Emmy Watch: Joel McHale on the 'Community' season finale

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Between now and June 28, the deadline for Emmy voters to return nomination ballots, EW.com is running a series called Emmy Watch, featuring highlight clips and interviews with actors, producers, and writers whom EW TV critic Ken Tucker has on his wish list for the nominations announcement on July 19.

As disgraced former lawyer-turned-community college student Jeff Winger, Joel McHale has delivered a few speeches in his time on Community. The show even poked fun at Jeff’s frequent soliloquizing in an episode last season. But few scenes were a better showcase for actor and character than the courtroom drama which closed out the show’s third season finale. Jeff was serving (somewhat against his will) as an attorney in the trial to decide whether Pierce or Shirley get to own the college’s new sandwich shop. Jeff is working for Shirley; Pierce hires Jeff’s old co-worker, Alan, played by guest star Rob Corddry. Alan offers Jeff an ultimatum: Throw the case, or never get his old job back. In his closing arguments, Jeff initially seems to be throwing the case…but then he takes a left turn, demonstrating just how he’s evolved over three seasons. Watch the speech below, and then learn more about how the speech came together. (Hint: Prep time was at a minimum.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How long did you have to memorize the speech?
JOEL MCHALE: The final words weren’t really ready until that morning. So I taped The Soup, and I had to do this monster speech. I actually did Morgan Spurlock’s A Day in the Life, and they happened to get me on that day. Poor Morgan Spurlock’s camera crew sat there while I sat down on a bench and I learned the s— out of this thing. I drilled myself. When you learn something, it’s not necessarily good yet. You have to know what you’re saying. You need to say it correctly. You need to say it well.

There’s a sense watching that episode that it was written as a potential series finale. Did that add extra pressure to that speech?

The speech was such a well-written speech, and it did wrap up a lot of stuff. But because we shot it out of order – we knew it was the finale, but we had two other episodes to shoot – there wasn’t a sense, like, “This might be it. This is the last episode of Gunsmoke.” That was the longest-running show in history. Could you imagine the last day of shooting on that show? And I have not smart-levels of confidence about the show. I know it’s a good show, even if that doesn’t necessarily guarantee it’s going to be on the air. I’m proud of the show, and no matter what happens, I can look back and go: That was something great. I’m unapologetic about it.

Was it common to get scripts like that? Right before filming?
That’s true of a lot of shows. There’s rewrites and rewrites, and streamlining due to time constrictions. You only have 22 minutes. Used to be 29 — you lose so much! I think [that speech] came right out of Dan’s brain. He writes those speeches, and it’s not an effort for him. For someone like me, you’d have to put me on a desert island… I didn’t get there until a little later in the day, because of The Soup, and we knew that speech had to be done that day, because as soon as we were done, they were gonna wreck it and turn it into the air conditioning school. That happened a lot, actually.You’re on a runaway train, and it’s like, “Hey guys, this little room we’re all in right now will be destroyed when we stop the train.”

You mentioned that the speech came right out of Dan Harmon’s brain. Is it weird to think about returning to the show without him?
It is weird. It’s a bizarre time. I did not see that coming. But I know the new showrunners. I worked with them on a thing called The IT Crowd. And they did retain a lot of writers. And they have the cast back.

Do you think it will be a markedly different kind of show?
It will look very much like the show Grimm. And we’re on right before Grimm, so you will not feel a difference. A lot of the same makeup and prosthetics. No, nobody wants to mess with what the show is. That would be foolhardy, because one of the allures of the show is its uniqueness.

Is it difficult for you to jump between of The Soup mode and into Community?
Of all the problems to have in the world, if this is one where I have to make a transition, then believe me, I’m happy to do it. It’s a different muscle. It’s not like I’m switching to Daylight Savings, or what they did in Sweden, where they used to drive on the left side of the road, and they switched to the right side. In one night they made that transition, did you know that? It was crazy. They say it actually worked.

Well, they’re Swedish. They have a hive mind.
They’re Swedish. They’re healthy. Terrific beer. The sun never comes out. They’re all good-looking. Bastards.

This speech really does give you the sense that Jeff has evolved considerably over the course of the show. Has it been interesting playing that evolution?
You know, people always say “People can’t change.” And it’s more like people can change, but it’s usually gradual. Jeff has made sacrifices and discoveries in little bits. Now, he’s finally saying: I’m not going back to my old life over this dumb court case thing. Much like a frog, if you throw it into boiling water, it jumps out. If you put it in cold water and then heat it up, it will slowly boil to death. That’s what happened to Jeff.

A lot of the stuff I’m saying in this speech, there’s not a ton of jokes. But everything around me is funny. I’m looking over at Abed standing there with a bonesaw. And the Dean dressed up as Blind Justice; I can’t wait until you see the outtakes of that. And then you have Rob Corddry, freaking nailing it on every single take. All these huge comedic guns helping me out through a speech that can sound pretty serious. It couldn’t be a goofy speech.

You were the gravitas delivery system.
It was a buffered aspirin. We’re gonna give you what you need, but we’re gonna disguise it. Like an Advil with sugar coating. It’s an Advil ad! Hi, I’m Joel McHale!

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

Read more:
Ken Tucker’s Emmy Watch: Nominations I Wish I’ll See

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