The world has never been more saturated with media and media personalities, and it's never been easier for people to comment on them. If nothing else, the Internet has revolutionized the delivery of smartass quips. In this era, Joel McHale should theoretically be out of a job: His show on E!, The Soup, spends half an hour every week lampooning television's dregs, including reality shows, talk shows, telenovelas, and more. Really, there isn't a dearth of people out there mocking Tyra Banks, but it speaks to the talent of McHale and his staff that The Soup is essential viewing. Everyone's a critic, but no one—on television, at least—can match The Soup's wit. If the show sets its sights on an easy target like Banks, at least it takes her down better than the average quipster on Best Week Ever. But McHale and The Soup also seem to understand that their critiques go beyond personalities or TV shows. The show is about the seemingly unstoppable march of stupid culture, and the quixotic fight against it.
Maybe the show's long and surprisingly distinguished history gives it an advantage. It began life as Talk Soup in 1991 with producer-host Greg Kinnear, who took home an Emmy for his work on it in 1995. The show cycled through a few hosts after Kinnear left to pursue an acting career, eventually stopping in 2002. It rebooted in 2004 as The Soup with McHale as host, and it's recaptured the glory of Talk Soup's Kinnear-era prime. Like Kinnear, McHale is an actor—he's currently working on Steven Soderbergh's upcoming film The Informant—but he's also a comedian who performs stand-up regularly. As The Soup began airing its first of many specials for the year, McHale spoke to The A.V. Club about the show's demands, his family, and how his job is easier than being a registered sex offender.
The A.V. Club: How big is The Soup's staff? Does everyone still sort of do everything?
Joel McHale: Yeah. It used to be five of us, which eventually was going to kill us, because we had to watch way too much television. Now it has swelled to 12, and if you throw in an intern, you get up to 13 or 14, because we want to catch everything if we can. We still can't, but it's as much as we can. Like, there's this girl on our staff who watches every hour of the Today show. There's a guy who watches telenovelas, and he doesn't speak Spanish. Even two hours of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition can be brutal every week. We cover everything, including infomercials. We literally record four hours of the Home Shopping Network to see if we can find something.
AVC: What's the worst assignment?
JM: I'm going to have to go with the Today show, because it is just endless now. I think it starts at 6 a.m. and goes 'till 5 p.m. You can't keep track of it. And now that they got Kathy Lee Gifford hosting the final hour, for The Soup, that was great. Great and bad news.
AVC: So you've got 13 people watching all the shows?
JM: Yeah. So, at any given time, for 22 minutes of television we have that many people. But they all do other jobs; everyone does production, and then we do sketches. So everyone kind of does everything, which is great, because we're not producing Lost every week. We're producing 22 minutes on a green screen. Everybody gets to participate, everybody gets to appear on camera if they want to, so it's like this great little Mission: Impossible squad that we have that I can fire at any moment, 'cause I'm the boss.
AVC: How has the workflow changed over the years? Are the days still pretty distinct as far as what gets done on that day?
JM: Yeah. We have a meeting on Tuesday and a meeting on Wednesday at 3 o'clock where everybody brings in clips from all the shows we watched. It used to be that we'd bring in VHS tapes, but now we have this big program called SnapStream that we TiVo everything to our computers. Basically, there's a built-in TiVo in our computers, and we can pull anything from anywhere. And then we shoot a thing for Yahoo on Wednesday night, and then we shoot a promo, because we do a Condensed 'Soup' on Yahoo. It's a three-minute Soup. Then we shoot out sketches usually involving Mankini or Lou The Dog. And then Thursday, we tape the show after Ryan Seacrest—a lot of us pack into his studio. It used to be a lot more intensive, because there were less people, and we didn't know what we were doing, but now it's got into a nice groove. We try to say what's funniest to us. I feel like we're hopefully saying what you're thinking. If it's not, then screw you.
AVC: How much of a role did you play when the show was being reconceived?
