When Jimmy Fallon opened the Emmys this year with a group sing-along of Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run," he assembled an all-star list of backup singers and cameos from across the tube. Tina Fey and Jon Hamm were the number's Emmy-nominated leading players, the cast of Glee repped for television's hottest new show, Betty White was the clip's comedy icon, and Kate Gosselin its requisite reality-TV punching bag.
And then there was Joel McHale. Not quite as well-known as his fellow singers but known by all the right people, just call the 38-year-old comic actor (and host of E!'s industry piss-take The Soup) the "stealth upstart." McHale's NBC sitcom Community returned for its second season last night, so it seemed like the perfect time to talk to Hollywood insiders who could answer that perennial Star Market question: If Joel McHale were a stock, would you buy, sell, or hold?
Stock History: Still best known for poking fun at Hollywood via The Soup's carefully curated clip compilation, McHale is now the sort of comedian that the industry takes seriously. Prior to his E! gig, McHale landed small parts on Will and Grace and Spider-Man 2 (where his Talk Soup progenitor Hal Sparks also made a cameo), but after The Soup put McHale on Hollywood's radar, the jump to network comedy was inevitable, if bumpy. His remake of the British sitcom The IT Crowd stalled at the pilot stage, but a successful TV show-runner told us that McHale "had been talked about for a long time. TV producers for years have been targeting him; there was this feeling among producers of, 'Who is gonna crack the Joel McHale nut' and [Community creator] Dan Harmon did it." Meanwhile, movie directors are taking notice: Last year he had a small but well-handled role as an FBI agent in Steven Soderbergh's The Informant!.
Peers: McHale is often compared to other television actors who've had their profiles raised by a hit movie, like Ed Helms: "[McHale] is one role away from being that guy," says a top agent we spoke to. On the funny-guy food chain, McHale has nudged past Adam Carolla, another wry comic trying to make it in TV, but he still has to catch up to pacesetter Jason Segel, who's seen as more relatable: The Forgetting Sarah Marshall star is "more of an everyman," the agent says. "Joel is more stylized and dresses well; Jason is more shlumpy."
Market Value: Community gets plenty of media love and Twitter adoration, but that hasn't quite translated into ratings. Though it self-started at 8 p.m. as a freshman comedy last year, its numbers were still well below similarly buzzworthy half-hours like How I Met Your Mother and The Office. In its premiere last night, it scored a 2.2 in the valuable 18 to 49 demo; not great, but it at least held steady from last year, even though CBS moved its comedy juggernaut The Big Bang Theory against it.
Still, McHale is nothing if not diverse: Not only does he continue to host The Soup, but he balances his sitcom workload with a lucrative stand-up career. And while significant movie roles took a while to materialize, McHale has lined up three big projects coming out next year: Spy Kids 4, where he'll play Jessica Alba's husband, and two ensemble comedies, including the Owen Wilson–Jack Black comedy The Big Year, and What's Your Number?, in which he'll play one of Anna Faris's many exes.
What Hollywood Thinks: "It's hard to figure out," admits the top show-runner. "I don't think anyone during season two of ER would have said George Clooney was going to become George Clooney. And Steve Carell made the transition to film star almost simultaneously [with TV stardom], which was a total fluke." Most of the insiders we spoke to think McHale needs to land a breakout movie role in the next year, though even if he were to line up a comic smash like The Hangover, would McHale be considered the Bradley Cooper or the Ed Helms?
One publicist thinks that the actor — who has shown off his buff body several times on Community, including an intro scene of him doing near-naked crunches last night — is handsome enough to break into the ranks of comedic leading men that include Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn. "[It] means it'll be easier for him to be cast in romantic comedies," she says. "You don't have to be good-looking to be in a romantic comedy. But it helps."
The top agent is taking more of a wait-and-see approach to McHale. "I don't think anybody is going to make a major picture starring him yet, but I do think he's someone who's additive [to a cast]," he says, noting that McHale will need to choose his movie roles carefully to build additional credibility. "Unless [Community] starts breaking out and he gets the Steve Carell and Ed Helms type of notice, he's not going to get big from just the show. He needs to do something unexpected, where he has to act, and not just be a funny guy."
The Analysis: This is McHale's moment: He's well-known enough, but none of his credits have been so huge that he risks typecasting. Like Carell, who lined up The 40-Year-Old Virgin before The Office had hit its ratings peak, the right movie role could expand the perception of McHale in town and put him on the map for good. Even in the meantime, says the publicist, "he's getting tons of exposure. And even before Community, even just in his position as a host on E!, his profile was more developed than some of his other counterparts."
Most of the people we spoke to couldn't resist comparing McHale's potential career arc to that of Greg Kinnear, the very first host of Talk Soup. "What Kinnear did was extraordinary," says the publicist. "It's hard to get people in the industry to accept that sort of transition, to see a talk-show guy as a film star." Jimmy Fallon did the reverse, she added, going from actor to talk-show host.
Still, the show-runner notes, "Greg Kinnear is a little more of an everyman. His person is a little warmer than Joel's and a little more inviting than Joel. Joel has a sharper comedy edge to him." Thus, McHale's best bet at the mainstream may be to go a little left of center; so much of his persona is rooted in being the smartest wisecracker in the room that if he were to accept a lame comedy that was perceived as beneath him, he'd suddenly be the butt of the jokes he used to make about other people.
The Bottom Line: McHale needs to strike while the iron is hot. When the Comcast bosses come in, they may have less patience with Community's middling ratings, so it'd be better for McHale to land the right movie while his day job is still on network TV's hippest night for comedy. If he waits too long, the 38-year-old may miss his opportunity to be thought of as more than a TV star, says the show-runner: "His attitude is smarmy comic guy with a heart of gold. He's like a better-looking David Spade."
Buy/Sell/Hold: Buy now and have faith that with the proper cultivation and movie role, McHale's stock will hit its full potential.