Out of Control

Out of Control

By Michael Pickard
May 4, 2023


In Fox comedy Animal Control, star Joel McHale shares the spotlight with a host of furry and feathered co-stars. DQ speaks to the former Community man about making the series and finding the secret recipe for sitcom success.

Scrolling through dozens of photographs on his phone, actor, presenter and stand-up comic Joel McHale is pointing out some of the co-stars on his latest television series.

“That’s a Burmese python,” he says. “That’s an anaconda, which is way bigger. The heaviest snake on the planet – it was 16 feet long. That’s a sloth, which are super nice. And that is a tarantula, and her name is Gretchen.”

But signing up to a show called Animal Control, McHale had a fair idea of what he was getting himself into. “I assumed it kind of came with the territory,” he jokes. “If it was called ‘Hang Gliders,’ then I’d have been like, ‘Probably there’s going to be a hang glider here.’

“They did ask, ‘Are you afraid of animals?’ No, I get very excited. I did Shark Week for Discovery and I couldn’t get enough of it. I probably have a naïveté. I’m like, ‘Oh, what’s the worst that can happen?’ But with the animals we got to be around, they’re all rescues. They’re all very familiar with human beings, so it wasn’t like ‘Wanna hold the cougar? We’ll just go grab one out of the woods. It’ll be fine, right?’”

The series follows a group of local Animal Control workers in Seattle whose lives are complicated by the fact that animals are simple, but humans are not. McHale stars as Frank, an opinionated, eccentric officer who might not have gone to college but is still the most well-read person in the room.

A former cop, Frank tried to expose corruption in his department, but his efforts got him fired, which explains why he’s so cynical and curmudgeonly. And although he has an almost superhuman ability to understand animals, he finds his human co-workers more difficult.

His colleagues include rookie Fred ‘Shred’ Taylor (Michael Rowland), Amit Patel (Ravi Patel) and Victoria Sands (Grace Palmer), who all report to sweet-natured but awkward boss Emily Price (Vella Lovell). The team also features veterinarian Dr Summers (Alvina August), receptionist Dolores Stubb (Kelli Ogmundson) and Templeton Dudge (Gerry Dee), an Animal Control officer from a neighbouring precinct with a real chip on his shoulder.

Best known for starring in college-set comedy Community and as the host of Fox reality series Crime Scene Kitchen, McHale admits he initially thought Animal Control had been done before when he first read the script. “But it hasn’t, so that’s a good sign when it’s something familiar,” he says. “It was terrific; I thought the jokes were really good, and when I saw the group of people [involved], I thought this was a sandbox you can play in.”

In a show with episode titles such as Weasels & Ostriches, Rabbits & Pythons and Cougars & Kangaroos, the animals are “really the secret weapon,” he continues, “because if you’re watching them on screen, you automatically connect with them even if you’re not connecting with anything else, because people love animals. I thought that factor would bring in great physical comedy and create unending amounts of material for us to go after.

In Animal Control, Joel McHale (left) plays former cop Frank

“The first season of anything is like everyone’s getting their sea legs and getting it together. But out of the gate, it’s pretty darn watchable. The cast are exceptional and that comes across on screen. That’s why I wanted to do it, and I know the creators were all heavy-hitters in the business so hopefully that combination of ingredients, like when you bake a cake, all comes together, much like on Crime Scene Kitchen.”

For someone who grew up around animals, and used to capture rattlesnakes that had inadvertently slithered into his garden near LA’s Griffith Park, playing Frank and working on a set filled with a menagerie of animals on a daily basis – all the time supported by workers from welfare organisation The Humane Society – is a “dream come true.”

“Every time I would send a photo to my wife, she’d be like, ‘This really is the perfect fucking job for you,’” says the star, who is also an executive producer on the series. “At home I have three dogs and we used to have two rabbits. She knows I would bring home all the frickin’ animals I could.”

Unsurprisingly, the animals brought a different dynamic to the set. But the series – created by Bob Fisher (Wedding Crashers), Rob Greenberg (Frasier) and Dan Sterling (Long Shot) and produced by Fox Entertainment Studios – also used visual effects and puppets to bring its guest stars to life.

“I was chasing a CGI fox in an empty swimming pool, where it was me and a guy on a skateboard,” McHale recalls. “That was the only time I was truly terrified because I was like, ‘I’m going to break my ankles so bad.’ I thought, ‘It’s going to be a shitshow when my bone is sticking out of my ankle.’ And then it was OK. I didn’t break my ankle. That was literally the only time they were like, ‘Can you do another?’ but I’m like, ‘I can. But every time we do this, it is like me going all in with all my money here at this roulette table.’”

As well as the animals, McHale’s co-stars include Michael Rowland as rookie Fred ‘Shred’ Taylor

The actor praises his fellow cast members, explaining that they immediately bonded at the chemistry script reads. “We really do like each other,” he says. “And the level of talent is, as I think you see up there, pretty unique. There’s not a weak link in the whole cast.”

Viewers seem to agree. Launching on Fox in February, Animal Control became the US network’s most-streamed scripted debut ever, drawing 4.5 million viewers across multiple platforms, including 1.3 million viewers online. The show is distributed internationally by Fox Entertainment Global.

But with broadcast television languishing in the shadows of the plethora of series available on numerous streaming platforms, is there a secret to ensuring Animal Control can continue to break through to audiences? The season finale airs tonight.

“If we knew the magic code, every show would be a hit,” McHale says. “Even when they do get the magic code and it doesn’t work, then it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, people just didn’t respond.’ And then you see comedies and dramas that are on the air for 1,000 years and you’re like, ‘That wasn’t the greatest show, but it was good. Why did that one have such legs?’ And I don’t know.”

The conundrum leads the actor to look back on his time spent on Community, Dan Harmon’s series that was beset by struggling ratings and schedule shifts when it first aired on NBC but has since become a cult phenomenon.

Grace Palmer (left), who plays Victoria, cosies up to a llama on set

“Community was considered bad, weird and wasn’t going to make it in its first season. And then, much like herpes, we flared up and something else failed and we got a second season, and now it’s like all part of the story of it all, where Community sailed off into the ocean as the greatest niche comedy ever,” he says.

“I don’t know what the secret code is, but I do know if you get a lot of talented people together and the network allows us to make stuff that they like and we like and it’s not too heavily scrutinised and you can just let the performances fly, we’ll be better than most. When you get something like Ted Lasso or The Goldbergs or [Harmon’s animated series] Rick & Morty, when something breaks through, it is such an anomaly.”

A long-anticipated Community movie is now set to be released this summer, while a second season of Animal Control is yet to be confirmed. Regardless, “I really do believe in the show,” McHale says. “I’ve been on shows that I know sucked and I just pretended [they didn’t]. And so this is one of those things where I’m like, ‘Hey, I think we got it all together.’ And I hope it keeps going. I think the animals and the cast have a universal appeal. If not, then I’ll return the uniform.”

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