Seconds into our phone call, it’s clear that Joel McHale is relaxed. In fact, before I know it, the LA-based entertainer is interviewing me: “Where are you calling from? Chicago? Are you from there? What town did you grow up in? That’s where all my older cousins lived. They were super fun.”
It’s this personable nature that led the comedian and television host to his role as smooth-talking ex-lawyer Jeff Winger on Community. It's also what helped him deliver sharp-witted commentary between reality show clips as the host of The Soup (2004-2015) and its current iteration, The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale.
McHale is comfortable for a good reason. A little over two years after E! cancelled The Soup, he found a new home for the satirical program at Netflix, rebranding it as The Joel McHale Show. He received a six-episode season extension from the streaming platform before season one had even finished airing. The new episodes were released on July 15.
The show’s longevity correlates with the fact that Hollywood keeps upping the ante on reality television. “There’s so much to choose from now,” McHale says. And now Netflix has afforded the host and his cast of television-obsessed comedy writers the opportunity to expand their scope. These days, they pepper the program with internet clips, sports goofs, bizarre DIY foreign films, and a train of Netflix-contracted celebrities performing skits while conveniently promoting their own Netflix programs. The result is a Soup revival, plus well-oiled marketing content embedded within rapid-paced comedy. McHale’s excited about the inescapable promotional loop, though. It’s more material to poke fun at, and Netflix is game.
VICE spoke with McHale about reincarnating the The Soup as The Joel McHale Show, how working with Netflix has afforded his staff more creative freedom, and what reality shows he can’t stop watching.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
VICE: How did you form a relationship with Netflix?
Joel McHale: We pitched it to all the streaming services and a couple of cable networks, and [Netflix] made the best offer. Not just that, but they were the most enthusiastic. And it’s Netflix. They’re the king of the hill and we’re happy to be a pebble or a small spider on that hill.
It seems like working with them gives you a lot of room to stretch out. You’ve had a lot of guest stars that you’ve been able to bring on through Netflix.
Yeah. I’ve never been on a streaming service. They basically were like, “Make the show about 21 minutes long and that’s all we’re asking.” And of course, make the show funny and not horrible or dumb and boring and racist. They were like, “Go nuts!” I mean sure, if the show doesn’t do well they’ll cancel us. But it’s one of those things where they have given us a lot of chances and really foamed the runway for us and let us do what we want.
There’s a lot of leeway now with the show’s content. Obviously, you can swear a lot more casually on a streaming service than on cable. Are you feeling a lot more free?
Yeah. E! wanted us to focus on entertainment. If we had a clip from a sports show or a weird YouTube gamer, they were like, “Well… I don’t know.” They were always shying away. They always wanted to be entertainment-centric. That’s what their network was about, I got that, but now we can show Ugandan filmmakers and the crazy movies that they make and we can show weird moments from fans watching a dog race in Belfast. [Netflix] is like, “As long as you find it funny, then go for it.” It’s very strange and wonderful.
Do you feel like now that you’re expanding beyond reality TV as a focus that you’re coming up with more creative ideas in the writer’s room?
The fantasies that we used to have, like “Sports Segment” or the “International Corner,” we can do stuff like that now. We’ve got the “Weird Guys” and “Weird Gals” segments, too. Now that we’re launching the show in bulk, we can gather those clips over the course of months and go, “Here’s a series of clips with creepy guys in it.”
We still like to hit The Bachelor and The Voice and all that—they still give us good stuff—but now we can reach deep into YouTube. We had Markiplier come on and we did a whole section on Twitch and YouTube stuff. Some people are like, “Aren’t you worried about losing your older audience?” I’m like, if you can’t hang in there for two minutes of Twitch clips and us bagging on them, then I don’t know what to tell you. I guess we’ve moved on.
Speaking of using YouTube, that makes me think of this clip early in season one where this high school basketball announcer is doing introductions before a game and just absolutely screaming every player's name as they walk out onto the court. I looked up that clip to see where it came from, and it had like 80 views when I watched it. How are your producers finding this stuff?
Some of the producers are magicians. They find stuff and I’m like, “How did you do that?!” And they’ll say, “I, uh, entered four keywords I had never entered before and…” I’m just like, Geez Louise, man. We like finding stuff that hasn’t [gone viral yet]. Obviously, there’s clips that explode over a couple of days and we’re not going to show those because they’re already out. If it’s The Bachelor, then yes, because though everyone’s seen it, it’s insanity and then everyone’s going to go, “What are comedians going to say about it?” But when I see that the view count is really low, I get very excited and I pray to God that it doesn’t explode between the time we tape it and the time we show it, which is a pretty small window.
Do you search out those unknown, niche videos to differentiate yourself a bit from other shows like Tosh.0 that focus a lot on viral videos?
