“Ninety percent of everything on television sucks and 10 percent has never been better,” says the endearingly snarky comedian Joel McHale. And with his feetplanted firmly on both sides of the quality divide, he’d know best. The quip-spewer skewers the 90 percent as host of E!’s reality TV mockfest The Soup, a gig he’s held for five years and has no plans to give up. “There’s never going to be a lack of material,” he says. “Not as long as Bret Michaels does another show.” He balances out the primetime offal by playing the leading man on a 10-percent production, NBC’s uproarious Community.
Joining McHale on the ensemble sitcom is Gillian Jacobs, who matches him jibe for knowing jibe as the Diane to McHale’s Sam, a committed and equal partner in flirt. The actress brings a unique, appealing edge to the part—what she describes as “a strange combination of vulnerability and protective exterior”—that has McHale’s character, and audiences, hooked. Jacobs, who has played her share of drug-addled bad girls and damsels in distress in fringe films such as Choke and The Box, has got a comedic gold standard, an amalgam of Claudette Colbert and Lucille Ball, that sums up what makes Community so damn good. “It’s dry, smart and cerebral,” she says. “But also really silly.”
BlackBook: So I know a little bit about your background but why don’t tell me a little about yourself. Joel McHale: Why don’t you tell me what you looked up on Wikipedia!
Do you know why you’re here? I have no idea.
It’s all about who we think in Hollywood could be online predators, and you’re number the number one candidate. That I would be a predator?
Yeah, we think you’d be a great online predator! Like a pedophile?
No, not just it’s not just pedophiles but about people that creep on the internet. I wish I had time to creep on the internet. You mean like stalking young women or…?
Chatting, chatting young women. I’ve never been in a chat room in my life.
What, are you faxing these women? I stalk the MSNBC website or the BBC website…
Oh, that’s so erudite. Look at you! Okay, what it’s actually on is called The New Regime and it’s about new emerging talent. The New Emerging Predators.
So let’s talk about Community and being on a TV show with lines. Tell me about the big difference between doing The Soup and doing Community. Well, the budget is definitely different and there’s free food, a lot of which is terrific. It’s night and day. The Soup is one camera and a curtain.
And a couple people laughing it up! We get about 60 or 70 people in there but we never mic them and we never show them because the studio is not rated for an audience, no joke. But it really is fun for me because it helps me gauge how the jokes are landing. And the reason why I did The Soup, which started five years ago when Gillian was 17, was, I was here for about three and half years doing commercials, wanting to get into those audition rooms for the bigger roles and it is really difficult to get in them. And I thought that if I did The Soup it would do for me what it did for Greg Kinnear. Here we are now, five years after that and I’ve done some pilots that never really went anywhere, but this one is so incredibly well written and directed. It’s like shooting a movie every week. It’s like a dream come true. It’ll all fall apart, I’ll get struck by lightening.
How do you define the sensibility of the NBC shows, like Community and The Office and Parks and Recreation? What I compare Community to is Cheers or Mash. It’s a bunch of people who chose to be somewhere but they don’t necessarily want to be there. They’re all on different paths and they’re all crossing in different weird ways and they’re all there for reasons that are introduced in the pilot. Some people didn’t do well in high school, other people are finally going back to school and getting their education, and then my character is the only one that’s kind of different, kind of out there. He never got a degree and lied about it. But they’re this group of people that didn’t want to be together but ended up really liking each other.
Is there something about the writing that’s unique? Well, I know that the writing is the best writing I’ve ever worked with. [Show creator] Dan Harmon’s a genius. He created this show years back called Heat Vision and Jack which was the most famous unpicked up pilot ever. It starred Jack Black. He wrote that and it was with Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and Ron Silver. I just trust him implicitly with everything and he has the vision and the passion and as far as the acting and the characters, I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a finer group of people.
How is it working with Chevy Chase? He is an icon and a legend. I can quote back Fletch or Caddyshack. It’s part of my lexicon. So I go, “I feel like a hundred dollars.” I’m like, “Oh, that’s you…you said that…on camera years ago and it was recorded and I watched it many times.” It’s crazy. Then you’ve got Ken Jeong from The Hangover…
Is he really a doctor? That’s what people say Twelve years he was a doctor.
