Joel McHale Looks to Make Waves in His Jump From 'Community' to CBS' 'The Great Indoors'

'The Great Indoors' star talks to THR about planning his post-'Community' and 'The Soup' career, his new book and advice from Neil Patrick Harris.
Monty Brinton/CBS
'The Great Indoors'

Just as he’s about to begin his interview, Joel McHale leans in toward the recorder set in front of him and says, “I want to compliment you on using the oldest recording device in the world. For God’s sake, man, where is your phone?”

The caustic comment certainly makes sense, given that McHale has made a name for himself as a caustic community college student in Community and as a caustic talk show host with The Soup. But just when you think you know what to expect from him, though, he smiles warmly and grabs his phone to proudly show off a picture of his son cuddling with a raccoon that had recently appeared on his new CBS series, The Great Indoors.

“That’s Joel,” says his Great Indoors co-star, Christopher Mintz-Plasse. “He loves to jab a little, to get a sense of who you are. But he doesn’t mean any of it. Sometimes he can be super kind and sometimes insulting, but he’s a good person who’d never truly offend you.”

It hasn’t been easy to spot that sentimentality with Community or The Soup. However, with The Great Indoors, McHale finally gets to play the adult in the room. He’s Jack Gordon, a globetrotting journalist who returns from his latest adventure only to find that the magazine he writes for has gone digital and he must now supervise a staff of gadget-obsessed millennials.

“After I read the pilot script, I instantly thought this was something I could do,” explains McHale. “It’s a generational comedy set in a workplace with Gen X and millennials and baby boomers. I’ve always wanted to do a multicam comedy and CBS does those like nobody else. I have no idea how people are going to receive it, but I do know the cast is super funny. The creator, Mike Gibbons, has created this really cool world that everyone can relate to.”

He’d appeared only twice before on a four-camera comedy — a Will & Grace role 15 years ago and a recent cameo on Dr. Ken — but has long wanted to star in one of his own. The process of performing in front of a sitcom audience is “phenomenal, and a lot different from doing The Soup in front of an audience," he says. "That was basically me doing a 22-minute monologue filled with late-night jokes. With Great Indoors, we’re doing an entire play every week. That lets me keep finding what’s going to make each scene funnier.”

Many of those jokes stem from the generation gap between the show’s tech-savvy millennial crowd (including Mintz-Plasse, Christine Ko and Shaun Brown), a Gen X-er boss (McHale) and a baby boomer publisher (legendary British comic Stephen Fry) That comedic tension is representative of what McHale calls “the reality that’s occurring now out in the world.” He says he’s heard from friends of his who’ve seen the pilot and tell him “what we’re showing is happening to them in their offices.” That’s a dynamic that is echoed on the set, especially given that McHale has discovered “there’s a bigger age gap between me and this cast than there was with the Community cast.”

That age difference has turned McHale into a bit of a mentor for his young co-stars, just like his character tries to be for his staff. Says Mintz-Plasse, “He’s so caring about making the show the best it can be. All of us are learning from him. My favorite lesson is to never complain about anything. I see how hard he works to make every joke funnier, no matter how long the days or how hot the lights are. Joel is the one who reminds us our jobs are so amazing, so we need to learn how to be grateful.”

He may not talk about it a lot, but that gratitude is something that McHale practices on a regular basis.

“I am so insanely blessed that I get to do this silly thing,” he explains. “I mean, I tell jokes. I act. My older brother is an electrician and spends most of his days trying not to get killed. My younger is an Episcopalian priest and spends a lot of time counseling people who’ve lost loved ones. I tell fart jokes. I repeat — I tell fart jokes. I have no idea how people are going to receive this show, but I try to live by something Neil Patrick Harris once said. Acting in Hollywood is like surfing — you can catch a wave but you don’t how long you can ride it. Then you just swim out and get another.”

In addition to hanging ten with The Great Indoors, McHale has expanded his repertoire with his first book, Thanks for the Money: How to Use My Life to Become the Best Joel McHale You Can Be, which is a collection of humorous personal essays about his life, his family and his much-discussed fist-fight with an angry Chevy Chase on the set of Community.

“I feel like a lot of celebrity bios just aren’t that interesting,” he says bluntly. “So I wanted to mix it up, and doing it as a self-help book was license to tell funnier jokes. And I thought this would be a fun way to get into the Chevy stuff, which I’ve already talked about a lot.”

McHale delves comedically into his family life in the book, but ironically, his wife and two young sons “are a good audience for my work because they don’t laugh at anything I do.” So, when he does coax a laugh out of them with a book passage or a series, “that’s one of the biggest joys of my life. My kids don’t care about coming to set to see what I do. They only come on days like yesterday, when we had a raccoon on set.”

Clearly, mockery runs in the McHale family. However, just like his new sitcom character, he’s trying to be the grown-up. For instance, as his interview wraps up, the actor is reminded of a time years ago when he teased this reporter about looking “like that lead singer from Creed.”

Rather than let that insult stand, though, McHale adds, “Thank you for letting me ridicule you and you not writing horrible things about me.”

The Great Indoors premieres Thursday at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.

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