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Comedian Joel McHale Talks Dyslexia, Bad TV And Filming A Thriller


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross.


JOEL MCHALE: (As Jeff Winger) Objection. I teach law at Greendale. So believe me, I don't know much about law, but I do know a contract violation when I see one.

BIANCULLI: That's today's guest, Joel McHale, star of the comedy series "Community," from what turned out to be the show's final episode on NBC. At the time Terry spoke with Joel McHale in 2014, the fate of his series was in limbo. NBC hadn't renewed it, but there was talk that series, after five seasons on NBC, might be picked up by someone else. That someone else turned out to be Yahoo TV, which now streams new episodes weekly on Yahoo Screen. "Community" is famous for constantly parodying and alluding to movies and TV shows. Since 2004, McHale also was host of the E! Network's "The Soup" on which he satirizes reality TV and celebrity news. When he was the featured comic last May at the White House Correspondents' dinner, the subject of his satire was politics and the news media. And the comic who opened for him was President Obama. Joel McHale was on FRESH AIR when the thriller "Deliver Us From Evil" was in theaters. In it, he and Eric Bana played New York City cops on the trail of a killer. In this scene, Bana is chasing down a seemingly routine domestic call. Bana's partner, played by McHale, is surprised by his interest. Eric Bana speaks first.


ERIC BANA: (As Ralph Sarchie) Six spec-ops, Sergeant to central k.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As dispatcher) Go, Sergeant.

BANA: Run a name check on a 10-52.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As dispatcher) Ten-4, just a second.

MCHALE: (As Butler) What? You want a domestic call? Radar? (Laughing). You know when your radar goes off, you usually wind up with stitches?

BANA: (As Ralph Sarchie) You're an adrenaline junkie and without my radar you don't get your fix. OK?

MCHALE: (As Butler) You're right. And for that, I am grateful.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As dispatcher) Six special-ops.


Joel McHale, welcome to FRESH AIR.

MCHALE: Thank you for having me, Terry. This is a dream come true. I'm not kidding.

GROSS: (Laughing) Thank you for saying that.

MCHALE: You have no idea the street cred that this is buying me right now in my hometown of Seattle and in Los Angeles. There are a lot of pasty, white people that I know that are going to love this.

GROSS: (Laughing) That makes me feel so good.

MCHALE: This is great. I'm pasty myself, so...

GROSS: Me too.

MCHALE: They're my people.

GROSS: Yes. So there's a pretty famous paintball episode of "Community" in which you're all - it's a kind of parody of action films and you're all running around with paintball guns. And in "Deliver Us From Evil" there are - there's, like, more than one scene where you're running up and down stairs with your gun pulled or, you know, entering into the door with your gun pulled. So is there, like, actor training school for running around with guns when you're not used to it?

MCHALE: Yes. There's a school outside of Portland, Oregon called how to run on camera and not look like an idiot. The only way to do it from what I've seen is to do it - is you must be as committed as if you were in those things, even though you're doing a comedy. And a lot of the things you saw me running down were padded, so it's very odd to run down padded stairs. Even though it's there for your safety, it's like running while you're drunk. And you just have to be careful 'cause you're carrying shotguns and you're covered in gear. Believe me, these are all good problems to have, but it's - it was like I felt like a 12-year-old getting to be in an action film.

GROSS: So they're padded in case you fall?

MCHALE: Yeah. And then in - I actually do tumble down the stairs in this huge knife fight scene. And I thought I was being really professional and would not needing a stuntman, and I tumbled down and bashed my arm open and ripped all the skin off. And then they said, good job Joel, that was really necessary. And now you have to do it five more times. And then my stunt double - he was very good to the point where I get thrown into a wall, and I did it myself once and everyone kind of gave a clap and said, that looked great, Mr. actor guy. And then the stunt double did it and it looked amazing. And then everyone clapped and I said, how did you do that? And he said, oh I got knocked out. He actually knocked himself unconscious - not on purpose but he fell backwards and then came to about five seconds later. So he really sacrificed himself. On top of that, he's a Princeton grad. So I just want to say thank you Princeton for making such a great stunt double who will knock himself out for a movie.

