Joel McHale plays Jeff Winger, a member of a quirky study group on NBC's… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)
Joel McHale has the kind of face you might recognize without knowing where you've seen him. Before sitting down for an interview at a sidewalk café, McHale disappears inside and a middle-aged woman seated outdoors does a double-take, trying to peg him: He's on that show … on CBS … or is it NBC?
When McHale later returns and plants himself in a nearby table, he acts exaggeratedly important. "Is this thing on?" he mutters into the tape recorder." I need to promote this huge NBC show. Have you heard of it? It's gets like 35 million viewers a week."
The 40-year-old comedic actor drolly talks about the network's quirky third-season comedy "Community," in which he stars as Jeff Winger. "Huge" it definitely is not, at least in ratings terms. That 35 million viewers a week actually teeters under a stunted 4 million.
McHale is so dedicated to his superstar bit that he's completely unaware of a real devotee standing nearby: a young man with a backwards baseball cap, elbowing his friend--"look, it's Jeff Winger"--while snapping photos with his iPhone.
"Community" —a vortex of pop culture allusions and spoofs involving a group of oddball students at an equally oddball community college—has found a fierce following among young viewers who don't necessarily watch in traditional, Nielsen-friendly ways: They are more likely to catch it later on DVR or, in some cases, ignore TV altogether, preferring to watch online instead.
The result is a show that has fostered an identity as an underdog among Thursday night powerhouses like "American Idol" and "The Big Bang Theory." It returns today after NBC benched it in the winter, midway through its third season, to make room for the return of the network's eminent comedy "30 Rock."
"Community's" struggle to gain traction in the traditional mode of viewing—which translates to greater success in Nielsen rankings—makes for a somewhat serious discussion for the otherwise jovial funnyman. Seated outside Larchmont Village Wine & Cheese, where McHale hustled making sandwiches and stocking wine before his career took off, the actor eventually reins in his daft persona to speak un-ironically about the series.
"This show has so much heart," McHale said earnestly. "There's no cookie-cutter characters here—there's depth and in such odd ways. And its great to be part of something that makes no qualms about being different." While he may be the most high-profile actor on "Community" —aside from Chevy Chase—McHale clearly sees it as a team effort, constantly referencing co-stars Alison Brie, Yvette Nicole Brown, Gillian Jacobs, Donald Glover and Danny Pudi.
He continued: "Where else can you find a character who gets sexually aroused by Dalmation costumes? Or a Middle Eastern character with Asperger's who can only relate to the world through pop culture references? And then there I am singing Seal's "Kiss By a Rose." There's paintball battles. There's zombies. Dungeons and Dragons. It's brilliant."
Of course, the things that make "Community" charming also act as roadblocks to the uninitiated. The show is rife with insular jokes that devoted viewers watch and re-watch, rummaging for obscure pop culture references they may have overlooked..
Kim Rozenfeld, executive vice president of current programming for Sony Pictures Television, which produces the show, noted that "'Community" is "a really weird animal."
"It has such a rabid, loyal fanbase, and yet there has always been a struggle to quantify that metrically in terms of ratings because of how people digest the show," he said. "I think it's the thing that continues to motivate [creator] Dan Harmon, because when you get those numbers each week, it's a little frustrating."
When the show got shelved in December, its disciples rallied on Twitter and various internet outlets, setting up Facebook pages and online petitions urging NBC to keep TV's most underrated on the air. In a bit of good timing, a deal in December with the web site Hulu made earlier "Community" episodes available to an audience that had not yet caught up to them.
"It's just the reality of the way TV is changing," McHale said. As evidence, he lists thousand-comment threads from fans on sites, page views of fan videos, the less-than stellar ratings the critically-lauded "30 Rock" also received in the 8 p.m. time slot and the assembly of fans to spread the word electronically. He also hints that the series hasn't exactly been a priority for the network.
"I would love to have the money [NBC] poured—and poured and poured--into 'Smash.' That would be great--Bob, please?" McHale said, referring to NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt and his costly investment in the freshman drama. "That same kind of huge, international, solar-system wide loud screaming support for 'Community' would have been great." Neither Greenblatt, or any another NBC executive, was available to comment on the show and its chances for renewal.