Joel McHale

The star and creator of NBC's new comedy talk about the first season

With the new fall TV season getting into full swing, there are few shows as anticipated as the new NBC comedy Community, which premieres on Thursday, September 17 at 9:30 PM ET on NBC. The star of this new series, Joel McHale recently joined creator/executive producer Dan Harmon on a conference call to talk about this new series and here's what they had to say.

Related: Comic-Con: Community Movie May Include Pirates, Troy and a Rescue Mission

Joel, let me ask you, what was the appeal of this project for you?

Joel McHale: Oh, well, I read a lot of pilot scripts and always, you know, want to be in something that involves, you know, involved in something that's good and read - after reading Dan's script it was so head and shoulders above everything else that I was reading. And it had - I just, first and foremost it was just incredibly funny and then it had really strong characters and a lot of heart. And I read it on a plane on the way back from a standup gig and I pulled this before, but I was sitting next to a guy who was watching it - What Happens in Vegas on his laptop and he was getting mad at me because I was laughing out loud while I was reading this script. And so I was interrupting his romantic comedy with Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher and I thought that was pretty ironic.

From what we've seen of the pilot and the clips and that, I mean it looks like a very funny show. Obviously, the critics are very big on it. It looks like it has all the makings of a hit. So what are your guys expectation coming into this?

Joel McHale: Nothing short of 900 episodes.

Dan Harmon: I mean, I'm from Wisconsin so whenever things are going this well all I can start anticipating is the other shoe dropping. But that's what I've always done when things are going well. And also, you know, working in TV for 15 years what you learn to do because everything else is so outside your control, you just focus on what you do control. And it's like - it's so amazing to look over on the side and notice every once and a while that the critics are saying great things about the show and that NBC is being so supportive of it. But, you know, the expectations of the show that I have are simply like, I - they can only be, like, I hope these scripts are good and I hope that the actors like them and have fun with them and stuff and I got to stop there.

Joel McHale: Yeah. And he might be from Wisconsin but I was raised Catholic, so I'm planning on being hit by a bus. No matter how well it goes, I'll just - somehow a bus is going to come crashing through my hotel room. But Dan (unintelligible) did exactly what I think is that, you know, the show has not aired yet, and all you can focus on is trying to do justice to Dan's writing. And from there it's really up to NBC to air it and hopefully people will come to it.

Joel, I know when you're on The Soup, you know, you do a lot of writing and producing on the show and I was wondering if you're planning on doing some of the same stuff on Community. Are you going to, you know, have a say in writing your material and kind of look over the script that way or will it be more in the writers' hands.

Joel McHale: Well first of all, I do think The Soup is - it's literally one camera and a green curtain, so it's not nearly the operation that this is and by - I would not - I'd be - I could almost get Dan coffee and (unintelligible) a coffee, but I'm not even sure if I could pull that off. And no, you know, my role in this is as an actor and the scripts are so good that I can't wait to read them and I just - I'm so - I'm just so honored to be a part of their project that I just get to be in it. So as far as producing, no, I (unintelligible) because it can be and I'd rather leave that up to Dan.

Dan Harmon: I mean, on the set, you know, when it comes to take-for-take and line-for-line, I mean, I think Joel is being suitably humble. But it's, you know, he has - he feeds back directly into the dialogue because he has his own style and stuff and I try as hard as I can to capture it when I write his stuff, but to the extent that there's a need there, like, he loosens it up and comes up with the fantastic stuff so. Just add that as an asterisk on his answer.

I was just wondering if you have any fears of working with anyone after your time on The Soup? Do you foresee any potential problems if there was a certain guest star on Community.

Joel McHale: Well we just covered a show called Into the Pride with David Salmoni and he lived with a den of lions or a pride of - I don't know what you call it, but - I do not want to work with lions. They are horribly dangerous and anybody who does is stupid. Well Dave knows what he's doing, so I wouldn't know and I'm a (unintelligible) working with Tila Tequila if I'm not properly vaccinated.