GROSS: One of the things you had to do in the movie was be in, you know, like fake rainstorm. I assume they were fake rainstorms, unless you waited until it was raining all the time. There's a lot of rain in this movie. And I'm always the one in the audience thinking guys, get umbrellas. But, you know, like, you're these, like, hard-boiled cops so you're out there in the pouring rain getting totally drenched. Then I'm thinking, like, OK if they need another take, then you put on dry clothes and go through the whole thing again and get totally drenched. And then get another outfit that's exactly the same for continuity purposes, but it's drying - you keep doing that over and over again?

MCHALE: The poor people in the costumes department, they have hairdryers - they have nine hairdryers out and they have about three changes of your costume to - and yes, it takes a whole thing to do it. And last summer here in New York, it was one of the wettest summers, apparently, in history. And on top of that it was 100 degrees - also, at night it would only drop to 90 or - so it was like we were in - I don't know, the Amazon or something. It was so warm. And so the rain machine is a huge truck and it's full of cold water. So at first, it's very welcomed and then it becomes bone-chillingly cold to the point where Eric Bana and I couldn't form words. You have to - you had to go warm up 'cause your lips would start getting so cold. So it was a very bizarre - I mean, believe me, I love it. I love being in the movies. I love being on TV. So, you know, it's all happy problems, but it's a bizarre problem.

GROSS: So let's talk about "Community." You play Jeff Winger, a lawyer who isn't allowed to practice at his law firm because they found out that he faked his college degree. He didn't really go to Columbia University. He went to college in Colombia, South America. So he's back in community college and kind of meets up with all these other misfits of different ages who are there for various reasons.

MCHALE: Right.

GROSS: So let's play a clip from the pilot. And this is a scene - you have a crush on one of the students.


GROSS: So you tell her that you're holding a Spanish study group and she should come. There really is no study group. You really don't know Spanish. (Laughing) And you just want to be with her.

MCHALE: Right.

GROSS: But she tells others and they - you know, other people show up, and first, you try to get them fighting so you'll have an excuse to leave with the girl you have a crush on. And then you figure out that's not working so you'd better get them back to being friends and there being peace. So here's how you get peace to break out in this pilot episode of "Community."


MCHALE: (As Jeff Winger) You know what makes humans different from other animals?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Feet.

CHEVY CHASE: (As Pierce Hawthorne) No, no, no - come on, bears have feet.

MCHALE: (As Jeff Winger) We're the only species on earth that observes "Shark Week." Sharks don't even observe "Shark Week," but we do, for the same reason I can pick up this pencil, tell you its name is Steve and go like this. And part of you dies just a little bit on the inside because people can connect with anything. We can sympathize with a pencil. We can forgive a shark, and we can give Ben Affleck an Academy Award for screenwriting.

CHASE: (As Pierce Hawthorne) Big mistake.

DONALD GLOVER: (As Troy Barnes) He's got a point. It's true.

MCHALE: People can find the good in just about anything but themselves. Look at me. It's clear to all of you that I am awesome, but I can never admit that because that would make me an ass. But what I can do is see what makes Annie awesome. She's driven. We need driven people, or the lights go out, and the ice cream melts. And Pierce - we need guys like Pierce. This guy has wisdom to offer.

CHASE: (As Pierce Hawthorne) The Dalai Lama and I...

MCHALE: (As Jeff Winger) We should listen to him sometime. We wouldn't regret it. And Shirley - Shirley has earned our respect. Not as a wife, not as a mother but as a woman. And don't test her on that because that thing about the jukebox was way too specific to be improvised. And Troy - who cares if Troy thinks he's all that? Maybe he is. Do you think astronauts go to the moon because they hate oxygen? No. They're trying to impress their high school's prom king. And Abed - Abed's a shaman. You ask him to pass the salt, he gives you a bowl of soup because you know what? Soup is better. Abed is better. You are all better than you think you are. You are just designed not to believe it when you hear it from yourself.

DANNY PUDI: (As Abed) Soup?

