McHale was born in Rome, Italy, where his father, Jack McHale, worked as Dean of Students at Loyola University Rome Center. His mother, Laurie, is from Vancouver, Canada, and his father is from Chicago, Illinois. Of Irish and Norwegian descent, he was raised Catholic in Seattle, Washington, and for a brief amount of time in Haddonfield, New Jersey, located near Philadelphia. McHale lived in New Jersey for two years before settling back to his native Washington state. He attended Mercer Island High School.
McHale received a bachelor's degree in History from the University of Washington in 1995. While at the University of Washington, McHale very briefly belonged to the Theta Chi Fraternity.
He was recruited to be on the rowing team, but later joined the football team. Despite most of his fellow players receiving scholarships to be on a major college team, McHale was a walk on, playing tight end for two years. According to the football team site, he did not letter in football. He received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Professional Actors Training Program at the University of Washington. As a Seattle native, he is a fan of the NFL's Seattle Seahawks.
McHale was part of the Almost Live! cast, a local sketch-comedy television show produced by Seattle's KING-TV (Channel 5). From 1993 to 1997, he was a member of the improv comedy group at Unexpected Productions, participating in Theatersports! at the Market Theater located in Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle.
After earning his master's degree in acting, McHale moved to Los Angeles and landed small roles in Diagnosis: Murder, CSI: Miami, and Will & Grace. He played a TV reporter in the biopic Lords of Dogtown. He guest-starred as a cast member on the NBC improv comedy show Thank God You're Here during the pilot episode and had a guest role on an episode of Pushing Daisies. McHale also appeared in Spider-Man 2 in a small role as Mr. Jacks, a bank manager.
In 2004 McHale began hosting The Soup, a satirical weekly television show on the "E!" television network. Throughout the show, he takes the audience through the oddities and ridiculous happenings of the week in television. He frequently appears as a co-host on Loveline. He has also had a long association with Circle X Theatre, where he has done several plays. McHale was a weekly guest on The Adam Carolla Show and Mickey and Amelia, and occasional guest on the Opie and Anthony Show. He has been a judge on Iron Chef America. He was involved in the American version of the British TV show The IT Crowd. McHale made a guest appearance on the finale of Last Comic Standing's sixth season, when he recapped the show's events in his typical format of jokes made popular on The Soup. He occasionally appeared on Countdown with Keith Olbermann in a humor sequence closing the show.
McHale starred in the sitcom Community, which premiered in winter 2009, and continued to host The Soup. McHale made an appearance on the first episode of the fifth season of Tosh.0. He played Rex in Ted (2012) and had a short guest stint on the FX show Sons of Anarchy. He played an NYPD officer in the supernatural horror film Deliver Us from Evil. McHale appeared in The X-Files' 2016 miniseries.
McHale played the lead role in the CBS sitcom The Great Indoors, which began airing in the Fall of 2016.
McHale was the host at the 2014 White House Correspondents' Association annual dinner. He hosted the 2011 Independent Spirit Awards and the 2015 ESPY Awards. In 2016, he appeared as an occasional co-host alongside Kelly Ripa in the ABC morning show Live! with Kelly. McHale hosted the 43rd People's Choice Awards on January 18, 2017 and the 2017 Webby Awards on May 15, 2017.
McHale married Sarah Williams in 1996. They have two sons. They live in Hollywood Hills, California.
On episode 6 of The Nerdist Podcast, McHale and Chris Hardwick talked about being neighbors, including a story about Joel's son Eddie dressing up as a light switch for Halloween.McHale, Joel (October 25, 2016). Thanks for the Money: How to Use My Life Story to Become the Best Joel McHale You Can Be. Penguin Audio. ISBN 978-0735289000.