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. 
Getty Images for CDG
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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