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Joel McHale on Community’s First Season, the Epic Paintball Episode, and His Rippling Physique

Before last year, Joel McHale was best known as the sarcastic guy on The Soup, the one with the spiky hair and love of Willard Scott. But now, after a season of playing Community's Jeff Winger — the slightly jerky yet endearing leader of the community-college pack — he's better known as that sarcastic guy on a network sitcom, the one with the spiky hair and love of, well, himself. We joke, but this year McHale's proved his worth as a comic leading man, providing the perfect straight counterpoint to the absurdist antics of actors like Danny Pudi and Donald Glover. We spoke to McHale about transitioning from a talk-show host to an actor, what it was like to film the paintball episode ("they just kept handing us loaded paintball gun after loaded paintball gun"), and how he obtained his impressive physique.

Hey, Joel, thanks for giving us a call.
Thank you for receiving it.

You've been on The Soup since 2004, so how did it happen that you landed on a sitcom?
Yeah, how did that happen? No, seriously, I'd always been looking for a sitcom — that was the whole reason I went on The Soup, for it to do the same thing for me as it did for Greg Kinnear, or at least if I could have 5 or 10 percent of his career, I’d be happy. And rarely do scripts make me laugh out loud, but there were a number of jokes in the Community pilot script that did that. Actually, I was on a plane, reading the script, and there was a guy watching that movie, What Happens in Vegas, that Ashton Kutcher movie, and he was getting mad at me because I was getting loud — laughing and interrupting his romantic comedy. So I thought that was a good sign.

Community does seem to lend itself to your fondness for reference humor.
Most scripts, at least the ones that I read, are about thirtysomething guys that can’t understand why they can’t find love. And it's really boring. In fact, there was a script I read called My Problem With Women, which is obviously just some writer who’s being lazy and thinking about his own life. But Community I knew had the right tone to go a long way. I would follow [creator] Dan Harmon into any battle — or, any show. Probably not into any battle, because he’s in terrible shape. So there was definitely a dovetail effect with my humor and the way the show was being done.

Do you ever think there are too many reference jokes in an episode?
I mean, there are references they make that I have to be like, "Dan, I don’t know what you’re talking about when you reference the Green Magic Wizard." And he’s like, "Ah, that’s a seventies book," or something like that. Like in the paintball episode, when Britta pulls a gun on me, and I say, "No paintballs, Hans?" And I don’t know what the percentage was, but half the people were like, "What did you mean when you called her Hans?" And the other half is like, "Die Hard!"

At first, the reviews of the show were tepid, but it seems people are coming around.
I know we got some good reviews and some bad reviews in the beginning, and whatever, I was just very proud of the work that everyone was doing. People keep telling me, "It's getting a lot better!" And I’m like, how bad was it before? However people find it, I don’t care. With the paintball episode last week, it was the most fun I’ve had ever shooting anything, and I would hold that piece of TV up to anything. [Fast and Furious director] Justin Lin directed that brilliantly.

What was that like to make?
I think it took about eight days to shoot 23 minutes of footage. You’d walk into the cafeteria, and they’d turned it upside down; there was a fire in it. And it was the most physical episode I’ve done, with the jumping and the stunts; it was like a boyhood fantasy of being in an action movie. They hired a paintball company and brought them in to shoot up the place. They just kept handing us loaded paintball gun after loaded paintball gun.

And you looked like you'd buffed up for the role ...
I just starved myself and started doing push-ups every night. I didn’t have time to go to the gym, and I just chased my kids around. It was like when Rocky chased the chicken, in Rocky I, that’s basically what I was doing with the kids. And I just started doing push-ups as much as I could, 'cause knowing I was going to be naked, I didn't want to be embarrassed. I think I ended up losing ten or fifteen pounds. I starved myself and ate hard-boiled eggs and salad. They also spray-tanned me because my skin is nearly translucent white.

You and Britta finally hooked up!
Yeah, Dan just took the air right out of that "will they/won't they" model. According to my taste, I thought it was a smart move by the writers to nip that in the bud very quickly. The paintball episode was different from any of the others, so there was an opportunity for that to happen. And in the next episode there was no reference to it. But tonight there will be ... a lot.

What's it like on set?

There’s a lot of joking around. It mostly centers around Donald [Glover]. He puts on a show between every take. He is so funny, that guy. And Danny [Pudi] also is just kind of crazy. Once we all get going, we have a hard time focusing. What’s great about Dan [Harmon] is that he wanders on set looking like a homeless man, and you’re like, what happened to Dan? Or more like, where is Dan and why is that homeless man here? We all hang out. I did a show in Vegas — I’ve been doing stand-up for two and a half years; my agent told me I’d make a lot of money if I went on the road — and Donald opened and most of the cast came. And then last week in Chicago, Donald opened and Danny came onstage, and they did their Spanish rap from the third episode, and then we did some crumping to John Mayer’s "Daughters."

Last week almost felt like a season finale, with all of you signing up for a class together next year. What can we expect tonight?
Wait till you see the season finale, then you’ll see. Dan does that stuff on purpose, he’s like, you think everything’s solved? Well, watch this! It’s actually going to be like Hamlet: Everyone dies. Can you imagine?

Photo: Patrick McMullan