Joel McHale (‘Community’) interview

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Created by Dan Harmon (The Sarah Silverman Program), hit US comedy Community follows a band of misfits who attend Greendale Community College. At the centre of the group is Jeff Winger, a fast-talking lawyer whose degree has been revoked.

The second season premieres exclusively in the UK on Sony Entertainment Television (Sky 157/Virgin 193) tonight at 10.30pm.

> Buy the Season 1 boxset on Amazon.

CultBox caught up with star Joel McHale, who plays Jeff, to discuss the show’s success…

We’re about to see Season 2 in the UK. Now that Community‘s on its third season in the US do you have more confidence in the show?

“Yes, but I felt that way in the first season too. I’m arrogant that way. But I think that with any comedy you find out who the characters are, and the actors find out who the characters are. I always felt like if you watch the episodes from the first season there are some incredibly strong episodes. I really am strangely proud of all the seasons.

“That sounds so arrogant and like it’s a sound bite, but I really think with Dan Harmon [Community‘s creator and head writer] is always pushing the premises and pushing the actors to go into new fantastical places.”

It’s definitely more daring than other comedies: there’s a Dungeons & Dragons themed episode and a one about the movie My Dinner with Andre – do you ever get a script and think ‘this is too weird, we’re never going to get away with this’?

“No. I mean, it’s one of those things where I am incredibly blessed just to be working as an actor, but then to be working on something I love is such a massive bonus. And when you open up these scripts and go ‘Oh there’s going to be a secret trampoline that’s been hidden in this little garden’, that’s one of the things where I think ‘great’ and I can’t wait to do it.

“So the whole season – my character almost gets murdered by Betty White, and there’s more paintball wars – it’s just one of those things where Dan Harmon just keeps pushing his imagination and letting his imagination out, and thankfully NBC have let him do it.

“Actually the My Dinner with Andre episode was directed by Richard Ayoade of The IT Crowd fame, who came out with that amazing movie Submarine. That was so good and I don’t know why it wasn’t a bigger hit over here, ‘cos I’d say it was the best coming of age movie since Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

Given that the show’s doing well…

“We haven’t been picked up for a 4th season yet!”

If it does, are you happy for it to remain a cult hit with a small dedicated following, or do you want to chase high ratings?

“Well, that’s a good question. It’s funny because we become a trending topic on Twitter worldwide when the show is on, and we’ve had numerous hashtags trending for the last three days here, and there’s a trend worldwide about the show.

“In America here we’re on at an incredibly difficult time, which is 8 o’clock on Thursday nights, which has everything from Major League Baseball to NFL Football, and we’re up against original episodes of The Big Bang Theory. But when you look at our DVR numbers and look at the amount of views online the number [of viewers] goes way up, and it seems Community is often in the pop-culture conversation and the shows that critics like, so in that sense there’s great conversation about the show, thank God.

“But the show is the show, and if it appeals to a certain group of people then great, as long as they’re watching it. I mean, when we were taken off the air here in America there were ‘Occupy Greendale’ movements, there were online petitions, there were some professional athletes here like Nate Griffin who put Abed’s ‘Evil Timeline’ goatee on their profiles, and then there’s the fan-fiction and the videos all over YouTube.

“And all those things, I think, point to the fact that television is being watched differently by young people. And no young person, no person in their 30s or even under 40 now goes ‘Oh crap, I gotta get home to watch my show’. Nobody does that. They go ‘I’ll watch it on DVR later or I’ll watch it on Hulu or BitTorrent or iTunes’ and that’s how they get their media.

“And this is a really long message for me to say; I think more people here in the US are watching the show than the ratings in the US reflect, and I say that with the hope that that’s the case in the UK.”

Has your co-star Jim Rash – who won the 2012 Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Descendants – been flashing his Oscar around on set?

“(Sarcastically) Oh that guy, oh my gosh has he changed. We’ll just be at lunch or something and he’ll reach down to tie his shoe and the Oscar will appear out of nowhere, like ‘Oh where did that come from? I guess it fell out of my computer bag’. I’ll be like ‘Jim is that your Oscar?’ and he be like ‘Yes! Thanks for asking!’ and then he’ll stand up and make a speech.

