Joel McHale Talks ‘Community,’ Moving to Multi-Camera in ‘Great Indoors’ and Playing Chevy Chase

Joel McHale The Great Indoors Interview
Art Streiber for Variety

Joel McHale is just settling in on “The Great Indoors.” He has taped the second episode of the new CBS multi-camera sitcom and is prepping to film the third, and his dressing room on the CBS Radford lot in Studio City is still sparse. There’s a couch, a chair, a few books.

It’s a little early to make it a home. “The Great Indoors” won’t premiere in its Thursday timeslot, post-“The Big Bang Theory,” until Oct. 27 (two days after the release of his comedic memoir “Thanks For the Money”), and though that’s one of TV’s most coveted slots, there’s no guarantee of success.

McHale, whose cult-favorite series “Community” was on the verge of cancellation for five seasons at NBC (and earned one more season anchoring the ill-fated streaming slate at Yahoo), knows that all too well. But he’s placing his bets on the broad appeal of CBS, the vision of creator Mike Gibbons (“The Late Late Show with James Corden”), and a promising cast that includes one of his idols, Stephen Fry.

Were you looking to get back into TV so quickly?
You mean make money for my family? We stopped shooting “Community” a year and a half ago. I haven’t been acting consistently, other than guest stuff and movies here and there. I’ve been reading tons of stuff, and “Great Indoors” popped out because its world was so different. CBS has obviously done pretty well for itself in the last 15 years. They have been so effusive about marketing, and giving us a proper shot at a great time slot. It’s really mine to f— up. Or I can blame the rest of the cast. Or the writers.

How much multi-camera experience have you had?
My second job in LA was a small part on “Will & Grace.” They were looking for actors over 6’ 7″ and I lied. I’m 6’4″ and I wore high-heeled boots. I got the part. That was multi-cam experience, and after that it was [a guest spot last season on] “Dr. Ken.” That was just an afternoon screwing around with Ken [Jeong].

Those years between “Will & Grace” and now are when multi-cam entered a bit of a decline.
Right after “Will & Grace” there was less being ordered, but then it felt like a sh– ton were ordered. “The Big Bang Theory” is the most popular comedy in the history of the world at this point. And “Two and a Half Men.” Obviously, they’re both CBS. People talk about the format going away, but it’s more other formats entered the arena as well. Some formats became more chic, but you look at Jerrod Carmichael [and “The Carmichael Show”] on NBC. Nobody is going, “Hey, that’s not cool.” Nobody’s saying that. Because it’s cool.

So there’s no concern if “The Great Indoors” is seen by some as less “cool” than “Community”?
I think people get hung up on the format first in the last few years. You still love watching every episode of “Seinfeld.” You still love watching every episode of “Cheers.” And I know tons of young people watching those shows. When I talk to a 13-year-old who has seen every episode of “Seinfeld,” it’s like me watching Monty Python. I didn’t think, “this is dated,” at all. If you look at the way television has gone, there are so many choices, so many formats. Right now I think one of the funniest shows on TV is “The Amazing World of Gumball,” a kids show on Cartoon Network. I had a conversation with Conan O’Brien who said it was one of the funniest shows he’d ever seen. “Clarence” on Cartoon Network too. They are remarkable in how funny they are, and they never would’ve existed before cable. I think there are more choices, so people think [multi-cam] has declined. But I disagree.

Looking back, how was the experience of making “Community” on Yahoo?
Dan [Harmon] was back, and it was as fun and good as ever. Every script I was happy to be a part of. Yahoo intensely supported us and promoted the show, but clearly the whole streaming part didn’t work as well as they probably hoped. I’m not sure what happened. But as far as the episodes, we were as proud of them as anything — a number of the cast members say it’s the funniest season we ever did. And we swore a couple times. And there weren’t people saying, “You can’t use that bag of chips with a name on it.”

“CBS has been so effusive about marketing and giving us a proper shot at a great time slot. It’s really mine to f— up. Or I can blame the rest of the cast. Or the writers.”
Joel McHale

Was there ever any indication from Yahoo about how the show was doing?
I don’t know how many people saw it. Clearly it didn’t put the streaming service on the map. I’m not sure how it went down, but when it was first going, they were very happy. And then it was, “The whole streaming service is going away.” I think someone said we brought down the streaming service, and I thought, “Wow, I have so much power.” It could not have been a better experience. I know a lot of people didn’t see it, but I encourage people to see it.

Do you think they had the right strategy for the release?
They tried a different tack by putting one episode up a week. My whole thing is, I don’t think Netflix was an overnight success. Obviously Yahoo had many other issues. But I can’t imagine Netflix’s first year of streaming was like, “We’ve made half a billion dollars, we’re doing great guys!” When you’re putting out that much money to make original programming it’s like putting out 30 miles of fishing line. That’s expensive and time-consuming and you have to pay a lot of people to do it, but it takes a couple of hauls to see if it’s working. Obviously Netflix had the patience and it’s really working now. But I can’t imagine the first couple of years was printing money.

Fans are still waiting for the other half of #SixSeasonsAndaMovie. Is a movie possible?
We would all love to do a movie. We’d probably have to shoot in Atlanta because of Donald [Glover]’s show, but I love those people. They’re lifelong friends. We still get together for dinners, and it’s like we never left off.