Dan, I was wondering if you could sort of elaborate on some of the differences you've experienced in - versus creating a show for NBC or - and then what you previously did which was the Sarah Silverman Program or the Sara Silverman show.

Dan Harmon: You know, it's obviously there's more money. No it's like -- but it's like the crazy thing about it is the actual -- or maybe it's not crazy at all, is the amount of creative support. I never - I always thought that the higher up on the pyramid you got the more machine-like everything would become. But the truth is the higher you go up on the pyramid, the more everybody beneath you, everybody on the crew, everybody that does everything and everyone above you, everyone who is like representing the money and giving you notes and stuff, the more of those people represent the kind of - the top of their respective games. And so it becomes actually a more intense yet human-like process. You know, you, like, you have a network that's giving you notes, like, "Do you think these characters' sexuality is too on the nose during the scene?" instead of, "I didn't get the joke about the wine cork on Page 13." So it's more sophisticated, it feels like coming home as if I could ever pretend to belong around here. Like it feels like the NBC I always fantasized about and the TV industry I always fantasized about. I know that's a disappointing answer. It's a surprising one for me.

I actually wanted to ask if you have a fixation on Saul Rubinek because I know in your blogs you - he seems to come up every other neighbor whenever you talk to your neighbors. And since he was on Warehouse 13, I was wondering if you can have maybe - was there any talk of guest starring on Warehouse 13 and maybe he can come over and teach Community college.

Dan Harmon: Yeah, you know, I am a little obsessed with Saul Rubinek I think. I've sort of had my eye on him ever since -- what was he - was it The Pelican Brief? Now I can't remember.

Yeah, that's right.

Dan Harmon: Yeah. Like, I would love to See Sal Rubinek being a Community college professor. I find him fascinating and facile.

Joel, did you ever have a teacher in school who resembled any of these professors?

Joel McHale: Upcoming in one of our episodes with John Michael Higgins all I'll say is that there's a carpe diem future. And I had a guy in high school named Mr. (Anslow) and he was a teacher that would scream and he would yell and his passion about history was unbelievable and that is the only reason why I majored in history in college because of his screaming at us. He would go, "Students, students, I'm waiting for the answer with bated breath." And with that sort of same inflection and then he would stalk the class and then like stop in front of a desk and go like, "Mr. Hanson." And then Mr. Hanson goes, "Yes?" And he's like, "Who led the allied troops across Europe?" And so - and it was just, yeah, so he was a real inspiration.

So now you've both been talking about some memories from high school, what about some memories that you kind of relate to your college experiences? Any wild antics that always kind of fall in line when you think about college?

Dan Harmon: Well, you know, first and foremost I actually went to a Community college in my early 30s and I very directly have had experiences there that sort of inspired the pitch for this show. Nothing really that specific enough to be incredibly interesting, but why don't I keep talking anyway. The - I was in a study group with a bunch of strangers at a Community college to whom I actually took a kind of -- I acquired a natural affinity in spite of my desire to keep them at arm's length because I was kind a jerk, you know, just a tourist at a Community college, just screwing around and these people really wanted to study with me. And there was a spark there that doesn't exist with people -- you know, most of us are friends with people we know from work basically, people that are colleagues and that are above or below us on some kind of ladder we can understand. And we very rarely are forced into these quote/unquote "Community situations" like a driver's ed class or, you know you're at a -- the only times we do it are at 7-11s and things where -- and strange things happen there. But that was a long answer so...

Do you recall any wild times, Joel, in college that you always think of and just laugh and wish that it had or hadn't happened?

Joel McHale: Boy, I - boy, that's a good -- I woke up ten minutes after an Italian final started. And I have never run faster to a class and I was wearing boxer shorts and a T-shirt and had bed head. And I ran into the class and everyone burst out laughing and I was so bad at Italian that I couldn't even curse them out in Italian. And I wasn't - it wasn't even worth it for me to go to the test because I think I came close to failing it. Other than that, boy, I went to a party where we filled a room with about 400 gallons of Jell-O and a girl slipped and cut her chin open and needed about 25 stitches, you know.

