Dan Snierson
September 04, 2009 AT 04:00 AM EDT

”Don’t steal my joke!” It’s a desperate plea, and Joel McHale is reveling in it. Yesterday, on the set of the new college comedy Community, one of McHale’s costars, Yvette Nicole Brown, had improvised a funny talk-to-the-hand shutdown; today, while rehearsing a different scene, McHale teasingly cribs the gag when he needs a comical exit. Now Brown’s begging the Soup host-turned-sitcom star not to swipe her bit, so he does what he does best: turn up the torture.

”Don’t you think it’s going to be much funnier rolling off my lips?”

”I hope you realize that what you’re doing is wrong,” she says with a smile. ”Terribly, terribly wrong.”

”Biblically, what I’m doing is totally fine. There’s nothing in there about stealing jokes—”

”There is something about stealing: Thou shalt not steal!”

Fear not, McHale’s not going to steal any jokes — he’s got plenty of his own, thank you. For the last five years, the six-foot-four beanstalk of a comedian has amassed a dedicated following as host of E!’s reality-TV-tweaking showcase The Soup, serving up deliciously tart comedy pies made from television’s low-hanging fruit. Now he’s extending his pop culture reach: In Community, one of the fall’s buzziest new shows (which premieres Sept. 17), he plays Jeff Winger, a quip-witted, morally questionable lawyer who must humble himself by attending community college after his undergrad degree is revoked. And on Sept. 18, he’ll appear in movie theaters with a straight-faced turn as an FBI agent in Steven Soderbergh’s corporate thriller-comedy The Informant!, starring Matt Damon. That may seem like a stretch for a snarky basic-cable emcee, but McHale always knew his E! gig had potential — just look at what it did for one of his Soup predecessors. ”I never thought of myself as a host,” says McHale, 37. ”When the audition [for The Soup] came up, I thought, ‘If this can do one-tenth for me what it did for Greg Kinnear, great.”’

McHale was born with a deficiency of self-doubt. Recruited by the crew team at the University of Washington, the Seattle-area native decided to try out for the football team — a.k.a. the defending national champions. He made it. ”I played freshman football in high school,” he says with a shrug, ”so I kind of knew what I was doing.” He later quit the team to focus on acting after scoring a national Ford commercial. (Hey, he’d done some theater in high school, too.) After starring on a local sketch-comedy show and earning a graduate degree in acting, McHale moved to Los Angeles in 2000 with his wife, Sarah, and logged bit TV parts (Diagnosis Murder, Will & Grace) and commercial work (Burger King, Ameritrade).

His fortunes improved in 2004, when E! revived its Talk Soup brand (Kinnear’s former home) with a pilot that became The Soup, and signed McHale to host. While the show started small — the first season averaged just 216,000 viewers — it now quadruples that amount on its Friday-night premieres, largely on the strength of McHale’s jokes about loathsome, lascivious, and/or oblivious reality TV personalities. ”My mom and dad told me to be nice to everybody and give people the benefit of the doubt,” explains McHale, the churchgoing father of two sons, Isaac, 1, and Eddie, 4. ”You show as much respect as you can to someone — until they go on the Rock of Love bus.” Adds Ted Harbert, CEO of Comcast Entertainment Group (which runs E!): ”Eighty percent of Joel is just a good, regular guy, so when he has to go put on the 20 percent edge, he knows where that edge is, and that’s why the audience loves him.” McHale says he still enjoys the gig five years later and isn’t looking to run for the exit. ”I used to yell in my underwear back at the television,” he says. ”At least now I get to wear a fancy suit — or the top half of a fancy suit.” (His E! contract runs through the end of 2010, and he’ll shoot both Community and The Soup simultaneously.)

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