Joel McHale is known for his hilarious commentary on the craziness that is pop culture on E!'s The Soup, and of course his lead role as Jeff Winger on the cult comedy, Community, formerly on NBC and now available on Yahoo! Screen. He's also appeared in films as varied as The Informant!, TED, and Deliver Us from Evil. Oh, and he's also a stand-up comic.
If that last sentence is a bit of a surprise to you, you're not alone. Despite entertaining thousands on college campuses and theatres around North America, a recent Facebook post of mine mentioning McHale's upcoming Canadian tour dates elicited confusion (and, to be fair, a lot of excitement once people realized he was going to be performing stand-up). A recent hiatus from touring (caused by a ridiculously busy TV schedule and 2 kids at home) may be part of the reason his stand-up is off people's radar, but if you had the chance to check out his biting routine at the 2014 White House Correspondenthe ts' dinner in front of the toughest crowd imaginable, you'd know why the iconic comedy brand Just for Laughs is bringing him up to Canada for a pair of shows.
I got the chance to speak with McHale in advance of his tour stops in Calgary on Friday, May 8 and Winnipeg on Friday, May 9 (some balcony seats are still available in both cities), and we spoke about his start in stand-up, what he likes about performing in front of live crowds, the experience of having to follow the President of the United States on stage, and the evolution of Community now that it's on a streaming service instead of network TV (including his pleas to higher-ups to make it available in Canada at the same time as the U.S.).
Paul Little: I didn't hear about you doing stand-up until one of your earlier appearances on Conan where you were talking about doing college gigs. So I'm curious about your start in stand-up comedy and what brought it about?
Joel McHale: Boy, it started about 10 years ago. It was after I started doing The Soup. I mean, I had screwed around with it here and there trying to put an act together before I had done The Soup. I wasn't one of those comics that was out on the road -- I was in L.A. acting, so I was just doing local places. So it wasn't a real act. It wasn't great, at all -- not that it's great now, but it was really bad then. And I started doing The Soup, and my agent at the time said, "If you put an act together, you've already got a built-in audience, and you're gonna make a ton of money." And I went, "Money, great!" *laughs* No. I knew that I had wanted to do it, so it was the best motivation.
So I would put shows together with my friends, I would host them, and I would just work on material in between. And then I went to a comedy club in Ogden, Utah for the first time... it look like a year before I felt ready to actually headline. I did like 4 shows in one night where I headlined, and just really sucked, but the people were very forgiving. I didn't have to do that thing where I walk on some comedy club stage in South Dakota, and nobody knew who I was, and you'd really have to fight your way to win them (over). I had the Soup audience that was very forgiving for a long time -- and that is kind of how I backed into it. And that was 10 years ago -- or 9 and a half years ago is when I started really working on it, much to the chagrin of my wife, because I spend so much time doing it and travelling.
PL: I wanted to touch on that a little, because especially once Community started up for you, you had 2 TV shows but you were still out on the road doing stand-up. What kept you going on the road, besides obviously what you mentioned before, making a bit more money. *laughs*
JM: Yeah, my wife was not happy. Neglect of my wife. Well, because with college dates and theatre shows, you have to book them way in advance. And at that point I didn't know if Community was even being picked up. So if May is when the pick-up comes, well you start booking stuff for the fall in May -- like right now I have dates booked for October that haven't been announced, but I have holds on theatres. So I booked up a ton of weekends just because I didn't know what the future was. One of those was at Carnegie Hall for the New York Comedy Festival, and I knew I had to be ready for that show! So I had booked all these dates leading up to it, because I wanted to make sure I was fresh and good with new material. And then Community got picked up, and it all just ran into each other, and I don't think I had a day off for 6 months or something including weekends. Plus I had a newborn -- I had a 6-month old.
PL: So things were busy!
JM: Yeah, there were times where I was so tired at work on any given day -- like, when I get really tired my voice gets really low, and then I just start getting dizzy. That's how my body manifests fatigue -- I can stay up almost forever, but eventually I start getting dizzy. So there you go, that's my short history of exhaustion and stand-up.
JM: So now, I was surprised -- I've been away a couple years from it because I've been so busy and I had to cut something out. I was doing some movies, and that obviously eats up a lot of time because you're there on set and all that stuff. And now that I'm back, people are like, "You do stand-up?" and I was like, "Did you guys all forget? How quickly did that happen?" One agent a while ago told me that when you stop doing it, people have very short attention spans and they'll forget that you do it. And I was like, "I don't think so. I went to a city, I played a theatre, there were advertisements, they knew I was here!" But it was absolutely true. I just went to this thing last Friday in Detroit -- no, Saturday -- Sunday, Sat... I can't remember. I've been to the East Coast and back 3 times in the last 8 days, so that's how busy I am. But they were like, "Oh, we were so surprised that you did stand-up!" So apparently, people don't know it.
PL: Yeah, I found that interesting. As I said, I knew you'd been doing college and theatre gigs, which are a lot larger than a typical comedy club gig. I mean, if you come into town, you're playing in front of a thousand people instead of a couple hundred. Yet last year, when you did the White House Correspondents' Dinner, people said, "Oh, that's cool that he's doing kind of a stand-up thing." And I said, "No, that's because he -- he does stand-up."
JM: Yeah, it's weird. I guess I have to work on it for another 2 years before people start to realize.
