Community's Joel McHale on Knife Fights, Reality TV, and Filming Beware the Night with Eric Bana

Over the past few years, Joel McHale has quietly become one of the biggest names in comedy, thanks in part to his insane work ethic and deep commitment to honing his signature sarcastic wit. He has been hosting E's pop-culture highlight show The Soup since 2004 and plays ego-maniacal ex-lawyer Jeff Winger on the NBC cult comedy Community.

Photo courtesy of NBC Universal

Over the past few years, Joel McHale has quietly become one of the biggest names in comedy, thanks in part to his insane work ethic and deep commitment to honing his signature sarcastic wit. His cult following really began when he started hosting E's pop-culture highlight show The Soup back in 2004 but he continues to expand his repertoire, whether he's playing ego-maniacal ex-lawyer Jeff Winger on the NBC comedy Community or doing movies. This summer, he's branching out with two new projects: Beware the Night, an action film with Eric Bana, and Blended, a rom-com starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore. We caught up with McHale in New York City, moments before he was heading to the Bronx to work on his knife-fighting skills (seriously).

DETAILS: You've teamed with Klondike this summer for the Klondike Celebrity Challenge. If you could cover anything in chocolate and eat it, what would it be?

JOEL MCHALE: I guess fried chicken. I don't know. Maybe I should dip my wife in chocolate.

DETAILS: She might like that, if it's the right temperature.

JOEL MCHALE: It could be a horrible burn, so we'd have to make sure that's worked out beforehand…[but] ice cream and chocolate is the greatest combination of all time, I think.

DETAILS: What would a Joel McHale-flavored ice cream taste like?

JOEL MCHALE: It would taste like sarcasm.

DETAILS: A little bitter, a little jaded, but happy.

JOEL MCHALE: It's a weird, good question. I don't know what I would taste like. If you really want to get down to it, I would taste like flesh and bone. It would be disgusting. Obviously, dipping things in chocolate has gotten very adventuresome in the last few years. I don't like the whole cayenne pepper in chocolate. I can't stand it. It's like spicy beer. I hate it. We've gotten to the bottom of a lot of important stuff.

DETAILS: Speaking of important things, Community was just renewed for a fifth season.

JOEL MCHALE: I know that they're breaking stories literally as we speak. [Creator] Dan Harmon is back, and I'm thrilled for Dan's return. I am over the moon. He created the show, it's his show, he knows it. I have that same sort of feeling as when I booked the pilot.

DETAILS: What does Harmon's presence give to your performance and sense of comedy?

JOEL MCHALE: He's hilarious. If you look at those first few seasons…he can do anything. I want to make sure I honor the material in those scripts. It's like a Christmas gift when we read those scripts aloud as a group. Just packed with laughs.

DETAILS: You've played Jeff for four seasons now. How do you keep him fresh and exciting?

JOEL MCHALE: I don't sit and have a Jeff journal every day. Now that I've done it so many times, it's like riding a bike. A Jeff bike. It's not without its real challenges, but it's easier than the first year. How Dan guided the first three seasons—Jeff went through a lot. All that stuff informs how I should be when I sit in the room. And Dan's writing really guides it, too. It gives you a great map of where you're supposed to go emotionally.

DETAILS: Community has a rabid cult following. Are you cultish about anything these days?

JOEL MCHALE: For a while it was definitely Battlestar Galactica. I loved that show. Loved it. But it all comes down to food for me. Being in New York, I love restaurants. I seek them out. The problem is working until 6 A.M. and then waking up at 2 P.M. to go back to work—we don't have a ton of opportunities. I'm obsessed with finding a really great cup of coffee. Being from Seattle, I must uphold that end of our culture. I've found some great coffee places in New York. Well, I looked them up. There's Stumptown here, and that's really tremendous coffee. Blue Bottle is really good, and I really like Fika, which is relatively near my place.

DETAILS: The Soup is still going very strong. What are the most interesting aspects of American culture these days that are ripe for satire?

JOEL MCHALE: In general, the consumption of information is at a rabid level, where something happens and it's everywhere. News organizations cover the same stories that TMZ does. That really has ramped itself up in the last few years. I see The Soup as a long, late-night monologue where we comment on the pop-culture stories of the day or perhaps the week. Other than that, we're just trying to tell the best joke and make the best comment on whatever it is that happened.

DETAILS: Everybody these days is a reality star.

JOEL MCHALE: Everybody is a reality star, but everybody also becomes a former reality star. Those half-lifes are very short. The reality star is usually—and there are exceptions like the Kardashians—but they're on some show, they do something provocative in a car-wreck sort of way, and you never hear from them again. It's this consumption of "What is the next thing? What is the next thing?"

People are going on TV just to be famous, and that's obviously a pretty bad motivation. People always go, "How can you make fun of these people?" They invited cameras into their homes. They're the ones that signed the releases to be followed by camera crews. They agreed to all of this. I don't have a ton of sympathy for making fun of them, because they agreed to it.

DETAILS: I bet you don't watch a ton of reality TV in your spare time.

JOEL MCHALE: I hardly watch any TV in my spare time. I'll be up on Game of Thrones. I watched Banshee. I watched Spartacus: Blood and Sand. As far as reality shows go, I will watch, when it's on, Deadliest Catch. I like a documentary.

DETAILS: On The Soup, you dress in slim-fit suits and skinny ties. What's the off-set Joel dressing like these days?

JOEL MCHALE: In New York right now, I'd like to be wearing a special air-conditioned space suit. It's tropical here. I got these New Balance minimalist shoes that I really like because they almost have zero soles. It's like walking barefoot, but you're protected.

DETAILS: You're currently filming Beware the Night in New York. What's your character like?

JOEL MCHALE: It stars Eric Bana, and I play his partner. We're shooting in the Bronx at night. I play a crazy, ex-Army Ranger cop who transferred to the Bronx so he could have more fights. He prefers knives to tasers and guns. And he's a bit psychotic.

DETAILS: Are you good with knives?

JOEL MCHALE: I've had a knife collection since I was a boy. I love knives. I've been training in this Filipino knife-fighting style and it's mind-blowing. It's like the blades are fists. You're not trying to land this huge blow all the time, you're just trying to do these little cuts.

Mike Ayers is a New York City-based arts and entertainment writer.

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