Joel McHale and Ken Jeong Look for Light in the Darkest Timeline
Joel McHale is aware that you probably think he’s a dick. Having stolen the hearts of Annie, Britta, Dean, and anyone who watched him flex his sarcasm muscles (and others) as Jeff Winger on Community, all while leading the satirical E! talk show The Soup, McHale has become a central fixture of American television—”a basic cable star,” as he calls himself. This is just one example of McHale’s relentless humility, which he attributes to overcompensating for his certain brand of biting douchebagggery. (His semi-serious memoir is titled Thanks for the Money: How to Use My Life Story to Become the Best Joel Mchale You Can Be.)
But the actor has set his sights past the small screen. Sort of. McHale’s new movie, Becky, a thriller in which Kevin James plays a Neo-Nazi, was derailed on its journey to Tribeca Film Festival as a result of the coronavirus epidemic, landing on laptop screens nationwide. But if anyone is making the most of our stagnant era, it’s McHale. Not only has Jeff Winger been invited back into America’s psyche with Community‘s recent Netflix debut, just in time for a global lockdown; McHale has also inserted himself smack in the middle of quarantine history as the host of The Tiger King and I, Netflix’s addendum to the wildly popular docu-series that introduced the world to Joe Exotic. He’s also partnered with his longtime friend, Community co-star, and Masked Singer judge-in-crime Ken Jeong—also a former physician—for “The Darkest Timeline,” a comedy podcast about COVID in which they both answer pressing medical questions and also interview Whoopi Goldberg. Jeong called up McHale on a mission to prove to the world that McHale is a lot nicer than the world thinks. He mostly succeeds. —SARAH NECHAMKIN
KEN JEONG: Hey buddy.
JOEL McHALE: Are you opening a restaurant?
JEONG: That’s what you’re interviewing me for.
McHALE: I heard the word restaurant when I joined this conference call and I got very excited.
JEONG: It’s called Ken Kabob and I’m really excited to launch that here, because I feel the interview is about me and I’m just excited we got everyone here together on a Saturday to announce my restaurant that just put down a down payment. It’s the best time to open up one, in my opinion.
McHALE: Just make sure it’s a speakeasy with no windows and it’s in a basement.
JEONG: All indoors. I’ve worked this out. I just want you to ask me questions about that.
McHALE: Now Ken, when did you decide to go into acting?
JEONG: I’ll let you know when I decide to fully go into it. I’ve dabbled, but I’d really rather not talk about that right now. I’d rather talk about Ken Kabob. Sarah, I can’t wait for you to publish the worst interview in the history of this kind of interview segment that your magazine has done.
McHALE: This is going to be like Bowie and Mick Jagger interviewing each other, back in ’85 or something.
JEONG: It’ll be like the brothers of Mick Jagger and Bowie interviewing each other. That’s what it’s like. Hi, this is—
McHALE: Hi, Ken!
JEONG: All right. You didn’t have to overlap me—
JEONG: You know they’re going to cut this, right? There’s no way they’re going to publish all of the overlapping. In podcast form, it’s okay, but in print form, we have to give each other space.
McHALE: I see. I get it now.
JEONG: This has been a great interview. There was an arc—a beginning, middle, and end. We go way back, and it is challenging, actually, to interview friends. It’s even more challenging interviewing you. I had to get that in there.
McHALE: I promise that I’ll respond to your questions 75% sarcastic, which, if you think about it, is pretty great.
JEONG: That might be a PR record in terms of sincerity from Joel McHale. But seriously, when was the first time that we met? It was on Community, summer of ’09, right?
McHALE: No. I had an infection in my … it was not in the best area. I wasn’t proud of it, but Ken was my general practitioner. He treated it. It took him six months. It was a very severe case of a certain thing that you can contract if you spend a lot of time in certain places, and he treated it. A lot of people don’t know this about Ken, but he is a dentist.
JEONG: With that statement, you couldn’t be more wrong in so many areas. I was not your doctor and I have never treated you. I have denied you treatment. What you had was probably eczema, and from my recollection, we actually met, I think 11 years ago, in this same month of July while we’re doing this interview on the set of Community.
McHALE: I think you’re right.
JEONG: I think it was on the second episode of the series, where they introduced Senor Chang, but it was the first day of Community that you guys had been ordered to series. I was not in the pilot. So I think that was an exciting day for all. As a cast, we all actually drove together to the same restaurant for lunch, like high school kids driving to McDonald’s. I said to myself, “11 years from now, I’m going to do a podcast with this dude.”
McHALE: I remember saying that out loud to you, and I can’t believe it came true. I just thought, “Oh my gosh, we’re going to do a podcast.” Then I looked up what a podcast was, and then I was like, “Why did that come out of my mouth?” When you came to the cast, I was like, “What’s going on? Is he in trouble? Does he have gambling debt? Is that why he’s doing network television, because it pays well? But he’s got The Hangover franchise going.” And then cut to six years later, I’ve spent more time with Ken than I had with my family.
