Did you ever in a million years think you’d have a job making fun of TV?
No. I did not make this plan. It’s very strange, because I was always highly opinionated about pretty much about anything. I was one of those guys who was always like, “Your favorite band sucks!” So I would yell back at the TV all the time. The fact that someone would pay me for it? And that I’m not sitting around in my underwear yelling? Its just a hoot. I never would have thought it.
So many people watch TV these days—especially with the glut of reality shows—and say, “I know it’s awful, but I’m addicted to it.” Do you understand where they’re coming from?
Yeah, I think there’s a lot of Schadenfreude. It’s like, “Look at these freaks.” I see the morbid fascination; it’s the Gladiator aspect of wanting to see people fall apart. The shows are becoming so insane, I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like in twenty years.
After that girl taking a shit on the stairs on Flavor of Love, where is there really to go?
That was an incredible moment in television. And then her excuse was just tremendous! She’s like, “Well, I had to go, and then I started walking up the stairs, and then that happened.” That doesn’t happen to normal people! Normal people, that does not happen to. Something is wrong with you, ma’am. And what a surprise you got on a reality show with Flavor Flav.
Where do you think television’s gonna be twenty years from now?
I’m gonna say Live Sponsored Executions. It’ll be like Monday Night Football.
Do you think your job on The Soup, then, is important?
Well, it’s definitely important to pay my mortgage, and clothe the children and things like that. I… gosh, I have not really thought about that.
Well, culturally, do you think society needs someone to point out that what they’re addicted to is ridiculous?
I don’t know. Television is out of control, and a morally bankrupt place. To comment on that is good. I don’t know if it’s important, but it’s not stupid. There’s a lot of things on TV that suck, and they’re very popular, and kids love ‘em. When we make fun of an MTV show and go, “Hey Mom and Dad, it’s on after school!”—I feel like that’s a good comment. Or like a few weeks ago, VH1 was running promos for Black History Month. They’d run this very beautifully done promo with a lot of still photographs of African-Americans, in America, with beautiful music behind it, saying, “This is Black History Month, send in your photos and you could be a part of this campaign!” We just put Rock of Love and Charm School and Surreal Life—we just put a bunch of footage from that behind that very same music, showing how African-Americans are portrayed on VH1 shows. We felt like that was good. We love calling bullshit on things, but we don’t want it to be heavy-handed, or no one would watch. We still want it to be as funny as possible.
How do you deal with celebrities who get mad at The Soup? Is Tyra Banks still constantly pissed off at you?
We ignore it until they try to sue us, which really hasn’t happened. She’s the only one who’s tried to legally stop us, but almost without exception, there’s been very few really upset with us, from what I can tell. I know that David Hasselhoff is not a big fan, but he shouldn’t have gotten totally wasted and started shoving tacos in his mouth! It’s like, what do you expect us to do? We never go after people because we have a vendetta; we try to let their clips hang themselves. Like, we don’t make much fun of Oprah until she talks about her vajayjay. Because for the most part, Oprah’s show is great, and reasonable, and she’s a reasonable person, and she does good topics. But you know, when you have Tyra saying she’s afraid of dolphins, we’re gonna make fun of it!
Were you surprised when the Karsashians agreed to be on the show the other night?
Kind of! We’ve been relentless against them. I did learn that Bruce Jenner hates me, which. . . I don’t blame him. But you know, when someone comes on the show, I’m kind of like, “Hey, that was really cool.” So we probably won’t go after them the way we do. Of course, Kim has that sex tape, which is crazy, and which we have made relentless fun of. But they were all really cool, and I liked them. Hopefully they’ll come back.
How much of The Soup is written by writers, or written by you beforehand, or written by you on the spot, ad-libbed?
The whole script is written out, by the writers. I used to write way more than I do now—my schedule has become so crazy. But I rewrite the script on Wednesday night for how I want it to sound, and then on the floor I let it go and do a lot of improvising. You can’t just walk out and start riffing, because it’s 22 minutes of television, and it has to be very tight. So if something doesn’t work, or goes on too long, we stop and go back and get a new joke. For the most part, we try to tape it without stopping. The writers are so tremendous that there’s no need to improvise a lot of times. I’m not able to watch the amount of TV I used to watch, either. It used to be awful. I used to watch four to six hours a day and it was just killing me. It became a chore. My wife would be like, “Can’t you go do…” I was like, “I’m literally working! I’m literally working, watching this show, this Extreme Makeover: Home Edition two-hour special. Again. I have to do this, hon. Don’t disturb me!” It was really weird.
I assume the show now has people whose job it is to watch TV.
Yeah, we have twelve staff members and a few interns that are watching TV all the time. And we have to cover the things like Idol, and Dancing With the Stars, all those things. You know, the Rock of Loves and the Charm Schools are really easy lay-ups to make fun of. But it’s the shows like Dutch Oven, and I Love Toy Trains, and Korean Drama—literally called Korean Drama—it’s those shows that I really love covering, because they’re so off the regular map. I love it. Like, I Love Toy Trains is a show! I love that!