MCHALE: (As Jeff Winger) I want you to look to the person to your left. Sorry, look at the person sitting next to you.

YVETTE NICOLE BROWN: (As Shirley Bennett) Look at her? OK.

MCHALE: Yeah. I want you to extend to that person the same compassion that you extend to sharks, pencils and Ben Affleck. I want you to say to that person I forgive you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) I forgive you.

CHASE: (As Pierce Hawthorne) You little twerp.

MCHALE: (As Jeff Winger) Pierce, I’d like you to say I forgive you.

BROWN: (As Shirley Bennett) You didn't say it?

CHASE: (As Pierce Hawthorne) I forgive you.

MCHALE: (As Jeff Winger) You've just stopped being a study group. You have become something unstoppable. I hereby pronounce you a community.

BROWN: (As Shirley Bennett) Aw that's nice. I like that.

MCHALE: (As Jeff Winger) Yeah, well, I hope Ben Affleck's listening 'cause I'm sure he's not. It's ironic because that came out five years ago before he won Best Picture and now he's Batman. So I guess that's a bit dated now. Ben, I didn't write that, so I can't be responsible for the things that come out of my mouth - yeah.

GROSS: There are so many pop-culture references to TV shows and movies in "Community." Did you always get the references or did you need some of them explained to you?

MCHALE: No. Oh, that happened every time we would read through the scripts. We would have to look stuff up. I mean, in this last season we made a reference to a very little-known Sean Connery movie called "Zardoz" which came out...

GROSS: Oh, where he's running around almost like in a diaper (laughter).

MCHALE: Yeah, we referenced that. And yeah, there's things that get said that I went, I have no idea what that was and I'm just going to trust. And they - I mean, Dan would always pack these - like they ended up being 35 page scripts into 21 minutes. And Abed would often have to, you know, carry the lion share of all these references. We did an entire tribute to "My Dinner With Andre" where it was just my character and Abed - the brilliant Danny Pudi's character - talking at each other in a restaurant for 20 minutes on national television. There was so much dialogue that we had...

GROSS: Did you go back and watch the movie?

MCHALE: Oh yeah, yeah. And that movie - I mean, I couldn't believe we did it. And we had to have teleprompters because it was so much dialogue.

GROSS: For your character of Jeff on "Community," you know, most of the world is filtered through his sensibility of a kind of smugness and sarcasm. Do you relate to that at all or is that something you’re…

MCHALE: Not at all, Terry.

GROSS: (Laughing) Not at all.

MCHALE: Not at all. Don't know what you are talking about - no. Yes. I mean, that's - a lot of people have said that character’s so - it's just you, right? And I go, well, I have a wife and two children. I'm not just running around and, you know, I'm not a lawyer. So - but yes, I do have a very similar trait to the character in that I cheated my way through high school and college, which I love admitting. 'Cause my character cheat - lies about having an undergraduate degree and I am pretty dyslexic so I never could really read - whatever. I did terrible on my SATs. I couldn't read the way that other students read so I would just cheat, which, you know, in my silly brain I was like this is a skill that I'm developing, how to just get around everything, so in a way that really helped inform the character.

GROSS: When you say you cheated, exactly what did you do?

MCHALE: Oh, I was able to - I would get a hold of tests (laughter).

GROSS: Really? How did you do that?

MCHALE: Well, at least at that time in college, there was a way to get a hold of tests. People would have them - they would - different groups of students would save - I was in a fraternity for a very horrible, short period of time, but it was a very organized system of saving all the tests so you could - if it's the same teacher and they were not changing the test every year, you could be pretty close to what it was. So - and I would also just - like I did it - I was terrible at doing languages so I made sure I sat in between these two friends of mine. And I made them move their desk closer to me. I mean, this sort of, like, juvenile stuff that I was doing to get through college. It's very, very sad. And I - believe me, whoever's out there listening - do not cheat your way through college. I definitely - probably shouldn't have. I wouldn't have graduated but I always kind of knew I was going to be an actor so there was - I probably shouldn't have gone to college. I probably should've gone to an acting conservatory. That probably was the way to go. But then again, it's water under the bridge. But I got - it was a whole different kind of performance which was cheating. You hear that kids - if you want your dreams to come true, just cheat.

