Eye On Emmy: Joel McHale Reveals Why Community Is His 'Boyhood Fantasy Come True'

Joel McHale seems to be everywhere these days. Over the past year, he’s established himself as a respected comedian (touring the country with his standup gig); expanded his burgeoning movie career (he has three films slated for release in 2011 and spent May in Boston shooting the dark comedy Ted opposite Mark Wahlberg); and continued his run on two TV gigs, hosting E!’s weekly satirical clip-show The Soup, and starring on NBC’s buzzy sitcom Community as Jeff Winger, the acerbically charming womanizer with a proverbial heart of gold.

It is the latter that might finally garner some industry recognition for McHale in the form of a 2011 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series…

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TVLINE | Congratulations on another strong season of Community. With so many memorable episodes, is there any one you’re particularly proud of?
It’s hard not to just immediately say the paintball episode (“A Fistful of Paintballs”) because it’s like a boyhood fantasy come true — I got to shoot paintballs in a Western and get paid for it! [Laughs] But my favorite has to be one of our more obscure episodes; the My Dinner with Andre/Pulp Fiction episode (“Critical Film Studies”) was as fun and incredible as any episode yet. That it aired on television astounded [me]… Also, the hospital episode (“Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking”) where Pierce (Chevy Chase) claimed to be dying was really fun to make. In that episode everyone got to do something really cool, including [guest star] LeVar Burton, who killed it! Hell, we also hired the Seattle Symphony to do the theme for “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” — and at that moment, I couldn’t believe I was a part of this cool thing.

TVLINE | A “cool thing” might be the perfect way to describe the genre-bending style of Community. Did you ever imagine that this is the series you’d be making when you shot the pilot?
I never would have thought that in a million years. I did have a realization at Comic-Con that our audience was different than others — in the best way possible. Their response was something I’d never before witnessed… It’s not just something they turn on to get ready for The Office; they adore it. In the movie 300, the Spartans meet that other army that has way more guys, but are still undeterred. The Spartans then all scream in unison their little Marine cry, and their leader says he thinks that they truly have more soldiers. And that’s how I see our audience. Yes, that was a really long explanation [Laughs].

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TVLINE | After experiencing something like Community, do you think you could ever be happy on a more mainstream series?
I adore the show I’m on, and would watch it if I wasn’t on it! What other show has an old man taking Ecstasy and building a furniture fort? And who’s got a Dean of Students with an uncertain sexual preference, but we do know that he likes men in Dalmatian costumes? There are just things that happen in this show that speak to my funny bone.

TVLINE | While Community has received ample critical praise, industry accolades just haven’t followed suit. How would you explain that?
We have actually not been recognized by any awards shows, and I think, at least partially, we have survived by certain publications saying we’re one of the top shows on television. And for that we are hugely grateful. Even though we’re holding our own on Thursdays at 8, it’s a really rough time slot, especially when you factor in things like NFL Football during the fall, American Idol in the spring, March Madness, NBA and hockey playoffs… [Editor’s Note: Since our chat with McHale, Community has received three nominations from the Critics’ Choice Television Awards.]

TVLINE | What are your thoughts on modern day Emmy campaigning? Is it something you and your castmates discuss?
I think Hollywood has always been a talent show, as well as a popularity contest — it’s like high school in that way. It’s not the worst thing, but you do have to be out there to be recognized for what you’re doing. It’s just how it is. You can’t think about things like awards nominations when you’re making a show. It’s an enormous effort and we do put in a lot of hours, but there’s never been a time where we’ve said, ‘Hey, we work so hard [we] should get recognized!’ [Laughs] That said, to get a nomination as a cast as a whole, I would build my own clip reel and walk it around Hollywood to show people.

TVLINE | Here’s a challenge for you: How would you objectively assess Community’s Emmy worthiness?
As I look at the landscape of television, there are more really good shows then there have ever been, and people seem to think that we are at least somewhat kind of in that category — and I’ll take that any day of the week… I’ve been told our audience skews young, which is good, and also that older people don’t understand the show, which is something else… But I just try to illuminate [creator] Dan Harmon and the writers’ jokes. [If] we don’t get nominated again this year for anything, but we continue to get the critical acclaim, I’ll be very happy. As long as Jimmy Fallon will let me do another [Emmys] opening dance number with him, I’m feeling pretty good. [Laughs]

TVLINE | So, obviously you’re relaxed when it comes to performing at the Emmys, but how will the nerves be come the morning of nomination announcements?
I don’t think a lot about it because there’s nothing you can do. The category I have been mentioned in — Leading Male in a Comedy — is actually a tiny pool to choose from compared to co-stars or what people deem as co-stars [but] our show is not about [my character] Jeff Winger; Jeff Winger is a jumping off point, and the reason [in the story] why the group has come together. But I truly believe it’s an ensemble cast, and in a weird way I would say that everyone should be nominated for a lead because the storylines really flip around. If we get nominated, yay! I will definitely show up and hopefully get a free tuxedo out of it. But I truly am more happy that we’re just on and were picked up for a third season.

TVLINE | One thing you haven’t spoken much about was your decision to continue doing The Soup. I only mention it because it’s a bit unconventional for a man with a successful network sitcom to stick around as host of a basic-cable series too.
I want to take the George Clooney career model — and if I looked 10 percent as good as he does, maybe I’d be better in movies. [Laughs] But he stayed on ER until he was an established movie star, and then he left. I just love doing The Soup, so that really made my decision an easy one. Thanks to E! and [their former president] Ted Harbert, [they] made it possible to shoot both shows. Community accommodated it as well. So, A) I love it and B) they made it easy for me to do it.

TVLINE | Say the dream comes true and you get an Emmy nod — how do you see that playing out? Are you an acceptance speech-prepared kind of guy? Or will you just wing it?
Well, first there will definitely be a lot of manscaping. A ton of that. I don’t want there to be any errant hairs [Laughs]. And I would probably write down the people I should thank, because I’m sure I would end up forgetting someone otherwise… [But] my guess is that I would then forget that piece of paper, so I’d ask someone else for their piece of paper, and then I would read that aloud… Ultimately accepting Best Actress for Nurse Jackie