We weren’t making a sitcom. We were making a 22-minute movie every week, and the twists and turns that your character took during that—if you actually mapped it out, people would go, “What’s going on? This is incredible.” My character is selfish, didn’t want to be with people, was just trying to get out of there, and then ultimately realizes he needs these people, and he’s going to miss them terribly. Your character went to other worlds. So what I’m saying is that I’m jealous.
JEONG: How did you feel that first day? You had done pilots before, and you were already a big star from The Soup. This was 2009, and we were a bit fresher-faced and less experienced.
McHALE: I feel like I’ve maintained my face pretty much, so I would not like to be put into that category, if that’s okay. Thanks for saying I was a star from The Soup, and I’d like to put an asterisk there. I would like to call myself a basic cable star. I was so naïve at that point. I had done two other pilots that hadn’t gone, but for whatever reason, I still had this bright-eyed, bushy-tailed mentality that once you get on a pilot, it just goes for the entire way. I realize obviously many times over now that that is not the case.
But I couldn’t believe that I was on a show that I actually liked. I loved the writing, and Dan [Harmon] and the Russos [producers of Community] assembled this crazy dream team of talent. I kept thinking, “Oh, they’re going to find me out and take me away.” Like, when Gillian [Jacobs] came in to audition, it was like someone was shining a light on her, she was so good. The only person that was not talented in the cast is Donald Glover, and everybody knew that he was not going to go anywhere after that. No musical talent. He didn’t have any sort of inspirational visions for art or anything like that. It’s too bad that he didn’t go on to do anything.
JEONG: [Laughs] What people don’t realize is you were doing The Soup at the same time as Community. It was already mentally and physically demanding just doing one of those for myself as a supporting actor. How taxing was that? Were you exhausted?
McHALE: Yeah. I really like money, so I wasn’t going to turn it down. I decided if I was going to do two full-time jobs at once, I would give them each about 40% effort and that worked out great, because a lot of the critics thought the same thing. Early on, I just kind of went, “This is what you always hoped for, you dummy. Now go. It doesn’t matter. Just do it.” I think I’m like you, where I’m a workaholic and obsessive. I love acting, so there was no hesitation in the joy I felt by it. Yes, I got tired and I drove off the road all the time, and couldn’t spell for a while, and lost my vision in one of my eyes, but I was just so happy that I was getting to work, because I think a lot of actors think this is the last job they’ll ever do, which I still think to this day. I was just so happy that I was on two things that were actually working.
Also, I have the greatest wife on the planet. I have this beautiful wife named Sarah [Williams], as you know. I’m telling the other Sarah on the line that I’m not married to her, that there’s more than one person named Sarah on the planet, okay Sarah?
SARAH NECHAMKIN: It’s a good name.
McHALE: I absolutely would be covered in really dumb tattoos if it wasn’t for her. The show started out from my character’s point of view, but it moved wonderfully around this amazing ensemble. I always refer to people like you and Jim Rash as these killers who would come in and save scenes. I would call you Rumpelstiltskins because you just created laughs where there were no laughs. It made my job very easy. If it weren’t for you, I would be writing fart jokes about the Kardashians.
JEONG: That’s not true at all. On Community, you were always modest to a fault. You would say, “Oh, I’m just reading jokes in front of a green screen.” Then when I guested on The Soup once, I saw you in a meeting with the writers and you went over every joke and you just knew what joke would work, what joke wouldn’t work. You were very giving as an actor. Sometimes, if you’re a show host like you are, one tends to be a bit more selfish. Was that always your mentality, when you were doing theater in school or in college playing football? You had a scholarship to the University of Washington. Did you always have this team-first mentality?
McHALE: I’m usually thinking I’m a dick, so just don’t let it show and overcompensate, and then people will think you’re nice. I actually did learn something from college football. I watched these guys who were working so hard at something so physically demanding every week, learning these crazy playbooks and going to school full-time, and being kind of celebrities of the city of Seattle. I learned how to work hard there. Then I was on this show in Seattle called Almost Live, where I watched this ensemble of sketch comedy actors, who I’m friends with today, take me under their wing. You hear about the world of comedy and how awful it can be, and I’m very lucky that I haven’t gotten into one of those situations where you’re trying just to be funny and on top of it, people are trying to sabotage you. They were just trying to make me look good, because I was floundering around trying to read a teleprompter and I’m totally dyslexic. Then I realized, “Oh, if you’re super funny and you support that other person, that makes you look even funnier.” So it’s really just a selfish reason. I don’t know. I was drunk a lot of the time.
JEONG: I think what you’re saying, which I can condense for Interview, is that you’re an actor at heart. That’s what you do. The first movie I saw you in was Spider-man 2.