What other projects do you have your fingers in? My main goal is to be good in what I think is a high quality comedy, to be good in that and focus on that. And I’m still doing The Soup and that’s an easy hang now because we’ve been doing it for so long. There will be no lack of material ever. That’s my main goal, making sure this is great and that I do my job well. As far as movies go, there’s always talk. I don’t have anything on the books or anything but my main goal is to make Community good.
As someone who has done The Soup for five years, what’s your assessment of where we’re going with this? If you were to tell me like five years ago that two of the most popular shows on TV were going to be an amateur singing contest and an amateur dance contest and that Jerry Springer was no longer really going to have any relevance, I couldn’t have imagined that. Well, the world would have to move on from Springer at some point. He’s still on but it’s now a parody of itself. I think the fracturing of television will continue to just explode. I think that reality TV will always be there because it’s the cheapest form of television to make and people will watch it. There are some really good reality TV shows like Dirty Jobs or Bizarre Foods or Deadliest Catch but we’ve always said on The Soup that 90% of everything on television sucks, 90% of all art sucks, and 10% couldn’t be better. Things like Mad Men or Battlestar Galactica or Lost are of the highest quality TV has ever been. And some of the comedies on television, I think are the best being made now. I think Flight of the Concords and South Park are amazing. There needs to be this huge ball of crap for the 10% to be great. I think there are very few original thinkers that are good enough business people to convert their work into something that people see. Most else is just junk. On The Soup we point how crazy some of these shows are. I mean Tyra is going to have a colonic on her show today.
What would you say is the bottom of that 90% in terms of reality programming? There is some highly engaging crap. Look at Flava Flav’s run over the past fours years. That was crazy. It’s watchable television. It’s like a car wreck. If it’s on one side of the highway it still slows down traffic on the other side. You look at it because it’s different and it’s fascinating to watch this thing fall apart. You want to watch a building explode. If someone is going to fill a building with dynamite you want to watch. So, those are the sorts of things, while highly engaging are ultimately bad.
It feels like with all the great comedies on TV and Judd Apatow, comedy has really been revitalized. But when was it stale?
The mid 90s was pretty tough American comedy wise. That’s when Friends was in its heyday and comedy has never been more popular. That’s also when Larry Sander’s show was on. I think it’s like when people say, “Now that grunge music is dead, music sucks.” Comedy always reinvents itself, there are always creative people out there making it. I’m not saying Friends was the best show on television. And there are great, hilarious movies being made right now, obviously, as evidence by the great, hilarious movies being made. But I think they were also there in the mid 90s.
But do you think something about the sensibility has changed? It’s more cinematic than ever. Romantic comedies were always shot as movies and without laugh tracks and they’re some of the most wildly popular things made. So I think television has never been more cinematic as far as comedies are concerned.
It also seems like they are embracing being a little more cerebral. Not that the ratings would reflect it. You look at something like 30 Rock and it doesn’t rate just as well as you’d think it should.
“I hate Two and Half Men,” just say it. Well, Two and Half Men is the number one comedy in the country. Meaning… I don’t know why that is. When Monty Python was in it’s heyday, Benny Hill was still way more popular. Comedy is such a taste thing. Comedy like 30 Rock and The Office you have to pay attention to. That’s why reality TV is so popular because you don’t have to be fully engaged to appreciate it.
Do you think that network TV is doing riskier things then it used to? The competition is so fierce so they are willing to go further. It’s not that it’s dirty or risque, it’s just that they’re doing things that are more out there. And I think that NBC does that more than anyone else next to HBO. If you look up the lineup of shows on Thursday night, it’s not in any way a traditional line up.
BlackBook: What was your first big role? Gillian Jacobs: In third grade they did a ballet version of The Steadfast Toy Solider and I had the only acting part in it and I basically had to pretend to be asleep for most of it, on this bed that was just a hard piece of foam. That was my first experience and then I did that and went to Julliard and did a lot of theater there and when I graduated I started doing movies.
