Joel McHale is apparently some sort of freakin’ machine. The longtime host of The Soup, that beacon of snarky goodness, has finally gotten a solid gig on network TV, playing a guy who looks and acts an awful lot like Joel McHale. He’s starring in one of the most hyped new sitcoms of the fall season, NBC’s Community, which also features a non-sucky Chevy Chase and comedy’s great Asian hope, Ken Jeong. Anybody who loves McHale and everything he represents knew it was only a matter of time before our national man-crush was given his own prime-time series. Despite a regular paycheck from NBC—and a beefy role in the new film The Informant (starring Matt Damon), which opens nationwide next Friday, September 18th—he’s staying on as host of The Soup.
It’s a feat of comedy endurance that’s rarely been attempted by McHale’s Soup predecessors. Back when the show was called Talk Soup, hosts used their semi-celebrity as a stepping stone to greatness, or at least respectable obscurity. Greg Kinnear, the show’s grandpappy, went into full Soup retirement before launching his second career as an indie-film darling. John Henson waited almost a decade before returning to TV to do whatever it is he does on TV now. Aisha Tyler dabbled in side projects, pretend-schtupping David Schwimmer on Friends, while retaining her hosting duties, but her Talk Soup tenure lasted only the better part of a year. McHale, already a five-year veteran of the show and a man who, we’re repeatedly reminded, “watches it all for you,” has decided that his pending stardom is no reason to stop making jokes about Ryan Seacrest and Flavor of Love.
I called McHale to talk about Community—which premieres next Thursday, September 17, at eight p.m.—while he was on a “mini-vacation” with his family in Vashon Island, Washington. Given his reputation, I expected him to be unconditionally snarky. But McHale was the dictionary definition of grateful, to the point that I wondered if I was talking to the right guy. Though it’s always wonderful to hear that Chevy Chase is a pleasure to work with—“There’s Chevy Chase standing right there,” he reminisced. “And now we’re going to do some scenes with him! And he’s coming back tomorrow! This is crazy!”—it’s not really the sentiment you want to hear from the man who taught us how to say “chicken tetrazzini” with a knowing sneer.
Eric Spitznagel: The one thing I’ve heard repeatedly about Community is that it’s “Stripes in a community college.” Pretend that I’m not a Hollywood producer with a learning disability. What the hell is this thing really about?
Joel McHale: I guess it’s similar to Stripes because my character enters into something that he doesn’t necessarily want to be a part of. It’s about a bunch of people who would never normally associate with each other who are suddenly forced to be together. It’s like when you were in college and you went to a study group and realized, “Wow, I don’t know if I’d even look twice at any of these people if we weren’t in the same astronomy class.”
Dan Harmon, who created and produces the show, insists that Community isn’t meant as a mockery of community college. Do you feel the same way?
Absolutely. It’s interesting that everybody assumes we’re going to be insulting community colleges. Did Cheers insult people who went to bars? Is The Office making fun of office workers?
A little bit, yeah.
O.K., bad example. [Laughs.] But you know what I mean. If anything, we try to celebrate community colleges. Whenever you hear about colleges, it’s always the Ivy League schools or the schools with big football teams. I think community colleges are the unsung educators of America.
One of your co-stars in Community is the effortlessly awesome Ken Jeong, who did full-frontal in The Hangover. Is it weird working with somebody after you’ve seen his penis?
I’ll be honest, it is a little weird. But that’s because I’d seen his penis long before the movie came out, when I actually had a hangover. But that’s a whole other story I’d rather not get into. On our first day of production, there was that moment when I looked at him and paused for a second and thought, “Hmm. I know exactly what that man’s penis looks like.” And then you kind of move on with your day. You just have to put it out of your head.
You know what might take away some of that tension? If you showed him your penis.
I thought about that, but then I figured it’d probably just increase the tension. It’s like when you’re playing poker and somebody pushes in all of their chips. You don’t want to be the jerk who says, “Oh yeah? Well I’m all in, too!”
Well, unless he has two pair and you’re holding a straight flush. You know what I’m saying?
[Laughs.] Trust me, I don’t have a straight flush.
If you say so, Joel. We were going to give you the benefit of the doubt.
That’s not a road you want to go down. It’d eventually get to the point where our penises would just be out the entire time. I don’t think that’d create a comfortable work environment.