Well, yes. [Tosh.0] has done an obviously spectacular job. “Web Redemption” is a television staple. But yeah, I think anybody who’s gathering clips, whether it’s late-night shows or Tosh.0 or Ridiculousness, I would assume they’re trying to avoid clips that have been viewed a billion times because there’s no life in that. You want to find the stuff that makes them go, “How did they get into my brain?”
Being on Netflix now, people can also watch your show months or even years later, too. How does that affect the way that the show’s written?
We make jokes about that. We’ll say stuff like, “If you’ve just seen this… or if you’re watching this 35 years from now, please say hello to the robot president, and I’m sorry there’s no more oxygen.”
Some of the clips aren’t evergreen—obviously The Bachelor’s not—but we think there’s stuff, like when they get some of those lunatics on there, that makes it evergreen. But yes, the show will live forever [on Netflix]. The thing we noticed was that we were doing it week-to-week, but Netflix told us people were binge watching the episodes, so we switched to that. If you listen to our credits song, we show the credits, and we know the whole thing is that no one watches them, so that’s what the song is about. We just say really stupid stuff in the song to hopefully get people to enjoy that part of the show as well. We’re trying to take advantage of that.
You stopped airing on E! in late 2015 before making the jump to Netflix in early 2018. You said you were pitching the show around before that, too. What made you realize there was more left to say with this show?
Well, there are always ridiculous things on television or on the Internet that make people go, “Did you see that?” That could be anything from a clip from the Real Housewives to someone jumping off their roof and missing the pool to a zillion other things. Because of the invention of videotaping and film, those things get recorded and those things are commented on endlessly, so that’s sort of why the show was able to come back.
When E! ended the show, it wasn’t because it was low-rated. It was because E! did not want to pay union rerun dues. When I was there, Chelsea [Handler] was on and Joan [Rivers] was on. E! had a very healthy comedy brand. Then the Writer’s Guild came down and said, “Hey, you guys have comedy writers listed as producers,” which is how it always has been at non-union networks, and they said, “You need to make all these people ‘writers,’” to which I said, Yeah, they need to, and they need to get benefits and all that stuff
That happened, then Chelsea quit and went to Netflix, ironically. Joan sadly died. And we were the last man on the island. E! used to repeat our show like 15 times per week. But as soon as they had to pay the writers that went to zero. They’d show it once and that was that, so that was the end. The new president—not the president that picked us up—also said, “Please stop making fun of the Kardashians.” That’s the whole spirit and artistic part of it, if you want to call it “art.” I was like, we’re finished. If the network is trying to stop us and censor us from its own material? That alone was why the show did well at first, because we were making fun of ourselves.
Well, the point of the show is to poke fun at other shows. I noticed in the latest season on Netflix, you’ve started to make fun of yourself a lot more. Why is that?
I learned from Johnny Carson and David Letterman—and then when Conan came on in the 90s—that you have to be able to take the piss out of yourself if you’re taking the piss out of something else. There’s no show where you go, “These people are dumb! These people are dumb and I’m great!” If you do that, you’re just going to look like an asshole and you probably are an asshole.
I’ve got to ask: You’ve been combing through reality shows virtually every week for about a decade and a half now. What are the ones you just have to watch each week?
The stuff that I like now is more hidden. There’s this weird church show Julie and Friends, where it’s really low rent and they talk about the Bible and do crafts. But Julie is just so passive aggressive to all her friends and undercutting them, it’s really crazy.
I love making fun of YouTubers. There’s this kid who, to get more viewers, shaved his head and then ate his hair with ketchup. That’s gold. I mean, that’s gold. Such gold.
It’s obvious to say, but The Bachelor. The editors and the creators of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, they are so good at casting and at finding these young, beautiful lunatics to go on the show. Every year I keep thinking, they’re going to kind of dip in quality. A lot of reality shows [aren't as crazy now]. Like, when Being Bobby Brown was on with Whitney Houston, that show was insanity. A publicist today would… I mean, there’s not a world where that show would be allowed on the air. Or when Britney Spears and Kevin Federline were just given video cameras and they were like, “Just record whatever you want, and we’ll edit it together!” A publicist would show up with a machete to cut their arms off to stop them from doing it now.
I always loved Dog the Bounty Hunter because he was a walking chimney of nicotine, and I don’t really think he can actually move. I always found that endlessly hilarious. I loved Bear Grylls. They’ll be like, “Jump out of this helicopter and into this river!” and it's like, “Why didn’t you just lower the helicopter so he can step off?” Currently, shows like Basketball Wives seem to give us a lot each week. And Gold Rush: Alaska is about guys digging around for gold, but they keep saying “glory hole” over and over.
This stuff writes itself, right?
Yes. There’s so much. One of my favorite clips is from a high school basketball game—not the screamer—but this basketball team is running out on the court and there’s a slick part of the court. Eventually the whole team goes down. It's great! There’s so much to choose from now. It’s just wonderful.
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