Throwing Joel McHale a curveball with a football question was not my plan, but asking comedians questions they don’t normally get is a badge of honor I wear proudly.
That explains why I was grinning after posing a question about football and brain injuries to McHale during a Thursday afternoon interview and hearing McHale’s initial reply, which was a question he immediately had for me. My Q and As feature almost exclusively one-way traffic, but I enjoy it when a comedian becomes the interviewer every once in a while.
McHale, who is headlining Goodnights Comedy Club in Raleigh this week, and I went on discuss our concussion histories and I know I’m biased, but I think it’s a compelling conversation.
We also discussed his start in stand-up, the consistently funny show he hosted — “The Soup” — on E! for 12 years, one of his previous North Carolina experiences and more.
Enjoy the interview, follow McHale on Twitter and don’t forget The Best Tweet I Can Find in Five Minutes at the end.
Tony Castleberry: Was stand-up comedy your first foray into arts and entertainment?
Joel McHale: No, I was a fluffer. [interviewer laughs]
The first thing I ever did with earnestness…I did plays and then I really got into improvising and I did that for years. I didn’t really start doing stand-up until I got to Los Angeles, which was 17 years ago. To me, that seems like yesterday, but for all you young people out there, I know that you’ll go, “He’s the oldest man alive.” But I did tons of improv, tons of sketch. My friend, Sue Taylor, kind of got me into stand-up and then when “The Soup” was on, I started doing it with great earnestness. I guess about 13 years ago is when I really got into it.
TC: I’m guessing you have run into some of the people you poked fun at on “The Soup.” Were those encounters usually civil or were some of them pissed?
JM: No one, well, let’s see. At the time, only Tyra Banks was truly pissed. She tried to stop (a segment). I have since seen her socially and she’s lovely.
I saw Lindsay Lohan at events back in 2005 and I steered clear because I thought she was gonna hit me.
No one has said, “How dare you!” We made so much fun of reality stars. For the most part, when we would do that, they were thankful. “Thank you for making fun of me. You made me famous for five more minutes” with this tiny ability I had on a basic cable show. No one ever sent a death threat or anything like that. We always tried to let the story hang the person that (the story) was about. We were never like, “Oh, we’re finally going after that…” whoever. If you did something stupid, we would point it out. If somebody ran up and said, “You made fun of my DUI.” Yeah, don’t drink and drive, buddy. It solves itself.
Tori Spelling, when her reality show was on with her husband, they talked about anal. If you’re gonna talk about that on national television, we will bring that up. I actually saw her at a movie premier, and she was quite friendly. I was like, “I hope the anal was good.”
TC: [laughs] We’re men of a similar age and your football career1 lasted much longer than mine, but I feel like I had a lot of undiagnosed concussions when I was young. We played full-on backyard tackle games with no pads or helmets. Did you do that as well and if so, are you worried about head injuries affecting you as you age?
JM: Dear God. Just out of curiosity, what made you bring this up?
TC: I think about it a lot. I really do. I’ve mostly stopped watching the NFL and all the information we have now about concussions has caused me to rethink my stance on it and evaluate the head trauma I had and how it affects me now. I knew you had a football background and that’s why I asked you.
JM: Well, I have had seven concussions and a skull fracture. The skull fracture was from skiing. That was in the days before anybody wore helmets skiing. Now when you see helmets skiing, it seems like such a logical thing. Of course, you’re going 30 miles an hour down a mountain on greased blades so yes, you should be wearing a helmet.
I did a lot of tight-ending or whatever you wanna call it, so I was on the line a lot. After almost every practice, I felt like I’d just had one beer. That’s not normal.
All my other concussions did not come from football. They came from being an idiot and saying the words, “Watch this” and then me doing something stupid. I would say my memory has absolutely been affected. I guess it could be (from) drinking as well and lack of sleep. I don’t know. People are like, “Drinking can turn your brain to mush, I think” and I’m like, “Nothing ever stopped that.”
I cannot measure what my brain would be like if I didn’t have head injuries. I have no clue. … Then again, I have friends who’ve never had brain injuries and they can’t remember shit. [interviewer laughs] Like, I have 27 first cousins — I know, it seems like I’m from the South — but I can’t remember their names whenever I’m with them. My wife will be like, “I can remember everything from college. I can tell you almost everything they taught me that I paid attention to.” I’m a huge World War II fanatic and war historian and I can tell you the number of times there have been battles in the Ardennes Forest, but I don’t remember that (college) shit.
TC: I remember being knocked out cold at a football practice when I was in seventh grade and getting the smelling salts. That’s what they did to revive you and I was at practice the next day. That could never happen now, thank God. I just think about it from time to time. It’s something to consider.
JM: Oh yeah. There’s less head injuries in rugby. With the helmet (in American football), it gives you a false sense of safety and you end up using your head as a weapon. You don’t protect it as naturally because you think, “Oh, I’ve got this thing that’s gonna stop me.” I know that in the NFL now, you get in trouble for (leading with the helmet) and you get fined and all that stuff. That’s good and I know there are a couple of teams that are practicing more rugby tackles than they are trying to rip someone’s head off. It is a dangerous, violent game that I love watching.
This is my personal theory, and obviously concussions are bad, but going to practice every single day for years and smacking your head into something every day, I feel like that’s probably worse than getting knocked out a couple of times.
TC: I totally agree. How many trips have you taken to North Carolina?
JM: I did a college there and I think I was in…Durham?
JM: Yes, I played a theater there and it was lovely. It was announced the day before (the show) that your wonderful state government was making people bring their birth certificates to bathrooms. I donated my entire fee to the LGBTQ center.
JM: I’m a really great guy.
TC: Yes, I’ll make sure to point that out in the interview.
JM: [laughs] After every sentence, just put, “Wow, what a guy I am.”
Here it is, The Best Tweet I Can Find in Five Minutes:
You know who I️ am. Viewing AGENTS OF SHIELD was part of the foreign policy syllabus at the diploma mill where you got your PhD. https://t.co/uv897n9YiH
— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) November 3, 2017
- McHale was good enough to walk on the University of Washington football team in the early 1990s. ↩