Joel McHale Tells Us About His First-Ever Stand-Up Special, His Superhero Role, And His Action-Hero Itch

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Joel McHale‘s stepping out with his first-ever stand-up special, Live From Pyongyang, an arrival that’s notable on a few levels. First off, that includes the special’s title, since it was unsurprisingly not taped in North Korea but the much safer territory of San Jose, California. Secondly, it’s significant that McHale’s doing this special after a healthy amount of standup over the years and two decades of roles in movies in beloved TV series like Community, The Soup, and Santa Clarita Diet, among others. Comedy Dynamics Network will launch the special (you can watch the trailer here) on August 6 across the iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and Xbox platforms and through cable providers.

In this special, McHale bops and weaves through an impressive range of subject matter, and although he’s well-known for satiric turns, McHale’s now taking on a different tone in various other projects. You’ll not only see him play Starman in DC Universe’s upcoming Stargirl series but host a game show, and maybe, just maybe, he’ll someday start to poke at an action-hero itch. McHale was gracious enough to discuss this madcap variety of topics with us.

Hi Joel.

[A deep, booming voice.] Kimberly. Can you hear me?

Whoa. You sound very dramatic today.

Uh, I am very dramatic today. That’s how I like to start my day, and by the middle of the day, it’s a wacky, wacky comedy.

I can’t believe this is your first stand-up special.

Neither can I!

After all these years, why is this happening now?

I was tricked. It was a blackmail thing, where I was forced to choose between the special and my family. And I decided to take the special, much to their chagrin. Well, why did I decide to do it now? Hmm. I think I finally felt like I was a decent comic by now. There was some of that, but I’ve been wanting to do it for awhile, and I didn’t want it to be lousy. Much like I’m obsessive-compulsive and ADHD, so with that combination is much like having a Red Bull and vodka, which is a stimulant and at the same time brings you down, so it was a weird mathematical [figuring], like I think I feel ready to do this special, and I actually recorded for about an hour and a half, almost an hour and forty minutes, and we cut it down to fifty minutes, so I just wanted it to be decent. I didn’t want it to be awful. There are some awful specials out there and some of the best ones of all time, so I wanted to hopefully be somewhere in the middle.

Who are your stand-up idols on the upper end of that spectrum?

Eddie Murphy’s Delirious was a revelation for me and pretty much every kid my age. Steve Martin was just the definition of how you do things. And then I wore out all my Bill Cosby records that were given to me by my Aunt Gloria. I know Bill Cosby has an enormous asterisks by his name for very good reason, but his style is something that — I mean, he’s a horrible criminal — but his style, I couldn’t get enough. Richard Pryor: Live On The Sunset Strip is possibly one of the greatest performances ever put down on video or film. And then someone like Bill Hicks, who in the 1980s was one of the guys who made it look just effortless. I don’t know how he did it. So there’s a little sampling of who I like.

Eddie Murphy’s coming back now, have you heard?

Yeah, with Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee. He’s making a comeback, as he should! He’s a fucking national treasure, and he’s just one of the funniest people ever put on the planet, and Coming To America is getting a sequel so, I mean, what are we talking about? This is a good day.

It’s also a really good time for you to make this special.

Yes, I’m stepping away from Broadway, doing my thing.

One of your bits goes to town over other performers who you’ve been confused for. People have called you Daniel Tosh and Matthew Lillard, but is there anyone that you’d secretly like to be mistaken for?

Well, I’d like to be mistaken for Chris Hemsworth.

Damn, wouldn’t that be something?

Then I could be in those cologne ads they only show in China. But the Daniel Tosh thing was because we did something similar, and I think Matthew Lillard and I have the same build. The Matthew Lillard thing, which I don’t get into in the special but have talked about before, is early on, like in 2005, I would walk onto a red carpet, and no one knew who I was, and people would ask, “Who are you?” And I would say Matthew Lillard every time. Then I’d be showing up on his IMDb and Getty Images as him, and it made me endlessly happy.

I wonder how Lillard felt about that. Did you ever follow up with him?

I told him, and he thought it was awesome, so fuck ’em. It could be interpreted as being a dick, but I just found it funny that the first time I was ever on a red carpet, I was like, “WOW, I’m on a red carpet, and people are taking photos of me.” And of course, the “who are you?” was just wonderful. And literally last week, I was in Le Pain Quotidien in New York. It was 7:00am, and it had just opened, and a guy said, “I know you right?” And I said, “Yes, of course.” He said, “What’s your name?” I said, “Ryan Seacrest.” He said, “That’s right. Have a great show today, say hi to Kelly.” And I literally was on Live With Kelly and Ryan that morning and told that story. I think Ryan and I look similar, but I am just two times larger than him. I’m the double XXL version of Ryan. He’s actually in very good physical shape, so I can’t knock him on that.

So the title of this special is Live from Pyongyang. You’re trolling us?

I’d better be trolling because if somehow it works out that if people think I actually went to Pyongyang and recorded a comedy special, bless them for the fantasy life that they occupy. I think I’d be in jail. I don’t think you’re even allowed to use profanity there, but yeah, I just thought, “Why not?” But I don’t at any point bag on North Korea. We did trick the wife of the producer of Comedy Dynamics, Brian Volk-Weiss. She was like, “When did you go to Pyongyang?” And he was like, “We got her.”

You got one person, that’s enough. You do tell location-based jokes, like about the horrific Denver airport horse. Do you tell that joke in Denver?

Almost every joke that’s localized in our country was written for that place where I performed and then became a larger bit, so I never understood that airport or the horse. The airport is so far away, it makes no sense to me, and it’s just bizarre to me, and when I see it, it looks like it’s a space station in the middle of a barren moon because it’s not even close to Denver. And the horse, it is called Blucifer, that’s its real nickname, and it’s terrifying. Red eyes, I guess they’re trying to keep people away from Denver?