When fans walk up to you and yell out, “So meaty,” does it ever take you a moment to realize they’re repeating a popular catchphrase from The Soup and not, in fact, commenting on the size of your man-junk?
Not at all, because other than my wife and courtroom drawings, nobody’s ever seen it.
Your penis has been on trial?
No, that’s just an aesthetic choice. I just love those artist renderings of courtroom dramas. That’s how I like my penis to be represented.
Despite the new gig on NBC, you’re staying on as host of The Soup. Have you given up on sleeping?
That’s the idea. Honestly, I just don’t ever want to see my family again. I want them to be raised like British kids who are sent to boarding school when they’re six. They’ll come out with no emotions and great manners.
Did it even cross your mind to retire from The Soup?
Not once. The Soup is the reason why I am where I am right now. When I took over the show five years ago, I was getting some work as an actor, doing a few commercials and whatnot, but I hadn’t really broken through. The Soup got me noticed, it got me into all the auditions I was passed over for when I was just another unknown actor. The show is doing well, and I just don’t see the point of leaving something when it’s still doing well and going strong.
So in other words, the only way they’re getting you to leave The Soup is by prying it out of your cold, dead hands?
[Laughs.] Pretty much, yeah. I think The Soup is a higher calling. A lot of the things that happen on TV need to be addressed. They cannot go unnoticed. Something must be said.
The Soup has featured a lot of horrifying clips over the years. What still haunts your dreams?
I don’t remember the name of it, but it was something like American Dreams or Great American Dreams. It was hosted by Donny Osmond and he was helping people’s dreams come true. There was this girl who competed in the pre-teen beauty pageants, and she was talking about how she visited kids with cancer, and she bragged that something like eight of the kids who died were buried with her tiara in their coffins. That still resonates with me today.
That’s awful on so many levels. It doesn’t even cross over into self-parody.
It was one of those astonishing, jaw-dropping moments for me, when I was like, “Wow, that’s actually on television.” Then there was another one around six months ago, when a reporter from Detroit said, “Barack and Michelle are a terrific couple, they love each other, they’re always holding hands and fisting.” I think she meant “fist-bumping’ but it came out “fisting.’ I don’t know how to reconcile that.
Does it seem like a lot of reality shows these days are just instructional videos on how to get gonorrhea?
Yes, it definitely is. And not just gonorrhea, but also pelvic inflammatory disease and chlamydia. It’s basically a place for skanks to hide in plain sight. It’s a place for skanks to go after they drop out of high school and get fired from the short-order restaurant where they work. It’s a haven for skanks. Actually, though, I feel like most TV shows today are about cooking, fat people losing weight and gaining dignity, or vampires. Those are the three most popular genres. If you’ve got a show about an obese vampire who cooks, you’re going to make a million dollars.
After spending so much of your life watching and thinking about the carnies who populate reality TV, have you ever had a Chris Crocker breakdown and wept for them under a bedsheet?
No, thank god. I’m like a Navy SEAL. I’ve built up a tolerance. Once in a while a tear will escape, but not too often. Besides, with my schedule, I can’t watch TV the way I used to watch it. I’ve got 14 people on The Soup staff watching TV for me now.
Where do you find these people? I assume that most of them are illegal immigrants making a few cents an hour.
Well, no, not exactly. We bought them. We purchased them from various Third World countries. No, they’re bright-eyed and bushy-tailed college graduates who think they’re getting a great job in Hollywood and then they end up having to watch the Today show five days a week for four hours a day.
You gotta feel for those kids. Even if they knew what they were getting into, there’s really no way to mentally prepare yourself for Bridezilla.
Exactly, right. It’s not easy. Some of them, they get post-traumatic stress problems. The suicide rate is pretty high in our line of work.
Whatever it takes to keep you on The Soup. That’s where America first fell in love with you.
Thank you. I don’t know if I’d agree that America loves me, but I’ll take the compliment.
By “America” I mean, of course, gay men.
Oh. [Laughs.] Well, sure, I just assumed.
No, no, I’m kidding. There are plenty of heterosexuals who adore you as well. But why do you think gay audiences are so enamored by you?
