Community's Danny Pudi on Playing TV's Funniest Neurotic: 'Abed's Not Emotionless'
While Joel McHale's wryness sets the tone on NBC's hilarious Community, it's Danny Pudi's contributions as the brainy, jolting Abed that fiercely punctuate the show's ensemble. Abed's been funny, reflective, and childlike in Community's second season, and for the Chicago-born Pudi, those facets have posed an irresistible acting challenge. We spoke with Pudi last week about Abed's complicated headspace, relating to his role, and Community's fairytale tendencies.
When I thought about your character on Community, I said to myself, "Another great neurotic in this new wave of great neurotic characters!" Then I thought about it again and realized your character's the only great new neurotic I can think of. Do you feel alone playing this guy?
I do feel lonely sometimes. That's just a fact. [Laughs.] But I think Abed is much more intelligent and fast than I am as a person. I feel like there's a lot that I can relate to, though, in terms of not necessarily knowing what's going on around you but trying to figure it out. Also, at the base of it, he's half-Indian and half-white. I'm half-Indian, half-Polish. Those kinds of common things -- like growing up in a household where your parents don't fully get you. I grew up in a single-parent household with my mom, who really does embrace my weirdness and quirkiness. She's always tried to push me towards careers outside of doctoring and mathematics, where she knew I'd probably fail. [Laughs.]
But in many ways with Abed what I love -- thanks to [Community creator] Dan Harmon -- is how I lucky feel to play a character that is so rich. It's not just a jokey character who you'd dismiss right away and be like, "I don't get that guy. That guy's weird." It's much more complex than that. He's able to see things a lot of things other characters aren't able to see. He's able to see what's taking place with group dynamics. He's able to take this group together and kind of shuffle them towards someplace else. He also has a need for power and control like anyone else, but to be able to play a character who's sort of neurotic but also unpredictable and smarter than me? It's a wonderful gift.
Tell me more about Abed's darker side. I'm sure that's part of what makes playing him so interesting for you.
This has been a dark season in many ways. If you look at a lot of the characters here, we've seen many of them at their lowest points. Many times this season it's been about getting to the root of these characters and what makes them tick. I mean, the Christmas episode? If you listen to the script itself, it's like, "Every year, my mom comes on December 9th. Every year, my mom comes on December 9th." But Donald [Glover]'s character Troy is like, "But Abed, it's December 9th!" Mom didn't come. My mom sends me a letter saying she's with a new family. There are a lot of very serious things there that Abed is trying to process as hard as he can with all his gifts and ability to recognize patterns and that kind of thing. There are still emotions that he doesn't know how to handle or deal with or address -- or how to feel. He also doesn't understand why people feel a certain way, and he's just trying to connect those things. Lots of times people tell me, "Abed's emotionless." I don't know about that. I just think that Abed doesn't necessarily have the normal way of expressing emotion that you would.
[On the other hand], Troy is pure emotion. When you see Troy and Abed together, it's like pure emotion and pure joy. When Troy's happy, he's happy. When he's sad, he's very sad. Abed's much more like, "I'm trying to figure this out. What is going on right now? I'm assessing it and figuring it out." When Troy, Abed, and Alison's character Annie were chloroforming the janitor, all of them are freaking out when Annie did that. Troy's freaking out and running around. Annie's freaking out. Abed's like, "I think I have an idea." Right away, Abed's processing it. Processing. "Let's figure it out. Remedy it." For him, his emotions [are centered in] trying to make things right. It's an incredible challenge, which I love.
Much has been said about Community's triumphant progress, but I wonder if its drastic tonal changes ever surprised you. Are your inspirations for your performance the same now as they were when you started the show?
To be honest, I don't watch a lot of TV during the season. I think it helps me to not watch too much, because I don't want to take much from other places. I really try to read each script and live Abed and think about Abed. Not that I'm method or anything like that, because my wife would kill me. I really just try to see it how Abed sees it, every script and episode. I do watch a lot of movies, and during the summertime I'll definitely watch a lot of things, but I think it helps me not to think about how other people are doing things. I try not to read much about stuff like that. I read a lot of books, but I try to really just focus on stories and Abed and that world, creating that as much as possible.
You said you disagreed with viewers who call Abed "emotionless." Are you often surprised by how people perceive the character? He makes such an impression.
Oh, completely, which I love. I like that. To me, he's refreshing. With Abed, I feel so blessed to be able a character who is never dismissed right away as "wacky sidekick." That's the thing about our show -- we don't just say this is the "wacky sidekick" or that's "the crazy neighbor" or that's "the stupid best friend." These people have flaws. They clearly have flaws. Abed has many flaws. At the same time, it's so honest and they're trying. Abed is always trying. There's always trying to get better and figure things out. As far as being surprised by perception, I'm surprised any time anybody comes up to me and says, "I love your show." Not that I shouldn't be, but like, this is my first show. I've never known what it's like. Any time a stranger comes up to me and it's not my mom, my sister, my cousin or my agent, and they're like, "I like your show," I'm always like, "Really? What's your favorite episode?" And then when they say, "Modern Warfare," I'm like, "Oh. Totally." I mean, I'm a fan of the show, but I know I'm a little bit aloof. I can be aloof. But I also know I'm an actor, so for me and my show, I live in a sort of bubble. I don't necessarily know who else is going to like it.
My favorite Abed episode is the Mean Girls-ish one with Hilary Duff, where he realizes he's good at sassy putdowns. I'd say we learned a bit about him there, wouldn't you?
Well, the reason I love that episode is because it's combined with the trampoline sequence. I think that's the sort of amazing thing about our show. If you combine a guy who's burning all the guys on campus with Hilary Duff with another storyline that involves a trampoline with a racist, I think any other show would be like, "Guys, what are you doing? How does that work together?" The fact that there's a connection there is an incredible job by the writers. I love that episode for many reasons: It is a skill, but Abed is also, like, "I'm trying to figure out what we're doing here. So [burning people with insults] is OK to do? You're telling me this is OK to do?" But when I'm doing it, all the sudden I'm realizing, wait a minute, there's a pattern here. I'm doing it, but I'm becoming more and more isolated. You see in that episode after Abed burns everybody in the cafeteria, he thinks he's having a good time because his friends are reinforcing him. He goes, pokes his juice box, and all the sudden he's very alone. I think Abed has a fear of being alone, you know? Although he's burning everybody and there's Hilary Duff, there's still that -- "Holy crap. I see what my need for power and control can potentially do." I think that's like any of us here. We're constantly struggling with parts of our personality that we love and parts we don't, that kind of thing. You see that Abed has a skill for burning people, but I think he realizes, "I don't know if this is a good skill to totally just exploit."
It's fun to watch him "get" things. He's precious, but never in a heavy-handed way. He's part Little Prince, part WALL-E, I guess.
Some of the simplest things are like -- like, Toy Story 3? I mean, I love a good children's book in some ways because it'll give you a message and it'll just be really dark. "Don't eat the candy in the house, Hansel and Gretel, or you'll have to push the lady in the oven!" It's very simple, very dark, and it teaches you a lesson. Dan [Harmon] talked about it today, but there's always a -- not sappiness, but sweetness to our show that I love because there's always a "These people just tried" quality. They messed up a little bit, but at the end of the day they're good people who are trying to be better.