The Soup – 20 Years Of Taking Some E!: Joel McHale Interview
Joel McHale has been holding television and celebrities to account for six years on E!’s The Soup with his sharp wit and biting remarks. In essence, he’s the closest thing America comes to having their own Charlie Brooker.
Since appearing in films like Spider Man 2 and Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! it was about time he landed a big role which finally came to him in the form of NBC’s Community, due to hit British screens as soon as someone with any sense decides to syndicate it.
OTB met up with Joel in a swanky central London hotel to talk about The Soup, playing Jeff Winger in Community and comedy in general ahead of Monday’s 20 Years Of Taking Some E!. A true gentleman he spoke to us at length about projects past, present and future
Joel, what have been the highlights of presenting The Soup?
In terms of clips that were the greatest… Whitney Houston’s ‘kiss my ass’ is an incredible clip. Then there was the spaghetti cat. During one of those morning shows [like This Morning] the hosts were discussing a serious story about binge drinking and at one point- without explanation – they cut to a cat eating spaghetti. There was no explanation, nothing. They just carried on as if nothing had happened. So we decided it was art.
According to Woody Allen ‘Life doesn’t imitate art. It imitates bad television.’ Having watched so much awful TV do you agree?
Well, there was that study a few years ago where they asked kids what they wanted to do when they left school and most of them answered “be famous”. I was like, “what?” That’s like saying when I grow up I want to catch chlamydia. When I heard that, I thought the human race was doomed. Aliens would come down and deem us worthy to be killed. The sad thing is most people sign contracts for reality TV shows giving them free reign because they want to be famous. It’s really sad.
Did you want to be famous when you were growing up?
I always wanted to be successful in my profession but I was much more concerned about being a good actor. Of course, like any actor who wants to walk out on a stage, I wanted an audience but I was always more focused on being good at what I was doing. I took The Soup because I kind of wanted to do what Greg Kinnear did which was to present Talk Soup (The Soup’s previous incarnation) and then get into acting.
You watch so much bog-standard television, do you find yourself desensitised to it? Or do you still find yourself caught off guard?
I agree. When I think to myself “I’ve seen it all” that means get ready to see something else.
Our motto at The Soup is ‘90% of any art is pretty awful, 10% is terrific’. I think that applies to TV as well. In the last ten years we’ve seen some of the best TV shows ever; the British version of The Office; Mad Men; Battlestar Gallactica was an amazing show. But for every one of those shows there are 20 that suck.
There are some really good shows out there but for the most part reality television is car-crash TV. That’s really depressing and only appeals to the lowest common denominator.
You’ve trodden on a lot of celebrities’ toes. Have you ever been confronted by anyone you’ve had a dig at?
We don’t make fun of celebrities who aren’t calling attention to themselves. Harrison Ford, Meryl Streep, Daniel Day Lewis: we leave them alone. They’re good at what they do and they try to stay out of the limelight.
I once met Lindsay Lohan’s father and he asked me, “Are you gonna keep making fun of us?” and I said, “if you keep doing shit.” If you’re doing something to call attention to yourself, I’ll confront that person.
Every reality TV show person I’ve met has asked to come on the show. They like the way that I make fun of them. They ask me to do it again.
Tyra Banks is the only one who has tried to stop us. Her PR people said if we continued to make fun of Tyra they wouldn’t let E! use a load of clips from some production company so we said ‘alright’. E! to its credit stood behind us and said “fire away”.
How did you land the role of Jeff Winger in Community?
Thank God for The Soup. That helped me to get into the casting rooms. You kind of graduate to these different levels of how people perceive you. Steven Soderburg had seen me in The Soup which is how I got cast in The Informant!.
When I got the script for Community I read it on a plane and started laughing out loud which I rarely do reading a script. The guy next to me was watching What Happens In Vegas and he got pissed that my laughter was interrupting his movie. His romantic-comedy.
I met the Russo brothers who’d previously worked on Arrested Development and were now working on what would be Community. I knew they were geniuses and Dan Harmon (the creator of and writer on Community) was brilliant so that really got me interested. I read for them in the room, then I did a network test and then they started casting the rest of the show.
Do you get to improvise on set?
The amazing thing about Dan [Harmon] is he’s a writer but he doesn’t say, “Just read the words!” He understands that a script changes once it gets into an actors hands. So yeah, we all get to improvise a little on set.
I hear you’re due to appear in The Big Year alongside Jack Black and Steve Martin. It’s currently described as: “Three avid bird watchers compete to spot the rarest birds in North America at a prestigious annual event.” Can you elaborate on this?
That is not a rumour anymore, that’s definitely true. I started filming it last week. Jack Black is in Community of course as well as Owen Wilson.
Kevin Pollack and I play Steve Martin’s business partner who cannot understand why he’s letting his business fall apart so he can go birdwatching. We turn up in all kinds of strange places and implore with him to come back.
It’s been worth it just to work with Steve Martin who is one of my childhood heroes. It was a dream come true.
Thank you Joel McHale.
Joel hosts The Soup, Mondays at 7.30pm on E! Entertainment Television.
To celebrate E!’s 20th birthday there will be The Soup Presents: 20 Years Of Takin’ Some E! on Monday 31st May at 7.30pm only on E! Entertainment Television.