McHALE: Look at that. Way back when.
JEONG: My wife and I saw you, and I said, “That’s that dude from The Soup I hate so much. I hope I don’t have to do a TV series with him.” You were really funny; I remember laughing out loud in the theater. You’ve done the biggest R-rated comedy of the time, Ted, and I think you told me the reason why you got on that movie is so you could beat The Hangover in the box office, and you did.
McHALE: Yeah. Thank you for pointing that out.
JEONG: You beat your friend in the box-office.
McHALE: But my character was killed in the first movie. You got to do two more, and I’m sure there’ll be more Hangovers.
JEONG: Most recently, you did Becky, which I loved.
McHALE: You did?
JEONG: Yeah. You played something that wasn’t too far from yourself, a loving father, which I really liked. You are a family-first guy, and it was really nice to see that element in the movie, where you were trying to be as sensitive as possible to Becky by not selling the house and also moving on with your life and—
McHALE: And then I get killed by Paul Blart, mall cop. I can’t believe it.
JEONG: But that was a very emotional turning point in the movie, because along with Becky, you were a hero in the movie, and you made the decision to just think, like you do in real life, about others first. What was it like releasing a thriller movie in 2020?
McHALE: I just like those directors and the script was really good. They made this movie called Bushwick, with the great Dave Bautista and Brittany Snow. I was like, “I’ll do anything for these people. I’d love to be in one of their movies.” Then we made that little movie, and I just thought it was going to be in the Tribeca Film Festival, which I was excited about, because I love going to film festivals because you get to watch movies and eat a lot. Then COVID-19 hit in a terrible way, and because of drive-in movie theaters and all the other movies not being released, Becky is like the number one movie of the summer right now. It’s a very strange way to be the number one movie. I’m just bragging now.
JEONG: Do you like doing thrillers, or movies that aren’t comedies? Is there a catharsis in that?
McHALE: Yeah. I think you and I get the same thing, which is, “Oh, they’re a funny guy.” I always look at people like Robin Williams or Steve Martin, these heroes of mine who did more than what they became known for. I want it all. I don’t know if that’s a good ambition or not, but I think there’s a reason why Shakespeare wrote tragedies and comedies, and all the actors did them all. That was over 400 years ago. It’s not a novel idea. You look at someone like Donald Glover—as you know, Ken, he’s the funniest guy you’ve ever met, and now people get to see how insanely good he is at drama. I know that you do the same thing. I would beg to say that you and I both enjoy it equally. Would you agree?
JEONG: Yeah. It doesn’t really matter what project I do, to me, the approach is the same. You really want to know the story and really get the tone of the story right, and then know your character and how it relates to the story. I never think genre. So I think we’re very similar in that way. A lot of people don’t think on the surface we have so much in common, but we really do. We’ve done so much cool stuff together, like the Masked Singer. I think it’s safe to say you are the most popular, I don’t want to say guest panelist, because that wouldn’t do you justice. You’re part of the fabric that’s Masked Singer.
McHALE: Oh my gosh. Ken, I will say that being on the Masked Singer, my 12-year-old would say to me, “Hey, you’re not irrelevant anymore.” I was like, “Thanks so much, my loving 12-year-old.” He was like, “Why don’t you be on a show like that all the time?” I’m like, “What do you think I’m trying to do?” I don’t know if people know this, but the first time I ever did it, I was just tickling you the whole time.
JEONG: They edited out all of the tickling.
McHALE: I have to give them credit because I did it so much. I always say that Ken is the secret sauce that makes that show. When I’m talking to Ken on the telephone, Sarah will know it’s Ken and she’ll just go, “Are you talking to your boyfriend?” I’ll be like, “Yeah.” We both do the thing where we talk for so long that when the other one needs to go, we go, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’ve kept you a long time. Sorry. I’ll see you later.”
JEONG: It’s ridiculous how people would think all we do is just insult each other. If anything, it couldn’t be further from the truth. We are polite to a fault, to a point where our wives roll their eyes.
McHALE: It really is like we’re on a phone date before we meet in person all the time.
JEONG: Right. It’s like we’re in grade school.
McHALE: I’ll be like, “I’ll call you at 3:00 in the morning. I’m just going to let it ring once and then call me back.” My wife will see the length of the podcast, it’ll be like two hours and 10 minutes, and she’s like, “Oh, you guys went a little shorter on this one?” I’m like, “Yeah. Dave Bautista had to go.” When I see that we’ve passed two hours, and that means it’s going to end soon, I’m so sad, because I want to keep going. Boy, if two people start wearing a mask because they listen to the podcast, then I feel like I get to go to heaven or something. If we can help, like, two people wear a mask and stay out of a closed, confined space without breathing on each other, then I feel like we’re doing the Lord’s work.