PL: *laughs* Yeah, I guess so. So how was the White House Correspondents' Dinner experience? I really enjoyed what you did, but from what I understand, it's a really thankless position up there dealing with obviously a weird room, and then people will judge you not necessarily on your material so much as the reactions you may or may not get out of the audience.
JM: Yeah, it's the craziest gig I've every done. All that said, yes, I'd do it again tomorrow if they asked me, because it was one of more exhilirating things I've ever done in my life, and one of the coolest things I've ever done. But yes, it is thankless in that -- first of all, it's on C-Span, and they don't mic the audience, so you can't hear the audience react. And any joke you tell against the Democrats, they're not gonna laugh that hard. And the Republicans will laugh, but they won't laugh too hard, 'cause they don't want to look like jerks. And vice versa. So they're all metering out their laughs. There's that. Then, the President is opening for you. And the President is the strangest opener you'll ever have -- strangest because it's the leader of the free world, and he is, on top of all that, he is damn good at what he does. He's the leader of the free world and he's great at comedy. And he actually gets the room going, in a huge way. You're never going to beat him -- he'll always win, he's the leader. If you can do comedy on top of being able to control the most powerful material in the world, you're going to win that game. And he's so good at it, that it's... amazing.
Then, on top of that, you get to the gig, and it's like a 4-hour ramp up to you actually being on stage. Or actually, 5 hours. Because you have to get dressed, you have to go take photos, then there's a meet-and-greet with the President, then there's finally getting to the dinner. And then you walk out, and you sit next to the First Lady for 2 hours, and you chat for hours. And that was one of the more pleasurable dinners I have ever had -- she is absolutely lovely. I just couldn't be a bigger fan of hers. So she was great, but you're still crapping your pants, because you're like, "In just a moment, I'm gonna get up and do the gig of my life!"
PL: I just wanted to get a Community question in here before I have to let you go. This season, the move to Yahoo! -- which was a bit of a surprise -- also corresponded with some more changes to the cast. Can you talk about the feel on set this year filming the show, and what the new additions to the team have brought to things?
JM: Yeah, it's been great! Working for something like Yahoo! -- to go right from network into an internet portal, or whatever you'd call it -- is like night and day. There's a different culture in that you don't check the ratings every (week), there's not that, "We'll see how it goes. We'll see if you're gonna get a lead-in." There's all these typical obstacles in the way every day (on network TV) -- things you're used to looking at. And Yahoo! is just the opposite, it's kind of like, "We love the show. We picked it up. Go have fun, go make it." And that's it. Then you go, "Well what are the ratings?" And they go, "It's all views, it's all impressions, and we're really happy. We'd like for you guys to come back." So it's that sort of difference.
And there's no commercials. Dan (Harmon, creator/showrunner of Comunity) wanted commercial breaks, because he likes the feeling of a 3-act play. But most internet shows have no break, but he wanted them. What changed about the episodes is that they can be slightly longer -- instead of being 21 and a half minutes, or 22 minutes, the episodes can be 26 minutes, or 28. Which is how long the old Dick Van Dyke Show episodes were. The Dick Van Dyke Show was 29 minutes with 1 minute of commercials. That has all eroded down to 21 minutes, which if you think about it is kind of nuts. But now we have this freedom, and it's been great.
And people like Netflix, when they like a show -- like Orange is the New Black last year, they said, "Let's pick it up for a second season!" without ever airing a single episode. That is so different from all the things that have been put in the way for shows to not succeed. Because I think people operate out of fear as opposed to like an attitude of, "We're gonna win this game!" -- a gung ho attitude, which is what these internet companies have done. It's been a pleasure working for Yahoo!
PL: So do you see more Community past this 6th season then?
JM: I don't know. You know, everyone's contract is up, so I don't know what the future holds. I've always said I'm up for it. I mean, possibly. Nobody has a contract, and people are doing other pilots -- and some of those pilots are definitely going to get picked up. I don't think those pilots, or the pick-ups, conflict with possibly doing another season. I think it would have to do with schedule and money and all that. So who knows?
PL: As a Community fan, the fact that it's gone on this long with all the behind-the-scenes stuff and near-cancellations, is just remarkable to me. I think we're lucky we got this much.
JM: Oh yeah, I agree. I'm just sad that it's not -- you can't watch it in Canada now when it gets released in America, that to me is all so stupid. Because now, with the way people get programming, they're going to get it illegally if they can't get it immediately. I don't know why they don't just say, "When it's released, it's released everywhere." It doesn't make any sense to me.
PL: Cross-border stuff is always odd.
JM: Yeah, it seems not beneficial to your business if you're delaying it that way, because you're gonna lose some viewers if you don't release it all at once. I keep telling them that -- I tell it to their faces. It's stupid -- these ridiculous deals you have in place for television models that are 20 years old.
PL: Well I'm glad that someone that actually has the ear of people who make decisions is saying something!
JM: I think it actually will change. I just think these contracts have to run out.
PL: Thanks so much for this.
JM: Cool, thanks. I hope people come to the shows, and hopefully you'll be laughing -- or you'll just be smiling politely and then let yourself out.
For more information on Joel McHale's Just for Laughs dates in Calgary and Winnipeg, visit hahaha.com/joel.
Paul Little is the founder and Managing Editor of ShowbizMonkeys.com. When not interviewing his favourite musicians and comedians, he can also be found at The Purple Room in Winnipeg, where he is Artistic Director. (@comedygeek)