Dan Harmon: I like how the part that we laugh at is the cut on the chin. It's like the Jell-O is such an obvious reach for zaniness.

Joel McHale: The poor girl, they had put cinder blocks to keep the Jell-O in and of course cinder blocks being cinder blocks, people fell and hit them and she -- you know, her chin burst open. It was horrible. I felt horrible.

Joel, I mean as far as clips from this particular show making it to The Soup, is that ruled out at all? Or do you have like no problem pulling a clip from this show if you want to kind of make fun of yourself a little bit?

Joel McHale: I'll definitely -- I've already showed a clip promoting it because I am a selfless promoter and I will always promote it. But you know on The Soup we never make fun of -- I mean I'll be happy to show anything but we -- the rule that I have had is that we never show comedy. Like we've never shown a late night show clip because those are funny for funny's sake. And so if we're showing a clip from Community, unless, you know, I guess if Bret Michaels is a professor that would be one thing. But, you know, we never show comedy for comedy's sake because that was intentionally being funny and they're doing their job and then we're not doing our job because we point out things like, you know, I Love Toy Trains, or, you know, what happens on The Bachelor. Yeah, Dutch Oven. Or last week on More to Love when the guy lured his - the girl he was trying to date to his room with cake and they were both obese. So, you know, unless something like that happens, then, you know, probably not.

What's it like working with comedy legend Chevy Chase.

Joel McHale: It's like working with Nolan Ryan. He's older than everybody, but when he throws the ball, he throws it harder than anyone and he can be -- you know, he's Chevy Chase. He can be incredibly funny. And...

Dan Harmon: But fortunately that's not actually a metaphor, Chevy just throws stuff on the set.

Joel McHale: Yeah, he shows up with actual baseballs, which is distracting and not part of the script. And, yeah, so it's so strange to be acting with a guy who I grew up with.

Do you get to improv at all with him or do you stick pretty close to the script?

Dan Harmon: Chevy actually makes up quite a bit of things -- sorry, we were dovetailing the Chevy thing there. Chevy tends to come up with lines that you can actually end scenes with sometimes. Like sort of -- which I'm really impressed by. And Joel does it, Donald Glover does it. We have a really, really, really talented cast of people with a lot of improv chops.

Joel McHale: Yeah, and it doesn't mean in any way at all that there's a shortage of incredible writing because what Dan puts on paper is astonishing. And so it's like getting the best strawberries in the world and somebody goes, "Do you want whip cream on it too?" And so the cast is amazing and the writing is amazing. So I'm sure it will all come to a horrible end when I step in front of a bus.

What do you find most challenging about the role, Joel?

Joel McHale: For me it's -- boy, that's a good question. I - my main goal is to make sure that I bring this character to life and do it well and hopefully make it look like I'm telling the story and being - serving this - serving the writing and serving the character that I am doing those things. That's my massive -- that's what I always am trying to figure out. Where am I coming from? Where am I going? And what is my guy thinking? And those are the biggest challenges that I encounter and whether I can get a decent cup of coffee on set.

Dan why do you think people want to take their time to tune in and watch Community?

Dan Harmon: I don't know. That's a tough one for me to, you know, because I would have to say, "Well because it's obviously really good." I think people will enjoy it when they do tune in because I run everything through a filter in my head when I'm writing, especially for something of this, you know, this kind of - in this venue. Like I come from the basic cable world where it's like, you do the Sarah Silverman program, there's a certain section of the audience you're trying to shock and this is more of a mainstream thing. And so like while that does not mean watered down for me, it means actually like heavier lifting, it means like working harder. And I think between me and the brilliant staff of writers that we've hired, like we have accomplished this thing that's sort of mesmerizingly satisfying to just about everybody. And I think that that's kind of an accomplishment and a brave act in a world where there's this temptation to go -- you know what, we are hemorrhaging viewers to the Internet, can we just put a woman having diarrhea in a hot tub in it? Like can we just like have a shot of a kitten and can we cut really fast to a lot of eyebrows? It -- the show does not suffer from that fear. It still endeavors to blow your mind but with the characters having dialogue in these like beautifully shot scenes and stuff. So, I guess the short version of that answer, as if there is one, would be it might remind you of television from a golden age when TV was really kind of proud of itself. So, I hope that's what people get out of it.