JEONG: In addition to the podcast, where you and I discuss COVID-19, you also do work with the Fred Hutchinson Institute in Seattle, where you do regular interviews with Dr. Josh Schiffer. You do some of the most amazing interviews that any celebrity does, with a leading researcher in virology. How did that come about?
McHALE: Boy, it came about because of “The Darkest Timeline,” and I’m not kidding.
JEONG: Really? I didn’t know that.
McHALE: This guy named Michael at Fred Hutch listened to it and saw that we were interested in COVID and actually discussing it, and I’m from Seattle. Dr. Schiffer makes me look smart, because I just go, “What’s going on with COVID?” And he talks and then I make a joke and then I will say something like, “Let’s talk about the vaccine. Let’s talk about therapies. Let’s talk about the latest of what’s the newest thing we know,” which is actually blood clots, by the way, as you probably have heard, Ken. I don’t know who’s watching it, but I learn so much from it. Dr. Schiffer is super smart and he knows his shit. I have to go back and watch it because the guy says so much.
JEONG: You’re being modest because I know you’ve done your research. You’ll not only ask me before you interview Dr. Schiffer, you’ll also ask other medical professionals. I highly recommend watching it because it’s really informative. During the pandemic, you’vebeen doing everything you can to support local businesses, working with World Central Kitchen, and that led to the Community Zoom table read. That was one of my favorite Community moments ever. Both of us got emotional, man.
McHALE: I couldn’t believe it was happening, and I never thought it would happen. It would have to be something terrible like a pandemic where people were actually at home to make it happen, because as you know, Ken, we’re those kids in class that sat in the front row because we all love working. We’re so busy that nobody would have time to do a table read. You’re not going to be able to get ahold of Donald. He’s making Star Wars, his own television series, and cutting another album. Alison [Brie] has 12 shows on Netflix. Jim is directing Will Ferrell. Danny [Pudi]’s got 12 shows on Hulu. Obviously Yvette [Nicole Brown] is also insanely busy. Big shout out to Pedro Pascal because Walton Goggins was not able to do his role from the episode that we read, and Pedro destroyed it. I’m tearing up just thinking about it. Interview Magazine, look what you did to me, jerk.
JEONG: How are you going to spin the narrative? When Interview asked me to interview you, you cried. Is that how you’re going to spin all this?
McHALE: Yeah. I’ll just say, “That son of a bitch made me cry.” I just started crying because Ken wouldn’t let me talk.
JEONG: Man, just hearing you talk about it makes me emotional because I think everyone on that Zoom felt the same way. The whole cast was wonderfully emotional about it. It just shows how special our time together on Community was.
McHALE: It really was. Let me point out that Donald did agree to do the movie during the table read, so Donald, you kind of have to do it now.
JEONG: I respect your game, Joel. You made sure you’re putting that in Interview. At the time, Community had just premiered on Netflix and then Tiger King was on Netflix right when the pandemic started. How did you get the call to do The Tiger King and I? That was arguably the most watched show during the pandemic.
McHALE: I think we can say it was the most watched. I’d like to say that it was.
JEONG: Let Interview edit it. No need to be your own editor. I said arguably. We’re arguing about it.
McHALE: We are? I feel like it’s not an argument. I had done the Joel McHale Show on Netflix—two seasons, it’s fine—and then I think they probably ran out of ideas and asked if I would do it. Obviously, I had nothing to do with the documentary, but I wanted to make sure that it was somewhat funny but very serious, because it’s such a serious subject; people died and there are a lot of animals that were abused, and at the same time, Joe Exotic is a very engaging person, and it’s an incredibly interesting world that I never knew about. People came after me because I asked if Joe Exotic should be in jail, which he is now, with like 21 counts and 21 felonies. People are like, “How dare you make fun of this guy that I make fun of.”
JEONG: I thought you got to the heart of what everyone was asking, which is, “Do you think Joe Exotic did it?” What was very surprising to me is the people who worked with him for years and who knew Joe very well and all the good things he did for them, they all said, “Yeah, I think he did it.” You asked a tough question that was pretty fearless. When you think about it, you’ve done everything in TV. I think Jerry Seinfeld famously said, “In the world of television, TV always wins.” I always think about that. TV always wins.
McHALE: Really good point.
JEONG: You are far from complacent. You have not settled in any way whatsoever. If anything, you’re busier and hungrier than you were when I met you 11 years ago. What keeps you going?
McHALE: Money. I just really want money. Do you have any money I can have?
JEONG: What? Is this whole interview just asking me for money? That’s weird.
McHALE: I don’t need it as much as I used to, but I just like it. Ken, I’ve wasted a lot of your time.
JEONG: Are you kidding me? This is incredible.
McHALE: Just over your life, I have wasted a lot of your time. Sarah just walked by me and saw that I was still talking to you, and she just shook her head and started laughing. “Oh yeah, that guy.”