In less than a month, Danny Pudi will be flying from New York to Los Angeles to begin work on Season 6 of Community, which was canceled, then resurrected by Yahoo earlier this year. He's excited for the opportunity to make another season of the series for which "six seasons and a movie" went from farfetched rallying cry to real possibility. (The movie is still up in the air, but Pudi says there's talk.)
But for now, he's focusing on Found, the off-Broadway musical that marks his theatrical debut.
Pudi considers himself a "very singular threat, and that's even debatable," but the show has forced him to improve on two passions he admits he's never excelled at. "The singing and the dancing I'm still scared of every night," Pudi told BuzzFeed News in an interview at Chelsea's Le Grainne Café, not far from the Atlantic Theater Company where Found is currently running. "Those are the two things that are still a challenge for me. I can see when we're doing rehearsals or making adjustments, it just takes me a little longer to figure out what they're talking about… This is my chance to do stuff I'm not capable of doing. I want people to know that."
Pudi is being humble: While not the star of the new play, inspired by Found magazine and the found notes it contains, he holds his own on stage. At the same time, it's an interesting choice for a TV star with cult appeal. "It is physically challenging but I love it because I never really thought I'd be able to do it, but who doesn't want to be singing and dancing with the cast of Les Mis on stage?" Pudi said. "When I read the script, I was like, This is a show that I'm scared of doing, but I can kind of have some fun moments here and feel like I'm not just gonna be just totally failing the whole time." He paused to reflect before adding, "I only feel like I'm failing 40% of the time."
Pudi's five-year stint on Community might have earned him a leading role in another show, but he purposely chose to be part of an ensemble. In fact, his decision to do Found rested heavily on the fact that he wasn't going to be the star. As Davy (Nick Blaemire) struggles to monetize his passion with friends Mikey D (Daniel Everidge) and Denise (Barrett Wilbert Weed), while also pursuing a relationship with Kate (Betsy Morgan), Pudi and Found's five other cast members speak and sing real found notes that reflect the unspoken thoughts and feelings of the main characters.
"This is very new to me," he said. "I wouldn't consider myself, in any way, a capable musical theater actor. The thought of doing something like this was terrifying. And it was my first time. Being part of an ensemble felt way more comfortable and safe."
Ensemble work is Pudi's forte: He got his start in sketch comedy at Chicago's Second City, working alongside other talented actors and improvisers. And as Abed on Community, he is part of the whole, an integral member of the study group, but not the star.
"I love ensemble work. It's my favorite thing about Community," Pudi said. "It's my favorite thing about most of the stuff I've been able to work on. I like being part of a group that's doing something. So you can kind of find your place within the group to support, to do something weird, and then find pairings — do some two-person work here, some three-person work there. That's fun for me."
The comparison between Found and Community is apt. Like the TV series, Found is a small but ambitious production with a group of supremely talented writers and performers working together to create something both hilarious and heartfelt.
Of course, Pudi's run on Community has not always been easy, but it's raised the standards of what he looks for in a project.
"I think the show, if anything, it's taught me to not take anything for granted because every year, we're on the bubble," Pudi said. "And secondly, it's given me such excitement for good material. I've been lucky and spoiled by how original and funny and really smart the material is, so whatever I'm looking for next, I'm excited by something that's different and has a really unique point of view."
Found is one of those projects. With a book by Hunter Bell and Lee Overtree and music and lyrics by Eli Bolin — not to mention the numerous real notes peppered throughout — it's a sharp and thoroughly original musical.
It's also an opportunity for Pudi to continue to show his range, as he's tasked with portraying the vastly different personas behind several different letters. That's something he's also been grateful for on Community, which often has its characters playing against type in theme episodes.
"I've been so lucky," Pudi said. "If you watch five episodes in a row, I think the beauty of the show is that [creator] Dan Harmon and the writing staff do complete departures week to week and allow Abed to take on all these different facets of his personality, and embody all these different personalities, so I've been very lucky with that."
With Found, the key has been to maintain the spirit of the found notes that ground the musical in real (albeit anonymous) humanity. Combining a somewhat fictionalized story with actual found notes is an interesting challenge, especially because Found magazine stresses authenticity. That back-and-forth is reflected in the second act of the musical, in which Davy tries to turn his thriving magazine into a TV show — and learns about the sacrifices necessary in Hollywood.
Luckily, the Found musical doesn't have to make any major deviations. Part of the joy of the subdued off-Broadway production is that it can afford to stick closely to the original vision. Television is a different beast entirely.
It's a battle that Pudi, as a veteran of Community, knows all too well. Referencing the show's most infamous endorsement deal, the actor said, "Are you losing your idea if someone else wants to put Subway into an episode? Are you losing the vision of the idea? Is it less honest?... You have people paying for your show Can my artistic vision, the integrity of that, exist with a network's notes and advertisers' branding, and all these things that are really around us every day? Those are all relevant questions… I'm on Community. We've had that struggle for six years. I don't know what the answer is, [but] I think, personally, you can retain the spirit of the show with other people's elements, but I do think it is a fight that you probably have to have over and over again."
But Pudi doesn't mind the constant negotiation: He's used to projects that are subject to change. Community has recovered from some behind-the-scenes battles, a cancellation, and the departure of several cast members, most recently Yvette Nicole Brown. And Found has seen daily changes throughout its month of previews.
"We just made dialogue changes today to something I've been doing for 21 shows now," he said, a week before the Oct. 14 opening. "That doesn't really make me nervous." In fact, Pudi finds the malleability exciting.
"We are making so many changes every day based on audience feedback or notes or people's different takes, there is this whole thing with these letters that are just a piece of paper with some words on it," he said. "There is no set way to interpret these letters. It's everyone's interpretation. It's your interpretation of what does that note mean to you or what does this character mean to you. Which is scary because it could mean a zillion different things, but that's what makes it exciting and alive, though. And I think it's the same thing with Community. There is a sense that it is sort of an alive being that's being created every week."