How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? Snark, Snark, Snark

By Larry Getlen

“The Soup” host Joel McHale brings his biting take on celebrities to Carnegie Hall as part of the New York Comedy Festival. Larry Getlen talks to the rising star about reality TV; his hit NBC sitcom, “Community”; and the surreal nature of his rapid ascent.

Illustration by Chris Kalb

Illustration by Chris Kalb

Unlike many stand-up comedians who’ll grace New York stages for this year’s New York Comedy Festival, which takes place November 3-7 at clubs and theaters throughout the city (www.nycomedyfestival.com for more info), Joel McHale didn’t cut his teeth at open mics and bringer shows, and through years of soul-crushing road work. McHale, therefore, is stunned at the prospect of headlining Carnegie Hall for the fest, as he will on Friday, November 5.

“I feel like I tricked everyone, and there’s been some horrible mistake,” says McHale, who calls City Scoops from Austin, Texas, where he just began filming “Spy Kids 4” opposite Jessica Alba, his first leading role in a major film.

“I just pretend that someone else is gonna go on who’s got talent. I feel like at some point I’m gonna get offstage, and someone else who’s really good is gonna come out.”

If the popular host of “The Soup” and star of NBC’s “Community” is a relative newbie in the stand-up comedy world — he’s been doing it for about two or three years — that’s not to say the festival headliner didn’t pay his performing dues in other areas.

McHale began acting in grade school, and was a member of a comedy improv troupe in college that landed a show on Comedy Central called “Almost Live.”

“It was all Northwest-centric jokes, so people in Florida probably had no idea what we were talking about,” says McHale, who grew up in Seattle. “But that was the show where I learned how to be on camera.”

After “Almost Live,” McHale got his master’s degree in acting from the University of Washington. At the time, he had no specific desire for a life in comedy.

“I just wanted to be a well-rounded actor, whether it was comic or dramatic,” he says. “It was important for me to do both, so in graduate school I got to do all those things. It’s like a lab where you can do anything and really screw up, and not as many people will see you.”

McHale moved to Los Angeles in 2000 to pursue acting, earning one-off dramatic roles on shows such as “The Fugitive” and “Diagnosis Murder.” At the time, he banged around from audition to audition, struggling to even get an agent.

On the set of “The Soup” - McHale with “Breaking Bad” Emmy-winner Aaron Paul. Photo: Brandon Hickman/E! Network.

On the set of “The Soup” - McHale with “Breaking Bad” Emmy-winner Aaron Paul. Photo: Brandon Hickman/E! Network.

One of these auditions was for a ridiculously named pilot called “The ‘What The…’ Awards,” which aimed to take a humorous, dissembling look at pop culture.

“They were looking for [someone with] a distinct point of view to make fun of celebrity news and reality shows, and I have always been very opinionated about television,” he says. “They gave me jokes to read off a teleprompter. Some were great, some I rewrote and added stuff to, and I also improvised. It was a combination of things.”

After a long audition process — “not because they were searching so hard,” he says, “just because it wasn’t a big priority” — the show was picked up by the E! channel. The network’s then-president ditched the silly name, and, capitalizing on the popularity of the network’s early “Talk Soup” franchise, christened the show, “The Soup.”

A half-hour weekly show trashing talk and reality programming, “The Soup” became a big hit for E!. McHale, meanwhile, became a star for his withering takedowns of TV’s absurd and pretentious celebutards, from Tyra Banks to Heidi & Spencer to Kim Kardashian, who he consistently introduces as the girl who’s “famous for having a big ass and a sex tape.” Talk and reality stars have come to not just expect a Soup skewering, but to consider it a sign that they’ve arrived.

“Every single reality star I’ve ever met has said, ‘Please keep making fun of me. I love it.’ And I’ve said horrible things about people,” says McHale, who counts Wendy Williams and Regis Philbin, both often the butt of his jokes, among his admirers. “And almost all of them ask to be on the show.”

It’s almost surprising how few enemies he’s made from his comments — although Tyra Banks, a frequent target, is reportedly not a fan — and even more surprising how many gladly volunteer for their abuse.

“Stephanie Pratt has now appeared [on the show] more than anybody else,” he says of the costar of “The Hills.” “We have a segment called, ‘Stephanie Pratt, Unlikely Voice of Reason.’ We make fun of ‘Laguna Beach’ and “The Hills’ all over the place, and she’s terrific — a really great sport. We direct message each other on Twitter.”

As his popularity grew along with the show’s, it was suggested that he take his burgeoning celebrity out on the road and onto the stage.

“After ‘The Soup’ developed a healthy following,” he says, “my agent said, ‘If you put together a bunch of jokes, you can take this on the road and make a bunch of money.’ And I was like, ‘Really, how much?’ And he was like, ‘This much.” And I said, ‘That’s insane.’”