JM: It was a little vague when I auditioned for it. I went in so many times, because E! is horribly indecisive. No, they're wonderful, I love them! We went in, I did a teleprompter read of some jokes, then I wrote some jokes myself, then we had a meeting about what we thought it would be. That's when I finally got the job. At that point, they didn't call it The Soup. They didn't want to call it Reality Soup, so it got the name The What The…? Awards, which is the worst name ever. Then the new president came in, Ted Harbert, and much to his great credit, he called it The Soup, which is great because it let us make fun of celebrities and reality shows and whatever else we could find, instead of just reality TV.
AVC: There's a lot of bad stuff out there.
JM: It's just one of those things where everybody makes fun of their TV and what's on it at all times. We hope it's an extension of that. Our mantra is that 90 percent of all television is bad, and ten percent has never been better. We make fun of that 90 percent. Since Comcast and DirectTV keep adding channels, there's just more and more stuff.
AVC: Was it less like Talk Soup in the beginning?
JM: Tom McNamara was the stage manager and still is the stage manager, and is a tremendous help to the show. We started bringing in an audience, and they just had crewmembers. They taped it every day, so it was a lot more casual, and they were able to let their clips run longer and say more stuff. Since half an hour of television is 22 minutes, we have to be very concise on what we're showing, the length of our clips, and the jokes we tell. We want it to be a laser beam of comedy. It can only be once a week, but it does repeat 1,700 times. So it wasn't that similar; it's similar in that it's a camera and a green screen. It is the cheapest date on television—maybe Pants-Off Dance-Off on the Fuse network has a smaller budget than we do. Maybe.
AVC: You joke about E! giving you notes and neutering jokes, but do you get much feedback from the network?
JM: You know what's great about E!—and we kid them all the time—they have been incredibly liberal and good to us. They let us say a lot of stuff. If we piss someone off on the network, they usually don't go, "Hey, don't say that." They go, "Hey, can you lay off a week? Just don't make fun of Hef this week—he's a little pissed." Why? Because we called him an aging grandpa who's having sex with his granddaughters? You know, that sort of thing. I would say most networks have some false sense of pride. It's just been tremendous that they've been so good to us. They've been able to take a joke. We go after Ryan [Seacrest] all the time, and Ryan is a great sport. He plays clips, that cute little elf munchkin, on his radio show. He's really good to us as well. It's people like Tyra who don't get it and don't like us.
AVC: You don't get a lot of blowback though, do you?
JM: She's the only one that tries to stop us. She's been it. We've heard other people who haven't been exactly happy with us, but then we get other people who are like, "That was great, how you made fun of me!" And I'm like, "Thank you, great! You're welcome."
AVC: What do you mean, trying to stop you? Does she send you angry letters?
JM: "Stop using our clips" and stuff. But it's fair use for a week, according to news rules. You can use 20 seconds of anything the week it airs.
AVC: Are you desensitized by this point, or do you still get the shock of "Holy crap, this exists!"
JM: We have to keep reminding ourselves of how different television was when we were kids than it is now. We see Bret Michaels on the air, and Flava Flav or even Dutch Oven, where a guy just sits there and cooks and doesn't say a word for an entire segment—there was nothing like that. There is some stuff on television that is shocking that it's on there, and shocking that it's not being censored. We run to that with torches and pitchforks and go after it. On Flavor Of Love, when a woman took a dump on the stairs, I mean, that's like J.R. being shot on Dallas, or like maybe the last episode of M*A*S*H. It's a milestone on television that's covered with chlamydia.
AVC: Do you think the war on stupid culture is unwinnable? Are we headed for Idiocracy?
JM: Oh, that's a good question. I think the smart people will get even smarter, and the dumb people will get even dumber. But I think they all will enjoy A Shot At Love With Tila Tequila, no matter how you slice it. You know, we keep eating it up. Some of the most intelligent people I know cannot get enough of it. That's a dangerous thing.
AVC: All television-watching will eventually be ironic.
JM: Actually, you hit on a good point there. We should start our own network called IRO where everything you watch is like, "It's ironic that I'm watching this. It's campy. It's contradictory." I think we should start. In fact, you are going to be a billionaire because of what you just said.
AVC: It could be a successful network.