After all those years of “Community” competing against “The Big Bang Theory” on Thursday nights, how did it feel to find out they were your lead-in for the new show?
Exhilarating. I hugged every executive I could find, and they were like, “Joel, please calm down, this is the upfront.” CBS really knows how to launch comedies, and they have a marketing machine that is terrifyingly wonderful. I think it’ll give us the best shot at success we can have in this first season. Hopefully I won’t f— it up.

Do you feel like it’s a good fit with “Big Bang”?
If you had said, “‘Cheers’ goes perfectly with ‘Family Ties,’ and you definitely want to go with ‘Night Court’ after that…” I don’t know the chemical solution for making shows work together one right after another, but it does feel like, “Hey, on ‘The Big Bang Theory’ they talk about the things young people talk about and so do we! This must hold everybody over!” I think so, but all I know is what we’ve been doing seems to be funny. If it’s making people laugh, hopefully that means it’s working.

You know from “Community” that signing on for a show can mean six years of your life. Was there anything you needed to find out to help you make that decision?
I met with the CBS executives, but I didn’t ask “What’s your five-year plan?” I didn’t do that with “Community.” I didn’t do that with any of the pilots I was on. All you can do is go with your gut as a performer. I think it’s interesting, I think it’ll work. I hope I’m right, but I might not be. From early on, I was well-trained to count on things not happening. There’s always so much disappointment as an actor, unless you’re Channing Tatum. You end up not getting most of the jobs you want, and then you get some. With all the pilots I’ve done I have a thick skin. I’m definitely not spending the money I’d make three years from now. You have to be very realistic. You could be a hit, but hits are very rare. When I hear people say, “If I could just get a ‘Big Bang Theory,’” I think, “Yeah, if you could hit a grand slam twice in Yankee Stadium during a game, that would be great.”

You’re playing your “Community” co-star Chevy Chase in “A Futile & Stupid Gesture,” the movie about National Lampoon co-founder Doug Kenney. Did your history with Chevy help you get the job?
David Wain, the director, wanted to meet with me. I am the right size to play Chevy, we’re the same height. And obviously I did know Chevy. To David Wain’s credit he gave me the role without seeing me do anything. I know A-list stars get to enjoy that luxury every day, but when it came to something as specific as playing Chevy I was like, “You don’t even know if I can do this?” He was totally cool and hopefully happy. I called Chevy to warn him and let him know. We had a really good conversation. We talked about Doug Kenney and how they were friends. He was happy the movie is being made. It portrays the 1977 Chevy, when he was the king of the world.

Did you use Chevy as a resource after that conversation?
No, I was more studying old Chevy. No one’s doing an impression in the movie. It’s more the spirit of the person. Chevy was the most confident person on the planet and I would’ve been too in his position. You’re not gonna be like, “Gosh, he nailed that Chevy Chase impression!” It’s not what the movie is.

What happened with “The Soup”?
How can I say this? Once the show got moved to Wednesday nights and they stopped rerunning it, because E! does a ton of reruns of their shows, the ratings weren’t as good. That was kind of it. We stayed on for a few years — and with this Ryan Lochte stuff going on my Twitter has exploded — but that was pretty much the end of it.

Did any of the jokes and swipes at E! take a toll over time?
When Ted Harbert was president, he couldn’t have encouraged it more. He agreed if we couldn’t make fun of ourselves — the network, “The Soup” itself — it wouldn’t make sense to anybody. I can’t imagine, and there’s no way to determine it, that we ever put any show out of business. The “Real Housewives” shows could not be bigger. The Kardashians are still going. I don’t think anyone said, “You took down ‘Being Bobby Brown!’” We only gave it more press.

Do you miss the opportunity for that kind of pop culture satire?
I loved doing it. Now I do standup almost every weekend, and that’s a great way to get out there. I never stop talking about it. Now with Ryan Lochte, and Caitlyn getting canceled, there’s all sorts of material. And I’m still hosting stuff. If I didn’t have “The Soup,” I wouldn’t have gotten the White House Correspondents Dinner. I’m the luckiest person on the planet. Well, not the luckiest. That’s Roger Federer. He doesn’t work hard at all.

What are your favorite comedies on TV right now?
Anything my kids watch. I watch John Oliver’s show. I watched Gillian [Jacobs’ Netflix] show, “Love.” But I don’t really watch a lot of TV. I watched so much reality television [for “The Soup”] that I don’t know if I can ever watch it again without a tic. I don’t have time to sit down at night. I’m bragging at this point, but I have a pile of videogames unopened that are collecting dust. I still haven’t caught up on “Tom Clancy’s The Division.” And this is videogames. When I’m doing dishes I watch “Forensic Files” on HLN. I saw Mike Birbiglia’s “Don’t Think Twice” last week. That was the first time I’d gone to a movie theater and paid for a movie in two years. I watch “Game of Thrones.” I don’t watch much comedy. That sounds terrible. Sorry, all my friends on comedies.

Star Turns
“Community” wrapped its run on Yahoo last year, but McHale hasn’t stopped working, with a lineup of guest roles.
The X-Files (2015)
He played conservative radio show host Ted O’Malley.
BoJack Horsman (2015)
He voiced a coma survivor.
Difficult People (2016)
He guest-starred as a personal trainer.
Dr. Ken (2016)
He reunited with his “Community” co-star Danny Pudi as a malpractice lawyer.