Have you seen Donald Glover shirtless? If you saw Community’s Halloween episode this year, you have, and you know guys that ripped usually aren’t funny. But as Troy, the sometimes-dense ex-football player on NBC’s Community, Glover is hilarious. Before his role as Troy, Glover wrote for 30 Rock, where his writing was nominated for an Emmy. He recently started doing stand-up, and he’ll be bringing his act to Mandel Hall this weekend. Before the show, the Maroon talked to him about his favorite jokes, the difference between acting and writing, and getting free stuff.
Chicago MAROON: What about Community drew you to the project?
Donald Glover: The pilot script was really funny...Dan Harmon, the creator, really knows his comedy. It was a job that I thought could go either way, and thank God it turned out this well, because I think Dan Harmon knows what he’s doing. It’s allowed me to do comedy and be myself. I think it is the only comedy that really allows me to be myself. Troy’s character is a lot like me now, and I don’t think on any other show I’d be allowed to do that, so I’m very thankful.
CM: Most episodes of Community end with a clip of Troy and Abed. Which one is your favorite?
DG: I like the Ernie and Bert one a lot. I like the Muppet thing, but also the acting is really dark. I can’t believe NBC let us [make a joke about going to a funeral]. I have that line: “Oh, my cousin’s funeral is today!” I thought they were going to be like, “no, that’s way too dark, why did you say that?” My favorite things are Muppets and sad jokes, so I was happy about that.
CM: Why did you decide to make the switch from writing for 30 Rock to acting on Community?
DG: First of all, writing’s really hard. It’s really, really hard. It’s long nights and you’re banging your head against the wall, trying to make stuff work...And people don’t give you a lot of free shit when you write. That’s the main reason I became an actor, to step up my free shit game...I mean, the first day I was on Community, Joel McHale gave me free silver moon boots, these kind of Kanye shoes that I fucking loved. And Band of Outsiders gave me a whole bunch of free stuff, and I love their shit. I’ve gotten…you know, free hugs!
CM: What was the transition from writing to acting like? Was there anything about acting you thought was weird or strange at first?
DG: I was always acting and writing, both at the same time—you know, when you write your own stuff and you just perform it. I guess the [main difference] is that people care, or pretend to care about your health. As an actor people are always like, “Are you getting enough sleep?” “I want to make sure you get enough ginger in your diet so that you, like, feel good.” “Put this on your eyes to make sure you look good.” People are worried about your health because it affects the show immediately.
As a writer, no one gives a fuck. I was eating like shit, I never worked out, I stayed up...If I didn’t get enough sleep, people were like, “Good, that means you’re doing your job. Shut up and work.” It’s not that people care about me more, it’s just that your outward appearance affects the show. So I’m not allowed to eat what I want anymore. I guess that’s a little strange.
CM: You got your job writing for 30 Rock straight out of NYU, and I saw you say on Conan that you were the youngest person in the writer’s room. How did you get that job so early in your career?
DG: I was working at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, and when I was there, [I met] Amy Poehler. And when Tina [Fey] was asking for writers, Amy Poehler told Tina [Fey]. It went up the chain like that like, “Oh, this guy writes. Maybe he can do this.” I guess it was kind of the right thing at the right time. I was working at the theater, and I also had two spec scripts written. I was still in college at the time, but I had two spec scripts ready to go.
CM: So when you were writing for 30 Rock, who was your favorite character to write for?
DG: I feel like Tracy gets a lot of the glory and a lot of the shine...and his character on the show is really funny and he says a lot of really funny things. But if I had to pick the most fun character to write for, it would probably be Jenna. I mean, her life is a mess. It’s a total fucking mess. And it’s really awful...Her mom [is] homeless, but [Jenna] pretends like she doesn’t know it, and her ultimate goal is dating a football player who’s white. Her life goal is so dictated by her abysmal childhood. And there’s something funny about that. And she’s really good at getting the lines out there and saying them.
CM: What’s your favorite Jenna joke?
DG: So they’ve given [Tracy] a fake awards show, and they’re saying it has to be at like, four o’clock in the morning because it’s broadcasting live in Taiwan, or Japan. So [Jenna] finds out it’s fake, and she’s like, “I can’t believe—do you know what I had to do to wake up at four o’clock in the morning? I had to wake up, get dressed, walk back to my house, take a shower…” That was my favorite joke. It was like, the sneakiest joke, because you realize she was sleeping at somebody else’s house. I like sneaky jokes, so that one’s my favorite.
CM: How is the 30 Rock writers’ room different from the one portrayed in the show, the TGS writers’ room?
DG: When I watch it, I’m like, oh, that’s something that we used to do. There’re a lot of bits that are from the [actual writer’s room]. Like that bit where they try and figure out who’s going to eat lunch and what they’re going to order? That was every day. Everybody hated everything. We’d blame the person who ordered something shitty, but at the same time, nothing good was available. It’s not that different.
CM: I watched your Comedy Central stand-up special, and you have a great bit about the sometimes-dubious advice people gave you when you started doing stand-up. What advice would you give or pass on to aspiring stand-up comedians?
DG: Don’t be afraid to bomb, because it’s gonna happen, and it’s gonna be glorious. And also say shit that scares you. Shit that you feel that you did right. Because having opinions is like the heart of comedy. So I would say have opinions, make assumptions, and have fun.
CM: In stand-up, you get more direct audience feedback than when you’re writing for a TV show. Has an audience’s reaction ever surprised you?
DG: Yes, on lots of things. Like, there are big differences between different audiences...I have a joke in my half-hour stand-up where I talk about 9/11, but for kids. And when I did that the first time in New York, it was like the roof caved in. People were laughing so hard; people loved it. I would do it around town, and people were just like, dying.
And then I brought it to LA, and people were like, no no no, we don’t laugh about that here. They have to be more 9/11 than people who live in the city where 9/11 happened! It happened to [New Yorkers] so they can laugh about it, but I think LA people can’t...Because they don’t feel ownership over it.
CM: How did you know comedy was what you wanted to do? Was there any pivotal moment where you were like, this is it?
DG: My dad used to work nights, and he was working two jobs. He had a bad back, and he’d come home really worn out. And the only time we really got to spend together was when we watched Looney Tunes together, and he would laugh so hard. And I was like, man, this is really making my dad happy. If I could do that, I’d be set.
Also, girls like guys who can make them laugh. That’s the ultimate reason. I mean, let’s be honest, guys only do stuff to make a girl like them. I mean, that’s the only reason guys do anything. Otherwise, I could stay home all day and eat Cheetos and watch Star Wars over and over and over again. Also, it’s the only thing that I’ve found that makes me happy. I don’t know. I like laughing with my friends, and if you get paid to do that, why wouldn’t you do that? I like hanging out and drinking and making jokes. I think I’m just lucky people want to pay me to do that.