Joel, how is balancing this show along with doing The Soup - has there been any challenges as far as that's concerned?

Joel McHale: No. What's great is that both E! and NBC have been incredibly accommodating. And I basically go into The Soup for one evening a week now, and I do all the jokes and all the kind of - scriptwriting from a laptop. And I'm not able to watch the television the way I used to, and that's because the amount of time that I'm spending. But The Soup staff is one of the best in the world and they are incredible at finding stuff. So I feel really well taken care of by both - you know, both NBC and by E and The Soup staff.

Dan, can you talk a little bit about how your vision for the series actually came to life?

Dan Harmon: Yeah, I come from a career path where I was doing more like robots, talking motorcycles, time travel kind of stuff. And I got tired and broke, and I just really, really, really wanted to find out what happens before I died if I actually sort of hoisted my sails to the system's constant pleas for something a little more mainstream. Instead of just fighting it and listening to that as some kind of death - you know, call from my death. I wanted to do a show that my mom would kind of be into. Which sounds horrible to any comedy writer, but my mom liked a lot of really, really great stuff when I was a kid. And in fact she had so much respect for TV that it caused me to move to LA, I had to try to impress her by controlling what comes over this magic box. And I - this is an attempt to like do a classic show in a modern world. And so, the - that was the sort of emotional (unintelligible), but the short, boring answer is I went to Community college a couple years ago and I thought it'd be a good idea for a pitch, you know, when I ran out of robot stuff.

What comes next aside from adding Ken Jeong and Senor Chang and we keep hearing so much about the Halloween episode. Can you guys just talk a little bit about future episodes?

Dan Harmon: You know we're going to find out what - why (Ahbad)'s in Community college and what his wishes are as opposed to like what his father's wishes are, and (Brita) and (Jeff) are going to get entangled in that story. We're going to find out more about (Troy) and his past with (Annie) at the high school that they went to and how that pertains to (Troy)'s experiences at Greendale. He's a football star and the dean wants him to play on Greendale's team. So that's a story. (Shirley) and (Jeff) are going to have a brief, but intense, gossip fueled relationship that is - well it's super bonding for them. It's absolutely toxic for the rest of the world. There's - we're going to see Chevy's character, Pierce, attempt to write a school song and get a glimpse into his creative process, including his dreams in which he's haunted by his fears of his mediocrity, personified by (Jeff). And all kinds of other fun stuff. There'll be a Christmas episode that's going to be really, really great. And the Halloween episode, we just finished shooting, it's really funny. I think that's a lot that I said.

Joel McHale: Dan, did you mention the Cape Diem episode?

Dan Harmon: Yeah, that's the - there's a Cape Diem teacher, a guy who's seen one too many - (have) seen Dead Poets Society one too many times and fancies himself a kind of liberator of the human spirit. And at first, (Jeff) thinks that's kind of the ideal blow off class because you don't have to do any work, any book learning in that class. But the guy is so stringent about whether or not you seize the day, it turns out to be the toughest class (Jeff) ever took.

The pilot struck me as a remarkably sort of democratic undertaking, where everybody seemed to get their own, at least one good line, and they felt more like characters than the average pilot. Dan, can you talk about that process and Joel maybe what it's like to be on the other end of that acting?

Dan Harmon: Well, do you mean - I mean, do you mean the process in kind of creating the characters and sort of conceiving them? Or do you mean casting them?

More conceptually.

