“I hope you like stuff getting made fun of, because we’re going to make fun of everything.” That’s how Joel McHale closed our conversation earlier this week, pleasing words to someone like me. Though I’m not down for a free-for-all where people punch down and kick puppies, I do believe that there’s a place for snark, and that sometimes gets forgotten.
A shift has occurred in late night, which is the realm where The Joel McHale Show With Joel McHale will technically reside, though the weekly series is very much not a talk show according to McHale. Shows have shifted from benign party games and hijinks to pound-the-desk political humor. And that’s great, but what about the stupid people in the world who weren’t elected to disappoint us on the regular? The people who have climbed into the public arena in full embrace of the fact that they’re going to have to do and say ridiculous things for a sliver of fleeting reality TV fame? Who points at them and says “ha” in front of a camera these days?
McHale, of course, has a lot of experience being an ambassador for ridicule, mocking reality TV stars for 12 seasons while standing in front of a green screen on The Soup until 2015. But while the green screen and the general targets are the same with The Joel McHale Show, its home on Netflix widens the focus and excites its host with the lack of boundaries. We spoke with McHale about that, whether things will get political, whether social media and internet outrage have sanded down his edge, and if there are any reality TV shows that he actually likes. And because McHale also works steadily as a comedic leading man, we discussed Community‘s bad timing and channeling former co-star Chevy Chase’s air of confidence to play him at the height of his powers in A Stupid And Futile Gesture.
It seems like the focus of the show is going to be reality TV, but are you going to be talking about politics since that’s now an extension of reality TV?
Well, the thing I’ve been saying is we’re not gonna not cover anything. We’re gonna cover everything. But because the Trump administration takes up all of news and all of entertainment all the time, we want people to know that there are still tons and tons of silly stupid reality shows out there that are not getting enough attention and should be pointed out.
Is that part of the why now?
Um, it wasn’t like I saw a cross above a deer and made Jagermeister… which is, I think, how that happened. But it was more that I really liked doing it and when Netflix showed interest, we jumped at it. I’m kind of surprised that I didn’t do it earlier, but I’m a procrastinator and I’m very ADHD, and I don’t get around to that stuff quick enough. I mean, I really enjoyed making the show at E! for 12 years, but there are more reality shows on now then there was television on in 2002.
Now that we’re making the show, we’re gonna obviously make fun of things like The Bachelor and The Real Housewives, those staples that fed my family for a long time, but now because of Netflix being international, we are gonna pull from all sorts of different shows from around the world. We’re gonna really open it up. Because Netflix is such a wonderful blank slate that we can really do anything. There are no restrictions and that is deeply exciting.
How does the show work in terms of logistics and in terms of finding the content to actually talk about? Do you have a staff of people that are just in a dark room watching awful reality TV all day?
Yeah, they become suicidal, usually. No, but we do have a large staff. We literally are making the show for the first time this week, so it’s all happening for the first time, but we have been gathering clips for the last month and so it really is a lot of sitting and watching television. Some people love it, and then some people pick the shows they don’t like and they think it’s a chore. But again, you’re watching television for a living, so that’s good. It is exactly as you described. It really does take hours looking for this stuff. We know that stuff gets uploaded on YouTube instantly. It’s not like we’re gonna be the show that’s like, “Get up! We’re gonna be the ones who get there first!” It’s gonna be more we wanna say the funny thing about it.
There’s so much more reality TV now, but also there’s so much more sensitivity. Social media is bigger… Has your sensibility shifted to account for the world of 2018, where basically everyone has to think about what they say, unless they’re the President of the United States?
I never ever, when I was doing The Soup, wanted to make jokes that were just offensive to be offensive. I was never in the business of that. I only cared about whether people laughed or not and it was very… It’s strange sometimes, because a joke that I thought was no big deal, would be offensive to people and jokes that I was like, “Oh, this is really bad,” would not even [get] a single complaint.
It comes down to the writing staff and their sensibility and my sensibility and going, “We find this funny and here’s the joke we think is appropriate for it.” That’s really all you can do, but we’re not gonna do surveys to see if people are offended because that would make me wanna douse myself in gasoline.
Are there any reality TV shows that you actually like?
I tend to like things like Parts Unknown. I like, I don’t know what you would call more documentary type shows. The competition reality shows I’ve definitely burned myself out on, but I still watch them because of the show. Survivor is still very good to watch. So, I still tune into that. But as far as what I personally like, it’s all either cooking shows or travel shows. I know that they get called reality shows, but they’re really not in the same vein of something like The Bachelor or The Voice.
What do you think the appeal of reality TV is from an audience perspective?
I think it’s a show by show basis. I think people love The Bachelor because even though all these people signed up for it and are under the guise that they’re gonna find true love and find their husband by competing… I’ve always called that a game show. Competing to get that guy’s love or gal’s love and then they’ll be happily ever after, being so ridiculous, but boy, people like that kind of thing. I think that’s why they like The Kardashians, because for some people, it’s a fantasy life that they would like. Like why the royals are covered.
As far as The Voice, I think those are simple. You know, it’s like old talent shows. People are curious to see who’s the best. It’s just a competition show and those simple concepts work really well. Sure they’re manipulative when they show their little character profiles, but I think it’s really a case by case basis. I mean American Idol was huge, and I guarantee it’s gonna be huge again. And thank God, because I love making fun of Ryan [Seacrest].
