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The Vacation movies made you a national hero. When you appear on talk shows, the applause is still deafening. How does that feel?
[Chuckles] I don't know. Oh well, they do that to anybody; could you imagine them booing? Have you ever seen a talk show where somebody boos? [In announcer voice] "Frank D'Angelo, ladies and gentlemen!"
Your Community character, Pierce Hawthorne, represents a turnaround for you.
[Laughs] If nothing else, it's made me a better actor. All I was before was just a personality who played Clark, who played Fletch. With this one, I'm playing against who I really am. Fletch is really like me. This Pierce Hawthorne, you're never quite sure what's going to happen with him. He's just a little bit nuts.
Is it a relief to not have to play someone handsome and lovable?
Oh yeah, and it makes it easier to put weight on. Now [my wife] Jayni's gonna go nuts if I put any more on. We're starting a program of taking it off now. Plus, I have one third of the hair I had before, if that much, and it's all grey. And I'm older.
I like how his wealth allows him to indulge his fantasies.
Not only that, but he's a bigot. He's so prejudiced, so far behind, it's almost like he came from the '20s or '30s. In terms of understanding racism or religion, he just kind of says what he says. It's never appropriate, and that, to me, is the mark of a man I have to play. [Laughs]
Is there a difference between humor today and 20 years ago?
Of course. It's always going to depend on the humor of the people—that is to say the perspective and the social mores and taboos, which do change over a period of time. When I think about the '60s through the early '70s, those were drug years, those were pot-smoking years. And so much of the humor that we did back then was done on pot, for people who smoked pot. [Laughs] It was just another generation at that time.
And what's everybody doing these days?
It's quite amazing to see how now if I go into the show in the mornings, the big drug of choice is a bottle of fresh water. [Laughs theatrically] Just keep hydrated and healthy. This is the way the world is. It changes, and it learns from itself, and that's going to obviously change perspectives and the way humor—which is perspective—is received.
What puts a smile on your face in the morning?
Oh! I do. [Laughs] Jayni's always up a little earlier than I am, and I go into the bathroom where she's getting prepared for the day and I start clowning around. I think that's when we laugh the most. But, listen: In being a, quote, "cynic," it just means I care less about many things and mostly care to make people laugh. It's just a part of me. There's plenty to smile about.
Let me ask you about your musicianship. You have perfect pitch, correct?
So if I asked you to sing an E, you could just sing it?
[Sings] Eeeeee! [Ed. note: It is, indeed, an E].
What do you play for pleasure when you're at home?
[Laughs] No, no. I wonder if Paul [Simon] does that when he's home, just the bass? No, I don't think so. I play piano.
Paul Simon is a good friend of yours. When did you first meet?
The first year of Saturday Night Live. He just became a great friend of Lorne's and mine. He'd be in the office with us late into the night while we were working out what sketches would be what and on when, what was funny or what wasn't. He just fit right in. It's funny, the two Paul's [Simon and McCartney] are our best music friends.
Have you ever had a nice family get-together with both of them there?
No! Jayni, have we ever had a dinner or something with both Pauls? Oh yeah, we used to every Sunday. I forget these things.
Community's third season premieres Thu 22 on NBC.