classmate and love interest played by Gillian Jacobs] points out to him every day.
“I liken it to that Sam and Diane thing from ‘Cheers’ where they are constantly telling each other what is wrong with each other. It’s the most fun I’ve had in my life, and I attribute it all to the writing. They cram so many jokes into those 22 minutes, it’s like a lasagna.”
Despite the tight writing, McHale said there is a bit of wiggle room for improvising.
“Dan is very good to us; he’ll say, ‘If you can come up with something better, great.’ And people like Danny Pudi, who plays Abed, and Don Glover, who plays Troy, and Ken Jeong, who plays Señior Chang, are masters of improv,” McHale said. “So they can really come up with some amazing stuff.”
Despite a 25-episode first season, a no-brainer pickup for a second season and positive reviews, the recent Emmy nominations overlooked the show.
“I did get to announce the Emmy nominations and I will be a presenter, so the Academy has been very good to us,” McHale said. “If you get recognized, it’s great, but if you don’t, you still go to work and thank God you have such an incredible job. Plus, the shows they nominated are terrific, so I don’t think they got anything wrong.”
McHale said unlike his “Community” character, his persona on “The Soup,” on which he summarizes and comments on the more bizarre and foolish television moments of the week, is closer to his real personality.
“It’s definitely a heightened version of myself,” he said. “If I was as casual and smart as Charlie Rose, I don’t think it would be as interesting. It’s performance-mode Joel. It’s me, but once again I owe it to the writers of the show.”
Have there been any awkward moments as McHale has run into his targets while promoting “Community” on other shows?
“No one has come up to me on the streets and punched me yet; we only make fun of people who are asking for it,” he said. “If you are doing something that calls attention to yourself to get more press than the average din of Hollywood, we’re going to make fun of you. A couple of reality TV people have come up to me and said, ‘Hey, you made fun of me,’ and I can usually say, ‘Yeah, you were drunk and topless in the pool, and then you vomited on your friend, so what do you want us to do?
“I made fun of Martha Stewart and Regis [Philbin] and then gone on those shows, but Regis says some pretty awesome, crazy stuff.”
McHale’s “Soup” contract is up in December; he said he is in talks with the network.
“I want to do it, I love doing it and I love the staff. We’ve made the schedules work, but I would like to do more movies and keep touring,” he said.
McHale’s next major movie is “Big Year.”
“All of my scenes are with Steve Martin,” he said. “It has Jack Black and Owen Wilson. Kevin Pollack and I play business partners; Steve Martin is our boss. He is one of the coolest people I have ever met and I could not believe they cast me.”
Asked if working with Martin and Chase presents opportunities for story sharing, McHale said, “I talk to both of them about ‘Three Amigos.’ It becomes like the Chris Farley Show; ‘Remember when you did that thing?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘That was awesome!’”
The multi-tasking of movies, TV and touring often requires his family to travel, McHale said.
“If I am in a city my wife wants to visit or I am going to be spending multiple days in, we bring them along,” he said. “If it’s just one night, I’ll fly in and out.”
How do McHale’s two sons, Eddie, 5, and Isaac, 2, react to seeing their father on television?
“They couldn’t care less,” he said. “They see me and say, ‘Thank you, I would now like to see Thomas the Tank Engine.’”
McHale has some upcoming highlights that might even impress his kids, including an appearance at Carnegie Hall.
“Yeah, that was bribery,” he said of the austere date. “That was a horrible scheduling mistake. It’s one of the coolest things that has ever happened to me and I can’t believe it. I still expect them to tell me it’s a typo.”
McHale said his stand-up act covers a mix of “Soup”-like pop culture references and family topics.
“There will be Kardashian jokes,” he said. “So Khloé, get ready.”