The ‘Strangest, Most Exhilarating Gig’ He’ll Ever Do

Joel McHale talks about comedy, politics, and how he’s preparing to roast everyone at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 19: Actor Joel McHale attends the 15th Annual Costume Designers Guild Awards with presenting sponsor Lacoste at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 19, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California. 
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Lucia Graves
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Lucia Graves
May 1, 2014, 5 p.m.

Joel McHale is try­ing something new, or at least a vari­ation on an old theme. Sat­urday night, the comedi­an and star of NBC’s Com­munity will en­ter­tain at the White House Cor­res­pond­ents’ As­so­ci­ation Din­ner. In the past, comedi­ans have used the oc­ca­sion to make poin­ted polit­ic­al com­ment­ary. McHale, for his part, is al­ways in char­ac­ter. In his in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al, he dodged ques­tions about his jokes with the skill of a mar­tial artist. His only prom­ise? No D.C. fac­tion will be spared. Ed­ited ex­cerpts fol­low.

You’ve done lots of stand-up be­fore, but prob­ably not with the pres­id­ent of the United States. How does that af­fect you?

No, no, I do it all the time. We do it all the time to­geth­er. [Pauses.] How does it af­fect me? Oh, I don’t know, the lead­er of the free world is four feet away from me! I would say it af­fects me deeply. He also goes on be­fore you at these din­ners, and he’s al­ways done well in the past. He’s a very funny guy. You’ve seen his per­form­ance on Between Two Ferns? The guy is really good at it! So that in it­self is in­tim­id­at­ing and kind of good.

This din­ner is re­garded among com­ics as one of the more chal­len­ging gigs around. How are you pre­par­ing? Are there any Wash­ing­to­ni­ans you’ve been run­ning your jokes by?

I’m us­ing a team of writers, and we are try­ing to come up with the fun­ni­est jokes we can and the most ef­fect­ive jokes that we can. That’s my goal right now. As far as in­siders go, no, I haven’t called up John Mc­Cain and run jokes by him yet.

Jimmy Kim­mel once told you he’d nev­er been more nervous in his life than be­fore his per­form­ance at this din­ner. Did he give you any ad­vice?

We went to din­ner right after I got the gig. He was really cool about it — very, very nice. The best ad­vice he gave was when he was like, “Just know it is the strangest, most ex­hil­ar­at­ing gig you will ever do.” It’s funny, be­cause after I spoke to him, I spoke to Con­an O’Bri­en and I spoke to Seth Mey­ers and Craig Fer­guson, and they all said the same thing in­de­pend­ently: that it’s the most ex­hil­ar­at­ing, weird gig you’ll ever do.

In the past, some comedi­ans have picked more on one party than the oth­er. Are you pre­pared to make jokes about both parties? Well, of course. It would be weird if I didn’t.

What are your per­son­al polit­ics like, and do you feel this din­ner re­quires that you put those val­ues aside?

I’m in the Whig Party — the party from the 1850s. And def­in­itely not! Those val­ues are go­ing to be front and cen­ter. My Whig tend­en­cies will be on full dis­play.

You said you’ve been to this din­ner be­fore with your fath­er. What did you learn that night?

Yeah, I brought my dad. This was years ago when Bush was in of­fice. I learned my dad knows who Pamela An­der­son is, and is happy to an­nounce it loudly. He was like, “There’s Pamela An­der­son!” I was like, “Shush!”

Without giv­ing your jokes away, is there a politi­cian who gives you the best ma­ter­i­al to work with as a comedi­an?

Not that I’m gonna tell you.

Some com­ics have com­plained Obama is harder to make fun of than some oth­er pres­id­ents we’ve had. Do you buy the ar­gu­ment?

I think that’s an old thing go­ing back to when he first entered of­fice. Now that he’s been there for six years, mak­ing policy and lead­ing the coun­try, there’s plenty of ma­ter­i­al to work with.

The hu­mor in Com­munity isn’t par­tic­u­larly polit­ic­al in nature. Do you feel like you’re flex­ing a bit of a new muscle in do­ing this?

Just be­cause Com­munity isn’t a polit­ic­al show doesn’t mean I can’t do polit­ic­al hu­mor. Yes, it’s flex­ing a dif­fer­ent muscle, no doubt. But it’s not as if someone was like, “Uh, go speak Span­ish now!” And I’d be like, “But I don’t know Span­ish!” And they’d be like, “Good luck!” It’s not like that.

What do you think of D.C. and in par­tic­u­lar the cul­ture sur­round­ing this din­ner? A lot of people say it’s be­come too celebrity-centered.

Oh, D.C. loves it! The tra­di­tion­al thing is that it’s called “nerd prom”: It’s where they mix. I don’t know who said it’s be­come too Hol­ly­wood. I would love to meet those people. I have not heard that. But I think D.C. is beau­ti­ful, and I love bring­ing my fam­ily there.

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