Community’s Danny Pudi on His Humble Beginnings As a Butt-Dialer

By
Photo: Mitchell Haaseth/NBC

Community has been one of this fall’s breakout shows, and Abed — the kindhearted, socially awkward student played by newcomer Danny Pudi — is one of the season's best new characters. The Chicago native studied at Second City and had recurring roles on Greek and Gilmore Girls, but if he looks familiar, it may have to be for the string of commercials he’s appeared in, including spots for T-Mobile and McDonald's. Before tonight’s episode, we got Pudi on the phone to talk about selling stuff, Slumdog Millionaire, and what zoo animal he most resembles.

So, how did you land Abed?
I’ve been auditioning for a while. I’ve been in Los Angeles for about four years. So this came in like any other audition during pilot season, but I read the script, and I was trembling. I realized how fun it could be. The minute I read it, I was like, “Oh man, I will give all my fingernails and shave my eyebrows for this role.” Thankfully, they didn’t make me do that … it wasn’t in the script or part of the audition process. I knew my one potential negative was that I am half-Polish, so I decided not to reveal that till a later time.

You were also appearing in a lot of commercials right before Community began airing.
I did the butt-dialing commercial for T-Mobile, and it did help get my face out there a bit. When I went out for the Community audition, one of the producers recognized me and was like, “Hey, you’re the butt-dialer!” Right away, that makes me feel more comfortable, when someone’s like, “Butt dialer’s here!” I imagine it would be more difficult if you were going out for a leading man. Like if they’re making Gladiator 2 and I walk in, and they go, “Butt-dialer!” It’s gonna be really hard to be, you know, Euophonius the Master of the Ring and slaying soldiers when two seconds ago they were calling you butt-dialer. But for this role, it actually worked out perfectly.

What is it about you that makes people think you can sell stuff?
This is sort of a good time for Indians, and I am half-Indian, so I’m perhaps riding some of the Slumdog wave? Literally the other day on set, there was a person who came up to me, and this is not even a joke, they literally were like, “Hey man, were you in Slumdog?" I don’t think I look that much like Dev Patel, if you look closely. But I was like, “Okay, for people who haven’t seen a lot of Indians before, I guess you can kind of group us together.” Also, my body is really awkward looking, kind of long and lanky. I get compared to giraffes a lot. And I think there’s something funny about that, that people can relate to. Or at least they like to see me next to a product — “Oh, there’s a giraffe. Oh, it’s actually Danny Pudi, actor. Not playing a giraffe. Selling T-Mobile phones.”

Speaking of Indian actors in movies — I saw the trailer for Road Trip: Beer Pong, where you do an accent. How okay are you with playing those broader characters?
That’s hard to say. I think that everything is project by project, story by story. For Beer Pong, I had to play a son of a dictator from a fictitious country, so definitely an accent was needed there. But also you could take more liberty with what it is: Not a lot of people are going to be taking that character very seriously. If I had to do accents all the time, I would probably be a little bit frustrated, and especially if I knew it was being portrayed like, “Let's laugh at the accent itself.” I’ll never go into a place doing an accent. That’s just not me: I don’t speak Hindi, I’m not from India. I speak Polish. Not many people ask me to do a Polish accent.

Oh, and one other thing for your question about the ads, the other thing I was gonna say, this is part of the whole giraffe thing: I’m nonthreatening looking. Even though sometimes I wish I was a little more threatening. It didn’t help as a kid. Or with ladies. Ladies tend to like more aggressive guys. Sometimes my wife and I talk about that, I think she wishes I was a little more violent-looking.

Back to Community — what are the nerves like on a new show, where the possibility of a quick cancellation is always there?
I think everyone handles it differently. If the show got canceled, I’d still feel like this was a wonderful opportunity. Also, we get along so well, and the cast is incredible, it’s a great family. And it’s really helpful to surround yourself with people who are better and smarter than you. You know, six months ago, I was making poop jokes or watching birds, or walking the aisle of a grocery store just cause it feels comforting. Every time I miss home I’ll go to a grocery store and walk the aisles. And usually I’ll get dental floss, that’s my go-to, if I‘m feeling nostalgic, or if I’m feeling lonely, and then I’ll come home … what was I talking about?

The Halloween episode was a real standout, especially your Batman impersonation. Was it hard to nail that growly voice?
It took a few days, but eventually I got it. Every morning, I would be practicing in my trailer, and people would be knocking on the door, and they’d hear me say [puts on growl], “red letter, yellow letter,” doing old-school theater vocal warm-ups in my Batman voice. I’d be walking to Peet’s Coffee [growly voice], “All right I’m gonna get a coffee. A dark roast.” Definitely the dark roast, too, by the way.

You and Donald Glover, who plays Troy, have great chemistry, and you both come from sketch-comedy backgrounds. Do you get a chance to improvise at all?
We get to improvise a bit. For instance: The Halloween episode, the tag where it’s just Donald and I talking, that was all improvised. And then the tag where we’re sitting there on the couch and all the people are outside and we’re like talking about what they’re doing, making up voices for them, “Hi, I’m a Desperate Housewife,” that was improvised as well. They’ll give us moments. The rap, for instance, was not improvised. Even though it came from an improvised rap. The creator of the show saw us do an interview where we did a random freestyle for the interview, and he loved that so much that he decided to put that into a tag.

What is your previous beatboxing experience, by the way?
I do a lot of beat boxing. I’ve always been a huge fan of hip-hop. Growing up, I loved the Roots, loved Wu-Tang. A lot of people look at me and think, “Wow, Danny, you don’t look like a hard-core rapper, you don’t look like a gangster rapper.” But you know, I think growing up, part of me always wanted to be a gangster rapper. Again, the physique kind of limited me.