The first thing Joel McHale says when we start our phone interview is, “How’s Chicago?” The 45-year-old comedian/actor — most recognized for hosting the satirical E! show “The Soup” and portraying Jeff Winger on the NBC/Yahoo series “Community” — has a sweet spot for the city: His father is a Chicagoan, though he served as the dean of students at Loyola University Chicago’s campus in Rome, where Joel was born. “[Chicago] was by far my favorite city in the world for a long time,” he says. “As a kid, I thought it was a magical place where all my cousins lived.”
In the two decades he’s been in show business, McHale has created some magic of his own, including his latest project, CBS’ “The Great Indoors.” In the fictionally Chicago-set sitcom — which airs its first season finale May 8 — he plays Jack Gordon, an adventure reporter for Outdoor Limits magazine, brought back from the field when the magazine moves to digital and tasked to run it. The workplace comedy portrays three generations — the millennial online team, a Gen X supervisor (McHale) and the magazine’s baby boomer publisher, played by Stephen Fry — and not one is spared mockery or ridicule.
We talked to McHale about the show, what he really thinks of millennials and that time he almost didn’t make it back from climbing a 14,410-foot mountain.
SPLASH: You’ve shifted back and forth from doing TV, hosting and standup. Do you have a soft spot for one medium in particular?
JM: Kabuki theater, probably [laughs]. I do not have a soft spot. … I love comedy and absurdity. My aunt Gloria, who lives in Skokie, gave me all of Bill Cosby’s albums, and I know that’s a dubious thing to say now. But you cannot argue that the man was a really good standup [comedian], but a horrible human being. So, yeah, that’s conflicting. I moved to Los Angeles because I wanted to act. It was ironic because the job that got me notoriety was “The Soup,” which was not acting. But I always thought maybe it could help me get into a room if I wanted an audition — and it did.
S: It got you in the room for “Community,” which undoubtedly opened the door to “The Great Indoors.” When you were first introduced to the show, what was the thought process behind having it set in Chicago as opposed to a more millennial-driven area like Silicon Valley?
JM: Chicago is a pretty major city. It is definitely not small [and] not a second-tier city at all. There’s a trend right now to place things in Chicago. Ironically, we shoot our [show] in Studio City, California. Believe me, I hope we get a second season so we get to set some exteriors in Chicago, which means I get to go have a bunch of hot dogs and pizza.
S: The show’s critics say it portrays millennials as narcissistic whiners. What do you think about how the generation gap is reflected on the show?
JM: When we first started, people thought this was the show that [makes] fun of millennials, like this is what the modus operandi and goal of the show was. It is not. The goal is to watch three generations work together, and of course there is praise and ridicule on both sides. My character gets more crap than anyone else’s. But I think it makes fun of and points out the idiosyncrasies of that generation, just like the idiosyncrasies of Generation X. [For example,] millennials are coddled, babied a bit and taught early on that no one ever loses in sports. That’s something we’d make fun of. And then with Generation X, you could make fun of how important we think we are and how we believe we have better taste than anyone.
S: You play a travel and adventure writer. What’s the greatest adventure you’ve ever taken?
JM: My wife and I tried to climb Mount Rainier a year and a half ago. My little brother — who is a real mountaineer, he really does climb all the time — said we don’t need to rent real guides, we can just use his friends who’ve been up there eight or nine times. That was a mistake — one of the friends had a full-blown panic attack because he didn’t bother to mention that he had pneumonia. At 8,000 feet he thought he was getting acute altitude sickness. He literally at one point was running around in circles going, “This isn’t happening, this isn’t happening.” I felt bad for him, but at the same time, I was like, “Hey, genius. You know we’ve been training for this? This is not just a walk on a Saturday morning that’s been ruined.” He ran down the mountain with the other guides. We were left alone at 8,000 feet.
S: Did you make it to the top?
JM: No, oh no. You need a guide to get up to the top or you will die.
S: Getting back to “The Great Indoors” — any word on if there will be a Season 2?
JM: No. That information is never known. I wish [it were]. If we were “[The] Big Bang Theory” then yes, we would know right now. But no, they keep you guessing for a long time. Unless it’s a monster bona fide hit, you’re gambling every year. If it’s doing OK and the executives like you, you have a pretty good shot. If it’s doing OK and they don’t like you, then you’re dead.
S: Do they like you?
JM: You mean personally? I hope so. I learned long ago to never guess what’s going to happen in the entertainment business. Art and commerce put together — which is what television and movies are — it’s the most unpredictable business I’ve ever been a part of. I would assume that squirrel-suit jumping or treasure hunting in the ocean are probably more reliable.
Catch up on the first season of “The Great Indoors” at Cbs.com.
Photo at top by Cliff Lipson/CBS