Part of your charm on The Soup is that fantastic, Conan O’Brien-ish self-deprecation.
Well, he’s a genius.
Does that style—“What am I doing here? Why am I on this show?”—does that come naturally for you? Or in real life are you actually a total egomaniac?
I was raised Catholic, so I grew up with all that guilt. That helped. I think anybody raised Catholic is self-deprecating to a point, where you think basically, if all’s going well, at some point the wheels are going to fall off and everything will be a disaster. And anything you get on top of that is a bonus, so you’re like, hey, this is working out great! But I think you can’t be a jerk, or people will not tune in to watch. I’m not putting on an air, but you just have to approach the show with a light heart, and not take it too seriously.
And not be afraid to dress up like Rainbow Brite.
Right! Anything for comedy!
My gay friends are all in love with you. As a married man, how do you react to that kind of adulation?
I love lesbians! Oh, wait, you’re talking about gay men! Well, I love gay men. Just pull that right out, pull that soundbite out. Having a gay following is great, because they seem to have all the money, they’re definitely the best dressed, and the most in shape. So that makes me very happy. And what’s great is that they’re very loyal fans. Lately we’ve been having Matt the intern come out, and he is always covered in oil, it seems now. He’s been doing interviews with a couple of gay websites, and he was addressed as a “greasy treat.” Which, I think, is really funny. But no one ever talks about my enormous straight following! Or, my enormous hermaphrodite following. That’s so sad.
You grew up in Seattle in the ’90s. How did you weather the grunge storm?
“Weather the grunge storm?!” I think grunge is the greatest music of all time!
Yeah! I really disliked big hair metal, I just never got into it. I spent most of my time listening to the Beatles, Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M.—a lot of alternative stuff. I just could not stand all those big hair bands. Then grunge came in when I was in college, and it was the greatest four years in Seattle. Nirvana is, I think, one of the best all-time bands ever. I actually saw their last show in Seattle, and it was tremendous, it was for the In Utero tour. I’ve seen Pearl Jam almost every time they come through here, and Soundgarden. Mother Love Bone, way back when. I loved that time, and I knew no different growing up in Seattle. Bands were just playing everywhere all the time, because Seattle was not a stop for any of the big acts; they would go up to Vancouver because it was a bigger and, at that time, more metropolitan city. Seattle had to make their own music. I mean, to think that a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt became popular is nutty. It’s ridiculous! But it did what it did—it shut down the entire hair-band industry, and Sebastian Bach was left without a job for a while. And now he’s on a reality show.
Did you ever hop in your car and drive down Broadway on Capitol Hill listening to Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “My Posse’s on Broadway”?
“My Posse’s on Broadway!” I have done it! I did it in high school, I admit it! That was the great thing—obviously Sir Mix-a-Lot’s music wasn’t grunge, but it was so Seattle. He made all these local references, so you kinda felt like, this guy! He’s ours! The same thing with Sleater-Kinney, which is an actual place outside of Seattle. “Baby Got Back” is still one of the biggest hits of all time. And going to Dick’s Drive-In on Broadway is still the best burger in the world.
So, your standup show in Santa Rosa coming up. Is it like The Soup at all?
It is. I don’t bring a monitor out and make fun of things, but I talk a lot about pop culture, I talk a lot about behind the scenes at E!, and I can go into a little more depth than I do in The Soup. That’s half the show, and the other half I’m talking about my life, and my family, which is a nutty, nutty place. So it’s half-and-half, there’s something for everyone. And then I take my pants off.
Joel McHale comes to the Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa on Saturday, April 11 for two shows, at 8pm and 10pm. Tickets, $39.50 each, can be bought here.
“When they first started playing, I couldn’t tell if it was the wackest shit ever or the most punk rock thing I’d ever seen.”
I gotta ride with my friend Josh on this one, who did eventually determine the latter. From Seattle, Heatwarmer set up in the cavernous room of Matrix in Petaluma and, before they’d played a note of their “songs,” noodled for 10 minutes or so in the most fantastically addictive way. “I hope this is their set,” I told Shane, hopelessly. “It sounds like the Wired Guitar God Parodies,” he replied, acutely.
Though the noodling was not their set, it was close. Galaxie 500 meets Mr. Bungle meets Raymond Scott meets Phish meets Quasi meets a slowly accumulating cadre of won-over appreciation on the faces of everyone at Matrix. At one point I zoned out on the keyboard player, who wore some kind of medallion around his neck, pondering how he’d memorized all the augmented chords and dexterous runs, when I realized that the electric clarinetist was unreeling the same in unison.
Grappling with an initial sense of confusion, springboarding either into “good” or “bad,” makes the final result that much more concrete. It’s why I don’t recreationally listen to much pop radio, and why Heatwarmer was, in a mentally interactive way, so positively and weirdly thrilling. Check them out here.