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Dungeons, dragons and 'Community's' Danny Pudi

By Henry Hanks, CNN
Danny Pudi, shown with fellow "Community" star Gillian Jacobs, says he enjoys researching the interests of his character, Abed.
Danny Pudi, shown with fellow "Community" star Gillian Jacobs, says he enjoys researching the interests of his character, Abed.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Danny Pudi stars as pop culture geek savant Abed on NBC's "Community"
  • Pudi has to do a lot of research to play an expert in film, TV and more
  • His exposure to "Farscape" and "Dungeons & Dragons" has made him a fan
  • Pudi's own geeky obsessions: Indiana Jones, Batman, "Battlestar Galactica"

(CNN) -- NBC's cult hit comedy, "Community," which revolves around a study group at a community college, has a collection of very odd characters, but the oddest of all has to be Abed, played by Danny Pudi.

Abed is the pop-culture obsessed nerd savant, who can always be trusted to bring a new perspective to every situation. In Thursday night's episode, the group delves into the world of "Dungeons & Dragons." CNN's Geek Out! spoke with Pudi over the phone about what it's like to play one of the biggest geeks on TV.

CNN: Above all, you represent the geek voice on "Community."

Pudi: Proudly! And proudly wearing that crown!

CNN: So how much of Abed is in you?

Pudi: There are certain times where I feel like it's definitely skewed a little bit more towards Danny and other times where it's not at all, where I have to pretend to be an expert at something.

Abed is much more observant of human behavior. He's a human behavior detective. He's constantly studying what's going on at any given moment with relationships between people. He's also like Johnny Five from "Short Circuit," in terms of "Input, input, need more input!" He's always watching pop culture, whether it's watching every episode of "M*A*S*H" or revisiting every '80s movie that was popular, and being able to critique each "Police Academy." With me, there's always a little bit of research I have to do before each episode. With this one we're shooting right now, there's a little bit of "Who's the Boss" in it. Thankfully, there was a "Who's the Boss" marathon on Hallmark Channel, so I've been able to brush up on it.

I think there's a bit of a crossover. Abed and Danny are both big "Indiana Jones" fans. But overall, I think Abed is a little bit sharper, he's more like a computer, has less of a filter, and wears tighter jeans.

CNN: Does he represent the voice of any of the writers?

Pudi: I think Dan Harmon, the creator of the show, especially, really knows how to write for Abed. He is the genius behind the show, and knows how to push his vision through Abed. I feel the writers' pop culture knowledge coming through with Abed.

At one point we referenced "My Bodyguard," and I think it was Chris McKenna, one of the writers, who was referencing it, and it was just kind of funny to be like, "I've never heard of this movie," and going back to look it up.

I think overall, collectively, the writers and the cast have a really great knowledge of pop culture. It's fun to put it all together in Abed, to express our joy and longing for the good old days of "My Bodyguard," "Cheers," "Back to the Future," "Indiana Jones" or any John Hughes movie.

CNN: So "Indiana Jones" is the thing you share the most with Abed.

Pudi: Oh yeah, for sure. ("Raiders of the Lost Ark") is Danny Pudi's favorite movie. As a kid, I used to watch that and "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" nonstop, and I think with "Temple of Doom," there was a weird kind of fascination with it because I am Indian, and I remember yelling in the mirror, "Kali ma!" Like, truly, as if my relatives had magic rocks to protect their villages ... I think that's pretty false. That one definitely got a reaction from me.

So I remember last year, we did an episode where I reference seeing a marathon of the "Indiana Jones" movies, and I got to wear his real whip in a scene. I think you can kind of barely see it. It's the "Social Psychology" episode where I'm sitting in the room for 26 hours straight (because Annie told me to sit still and I did), and I was supposed to be leaving from there to see "Indiana Jones." That to me was really exciting, because I was wondering if this was really Indiana Jones' whip, since this was the Paramount lot, and maybe there was some connection.

In the pilot, I got to revisit "The Breakfast Club," another favorite growing up. I do feel like I'm getting to relive my childhood in many ways, and see it in a new way, like seeing which films hold up. My Netflix queue is definitely hot and busy right now.

CNN: Any geeky hobbies that you don't necessarily share with Abed?

Pudi: Growing up, I used to collect baseball cards and memorize baseball statistics all the time. When I was a kid, I was a huge fan of Darryl Strawberry and these players from the '80s and '90s. I made sure I had a lot of knowledge of home runs, runs batted in, batting average. I could probably quote on-base percentage, and say really obscure facts. There was a little bit of Abed in me in terms of that.