What was one of your favorite pieces you did a Julliard? One of my favorite pieces was actually a little hint as to where my career was going to go. I was playing a cracked out street prostitute in a piece called In a Radio We’d All be Kings. I did this play and I thought it was so crazy and I’m never going to get a chance to do this again, this is so far from who I am. Then I played like three roles that were identical.
What do you think it is about you that keeps bringing you that part? I think it’s because I was so excited about it. I wasn’t sure that I could pull it off. I think people started to see me in that way, in that role. I think it’s also because I wasn’t afraid of a part like that where you have to do all of these difficult things. I just wasn’t afraid of it—I learned how to snort fake heroin and stuff.
When you’re doing the “lady of the night” role, what do you think you do wrong and what do you do right? I don’t know what I did right other than having this strange combination of vulnerability and a really tough protected exterior. These girls have a lot of defense mechanisms. These girls don’t go through every day of their lives sobbing. They’re just trying to get though, but they inevitably have a moment where they break down. So I think that combination is really important. I also read an acting book that literally described what it was like to be on heroin. So I think I just followed that! They were like “first you feel like you are flooded with warts and then it feels like cotton balls are in your toes,” and what not. So I was like, “Ok I got it!” Then you just have to figure out who that character is specifically. You can’t just play a stripper or a prostitute. You have to figure out why that person is where they are and how they ended up there. At a certain point I was like why do people think I can do this? What is it about them? It’ s a really fun challenge thought so I’m happy to have that part.
Tell me about the show and how you’re enjoying it. Well it’s great because I hadn’t had a chance to do a lot of comedy before this. When I read the script I thought it was one of the smartest, funniest scripts. I literally laughed out loud. I love those other NBC comedies like The Office and 30 Rock, so I was really excited to be part of that night.
What do you like about those shows? It’s my sense of humor. It’s sly, smart, but also very cerebral mixed with slapstick humor. Dan Harmon who created our show writes some of the most complex sentences I’ve ever had to speak—really smart writing –but then we’ll do like Chevy falling over in a chair.
What’s it like working with Chevy? He’s great. I feel like he’s my dad. He’s got three daughters around my age. He’s hilarious and you just don’t know what the hell is going to come out of his mouth. You can’t even believe the people he knows, and he’s just a master of physical comedy.
And working with Joel? I mean, you’ve seen what he’s like. Terrible, horrible. No I loved him on The Soup before I knew him on the show. He’s so funny and down to earth. He’s like that sickening combination of a well-adjusted jock. 6’4”, married, two kids. It’s like it’s too much for one person, but he’s actually that good. He played football in college. Everything just comes naturally to Joel McHale. Which is great for our show.
What would you say is the biggest challenge of working in TV? It never ends. When you work on a movie you usually have an end-date in sight, but with TV you show up the next week and have a new episode. You’ve always working. You have to be quicker about your decision-making. There’s not as much room to be self-critical because you just have to keep going. The hours and the pace of it are the hardest thing about it.
How has it been, doing comedy? I just try to say the line correctly. I just try to remember all the clauses in the line that Dan Harmon writes. I don’t know what I’m doing. So I just try to say the lines well. I guess really good comedy comes from some sort of truthful place. You’ve got to play to the circumstances of the character. I think just feeling confident and getting through the line and hitting your mark. Don’t be too self-conscious. One thing I really like about Tina Fey on 30 Rock and my character on the show is that they start from a really rational place, but sometimes where their logic takes them gets out of control. I love that the characters are all really strong, smart women who also really silly and absurd at the same time.
Jacobs wears dress by Grai. Shoes by Aldo. McHale wears shirt, tuxedo and bowtie by Dolce & Gabbana. Shoes by Esquivel. Photography by Randall Slavin. Styling by Jewels. Hair for Jacobs by John D @ The Magnet Agency. Makeup for Jacobs by Kara Yoshimoto Bua using Chanel. Grooming for Mchale Lauren Kay Cohen using Lancôme Men. Production by Sara Pine @ Creative 24.