This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's second annual Watch Issue.
Joel McHale admits it: He likes nice things, and watches in particular. After nearly a decade hosting E!'s The Soup and four seasons playing the caddish Jeff Winger on NBC's Community, the 42-year-old father of two has earned them. Imposingly tall (he stands 6-foot-4 in bare feet) with Irish-Nordic features, twinkling blue eyes and an impish smile, McHale has a face that suggests a cross between a grown-up Peter Pan and a Ralph Lauren model -- behind which ticks a finely tuned comic mind.
On a downtown Los Angeles rooftop on a crisp fall morning, he leaps with action-star abandon, still feeling energized, perhaps, by a reunion three months earlier with fired Community mastermind Dan Harmon, now back at the helm of the cult sitcom after the actor successfully campaigned for his return. McHale, admired for his tireless work ethic, spent the break between seasons filming the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced supernatural cop thriller Beware the Night opposite Eric Bana and Olivia Munn.
He knows it, we know it: McHale's time is now, and he's savoring every second of his success.
If it seems like it all came a little too easily, it didn't. There was a time when even getting an audition for a show like Community -- what McHale calls "the most perfect pilot I ever read" -- was looking like a fading dream. It was the early 2000s, and the Seattle native was living in L.A. with his wife, Sarah, whom he'd met in his days playing football for the University of Washington and with whom he now has two sons -- Eddie, 7, and Isaac, 5. After a promising start, including a high-profile guest spot on Will & Grace, he'd scored no acting work for a year when his agent dumped him, suggesting he should "come back once I was big enough."
Then a call came: An E! casting director thought McHale might be a good fit for a reboot of Talk Soup, the clip show that launched the careers of Greg Kinnear and Aisha Tyler. It turned out that the casting director was right -- even if audiences were slow to warm to the series. "It was a blessing because it allowed us to do all sorts of stuff that nobody saw," says McHale. "The mentality was 'Let's just entertain ourselves.' " He found his footing, and McHale's acid-tipped takedowns of such low-hanging fruit as Spencer Pratt and Steven Seagal proved addictive.
LET'S TAKE A STROLL: Joel McHale looking sharp at all hours.
A longtime fan of men's fashion (he favors Gucci shirts, Bally boots and Isaora outerwear), McHale blames his watch addiction -- he owns 12 -- on Jose Camilo, a stylist he met on Soup who has become his fashion guide. "He's very open-minded, which is always great," says Camilo of McHale at THR's photo shoot, trying in vain to find a sweater long enough to cover his client's arms. It was Camilo who first insisted McHale wear narrow-lapel suits and skinny ties. (He was instructed six months ago to ditch them in favor of ties as wide as "a small sail," jokes McHale.) Part of his makeover was a Ritmo Mundo timepiece. That served as a gateway drug to pricier specimens, beginning with a Bell & Ross military watch that stole McHale's heart. "I never thought I would buy something like that or ever be able to afford it," he says of the $5,000 splurge. To McHale's horror, he promptly lost it -- so he bought the same $5,000 watch again. ("When my dad sees this article, he'll kill himself just to be able to turn over in his grave," he deadpans.)
Hollywood soon started taking notice of the sharply dressed comic with the biting one-liners. He was cast as an FBI agent in 2009's The Informant!, which saw him working with Steven Soderbergh (a fan of The Soup, as it turned out). He shot a string of promising pilots. Then he landed the lead role of a bratty ex-lawyer on a strange new ensemble comedy set at a community college. On Community, known for homages to Hong Kong action cinema and Dungeons & Dragons tournaments, McHale stood out. "Dan writes in how specific Jeff Winger has to look because he is very narcissistic and cares deeply to the point of spray-tanning," says the actor of his character's style, which -- short of spray-tanning -- hews to his own. So much so that McHale doesn't even remove his own watch when he steps in front of the cameras. As show costume designer Sabrina Rosen puts it: "Joel loves his clothes. He loves his watches. He loves his family. He's just a great dude."
McHale calls the 13-episode fifth season of the show -- which returns to NBC on Jan. 2 -- "tremendous" and rattles off a slew of intriguing guest appearances, including one from Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan. McHale calls Community co-star Donald Glover a close friend and "one of the most talented people on the planet." Glover, who has been focusing on making rap music, recently shocked fans with Instagrams of a series of dark confessions, which included concerns that people thought "I hate my race" and will find out "what I masturbate to." McHale writes it off as the introspective musings of an artist at work: "I thought maybe they're song lyrics," says McHale. "I am curious about what he's worried for us to see that he masturbates to, though."
McHale still manages to juggle his Community commitments with tapings of The Soup -- which recently reached a 500-episode milestone -- as well as its Daily Show-inspired spinoff The Soup Investigates. And he somehow finds time to pursue a flourishing movie career, following up an appearance as Mila Kunis' stalker boss in the 2012 blockbuster Ted with a role as a former Army Ranger in Beware the Night and a part as Robin Williams' son in the upcoming holiday comedy Merry Friggin' Christmas.
With a schedule like that, can you really blame him if he has a little trouble getting to the set on time? "I'm always 10 to 15 minutes late," he admits, admiring the handsome Sixties Square chronograph by Glashutte adorning his wrist. "There's really no excuse."