Motivation in place, then, McHale learned the craft of stand-up by emceeing shows featuring more experienced comics.

“I’ve done a lot of stage time [as an actor], but obviously stand-up is its own crazy beast,” he says. “I brought my friends with me who were really good stand-ups, and I hosted the show, and I would do material in between their acts to work it out. In the last 21/2 years, I’ve basically gone out every single weekend and done shows.”

Given this unusual route, McHale has been spared some of the more burdensome aspects of the stand-up comedy life.

From “The Informant!” (l-r) — Scott Bakula, McHale, Matt Damon. Photo: Claudette Barius

From “The Informant!” (l-r) — Scott Bakula, McHale, Matt Damon. Photo: Claudette Barius

“I didn’t have the same sort of experience as most comics,” he says. “When they walk into a room, most people are like, ‘Make me laugh, asshole.’ Whereas most of the people coming to my shows are ‘Soup’ fans. They know what I’m probably going to talk about in advance. So my experience has been very different.”

While McHale has also done other projects, such as roles in films like “Spider-Man 2” and “The Informant!,” the highly acclaimed NBC sitcom “Community” has brought him to a much wider audience. On “Community,” now in its second season, McHale plays Jeff Winger, a lawyer whose license was revoked because it was from Colombia — the country, not the college. So, he returns to community college to finally get his degree.

The show began strong on character, but by the end of its first season it had evolved into a broad, surreal masterpiece of physical comedy, exemplified by an episode where a paintball war on campus becomes “Mad Max” redux, a maelstrom of apocalyptic hilarity.

One advantage to a wilder show is that crazier premises can be great fun to film.

A scene from “Community” (l-r) — Gillian Jacobs, Chevy Chase, Dunny Pudi, McHale. Photo: Chris Haston/NBC

A scene from “Community” (l-r) — Gillian Jacobs, Chevy Chase, Dunny Pudi, McHale. Photo: Chris Haston/NBC

“The paintball episode was like I had won some auction item where they go, ‘You get to be an action hero for 20 minutes.’ I got to live the boyhood dream of being in an action movie, which was really a half-hour of comedy.”

Now that he stars in two popular shows — one on a major network — McHale’s star is climbing. This was best exemplified by his inclusion in the opening number of this year’s Emmy’s, where Jimmy Fallon led him, Tina Fey, Jon Hamm from “Mad Men,” Jorge Garcia from “Lost,” and the cast of “Glee” in a rousing dance version of “Born to Run.”

“Jimmy Fallon asked me to be in it, and I thought, how many people cancelled before they got to me,” he says. “It all happened very quickly. The moment before we began dancing onstage, I was as nervous as I’ve been in a very long time. I’ve never danced in front of people. But once it started going, I have never had so much fun.”

Considering that dancing onstage was out of the comfort zone of most of the performers, McHale was not the only one struggling with nerves.

“The bizarre and hilarious thing for me was right before we went out, we had a half-hour to kill. We were all in the dressing room, Tina Fey and Jon Hamm and Jorge and Randy Jackson, and we’re like, ‘Hey, we should probably run this a few times.’ It took me back to junior high, when we were like, ‘We need to run the number from ‘Small World’ again.’ It came down to a bunch of people who were afraid they were going to forget their dance moves.”

McHale also recently filmed a romantic comedy starring Anna Faris called “What’s Your Number?” and “The Big Year” starring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black, where he and Kevin Pollack play Martin’s business partners.

Joel McHale photographed by Frank Ockenfels

Joel McHale photographed by Frank Ockenfels

While playing opposite Martin was just one more sign of his rising status in Hollywood, McHale speaks of it — as with much of his success to this point — with the sort of awe one would expect from a little kid who snuck onto the set and expects to be booted at any moment.

“You know that phrase, ‘You should never meet your heroes, you’ll be disappointed.’ It’s the exact opposite with Steve Martin,” he says. “He’s just a terrific person — a renaissance man who’s truly curious about life. He doesn’t hold court like celebrities feel entitled to. He genuinely feels curious and asks questions.”

As enthused as he is for all his current endeavors, perhaps none is more stunning than his headlining of Carnegie Hall for this year’s New York Comedy Festival. As if lead movie roles, hit sitcoms, and acting opposite his idols wasn’t enough, McHale is still coming to terms with — and greatly looking forward to — headlining one of the most prestigious venues on the planet.

“I didn’t start doing stand-up until two, three years ago, so it’s an unbelievable honor,” he says. “I jumped at the chance. I’m absolutely giddy with excitement.”

Other headline acts at this year’s New York Comedy Festival include Louis C.K., Aziz Ansari, Adam Carolla, Margaret Cho, Rosie O’Donnell, Gabriel Iglesias, and more. For a full schedule or to purchase tickets, go to www.nycomedyfestival.com.

Larry Getlen is the Editor-in-Chief of City Scoops Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/larrygetlen.

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