The thing about Abed is that it's very freeing and it's fun, because you learn a lot playing a character like Abed on how to observe the world, and you can get away with a lot more. If I told my wife that that lipstick doesn't look that great on her, she'd probably punch me in the face, but Abed could probably get away with it.

CNN: This week's episode of "Community" centers around "Dungeons & Dragons." Did you have to brush up a lot on that?

Pudi: I played "Dungeons & Dragons," I think, once in high school, with a friend.

This past year, I actually did a movie about live action role-playing, which is taking "Dungeons & Dragons" to the next level. I had some background information going into it, and in this episode, Abed had to be the Dungeon Master. So it was definitely a crash course in "Dungeons & Dragons. I'm getting better at trying to play an expert with 24 hours to do that.

I don't think Abed has a history of playing "Dungeons & Dragons," so he immerses himself in the books, and puts together a journey and assigns characters to the whole group. You've got Jeff the Liar, Annie the Day Planner, Troy the Obtuse, Shirley the Cloying, Britta the Needlessly Defiant ... and each of us has little tag lines. Abed gives each person different strengths and combinations. The weakness he has is giving each character a good name, so the names are pretty silly.

What's great is that our group commits to anything. We're basically a mob. We're willing to become a mob at any moment. You just have to give us a good objective or purpose, otherwise who knows? It's only a matter of time before we're lighting something on fire and running around with shovels and stuff.

CNN: So I take it one of the writers is a major "D&D" fan?

Pudi: I think the books are actually Dan Harmon's books, which he used. The journey is full of goblins, dragons and pegasi, different numbered dice. That was new to me, I didn't know there would be different dice for different reasons.

A lot of the writers had played before, and I think Alison Brie was the one among us who had played it. I think Joel had, too. It was one of those times to revisit being a kid, in high school sitting in the basement.

The more I played it, this time around, the more I was like, "God, I wanna play it!" You get to kind of live in this fantasy world, and Abed uses it as an opportunity to play other characters, too.

There is a sort of story to it, and a sweet absurdness. Senor Chang shows up, of course, and in true Senor Chang fashion, undoes us all. In the end, despite our characters' lack of knowledge about "D&D," we all had a great time doing it, which was really kind of fun.

CNN: Have you gotten a strong response to the character from Abed's fellow geeks?

Pudi: All the time. A couple of weeks ago, we did an episode where Abed had a conversation with this guy about "Farscape." I'd seen a few episodes of "Farscape," but I was definitely not an expert. That was one of those where I had to do a little research and learn what exactly is a Sebacean, and talk about our future selves, and all this stuff about Crichton and wormholes.

Right after that episode, I really just wanted to talk about "Farscape," so I got a lot of tweets and messages on Facebook from people saying, "Hey, I'll talk 'Farscape' with you."

Right away, I thought, "That's awesome, people want to talk 'Farscape' with me," but I was really scared because I don't know that much about "Farscape!" So the conversation was gonna end pretty quickly.

Since then, people have sent me long messages about "Farscape," and sometimes people correcting me about the validity of whether season two is better than season three, that kind of stuff, which for me is really fun. It shows the passion the fans have, which I love, and how intensive they are, and I just love playing a character with this really unique voice that represents a lot of people who are caring and passionate about aliens and robots, because you should be.

CNN: Does any of Abed's social awkwardness come from personal experience?

Pudi: A lot of that is via my interactions with women, which were always fascinating. Every time I had an interaction with a woman, I don't think it was a normal one.

In fact, my current wife, whom I love dearly, said a couple weeks ago, "You are hands down the weirdest person I've ever met!" I consider that a compliment.

CNN: Last year, you and the cast made your San Diego Comic-Con debut. What's the last comic book you read?

Pudi: I'm reading "Fables" right now. It's great! So fun! I just finished the first two, I'm on book three right now.

Right now, I'm at the point where the Fables are gathering arms, preparing for a battle with the Adversary, so that maybe they can get back their land.

I love stories like this, with fairy tale characters trying to live in a modern world, where the rules have to make sense. In some sense, there are some similarities in "Community." It's like we're living in a fairy tale, but we have to go to classes and pay bills. Danny would much prefer living in a fairy tale than having to deal with parking tickets, because that's not fun.

I also finished "Y: The Last Man" with Yorick as the last man on the planet, and I loved it!

We got to play with a monkey on the set of "Community" twice. The one we named "Annie's Boobs" was a Capuchin chimp, the same one that's with Yorick. For part of the time, I literally had it on my head, and the whole time I was thinking, "Wow, this is exactly like Ampersand," as well as "Annie's Boobs" on my head. It was terrifying in both ways.

