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 cafe, 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 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 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 ratings-wise. That 35 million viewers a week actually teeters under a stunted 4 million.
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.
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 returned last week 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.
“This show has so much heart,” McHale said. “There’s no cookie-cutter characters here — there’s depth and in such odd ways. And it’s great to be part of something that makes no qualms about being different.” Although he may be the most high-profile actor on Community — aside from Chevy Chase — McHale clearly sees it as a team effort, constantly referencing costars 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 Dalmatian 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 From a Rose.’ There’s paintball battles. There’s zombies. Dungeons & 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 rewatch, 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 fan base, 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 show 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. 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.
Even if Community got nixed after this season, McHale wouldn’t be out of work. He has carved a small film career, appearing in a Spy Kids sequel and What’s Your Number? and the upcoming Seth MacFarlane movie Ted. And he continues to host E! network’s cult favorite The Soup, which he’s been doing since 2004.
Pressed to consider the possibility of a life without the fictional study group, though, he returns to humor: “I think I’ll probably finally clean my garage if we don’t get renewed. I’ve got this one cupboard that’s just got a ton of crap in it. Then, obviously, I’ll sail the world. I really, really, really, really don’t want to do those things, so I need this show to stay on the air.”