Joel McHale on Playing College Football, “The Soup,” and Marrying People at the Space Needle | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Thursday, March 4th, 2021  

Joel McHale on Playing College Football, “The Soup,” and Marrying People at the Space Needle

Slow Burn

Feb 12, 2021 Web Exclusive
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Comedian and television host, Joel McHale, has worn many hats. From his starring role on the NBC television show, Community, to hosting Netflix’s Tiger King postmortem to, this weekend, marrying couples under the historic Seattle Space Needle, McHale is game and more than capable of rising to any occasion. He’s sharp, funny and kind. He’s generous and jovial. And he will bring all of these qualities to the altar at the Chihuly Garden and Glass under the Space Needle on Sunday for Valentine’s Day. We caught up with McHale to ask him about his early childhood in Rome, what it was like to play football at a D-1 school in college, how he came to comedy and much more. 

Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): You were born in Rome—that’s a fairytale beginning. Do you remember much from your early days there?

Joel McHale: I was born there and then we moved when I was pretty dang young. I was still practically a baby, I think. Well, I was like four or five. My dad was the Dean of Students at Loyola University [John Felice Rome Center] and my mom’s family lived there because my grandfather worked for the U.N. and was helping to stimulate fish populations around the planet—no joke. My uncle still lives there, my cousin—well, he moved to Spain. My wife and I have been back there numerous times. You know, it’s Rome! It’s one of the greatest cities on the planet. It’s weird—I don’t look Roman, I don’t look Italian, or anything. But it’s always near and dear to my heart. I wish I could go there all the time but I don’t because I’m a workaholic, which I don’t recommend necessarily. 

When did you get your first great laugh that made you want to get more of them? I know sometimes parents wake their talented kids up in the middle of the night after a few whiskeys to perform. Was that what it was like for you when you were a kid?

I’m still waking up my parents to see if they’ll laugh! I don’t even live in the same city and they’re like, “Are you calling again, trying to get us to laugh?” And I was like, “Absolutely!” No, boy, I’m assuming it was some sort of fart joke when I was, you know, four or five, probably. Maybe not. I’m trying to think of when—it’s a really good question. Oh! I think it was in seventh grade. I became very good friends with someone who I am still friends with, Dominic DeLeo, and he worked on The Soup with me for 12 years. He’s just one of the funniest people I know and we made each other laugh a lot. I remember thinking, like, “Oh, I guess I can tell a joke.” Or, at least to my friend. And if I can make my friend laugh, then I’m having a good day. So, I think, sometime in seventh grade. But, like I said, if you can’t laugh at a fart when you’re four years old, I don’t know if you’re a human being or not.

You also played Division-1 college football at the University of Washington. Do you remember much from those days and does anything from then translate to your career now?

Yeah, I did play. I did not play well. I was definitely the king of the scout offense, which is the, you know, like, second-string through eighth-string. I wasn’t a great player but I definitely loved it. I wasn’t laughed off the field. But what I did learn was how to work hard. And I’m not kidding. Those guys work so hard. They were doing full-time school and then they were full-time traveling and playing college football. I was like, “Oh, this is the level someone has to exist at to get good at something!” That’s what I really took away. You know, I make a lot of jokes, but I really learned a lot about working hard. That really stuck with me.

I live in Seattle and have for over a decade and you spent a lot of time here in the city. You’re an improv legend here with your work in Unexpected Productions and then with the television show, Almost Live! Do you think about your early days here in the city often and, if so, how did they affect your career?

Oh, well, doing improvised theater—I mean, it kind of shaped me. I still do a lot of improvising in a lot of the acting that I do. But it taught me how to be on stage. I spent every waking moment trying to be on stage and perform there. That’s where I really got comfortable on stage. That’s one of the reasons why Almost Live! hired me, because they came and saw me perform [at Unexpected Productions] and it worked. It was one of those things where it worked. I couldn’t believe I was on Almost Live! I got out of college and got the job. I was like, “Thank you, Jesus!” I couldn’t believe I was on a television show. So, I look back on those years very fondly. Now I look back and I can’t believe how long ago it was!