[In a drag-queen falsetto.] Because I’m faaab-u-lous! [Laughs.] Actually, I have no idea. But the more the merrier. I’m just pissed that I don’t have a hermaphrodite following yet. People tell me all the time that I have a lot of gay fans, and I’m like, “O.K., that’s awesome. But how do you know that?” What does that mean? Are they seriously keeping track of what gay people are watching? And if they are, I think that’s something the gays should be worried about.
It’s not a mystery why gay men find you appealing. You’ve got excellent hygiene, you’re thin, you’ve got a great fashion sense, and from what I understand, you’re a bit of cock-tease.
[Laughs.] Well, I don’t know about that last part, but the fashion sense has nothing to do with me. I wish I could take any credit for that, but it’s all José.
I’m sorry? “It’s all José”? Is that street slang for something?
I mean José Camilo, my stylist at The Soup. He’s gay, of course, and he’s from the Dominican Republic. And he has a better sense of fashion than anyone I’ve ever met. When I met him five years ago, he told me [in an effeminate Dominican accent] “Joel, you’ll be wearing skinny ties for the rest of your life, or until I decide they are out.”
If you’re not consciously trying to court gay fans, how do you explain the Chihuahua?
Well, that started because Paris Hilton got rid of her Chihuahua and bought a kinkajou or some sort of marsupial. And our response was like, “Hey, what about the Chihuahua?” So Lou came on and he never left. Lou is our executive producer’s dog, who is of course gay. Because c’mon, it’s a Chihuahua.
Wait, are you telling us that Lou is gay or that Lou’s owner is gay?
[Laughs.] His owner is gay. I don’t really know about Lou. If he is, I’m not going to be the one to out him. Lou’s owner, Edward Boyd, is gay. He can bench something like 400 pounds, and I’m not joking. He’s jacked! I never liked Chihuahuas before meeting Lou, but now I think they’re an amazing breed. I would get one in a heartbeat.
Speaking of Chihuahuas, did you ever get that slap Mickey Rourke promised?
No, not yet. I’m still waiting.
Why a slap? Why not threaten you with a Ram Jam? He’s got DVDs of The Wrestler to sell.
Yeah, if he’s going to do this, he should come at me with a vertical suplex piledriver or something fancy like that. The whole thing is so crazy, because when we found out that he was upset, we literally had no idea what he was talking about. And then one of our P.A.’s remembered that we’d done a promo where we talked about how the Oscars were really gay this year and we gave some tips for making the show even gayer. One of the gags was about doing a tribute to Mickey Rourke’s dead dog, who was a Chihuahua. And as we all know, Chihuahuas are a little gay. That was the extent of it. I think it was probably a game of telephone, where a friend of Mickey’s saw the promo and called him and said, “They’re making fun of your dog!”
I’ve always been curious about what it’d be like to get into a fight with Mickey Rourke. There’s a dark part of me that wants to think when the punches start flying, Mickey is screaming “Not the face! Not the face!”
[Laughs.] Well, that would be fine with me. Because he’s a terrific actor. I would honor that. I’ll let you know what happens.
You don’t sound too worried.
Should I be? He hasn’t come after me yet. Hopefully if I run into him and he takes a swing, one of the reality TV people that I’ve made fun of will be working at a nearby needle exchange and jump out to defend me.
You have an entire segment on The Soup devoted to “Oprah’s va-ja-ja.” Are you just obsessed with the word “va-ja-ja” or specifically with Oprah’s vagina?
Well, as we’ve always said on The Soup, we cover the coverage. We just repeated back what Oprah said and kept count of how many times she said it. The word va-ja-ja is not provocative in any way, but when Oprah talks about it, it becomes news. Because she’s Oprah. It’s like with her book club. All she has to do is mention a book and everybody runs out to buy it. When she said “my va-ja-ja be painin’,” it instantly became part of the cultural lexicon.
What if Oprah called her vagina “my brown sugar”? Would legions of women follow her lead?
Absolutely. And I’d be right there with them. I’d call my vagina “brown sugar” tomorrow if Oprah decided it should be so.
Why do you think Oprah’s brown sugar taste so good? Is it just like a black girl should?
Wow. Oh my lord. Where are you getting these insane questions? I don’t know how to answer that.
I believe the correct answer is “I ain’t no schoolboy but I know what I like.”
[Laughs.] I’m going to have to take your word on that.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com)