JM: Television, it's nuts, and we really are only a tiny little chip of what's out there. We could do The Soup for eight hours if we had access to all the networks around the world. We wouldn't even need to know the language. It doesn't even matter.
AVC: Is it the dream of every Soup host to be a serious actor?
JM: Yeah, that was on the résumé. "Would you like to re-do the movie Dying Young with Julia Roberts and Campbell Scott?" I don't know. I guess all the Soup hosts that came in, they were doing acting before they were "Souping." It's logical why they're gotten into it.
AVC: You studied acting in college, and you've had roles in TV and film. Do you think it can be tougher to get a role because of your Soup persona? Like, "No, he's Mr. Snarky Guy. We can't give him that."
JM: I would say possibly, but not nearly as hard as it would be for, like, a registered sex offender. So, you know, happy medium somewhere.
AVC: An exhaustive YouTube search turned up no clips of your stand-up.
JM: Thank God.
AVC: But one of the first links was for a celebrity baby blog, announcing the birth of your second child. It was a picture of you, your wife, and your son.
JM: Well, that's my son that we already had. We had another one. I didn't know that. That's good to know. You should forward me that link. I can say that that has nothing to do with my stand-up—or it will, probably. I do make a lot of fun of my own children in my stand-up, and my wife. Actually, it is apropos. Believe me, it was a very loose word, celebrity. It should be "basic-cable celebrity" or "basic-cable quiz-show host."
AVC: "That guy from that show."
JM: "That guy from that show who looks like a Skeletor Ryan Seacrest" Baby Blog.
AVC: Does your stand-up mine similar territory as The Soup, or is it more personal?
JM: Yeah, I do both. I don't have a teleprompter. Dear God, I wish I did! I talk about myself, because it's so interesting. I talk about my family, I talk about all sorts of stuff. I talk about the things we talk about on The Soup, and behind-the-scenes stuff. It's goes a little deeper, a little wider. So the stand-up is just expanding on some things I talk about television, and I talk about my life a little bit. And shark attacks.
AVC: It seems like people would expect some Soup-style humor.
JM: Yeah, I think people would be disappointed if I walked out there with a drum and had a little drum circle for an hour. People would be pissed. I would be pissed.
AVC: That would be pretty awesome anti-comedy, though.
JM: Oh, that's true! Just piss everybody off like Andy Kaufman.
AVC: Besides the Soderbergh film, what other projects are in the works?
JM: The constant project is making sure my sons don't turn into criminals.
AVC: They are growing up in Los Angeles, so they'll either be criminals or like the kids on My Super Sweet 16.
JM: Oh, boy. I'd rather have my kid in the penitentiary than that. That show is really… it's like a morality tale, like they had in the Middle Ages.
AVC: The most offensive show on television.
JM: If you were to film a guy with food poisoning who was vomiting and crapping himself at the same time, it would be less offensive than this.
AVC: Well, your job is to wallow in the lowest common denominator; it's like a diet of junk food. What do you do when you want to eat something healthy?
JM: I seem to be constantly cleaning up after my 3-week-old and my 3-year-old. That's the type of monotonous work that I end up doing. I really like driving my car fast. I drive a Subaru STI, slightly modified, it has 320 horsepower. I love driving that around really fast. I would say reading, but I don't read a lot. I used to. The shows that I watch are like Battlestar Galactica, John Adams, The Tudors. That would be the closest I get to being refined, I guess. My little brother, who's an Episcopal priest married to a Lutheran minister, they don't have a TV, but they get Us Weekly and People.
AVC: That's a weird dichotomy. So they don't have any idea what you do?
JM: Well, they watch my show now on iTunes. There was a time, before iTunes was all spun-up, when he did not watch it. So I would be like, "Hey jerk, how many of your other friends' brothers have a TV show?" But he won't get one. Now they watch it on the Internet, but it irks them to pay a dollar an episode. No, but he's a very good little brother, and he's much more into hiking.
AVC: He's the pious soul who's making up for you.
JM: Yeah. Sometimes I feel like I'm doing the Lord's work, though.