Danny Pudi, as Abed, did a memorable impression of Christian Bale's Batman on a 2009 episode of "Community."
Danny Pudi, as Abed, did a memorable impression of Christian Bale's Batman on a 2009 episode of "Community."

CNN: Any favorite comic book characters?

Pudi: Batman was definitely my favorite superhero, so being able to play him on last year's "Community" was definitely a thrill. In many ways, it's because of the darkness in his character, and he's the most human of the superheroes, he's always battling his past. His powers are also very human, which is interesting, like how can you maximize your ability to punch?

As a kid, I was always really into the Flash. Those were probably my two favorites growing up.

And the movies, too, I was always a big fan of every Batman movie.

CNN: Do you have a favorite?

Pudi: "The Dark Knight" is my favorite, that's probably the one I watch the most. I love everything about it. Nolan's vision of it, it was shot so beautifully. Christian Bale's incredible in it, Heath Ledger. Everyone gives a strong, unique performance. I love that Gotham City is Chicago. Every time I go back and drive through downtown, I kind of feel like I'm basically in the trailer for "The Dark Knight." Although I drive a Prius, there are definitely days when I wish I had the Batmobile on my side.

CNN: So channeling Batman wasn't too difficult?

Pudi: Well, the voice I had to practice, because I have that nasally Chicago voice. But, after a while, I locked it in, and it became fun to do that. It was fun to create this character that Abed loved to play.

A number of people in Batman outfits at Comic-Con wanted to do the voice with me. But I gotta pace myself, because two or three sessions of that and I lose my voice!

CNN: After your experience as Batman and this season, as the Alien for Halloween, do you think you'd be ready to suit up in a costume for the next Comic-Con?

Pudi: With Halloween and stuff like that, that's one of my favorite things, because I love any kind of group where a lot of people commit to something wacky. It's like when there's a parade or when they close off a street, because it's a very controlled chaos. It's very brief, but I love it!

I gotta find a good costume for next year's Comic-Con, and I'd love to hit the floor with a lot of people, and just run around and be part of a mob ... again! A very safe and law-abiding mob ... but loud.

CNN: Something that kind of had a life of its own was "Kickpuncher," Troy and Abed's film project that took comic book form in the first season DVDs.

Pudi: The "Kickpuncher" comic was drawn by Dan's friend, Jim Mahfood, and the drawings were incredible.

I think the entire "Kickpuncher" idea was brilliant, because that's what Troy and Abed would be doing in their spare time, just making these weird sci-fi movies.

There's "Kickpuncher 1," "Kickpuncher 2," "Kickpuncher 3." Obviously, we have the real pop culture references, and we have this fictional one that could definitely exist. I mean, Don "The Demon" Donaldson, whose punches have the strength of kicks? I love that there is a world that that could exist.

Who knows, maybe it will spawn a real "Kickpuncher" series, which I would love to be in.

CNN: What do we have to look forward to for Abed coming up?

Pudi: I think that Abed has definitely been on a good journey this year. His family situation has a little sadness, but this group is becoming more of his family. You see the darkness come through, but a lot of sweetness, too.

Abed has grown and become more of a filmmaker. We have an episode coming up that's mostly about Abed's filmmaking, but it's more of a genre episode for us. In that episode, Pierce is in the hospital, and Abed is filming a lot of it. It's an interesting episode.

Coming up next week in the Valentine's Day episode, you have a love triangle. You get to see Troy and Abed both going after a lady. There's a little more testing of the relationship with Troy, his best friend.

We also celebrate Abed's birthday later this year. As you saw with Troy's birthday, some of the birthdays that the study groups celebrate definitely aren't the happiest. There's some good acting moments there I'm really looking forward to.

CNN: What is your personal definition of a geek versus a nerd?

Pudi: My impression is that it's a little cooler to be a geek, because you're choosing to embrace something because it's interesting to you. I kinda like that.

As I play Abed, something I admire is anyone who has a passion for something and just jumps right into it.

Right now, I'm geeking out over "Battlestar Galactica," and I just finished season three, and I am obsessed with that show! I'm walking around questioning whether or not everyone in my life is a Cylon or not.

The old definition of a nerd, with "Revenge of the Nerds" and stuff like that feels a bit outdated. I don't know if nerds could function as well in the real world as geeks could. I would say a geek has a higher ability to function in the real world, balancing his interest in "Battlestar Galactica," but also know that he has to go and be able to watch his wife shop, or whatever your responsibilities are -- balancing a workload, and "Battlestar Galactica."

 
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