Bo knew jerseys, and so does Danny Pudi

'Community' star brings his '30 for 30' offering on Marquette basketball to Sundance

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'Untucked'

Scene from the film "Untucked." This documentary explores the iconic "untucked" jersey worn in 1977 when Marquette University won its first and only national college basketball championship. It was designed by one of Marquette's players, Bo Ellis, under the leadership of Coach Al McGuire. (Sundance Institute / January 9, 2014)

I wasn't the only "Community" obsessive to breathe a sigh of relief when the NBC comedy returned for its fifth season last week, with creator Dan Harmon reinstalled at the helm after being discharged from his duties last year. The show suffered for it, morphing into a tepid facsimile. Now it's back to its old self: wonderfully bizarre and deeply funny.

"We just wrapped last week," co-star Danny Pudi told me late last month. Thirteen episodes were shot for Season 5, with Pudi returning as the pop culture savant Abed Nadir. "We never thought we'd make it this far. Never thought Dan would be back. I think our show has always been a magical and strange roller coaster of emotions."

More than anyone else on "Community," Abed is forever stepping in and out of various incarnations, channeling Andre Gregory in "My Dinner with Andre" for an entire episode or Don Draper for less than a minute or (as of last week) staging an uncanny impersonation of Nicolas Cage. Not to mention the "Dr Who" spoof he inhabits within the show, aka Inspector Spacetime.

Each season Pudi is asked to add yet more personas to Abed's roster. That versatility is par for the course for a guy who came up through Chicago's sketch and improv scene.

"I still remember the first time I saw an improv set at Second City," he said, "and I can't tell you anything that they said, but I remember the characters they were playing so well." Among the performers that night: "Key & Peele's" Keegan-Michael Key.

(Pudi returns to Chicago next week to appear at the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival with the group Siblings of Doctors. Go to chicagosketchfest.com for more info.)

Back in 2003, I wrote about an early show Pudi was in, and he mentioned it when we talked. "You said I looked like Ric Ocasek in that review!"

Well, sort of. What I wrote was this: "If a very young Ric Ocasek were crossed with a very young Bronson Pinchot, the result might look something like 24-year-old Danny Pudi, a rubbery-faced, lanky-limbed performer saddled with most of the heavy lifting in the latest revue from the Asian sketch comedy group Stir-Friday Night." The show wasn't much, but Pudi stood out even then.

I read back that portion of the review to Pudi. "That's awesome! I love that I remembered Ric Ocasek but I didn't remember Bronson Pinchot, which is hilarious because ("Community" co-star) Alison Brie calls me Bronson Pinchot all the time."

Pudi has spent most of the past few weeks finishing work on a short film commissioned by ESPN's "30 for 30" series called "Untucked." It premieres Thursday at the Sundance Film Festival and will air sometime this spring.

"It's about the history of Marquette's basketball jerseys," he said. (Pudi graduated from Marquette University in 2001.) "But the story in particular is about one jersey that was designed by a player named Bo Ellis (a Chicago native and member of the 1977 national championship team).

"It's a story about individual expression. And team. And success. It's a little about fashion, as well. All through the lens of this jersey, which was designed to be worn untucked outside the shorts. You're not allowed to do that (now). It was always a unique jersey to me.

"I grew up in Chicago and was a huge basketball fan, and I would always remember seeing pictures of that jersey and seeing pictures of that team. They were known to have a certain flair, but I never knew really the details of the story, so it was something that intrigued me."

This is Pudi's first time directing a film. "For me, it was very hands-on. I don't know much; I didn't go to school for filmmaking. When I say I don't know much — Nina, that applies to everything. I want to say that in the voice of Aaron Neville: (in Neville's falsetto) 'I don't know much …' But I think coming up through sketch comedy and Second City in Chicago there is this sense that you have to create your own material.

"So right now I'm trying to finish it." He let out a long laugh and then started singing: "Procrastinator! Procrastinator Pudi!"

"I always feel like my life has been last minute, running around scrambling. But it forces you to make decisions, whereas if I had too much time I think I'd flirt with the wrong decision too easily."

Before we hung up I promised to email Pudi a copy of that old review. I warned him that he might not like it, since it included the phrase "scrawny shoulders." As in: Danny Pudi's scrawny shoulders.

He didn't seem bothered.

"It's all true! It's tricky, because when I grew up, my identity being half-Indian, half-Polish, there weren't a lot of role models for me on television, where I could be like, 'I'm going to follow that guy.' Because I look like half-giraffe, half-non-giraffe. I think part of that is, you have to create your own material, especially if you have a different type of voice or different type of look."

He said he's working on a couple projects with one of the producers of his "30 for 30" film, including a TV pilot they are writing together. "I'm just collaborating with as many friends as possible, because that to me is the most fun, when you get to work with buddies."

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