“But that hit helped so much actually: that thing he did during the Oscars [Rash took his award and then struck a pose mocking Angelina Jolie’s now famous leg] was insanely helpful. It was some of the best press we’ve ever gotten.”

Jim Rash’s character The Dean is known for appearing in flamboyant outfits, so maybe we’ll see him dressed as an Oscar statue, or just flashing a leg in the next series?

“Oh there is an episode in Season 2 – Paradigms of Human Memory, where… well, in old sitcoms they used to do a thing where they would have a clip-show where instead of doing an actual episode, two characters would sit on one of the sets and they would reminisce about things that had happened in the past in old episodes. We do that episode, but all the reminiscing and all the old memories are brand new things.

“And there’s 70 different scenes in 22 minutes, of things that no one has ever seen before. And Jim Rash in that episode, appears in, like, 20 different outfits. They become more insane and more insane.”

Community‘s had a lot of really famous guest stars like Owen Wilson and Jack Black, and a lot more appear in Season 2. Are there any other celebrities that you would love to have on the show?

“Well, having John Goodman on [in Season 3] was a dream come true. Just to be able to say I was in the same show as him I could be like ‘Well that’s something I can tell my great grandchildren’. But I would love to work with Bill Murray.

“Tony Blair would be great – anything to bring the UK into us.  Also the cast of Twilight, the cast of The Hunger Games

“Also you know who’d be great? Richard E. Grant. After Withnail & I, I was just like ‘this is the guy who I am going to watch through everything’ because he’s just so damn good. And I guess the cast of Red Dwarf too.”

Do you have a favourite episode from Season 2?

“I love the Dungeons & Dragons episode, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. And I really love the My Dinner with Andre episode, Critical Film Studies – I mean who’d have ever thought that would make it onto network television? And I loved working with Betty White.

“It’s hard to say… The hospital episode, Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking, was one of my favourites because LeVar Burton (Star Trek: TNG) is in it and LeVar knocks it out of the park. That episode was really fun for me because Jeff starts dealing with his daddy issues.”

Do you prefer doing the big high-concept episodes like the paintball episodes, or do you like the more character-driven stuff? Community does both really well…

“You know what, it’s going to sound so corporate, but I really do like both, because if it was all of one I don’t think it would be interesting. You have to have both. You have to have ones where the characters are put into situations where they’re there because of the action, and you have to have the ones where characters are dealing with each other.

“This year one of the best received episodes was Season 2’s bottle episode Cooperative Calligraphy where we all are trapped in the study room because one of us has stolen a pen, and that’s the jumping off point. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is basically a bottle episode; it all takes place in that one room.

“But then when you see Paradigms of Human Memory where we have so many different scenes in 22 minutes that was also a thrill. And the paintball episodes where I get to play an action star, which is a dream come true.

“So I really do think you need both for character development and for story development. Because if you just focus on characters it becomes terribly uninteresting. And if you just have action then it also just become a wash and it doesn’t matter.”

Between Community and your other show The Soup, do you ever get time to go back to doing stand-up or movies?

“Yeah. In the last two years I’ve done four movies. I have one coming out this summer, with Mila Kunis and Mark Wahlberg: Ted, written by Seth MacFarlane. Giovanni Ribisi and I play villains. I can’t wait.

“They nailed the trailer. It’s great ‘cos it looks like a romantic comedy. The script was so funny on the page, and Mark Wahlberg man… after seeing him in The Other Guys with Will Ferrell I was like ‘He can do anything’.”

On-screen your character Jeff Winger’s the leader of the gang. Are you like him on set, corralling the rest of the cast?

“Well, we look similar… I need a lot less spray-tan than that guy. I’ve been married for a long time with two children so I’m not a womaniser with major daddy issues. I have a great dad and we get along very well and he’s the inspiration for a lot of the reason why I went into entertainment. And playing Jeff is a way for me to kind of play a person that I am not.

“I’d say that I probably have similar confidence, but that’s because I’m an arrogant asshole. But you know, he’s just different enough that it’s fun to play. But it’s one of those things where people go ‘He really seems similar to you’ and I’m like ‘Really? I’m that much of asshole?'”

> Buy the Season 1 boxset on Amazon.

Who’s your favourite character in Community? Let us know below…