GROSS: Well, my guest has been Joel McHale. Thanks, Joel. I've lost all respect for you. The interview is over (laughter).

MCHALE: Oh, shoot. Dang it. I knew it. I knew this was too good to be true. Darn it.

GROSS: But you did go to acting school, right?

MCHALE: I did. Well, yes. And I didn't cheat through that.

GROSS: You can't cheat with that.

MCHALE: No ‘cause when you walk on stage you better know your lines. Memorization is a completely different thing than just reading something. It's ironic now...

GROSS: Is it? You know ‘cause you even tweeted - you mentioned in a recent tweet that you were dyslexic and I wasn't sure if that was - if you were kidding or not but apparently not.

MCHALE: No, I'm dead serious. That's why there's all these live shows we're doing with "The Soup" now and I'm reading teleprompter the whole time and I - people wanted to promote it by saying anything could go wrong - that's what the E! executives wanted and I was like no, no, no just tell them I'm dyslexic. That should raise the stakes enough.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCHALE: And so I really have to concentrate. I mean, it may not look like I'm concentrating and I'm just screwing around, but I really do have to concentrate while I'm reading. And half the time, I'm getting it wrong, but you can't tell ‘cause I'm just making up different words for it. So it's a kind of a smoke and mirrors, but, no, I really - I really am. So I didn't get really - I didn't really get - for real diagnosed until a couple of years ago when this doctor began describing everything. I was like, oh, that's - you're absolutely describing me right now. And they were like, yeah, yeah, we could tell.

BIANCULLI: Joel McHale speaking to Terry Gross in 2014. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2014 interview with Joel McHale. He stars in the sitcom "Community," once seen on NBC and now presented by Yahoo and also hosts the E! Network clip and commentary series "The Soup."

GROSS: You know, it's funny. Like, people know you from "Community," where you've gone back to community college. When you were born - correct me if I'm wrong - your father was dean of students of a branch of Loyola University in Rome, which is where you were born. So you're from, like, an academic family.

MCHALE: Yeah. My grandfather worked for the U.N. And, yeah, I have - my aunt's a journalist. My other uncle works for U.N. Films Africa. He's lived in Nairobi for the last 35 years. And, yeah, so I have really disappointed the family.

GROSS: (Laughing).

MCHALE: I have really brought it down. Yeah, my dad - he grew up in the South Side of Chicago. So my mom's family was there because my grandfather worked for the U.N., but my dad grew up in the South Side of Chicago. And when he was, I think, a freshman in college or a senior in high school, he went and saw the movie, "Roman Holiday," with Audrey Hepburn and just basically said, that's where I'm going.

And he made it happen. And he went to Loyola in downtown Chicago, and then was able to get the money together to get over to Rome and lived there and met my mom. She was a student, and they had three boys. And everywhere we went, they would point to us and go, biondo, biondo, because we were blonde kids. And then, my dad was making $6,000 a year, and he couldn't support a family of five. And so we moved to Seattle.

GROSS: How old were you when you moved?

MCHALE: Very young - 4, 3 and - yeah, so I don't know any Italian. I do have an Italian birth certificate. And I lost my - my passport got stolen. This was, now, 20 years ago, when I went back there. And I walked into the American consulate, and they were very confused as to - 'cause I have - it says on record that was born there. And I'm this big, you know, galoot of an American kid going, like, hi, I've lost my passport. Can you help me? And they go, you were born here. I'm like, that's right. Born right here. Can I have some apple pie, please?

So it was - they were very confused, to the point where they only issued me a passport for a month. They were like, we're going to give you a passport. We usually don't do this, but we’ll give it to you since you're very convincing. And they let me have it.

GROSS: So were your parents frustrated that you did not excel academically? And did they know that you cheated, which you confessed to earlier?

