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Joel McHale: 'You can't just avoid' controversy in comedy

By Ben Hooper
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Joel McHale: 'You can't just avoid' controversy in comedy
Comedian Joel McHale, whose first stand-up special, "Live from Pyongyang," released Tuesday, said he doesn't shy away from controversial subjects in his comedy, because "you just can't avoid" subjects like politics in the world today. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

Aug. 7 (UPI) -- Joel McHale has done it all -- acting, hosting, even swimming with sharks. But now he's headed into uncharted territory with his first hourlong stand-up comedy special.

McHale, best known as the host of E!'s long-running comedy clip show The Soup and star of cult-favorite sitcom Community, said waiting so many years to record an hourlong stand-up special -- Live from Pyongyang, available from Comedy Dynamics as of Tuesday on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Google Play and other streaming platforms -- was a matter of finding the time.

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"When I was on Community and The Soup, I had no time to get a haircut, let alone work on material for a stand-up special," he said.

McHale has now been working on material for three years.

The comedian opens with a barrage of jokes about the actual shooting location: San Jose, Calif., not North Korea.

"A lot of the time you see a stand-up special and it's their name, live from blanky blank, and ... if people actually think I went to Pyongyang and did a special, they are living in a wonderful fantasy world," he said.

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"It was just one of those things where I thought, 'Oh that seems funny,' and if I get cyberattacked, that'll get me some press," McHale joked, referring to the infamous Sony hack allegedly sparked by The Interview, a movie poking fun at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

No offense

McHale said he wasn't worried about alienating the viewing audience with local jokes, just like he isn't concerned with upsetting audiences with controversial subjects, such as mocking President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.

"I just like to talk about what's happening," he said of his style of humor. "And you can't just avoid it, I think. At least I can't. There's all sorts of comedians that don't, that aren't political, and they're really funny."

"The other thing is like, if you have no sense of humor about something, then don't go to a comedy show. There's nothing I can do to help. You've already made up your mind," he said.

"If you're not upsetting 10 percent of the audience all the time, you're probably not doing your job. Someone told me that, it's a famous quote from somebody, but I've been thinking about that for 30 years. I think it's true," McHale said.

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The veteran stand-up said there no subjects he considers strictly off-limits on stage, but there are some that seem too unwieldy for him to attempt.

"It's not like I go, 'And now I'm gonna do my routine on abortion.' That's not something I'll probably ever talk about. Look, if there's a comic out there who can do it, I'd like to see it, but I think there's some things like that that are pretty rough," he said.

His family, however, is fair game, with his wife and kids frequently taking the spotlight in stories about home life and family vacations.

"They know that I talk about them, and it's funny because one time my 11-year-old was like, 'You have to pay us for that.' And I was like, 'Uh, not a bad point.' So I got 'em V-bucks on Fortnite," McHale said.

The Starman cometh

McHale's next project is something that takes him back to his own childhood: portraying DC Comics hero Starman in the upcoming Stargirl series for streaming platform DC Universe.

"It satisfied my boyhood fantasy of wanting to be a superhero," McHale said. "I got to wear an insanely cool costume; it was just amazing. All my scenes are with Luke Wilson for this first round, and he's a tremendous human being, and the lead gal is really super talented."

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The actor said the series strikes a compelling balance of comedy and high drama, which he hopes will be pleasing to fans of the comics.

Swimming with sharks

McHale was recently one of a group of comedians recruited by fellow funnyman Rob Riggle to swim with sharks for Discovery Channel's Shark Week special Eat, Pray, Chum.

He described the experience as more surreal than scary, but some of the pointers offered to the comedians by the experts on hand gave him pause.

"They explained to us, 'Don't antagonize them.' I'm like, 'Good, yeah, I can do that. That's already checked off my list,'" McHale laughed. "They gave me these very good pointers, like, 'Don't put your hand in the face of a shark,' and I was like, 'Check, I'm planning on not doing that anyway.'"

McHale praised Discovery Channel for raising awareness of environmental issues putting sharks and other undersea creatures at risk.

"The oceans are only getting dirtier -- I mean there's that [expletive] three-mile island of garbage floating around, for God's sake. So bringing all that awareness is incredibly important," he said. "And once they're gone, they're gone, so once these animals are finished, you can't just grow them in a zoo and throw them back."

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Six seasons and... ?

One of the questions McHale still gets asked most often relates to the long-rumored film sequel to the cult sitcom Community, which ran for five seasons on NBC before moving to Yahoo! Screen for a sixth and final season.

The mantra among fans, a quote from the show itself, was "six seasons and a movie."

"It's being made, we've secured $150 million, and James Cameron will be directing it," McHale teased. "No. We'll see. Look, no one's called me ... I'd say it's pretty definitively not happening."

He said the movie would be difficult to schedule with creator Dan Harmon's commitment to Adult Swim series Rick & Morty, as well as the busy schedule of co-star Donald Glover.

"I'll do it in a heartbeat, but I think it's gonna be a difficult thing to get together," he said.

Soup's off

Netflix recently decided not to give a second season order to The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale, a weekly series that revived the format of The Soup, the E! series in which McHale cracked jokes at clips of recent talk shows and reality shows.

"I had a really good experience with Netflix. I think they should have kept going, but I think the type of show, a weekly show, is not something they do," he said of the show's cancellation. "But God bless 'em, I had a really good time and they paid me, so I'll take it."

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The host said he wouldn't be adverse to reviving the format again at some point, but he is keeping plenty busy acting in Stargirl and film projects.

"I don't know how it's gonna go. I'm very fortunate that people have paid me for being silly," he said.

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