Joel McHale is ready to be interviewed. “I’m nude,” he says, “and I’ve waxed.” This could well be true, given the 48-year-old’s propensity to disrobe on screen. And the fact that he is speaking from the other end of a Zoom audio call means that for the entirety of our conversation I’ll never know how true those haunting words are.
You know McHale, of course, from beloved American sitcom Community, which ran from 2009 to 2015 and enjoyed a renewed surge in popularity after being added to Netflix this spring. But recently you may also have seen him hitch his wagon to the shining star of Emmy-nominated Tiger King, one of Netflix’s most popular documentaries of all time. In April, McHale presented a special episode in which he interviewed the people affected by the criminally bizarre behaviour of Joe Exotic, the incarcerated ex-manager of a zoo in which big cats – and people – were treated abysmally.
McHale tells NME that for this bonus episode they nearly managed to speak to Exotic (whose real name is Joseph Allen Maldanado-Passage) but it was suspected that there had been an outbreak of COVID-19 in Exotic’s prison, so he was isolated. (In 2019, Exotic was sentenced to 22 years in prison for animal abuse and for hiring someone to murder Carole Baskin, a woman who owns a big cat sanctuary and organised protests against Exotic’s zoo.) There has been speculation that Tiger King will return for a second season – with Exotic’s husband Dillon Passage claiming he’s already shot some scenes for it. Does McHale reckon a return is likely? “I would think so,” he says, “people are terribly curious about what Joe Exotic’s doing right now.”
Like all of us, the actor was engrossed in the show from the first few minutes, in which a man shows the cameras a snow leopard in the back of his truck. As well as the Joe Exotic saga, what fascinated McHale was the situation regarding American big cats: there are more captive tigers in captivity in the US (between 5-10,000) than there are in the wild (around 4,000). “That seems extraordinary that we don’t even really know,” says McHale. “I would like to see a follow-up on that.”
Speaking of follow-ups, the reason that McHale’s name may have been in the press recently is that fresh rumours of a Community movie have been flying around, thanks in part to a charity read-through the cast (minus Chevy Chase) carried out over Zoom. Fans of the show have been clamouring for a film for a long time. “No matter what I post on social media, people are hashtagging me that all the time,” he says. During the Zoom call Donald Glover said that he would like to be involved – a factor that may be more likely than anything to sway a studio to part with its cash. Would making a film be good for the legacy of the show? “Well, I think so,” says McHale, “only because we made a promise. And that promise became a rallying cry for the show and for fans to keep the show going when it was always seemingly in peril of being cancelled.”
Of course, many sitcoms don’t fare well in their transition to the big screen, and there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that Community should be much different. But McHale is so confident in writer Dan Harmon’s abilities that he is optimistic. “Dan’s a genius and if he’s like, ‘Hey, let’s get the band back together’, I’ll be in that band. I’ll play any instrument he wants. I think we would do it in a heartbeat.”
It’s at this point that McHale’s wife Sarah comes in and announces that she has found a dying rat outside somewhere. “Just leave it out. Is it dead?” he asks. “Can it move?” “Barely,” she says. She leaves him to deal with it.
One huge downside to the pandemic has been that parents have had to navigate how best to educate their children. McHale’s sons – he has two, aged 12 and 15 – have been attending ‘Zoom school’ – watching teachers try to teach entire classes over video. “My kids hate it and I would have hated it too,” he says. McHale’s children are dyslexic, a trait they inherited from him. He didn’t realise he was dyslexic until his older son was diagnosed. As the doctor described the characteristics his son exhibited, McHale said that sounded just like him. “And she was like, ‘Yeah, I was wondering which one of you it was.’”
The actor also has ADHD. “I’m in constant motion, to the great annoyance of my family,” he says. On the occasions that he has to read an entire script, he has to barricade himself in his room. He can never truly focus on one thing, he says, and is always distracted. He thinks this is why he played so many sports when he was younger. If he had focused on one, he says, he might have been a professional athlete. “But that was never me.” What he specialises in, he says, is “doing 1,000 different things marginally well”.
While the pandemic has left many people feeling paralysed, McHale, who freely admits that he is a workaholic, found solace in work. “When it hit, because I’m a maniac I started working even more,” he says. “I was actually incredibly busy.” The film around which our conversation is arranged is Becky, an intriguing and affecting horror film that McHale enjoys describing as a “super-violent Home Alone”. The film is about Becky, the teenage daughter of McHale’s character, who has to fend off a group of white supremacists when they descend on the family’s home after escaping from prison. McHale isn’t the only comic actor playing it straight; The King Of Queens star Kevin James is the group’s ringleader and loses an eye, among other things, in Becky’s violent acts of self-defence. McHale’s first day on set involved James torturing him with a red-hot poker. “I kept telling them, ‘You cannot have me work tomorrow because I’ve been screaming so much that I’ll be useless.’ I love all that stuff. I walk away going, ‘Let’s do it again.’”
From home, McHale has been doing Zoom auditions and has managed to line up three independently-financed movies. One is a comedy and one is a horror film that will be shooting in New Mexico in the new year. He is also getting back into doing stand-up regularly. Recently, while he was working on the game show Card Sharks, one of the people on set tested positive for coronavirus. Everyone was restricted to certain zones, he says, and the system worked – the virus did not spread. (The positive result was later deemed to be inconclusive.)
Though he has managed to stay busy, it’s clear McHale has had enough. “I can’t wait for this fucking shit to be over,” he says. “I’ve taken so many COVID tests that my nose is gonna have a hole in it like a cocaine addict from 1985.”
‘Becky’ is out now on digital platforms