MCHALE: They did not know - no, my mom - she would edit my papers, and she would get it. First, she would go through, like, the stages of grieving or her own - she would start looking at my papers, and she would then get angry. And she'd be like, what? What does this say? What - what - she would get very confused. And then - she then would get very sad, and she would be like, what has happened? My son can't read or write very well. What? He's in high school. She would help me with my college papers - she's like, what is going on? And then, she would just start laughing. Then, she would read sentences out loud to my dad like she's reading a Dave Barry article out loud because they were so hilariously off and wrong. So, yeah, my mom was a newspaper editor, so she's incredibly good at what she did. She knows language backwards and forwards, and she knows split infinitives and all that - whatever sort of grammar problem. And I couldn't do any of that. So thank God I went into acting.

GROSS: When you moved to LA, the first jobs you got were in commercials.


GROSS: What kind of products were you advertising?

MCHALE: Oh, I did like 40 spots for Burger King. Man, I sold beer. I sold a lot of Bud Light. I sold a grill called the Fire and Ice Grill To Go, which was half-cooler, half-grill, which if you - you hit a button, and the thing separated, but if you grilled while they were together, which meant the grill was directly on top of a plastic cooler, you would have a real disaster on your hand. Deodorant, Microsoft, furniture - I mean, you name it. I think I did 200 or - I think I did 200 commercials.

BIANCULLI: Joel McHale speaking to Terry Gross in 2014. He stars in the sitcom "Community," now presented by Yahoo, and hosts the satiric E! series "The Soup." Coming up, Joel McHale will tell us about hosting last year's White House Correspondents' dinner. That's after a short break. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's interview with Joel McHale. He stars in the comedy series "Community," which ran for five seasons on NBC and now continues with new episodes on the streaming site Yahoo Screen. McHale also hosts "The Soup" on E!, where he satirizes reality shows and celebrity news. Last May, he satirized more serious subjects - politics and the news media - when he was the featured comic at the White House Correspondents' dinner. President Obama was his opening act. Terry spoke with Joel McHale last June shortly after he had hosted that high-profile tough room event.

GROSS: You know, I want to talk with you about the White House Correspondents' dinner, which you did - you were very funny.

MCHALE: Thank you.

GROSS: But I want to mention - you had pages with you, you had notes...

MCHALE: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...That you were reading from and I always think - I don't know if that relates to dyslexia or not, but when I saw it, I was wondering maybe you didn't want to put it in a teleprompter because you didn't want anybody to read it beforehand and say, you can't say that?

MCHALE: Well, you got it. You nailed it. Yes, that's exactly it. I mean, I knew those jokes backwards and forwards by the time I got up there. I mean, I had painstakingly poured over thousands of jokes that I hired people to write - this guy named Boyd Vico and Brad Stevens and K.P. Anderson. We all did it together and wrote these jokes for months and just kept whittling it down ‘cause I wanted it to be 20 minutes long. But you don't want to put it - especially for that gig - you don't put it into a prompter ‘cause everyone wants to see your jokes, so C-SPAN wants to see your jokes so they know who to go to with their cameras, the president's people would like to see your jokes and - because they want to know what you're going to talk about. And so I - my - I don't want anybody to see any of my jokes because I feel like if C-SPAN knew who I was going to make fun of, then the camera would be on them before I was finished with the joke. I mean, they knew I was going to make fun of Chris Christie, but I think it's a good policy not to show anybody your jokes. And what's so - what makes our country the greatest country in the world is that they weren't going to censor me at all, but I think they were trying because they've never censored anyone doing it. They just wanted to see what you were going to talk about. You know, comedians kind of do that sometimes, but I didn't want them to. But they literally put no restrictions on what I was going to say. I could've said anything I wanted, which just shows you - I mean, in some countries if I were to say the things I said, you would be thrown into jail, in a lot of countries. So I have to - I mean, that's what's so great about, I mean, this gig and, you know, you could do anything. So once I got up there, boy, yeah, it was - I knew the jokes pretty well. And Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel said - and Seth Meyers all said, just keep telling the jokes, go slowly and take no prisoners. And I took that advice to heart hopefully.

GROSS: And did they say don't use the teleprompter, don't give anybody your speech beforehand?

MCHALE: Yeah, they all said that. They all said they're - and everyone said they're all going to try to look at your jokes and don't let them.