What was the biggest challenge of playing Chevy Chase and falling into that world for A Stupid And Futile Gesture?
Chevy was so famous. He was the most famous comic in the world for many years. I didn’t wanna do an impression of Chevy, because that wasn’t gonna serve it. I wanted to capture the essence of him. He was the most confident person on the planet, I think, in the ’70s. Obviously, he had a famous size. I think that’s also why [director] David Wain liked the idea, because Chevy did tower over most of those comics. He was just the most confident guy in the room and I wanted to capture that. What was it like the moment before he became the most famous person in the world?
Even though I worked with him for four years, I studied all these old videos of him. I wasn’t trying to mimic him. I was just trying to capture… The one thing I did try and do is his voice. Which, in regular conversation, Chevy’s voice is possibly the deepest voice I’ve ever heard. When he was not performing, he has such a bass voice and I think that also is part of his confidence.
I think you definitely captured that air [of confidence], because walking around in that movie, it just really felt like you didn’t give a shit about what anybody else in the room was saying. You had that smartest guy in the room kind of thing that I think, when I’ve watched any kind of old Chevy Chase interviews or movies, that was on display there. So I think you really captured that.
Oh, I really appreciate it, man. Believe me, there was a lot of me going, “don’t screw this up,” and so that was part of it. And also, you’ve got David Wain and I’m acting opposite Will Forte and people like Tom Lennon and Domhnall Gleeson. It was amazing the group of comedians he got together. They’re no joke in the sense that they can bring it every take.
I haven’t seen much written about his performance, but I feel like Tom Lennon had maybe the most challenging role there because Michael O’Donoghue’s reputation is just… he was a psychopath, he was a genius psychopath and I thought Tom Lennon really, really captured that energy really well.
I couldn’t agree more. And to see Tom in a role like that because Tom will tell you, he would be like, “Well I just get cast as bow-tied dandies in everything.” I think he even said that in an interview. And to see him as unhinged and psychotic is so great. It was like that scene when he destroyed the phone, and I was like this… When I first saw that, I was like, oh man, even though I’m in this movie, I can’t wait to see the rest of it because with a beginning like that, I’m like, this is great.
Last question, an obligatory Community question, but I’d like to try and ask you in maybe a different way… hopefully.
Obviously, things come back all the time — 10 years, 15 years later. Is there an age where you’d want to play Jeff? Would you want to play him as a 60-year-old?
Well, yeah. Absolutely. Dan has to write it and I will… if Dan wrote out the phone book, I would do that show because he’s the best there is and he’s so incredibly good and creative. I think we’ll have a problem getting a hold of Donald [Glover] since he’s turning into the biggest star in the world.
Yeah, a little bit.
Between his touring schedule, making and writing and shooting Atlanta and fucking Star Wars, I don’t know how we’ll ever get him back. And Allison [Brie] is really busy, so I don’t know how. Believe me, I would love to do it and I love stuff like that. I was so happy that the show came back on the way it did on Yahoo and Dan still called that season his favorite. I thought that was really interesting.
That season is really underrated.
Every time we would open up a script from him… I knew back in 2009, I was like, it’s very rare that a show as unique and as good comes along — much more rare that somebody asks you — me — to be in it. And so, even though the hours were crazy and some crazy stuff happened, I thank Jesus every day that I could be a part of this show. I always felt like, reading these jokes, I was like, I couldn’t have ever thought of that joke. I just always felt like I was on something special and I look back on that time with deeply fond memories.
It’s still one of the best comedies of the century, probably of all time. One of the top 50, I think.
Oh God, yeah. It was funny though, because when we came out, the reviews were tepid and everyone always said, “well you know the ratings, they’re not great,” and then I would go, well we’re up against The Big Bang Theory, for one. And then two, whenever we get taken off the air and someone else gets put there it tanks, so what are we talking about? So every critic would always go, “but the ratings.” I got to the point where I was like, “I don’t know where you guys are getting this story, but don’t look at the ratings. I don’t know what to tell you,” and then they would kind of look at me like, oh, okay, just sure. So anyway, I just picked a scab about the ratings. Thank you, I’m Joel McHale, I’ll stop talking [laughs].
I wonder what the show would be like now. There’s such a bigger focus on how talked about a show is on social media. And obviously, that show was a forerunner there. I do wonder if it would have had an easier time staying on the air and not fighting constantly to try and keep itself alive if it had debuted this year as opposed to when it did.
Yeah, you know, it’s a really good question. And boy, I will tell you that being on Netflix — not to change the subject back to the new show — but their approach is they wanna set the earth on fire with all their programming and getting the word out. And so, it’s one of those things where I’m like, “alright, I know I’m gonna get a fair shot on this streaming service however the show works out.” But yeah, believe me, I wish we had a better time slot for Community. I wish there was a better campaign when we first launched. I can make all these wishes back eight years ago, but again, we all knew making the show… we all knew the show was so incredibly well written and put together and with the roots of this insane cast and I guess I just complimented myself… But when you look at that cast, it’s pretty remarkable. I was the weakest link, so it made me look good.
The Joel McHale Show debuts on Netflix on Sunday, February 18 and will air weekly after that.