Speaking of Seattle, you’re marrying people at the Space Needle on Sunday for Valentine’s Day. How did you get involved with this event?

It came through Chihuly Garden and Glass, which, you know, is that beautiful structure at the Space Needle. They’re friends with a friend of mine and I thought it was such a great idea! You know, the pandemic has been horrible and so many weddings have been postponed and important events where, you know, people used to gather. So, Chihuly Garden and Glass just wanted to do something nice and I thought it was a really cool thing in this terrible pandemic for a bunch of people to, you know, tell each other, “Hey, you’re the one for me.” I think it’s pretty cool. So, that’s how it came together. They’re just doing a nice thing. So, I’m like, “Absolutely, I’ll be there!” 

You enjoy a great career but some aspect of that is your propensity to take part in fun, though sometimes disparate parts of show business. For example, you were the host for the Tiger King recap show on Netflix. What do you like about being involved in so many prominent, if not unusual parts?

Boy, as these things kind of happen or don’t happen, if the opportunity comes up and it seems cool, then I’m like, “Yeah, that sounds good.” So, that’s kind of how I measured it. The Tiger King—you know, I’d worked at Netflix, so I know some of the people over there and they asked if I would do it. I was like, “Absolutely!” That thing was bananas, obviously. So, you know, I was happy to do that. Then something like this [at the Space Needle], I get to come home to my hometown and hopefully make a couple of people happy. So, yeah, I agree that I’ve done a lot of weird little things. I guess they’re not “weird.” You’re right, disparate. But it’s one of those things, if it comes up and it seems cool, I’m there. 

You’re a celebrity. Do you have a favorite celebrity moment from your life? A party you found yourself at unexpectedly, something someone said to you backstage, taking tequila shots with JAY-Z?

Yes, JAY-Z and I are definitely doing tequila shots. He’s constantly asking for it. Boy, you know, I do have a lot of those weird moments. It’s something I never expected. It just kind of is—you don’t go looking. I am such a workaholic. Obviously, nothing’s happened this year really. But it’s one of those things where you don’t plan on it and then you’re there. Like, I got to be in a movie [The Big Year] with Steve Martin. That was one of those moments, like, “What? How did I get to this point in my life?” I don’t know how that all happened. You know, I went to dinner with Mr. Steve Martin and that was pretty wonderful! Or when you work on a movie, you’re usually—unless it’s in LA—you’re usually with the cast quite a bit. And one of the first movies that I had a significant role in was a Steven Soderbergh movie [The Informant] with Matt Damon starring. We got to play a lot of darts in the off hours. That’s one of those things, like, “This is not how I expected my life to go! This is surreal!” So, stuff like that. There was never a thought that would be a thing but it turned out to be one. But I’m mostly worried about whether I’m prepared enough for the role or not, so I’m constantly stressing out about that.

Is there something early in your career that had to go right in order for everything else to have happened?

Harrison Ford I think put it perfectly. Any business is a marathon and I don’t know a single person that was, like, and then out of nowhere they were discovered! I have friends who have been on hit TV shows but that was 800 auditions and then they got 5% of those and were working actors. The Soup, when it came on way back when in 2005, nobody watched it for a year. The president of E! was very supportive of the show. He could have cancelled it at any moment. But he was like, “I like it. I think it’s funny.” And he just hung in there with us and eventually people started watching. So, that was one of those things where it wasn’t like, “And… you’ve made it!” It wasn’t like that, it was just this slow burn. But I don’t really have a moment where, like, if that person didn’t look at me or if I wore a different sweater and they hadn’t asked me about it—I don’t really have any moments like that. It’s more just like most of the people who work in entertainment, 99% are journeymen. We’re all hustling for the next job. Then there’s the 1% who get all the press and all the magazines. But the rest of us are working, getting our next jobs and we’re very lucky to be working in this business. 

What do you love most about making people laugh?

Well, it really strokes my ego. No, you know, I have always enjoyed it and I can’t really tell you why. I grew up a horribly dyslexic kid and so I used it as a defense mechanism to make up for me not being able to spell or write a sentence out correctly. So, I think it started out like that. But I enjoy it and I will do it until somebody makes me get a real job. 

www.joelmchale.com

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