GROSS: Nevertheless, C-SPAN did have - you'd say CNN camera was on Wolf Blitzer.

MCHALE: Yes, they were ready. I knew - I think they were able to anticipate some of the people I was going to hit, but, you know, I mentioned Patrick Duffy and he was in the audience and they didn't find him.

GROSS: That's true. That's true.

MCHALE: Yeah. I mentioned DeNiro, I made a joke about him and I thought...

GROSS: That was a hysterical joke. Would you do that?

MCHALE: Oh, what did I - I said - I said, and now I can't do an impression of Robert DeNiro, but here's an impression of Robert DeNiro's agent. And then I mimed picking up a telephone and going he'll take it and then I hung up. Because Robert DeNiro in the past few years has - and I would too, as I - believe me, if I were him. He's been cashing in on his legendary status and his national treasure status and some of the movies he takes have not been - I mean, you can't, not every movie can be the greatest. But he hugged me afterwards and said, you had to do it, that's how you - it was good, you had to do it, I would have done it too and I went, oh, thank God. And then Chris Christie didn't want - he didn't, he couldn't have been nicer. So I was very confused by that 'cause I really went after him.

GROSS: Since we're talking about Chris Christie, let’s play what you said about Chris Christie just a few weeks ago at this year's White House Correspondents' dinner.


MCHALE: Speaking of digestive systems, Chris Christie is here. He's actually here, tonight. Wow, sir, you are a glutton - for punishment, so here we go. Chris Christie, his administration canceled the train tunnel to Manhattan, they're closing the Pulaski Skyway and they blocked the George Washington Bridge - finally, a politician willing to stand up to America's commuters. Gov., do you want bridge jokes or size jokes? 'Cause I got a bunch of both, I can go half-and-half. I know you like a combo platter. Now, I get that, I'm sorry for that joke Gov. Christie. I didn't know I was going to tell it, but I take full responsibility for it. Whoever wrote it will be fired. But the buck stops here, so I will be a man and own up to it, just as soon as I get to the bottom of how it happened because I was unaware it happened until just now. I'm appointing a blue ribbon commission of me to investigate the joke I just told and if I find any wrongdoing on my part, I assure you I will be dealt with. I just looked into it, it turns out I'm not responsible for it. Justice has been served.


MCHALE: He's going to kill me.

GROSS: But apparently he didn't kill you, Joel McHale.

MCHALE: He did not kill me, thank God. That's the first time - I haven't heard that. I heard that back once and that's the first I ever heard it back and I - it's such as a strange room 'cause if you tell a joke about one person or one party, that party is going to be silent and everyone else goes, ooh. And then you flip it to the other party and the other party also goes, ooh, so you kind of have to measuring your success through oohs. It's a very strange - that's why at one point, I think I even said, all right now just the men, ooh.

GROSS: That's right, you did (laughter)

MCHALE: Everyone sounded like they were on a roller coaster or something.

GROSS: But the most strange thing about doing the White House Correspondents' dinner - I would think this is a most strange thing - is that the president, President Obama in your case, is sitting right next the microphone and you know that the first thing you're going to do when what you say is finished, is you're going to walk away from the podium, back to your seat. And the President is going to hug, shake your hand and either halfheartedly or enthusiastically depending on how it went and how he took it. And you're not going to know how he took until it's over, so that's got to be awkward. Let me play what the very, very opening was and then we'll talk about how you got to deciding that should be the open.



MCHALE: Good evening, Mr. President or as Paul Ryan refers to you, yet another inner-city minority relying on the federal government to feed and house your family.


MCHALE: Now allow me to tell you a little about myself my name is Joel McHale. I'm on an NBC show called "Community."


MCHALE: That's exactly what I thought. I also host a show called "The Soup," which is on the E! network. Thank you.


MCHALE: To Republicans in attendance, E! is the channel that your deeply closeted gay son likes to watch.


MCHALE: Democrats, it's the same channel that your happy, openly gay son likes to watch.