There are actually urban legends about Illuminati temples underneath that airport, so I’m not sure if that has something to do with it?

I’ve heard that, and you’ve got to be kidding, and the whole part of the artist dying being part of the conspiracy? It just shows you that Americans apparently have way too much free time and way too much disposable income to spend time on this, so I guess that’s a byproduct of being the richest country on the planet if you have time for conspiracy theories.

And your take on extreme-weather coverage in Oklahoma was accurate.

Oh, and I’m going back to Oklahoma next month, so I can’t wait to bring it back.

It truly is an Emmy-level TV moment when a severe storm hits.

I really like that state, and I like the people, but yes. When I was there, and there was a tornado warning, and that coverage was incredible, and I thought, “This will be my bit.” It’s funny when you go to these places. I was just in Jackpot, Nevada, which is in the middle of nowhere, and everyone jokes, “You blink, and you’ll miss it!” Boy, you see and meet people that you don’t meet in the city, and I end up falling in love with them and wanting to move there, so here I come, rural Oklahoma!

Well, I hope there aren’t tornadoes while you’re there.

No, I’m hoping for it! I’m banking on it.

You’ll also soon debut as a DC Universe superhero — Starman in Stargirl. There are multiple characters referred to as Starman, so what incarnation will you be playing?

Starman was invented, well, I guess he premiered, in 1941 for real. The same exact year that Captain America premiered, and it’s a very interesting — because I didn’t know this about comic books — that competing companies would kind of release the same character. So Starman is covered in Stars and Stripes just like Captain America. Obviously, Captain America won the marketing battle in a huge way. My character is resurrected from back then, and he’s had different incarnations over the years. I have a friend who’s a serious comic book aficionado, and he’s a big fan. At some point, he had an overcoat, and he always had a powerful staff. Anyway, Stargirl is the name of the series, and I am indirectly related to this girl. She plays a high schooler, so it’s a whole new universe that they’re introducing with some old characters. It’ll be released in January.

You had a civilian-type role in Spider-Man 2, but in this series, you have actual superpowers, right?

The powers? I’m not kidding, I have an energy staff, which can make me fly and can shoot energy, it can knock people over. It’s super powerful, and only certain people can pick it up, kind of like Thor’s hammer, but there’s a wider range of people who can actually touch it.

See, you’re talking kind-of action-y, so I’m reminded of how you guest-starred on Sons of Anarchy, and you did a behind-the-scenes segment where you (seriously) said that you dreamed of being an action hero when you were a kid.

Oh yeah!

Well, between those SOA episodes and now playing Starman, have you satisfied the action urge, or is it still there?

Ooh, no I’m never satisfied with anything. Like I’ll probably regret half the things that I’ve said in this phone call, or wanting to go over them again. It took me like eleven fittings to get that [superhero] suit fitted properly, and then I was like, “Oh, that’s how this works!” And I was suspended in the air, and on Community, we had a couple of action episodes, so that helped. This helped, so it definitely satisfied it to a point. So yes, I’m waiting for a role for an action star who’s a 45-year-old, slightly balding man, and I am on top of it.

You know, Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham and Arnold Schwarzenegger, they’re all pretty up there in age.

That’s true. Like yeah, why am I … this is ridiculous …. that I’m not … there needs to be a grassroots effort, a groundswell to get me one of these movies, dammit. Can you start it?

I will work on that for you. Maybe we’ll even put it in the headline.

Thank you. Very nice of you.

If you could be a Stallone or a Statham, which would you prefer?

Well, obviously, Stallone is older and has a larger body of work, just from him being around more, but I think First Blood is not only one of the best action movies ever made, but it’s just one of the best movies. It’s incredible. That first one is such a good movie. Brian Dennehy is such a good villain. It’s so good, I would kill to be in a movie like that. And then of course, Statham, Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels is outstanding, and it was a revelation when it came out. So I’ll take any of those. If we could combine those into one, I’ll do it.

Jason is a riot, so I think that would lean more in your direction.

When he played that character in Spy, he was so funny, I couldn’t get enough of it. I loved that movie.

You’re now also a game show host on Card Sharks. Is this experience what you thought it would be?

I didn’t know what the experience would be, so I don’t know. Well I didn’t go, “Well, I have an idea of what scuba diving was gonna be, and I scuba dived.” Here, it was a really fun experience, and I can’t believe how quickly they shoot multiple episodes. When Alec Baldwin started hosting the Match Game, he kind of broke down the door because then, all of a sudden, Jamie Foxx and Steph Curry and Elizabeth Banks came on to do Press Your Luck. You know, I just count myself lucky to be a part of that crowd.

And we’ve reached that question that must be asked.


Have you heard anything new at all lately about a Community movie?

Yeah, all seven of them are written, and John Boyega will be starring as me, he’s the new Jeff Winger. No, I think the thing the Russos played at Comic-Con, I think that was just a fun little one-off. I’ve heard nothing, and I literally looked in on it last night. I think Donald [Glover]’s going to be pretty unavailable for a while, now that he’s the biggest movie star on the planet.

He’s got a few things going on, yes.

He’s doing okay. He definitely has been calling me for career advice, you know, and when I get the time, I’ll call him back. No, I’ve heard nothing. And Dan has 70 episodes of Rick and Morty to do, so I don’t know when he’s gonna have time to write a Community movie, let alone get the thing funded. If you could give us a few million in seed money, we’ll really appreciate it.

I’m a little busy working on your action movie career right now.

Thank you so much, and thank you for talking about the special. I really appreciate it.

Comedy Dynamics will release ‘Joel McHale: Live From Pyongyang’ on multiple platforms, including iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and Xbox, along with most cable providers on August 6.