Dan Harmon: Conceptually, just wanted to make sure that - I mean that was absolutely important, but the response that you just described was the goal. Was the response that I had hoped the viewer would have. That this - okay, well this feels like even if not in the respect as superficial as let's say ethnicity, in terms of the sort of American experience, if you will, if I'm qualified to say whatever that is. There seems to be one person coming from every conceivable angle to this thing. And I did that by keeping the script quote-unquote, race neutral, to use a casting term. And - but drawing very, very specific lines about how old these people were. And in my head, keeping it sort of a secret what their backgrounds were, whether they were born rich or poor, whether they were raised by one parent that loved them too much, or two parents that didn't love them enough. And things like that. And so, that's the concept and your response is pleasing to me, so. That's my answer, I guess.

Joel from your perspective, can you talk about sort of sharing the wealth of good material in the show?

Joel McHale: Oh well, as far as the pilot was concerned, I think it just laid a - as you saw, a terrific (groundwork). When I read the pilot I just thought this is such a great pilot because everyone gets introduced without it being too blatant. And it really shows you that the show is going to be an ensemble cast. And you got to see the almost Mission Impossible - like skills that all these characters have. And that, you know, that is from incredibly good casting, I think, for everyone in the cast, except for myself where they made a horrible mistake. And that the writing is just, you know, so spot on that it's - I think it sets it up for just this great ensemble piece the way that M*A*S*H and Cheers and those sorts of spirits.

NBC has been talked about as kind of a sinking ship with the ratings and things like that. So they've been really hyping up the show. Does that put more pressure on you guys to really deliver? Does that put any more pressure on you guys?

Dan Harmon: There is - there's two hats that I wear. One is the guy who sits in an office and has to put this show together, and that guy doesn't focus at all on any of that stuff because there's so much to do. And that guy will do his job wrong to the extent that he thinks about anybody's sort of standards other than his own. Like in terms of how good the script is or anything like that. And that guy furthermore has a lot of history that has taught him that, you know, that you cannot control the outcome. You can never ever control it. You've got to - because I've had - I've put good stuff on TV that I thought was good that people didn't respond to. I've put stuff that I thought was meh, that people went ga-ga over. That stuff's random. But anyway, then there's the guy that my girlfriend has to come - you know, be at home with, who is from Wisconsin and who desperately wants the world to love him. And only does anything that he does to try to get peoples' approval. And who is absolutely terrified that all of this attention and all of this approval from the critics and all of the support from the network can only end in backlash. And sure that guy - but that guy stays at home. I just keep my girlfriend up at night. He doesn't come to work.

You have the great Chevy Chase on set with you and he's been in things that have been great and things have been not so great and so has he given you any kind of pointers on the set on how to approach different things?

Dan Harmon: Has he given me pointers on set? Yeah, you know. You go in, you watch him on the monitors and then you go onto the set and you go, hey Chevy, what if you said it like this? And hey every once in a while the temperatures up there, the lights are hot, you can occasionally get a very justifiable you don't know anything about comedy, do you? You know, sometimes I've - you know, my emotional response to that is maybe I don't. And sometimes it's a different response, whatever. But the amazing thing is, you know, people are fascinated with this guy and there - it seems like the thing that fascinates them most is how other people feel about him. And the character, the way that it intersects with Chevy, with his back story with, you know, his idiosyncrasies, the things that make him an unlikely hero in the strangest situations. The things that make him an unlikely villain when it would be easy to be a hero. The - it is - it's a really interesting, kind of poetic experience to be having and certainly tremendously luck for a writer to be able to work with this kind of like well, I can't say clay, because he's not truly shapeable. He's Chevy Chase. But he - but what I can do is like, you know, like - we've built this character around him and he inhabits it and then the character reacts and then he reacts and then the character reacts and then he reacts and the scripts react and it's really, really been very, very, very memorable.

You can watch Joel McHale and Dan Harmon's brand new comedy series Community, which premieres on Thursday, September 17 at 9:30 PM ET on NBC.

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