GROSS: OK (laughter). Great opening, you know, you made some Republican jokes, you made some Democrat jokes, you made jokes about your own show, you made jokes about your own audience.


GROSS: So covered a lot of bases really quickly. Talk a little bit about the process of getting that opening and deciding that's what the open should be. And I should say, we edited that a little bit for brevity so that we could make a couple of points we wanted to get in.

MCHALE: Yeah. That opening, we kind of thought we have to hit the President quick and then explain who I was. So that was kind of the overall...

GROSS: You felt you had to explain who you were?

MCHALE: Yes, definitely. I still have to explain myself to my own family. So I still introduce myself to my 6 and 9-year-old and they go, OK, sure, all right, well, come on in. But it was - it seemed - like we knew the E! jokes would be good and we knew - I knew, 'cause "Community" has a very, very loyal audience. They're not that the biggest, you know, it's not like "The Big Bang Theory," but I knew the people in that audience were not the demographic of who watches "Community," which is mostly teenagers. So I knew the response would be very tepid. So that's why I said, that's exactly why I thought. But it's - as you said, it's the most bizarre thing I've ever done because, yes, the president is to your right and he's five feet away and he has just gone up on stage and killed.

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

MCHALE: He's terrific at telling jokes. So he actually does a very bizarre thing, which is warm up the audience, in a very - he's up there slaying it. So - and you have to get up there and follow the leader of the free world. And then when you look out - yeah - when you look out into this audience and it's the only audience I've ever been in where you - everyone looking back at you is somebody you know and is somebody recognizable. It's like being in a wax museum, where you - this is not - this is crazy. And then before that, before the most nerve-racking gig of your life, you sit with the first lady for two hours; you have a one-on-one dinner basically with the first lady. So in a - it's a strange - so then you have the first lady, who I must, I must add that she is possibly the loveliest person in the world next to my wife and I really dig her. She's as cool as they come. And so you sit there and you chat and you know in the back of your mind the whole time, we're having this conversation that, oh, yes, in an hour from now, you are going to go tell jokes for 20 minutes and if you screw this up, you will be probably dragged through the streets. So there was not one normal thing about the entire thing.

GROSS: I was wondering if you were in a way playing to your audience on Twitter as much as you were the people in the room?

MCHALE: Oh? I didn't think about that. All I kept thinking was we - this is what we literally did while we were - I would rehearse - I would do like - I would do - I would go through all the material. We went through it so many times that I annoyed the three writers. But I had one of the writers, his name’s Brad Stevens, he's a very funny guy, he would heckle me during while I was rehearsing. So he would just scream at me like, how dare you. He's a national treasure. Didn't you see "Mean Streets?" How dare you. So I would then just keep going with the jokes, I would be - I would say, I forget who - I'd be like, Hillary Clinton's daughter's going to have a baby, and he's like don't you even dare go there. How dare you. So I kind of was able to anticipate - I mean, I got used to somebody just yelling back and being offended.

BIANCULLI: Joel McHale speaking to Terry Gross in 2014. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2014 interview with Joel McHale. He stars in the sitcom "Community," once seen on NBC and now presented by Yahoo, and also hosts the E! Network clip and commentary series "The Soup."

GROSS: How did you know you wanted to act?

MCHALE: Boy, when I was an eighth grader, I kind of thought - or seventh grade - I thought, well, this is what I'm going to do. It was either trying to become a professional athlete or an actor. And after you've saw - seen how I play sports, you'd be like, OK, well, probably you should go into acting. But then in sophomore year of high school, I really had kind of an epiphany, where I went this is what I'm going to do. And I'm going to do it until somebody stops - until I have to get a real job.

And I went to college, and I probably shouldn't have. I always felt kind of like, oh, you have to have a college degree or you're not a real human being. And I kind of always had that stuck in my head. And I probably should've gone to a conservatory.

But I just never stopped doing it. I just never wasn't in a play. I did a ton of improv. And very luckily, I got onto a sketch comedy show that was on the NBC affiliate in Seattle called "Almost Live," which gave me - which was a very strange show because it was nationally syndicated through a local affiliate. I don't think it ever has happened before or again. We would bump “Saturday Night Live” to 12:05, and we got enormous ratings.

And that really taught me, oh, you can make money doing this, and someone will take you seriously doing this. And I mean, it didn't stop me from doing everything else - I mean, doing plays and things. But I just thought, like, having that - that job made so many, like, friends and family go, oh, he's not a complete yahoo. He's not a totally ne'er-do-well. So - 'cause I was actually on TV getting paid for it, which everyone was shocked by.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joel McHale. He's one of the stars of "Community" and he also hosts "The Soup."

So for "The Soup," you have to comment on all the reality shows and a lot of, like, celebrity gossip in the news. How much TV do you actually watch...

MCHALE: Well...

GROSS: ...As research or for pleasure?

MCHALE: Well, I used to watch a ton - a ton of bad television because we had no staff. And we - it was about five of us, and we had to divvy up seven days of television, 24 hours a week, of all those - of all the channels. And it got to the point where I thought I was going crazy. And my wife would be like, you've got to come to bed. And I would say, no, I've got a couple more "Extreme Makeovers: Home Edition" to catch up on.

GROSS: (Laughing).

MCHALE: So you just go ahead, hon. It was - yeah, I mean, it was very strange. Now we have 14. We 12 people plus two interns that we - everyone watches TV all the time.

GROSS: But isn't it hysterical when something like reality TV becomes your research? It's your work to watch it, and you have to watch it seriously and, like, take notes on it.

MCHALE: Right. You have to pay attention to it, which is also a form of torture. And I - now I tell my mom - I go, Mom, you know when I was a kid, and you told me to turn off the television and go outside and play? I'd be, like, you literally were hurting my career when you did that. You literally stopped me from doing what - now, what I do for a living.

And it's a strange - it's a silly job. I mean, it's the strangest job because I see it as like a 22-minute late-night monologue where we just tell jokes about all the - that's why when people go, like, so, what you think's happening with the Kardashians? I'm like, I don't - I don't know. Whatever comes down the line, we're going to tell a joke about it.

But it's bizarre. With the way television has exploded and the technology now, there are so many different channels, and there are so many different, I mean, reality shows. It is the cheapest form of television. It's cheaper than a game show. It's cheaper than renting a studio or a soundstage. You can just go out and follow insane people around. And, you know, like, all those housewife shows - they're basically putting soap operas out of business.

GROSS: So when fans see you on the street, what do they say to you, depending on whether they're "Community" fans or "Soup" fans?

MCHALE: My favorite people are like, hey, should I know you? And I go, perhaps, because I'm not - you know, I'm not like - I usually go - I usually go - they're like, I know you. I'm like, yeah, we're cousins. And they get thrown. And they go like - and I was like, yeah, we went to high school. We dated. I can't believe you didn't remember that.

And so I - you know, I'm not - you know, I don't have the problem like - you know, like someone like a Matt Damon or - I don't know - Robert Pattison. When they walk outside, they can't walk. I have no problem walking around. But - believe me - but usually, if it's a person who's 15 or between 10 and 20, it's always "Community." And if it's anybody over 25 to 50, it's always "The Soup." And then, it's - I don't know - then, its people over 80 - it's for my work aside, you know, Henry Fonda in the "Ox-Box Incident."

GROSS: (Laughing).

MCHALE: But they usually yell some phrase back to me from "The Soup." Or they yell - they yell, six seasons and a movie, which is they battle cry of "Community," which - there was a big joke in one season about how we - Abed thought this one television show was going to be on for six seasons and a movie. And I said it's not going to last three weeks. And six seasons and a movie became this hash tag on Twitter, which trends all the time. And so people will usually yell that. Or they will yell, from "The Soup" - someone will scream, so meaty. So I think this is exactly the life that I thought I would have. This is very strange. People are just yelling meaty phrases at me.

GROSS: (Laughter) Only if you pledge, I think.

MCHALE: It better be made of hemp.

BIANCULLI: Joel McHale speaking to Terry Gross in 2014. He stars in sitcom "Community," now presented by Yahoo, and hosts the satiric E! series "The Soup." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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