As chief stirrer of E!'s pop culture bubble popper The Soup and Community's very own whip-smart disgraced lawyer Jeff Winger, Joel McHale is a much-loved man, with fans likely to shout "Mmm... meaty!" (a Soup catchphrase) or "Pop pop!" (Community) when they see him in the street. When he was recently in town to talk about E! UK's new season of The Soup, we talked to him about both of his career's biggest hitters, as well as the minor roles that you keep spotting him in. Remember when he denied Aunt May a bank loan? He definitely does...
THE SOUP (2004 - PRESENT)
What’s the weirdest thing in your head that you learnt from The Soup?
Let’s see. The ones that stick out are… Well, when Being Bobby Brown was on air, Whitney Houston suddenly had a reality show, and we were talking about it. Now with Whitney Houston sadly passed, it doesn’t lend itself to funny clips, but when she was alive, which was now ten years ago or so, this show was crazy. They were following around this woman who had been one of the biggest stars in the world, and she is screaming and yelling and doing all sorts of stuff, and now you look back and realise it was a horrible time for her, she was on a downward spiral, so obviously it’s lost a lot of its lustre as far as comedy is concerned, but it really was incredible at the time.
Every week we’d watch the show and say, ‘Holy shit. Can you believe this is Whitney Houston?’ You didn’t need to write a joke. It spoke for itself.
When Britney Spears had her own show, that she filmed, so it was always making you ill. I remember thinking that it was possibly the worst television ever put to air – because it was boring, and on top of it, you were getting sick. That was another watershed television moment for me. Now she’s all back together, and that’s great, and now the show’s one of those things no-one ever thinks about – but I do, amazingly.
There was a clip that really helped establish us as a show, and that was Spaghetti Cat. There was a chat show called The Morning Show With Mike And Juliet, and they had guests on, and on one occasion, there was a very serious conversation between these two hosts and a mother and her daughter, who were against binge drinking, and the daughter was caught driving intoxicated, charged by the police, and one moment they were discussing all this, and the next… they cut to a picture of a cat eating spaghetti. Sitting at a table, in front of a plate of spaghetti. We dubbed it… ‘Spaghetti Cat’. We did not know what it was, or what it happened, so it could only be described as art.
I don’t have to find the clips any more, I don’t have to, thank God. It used to be that way, in the beginning. I was watching eight, ten hours of television, which for Americans is below average, but was a slog for me. I thought, ‘This is a good way for me to never watch television again.’ That said, it wasn’t that hard. (Laughs) I have a great job.
What will you do if the reality show Finding Bigfoot actually finds a big foot?
(Laughs) I don’t know, die? The title of the show, Finding Bigfoot, is the absolute opposite of what happens on every single episode. I have to give them credit for creating an entire slew of shows – all about not finding the one single thing they say they are finding. ‘This week on Finding Bigfoot… we failed again.’ So often it’s, ‘We found some hair!’ – it’s from a deer. ‘We found a footprint!’ – it’s a footprint. A human footprint. They think it’s more provocative if they add a nightvision camera that they attach to their heads, which lets them walk into the woods at night and make their crappy version of Blair Witch. Still, nothing’s happening. Nothing.
I should do one called ‘Finding Gargoyles’. ‘Finding Elves’, ‘Finding Goblins’… I’d clean up. Bobo, the guy who’s on that show, is very nice to us. He’s always distracted by food. One time they just end up talking about ‘Indian tacos’. I don’t know why.
Do you feel, after ten years, that The Soup has become a kind of an institution?
Oh yes. Like a centre for disease control. That place full of evil that no-one wants to be around when there’s a pandemic. I can’t believe it’s been ten years. I’ve had a lot of fun doing it.
How does it feel when you’re “on” The Soup as well as hosting it?
I was the answer on a Jeopardy that no-one knew the answer to. Alex Trebeck, the host, was like ‘Neither do I.’ Ironically, Trebeck and I had spent half a day together shooting a bit for an awards ceremony that I hosted, and he had totally forgotten me. I think he’s like me – I need to meet someone three or four times before I actually remember them… whatever your name is.
But then I came up again on Jeopardy just two weeks ago, and they got it, which was ‘VINDICATION!’ for me. They knew me. ‘Star of Community and hosts The Soup’ was the clue, it can’t get more plain than that. ‘Ryan Seacrest!’
The Soup is on Fridays at 10.30pm on E!
COMMUNITY (2009 - PRESENT)
What was your initial reaction to Community?
"Well, looking at the bones of Community, straight away I thought that it had somewhere to go. Because you read a lot of pilot scripts, and you can see on the page whether it might be good for just a few episodes or whether it has the potential to get bigger than that. There has to be an actual reason for all these characters to still want to spend time with each other, you know.
Fortunately, Community’s creator, Dan Harman, is a genius. And he set out to write a pilot that his own uncle in Wisconsin would want to watch – and so he modelled it after The Breakfast Club, as he’s a huge John Hughes film fan, as well as something like Cheers or MAS*H, where it’s a group of people who go moving through life together, and the setting happens to be a Community college, but it’s really about these characters.
So like Cheers was a sitcom that took place in a bar, and yes, the bar was a character in its own right, sure, but you really cared much more about the characters than the bar. It was always about these people who were coming together every night – these people who wouldn't necessarily be with each other if they didn’t have this place to go to.
So thank God that NBC picked it up, basically!"
What was it like working with Chevy Chase?
"Funnily enough, I just saw Chasey in a film as I went to bed last night – a film called Karate Dog, which he did in 2004. I didn’t even know he was in that film – as the voice of 'Cho-Cho' the Karate Dog, of course – and so now I am very happy knowing that I can make fun of him about it forever and ever.
I remember, sometimes I was like, 'Hey there’s Chevy Chase eating yoghurt! Oh, there’s Chevy Chase drinking a can of soda! Wait, there’s Chevy looking for his goddamn pants again!' It was weird being 'with him' last night until one in the morning or whatever. 'Hey, I’m watching Chevy Chase pretending to be a dog who knows karate as I get really drowsy... awesome.'"
Because of the Community paintball episodes, are you some sort of hero to these guys?
"Ha, yeah, we feel like we’ve legitimised the world of paintball! But I don’t know, that’s a good question. But what we do do – and we’ve done it twice now – is hire a paintball company to come in and bring in all the paint, all the equipment, all the special guns that you don’t actually see – the ones that are really, really accurate and if set up properly, deadly. Which is always comforting. And so a couple of those guys said they sought out the show out because of the paintball episodes.
The first one was actually directed by Justin Lin, who directed a few episodes, actually, and consulted on the second paintball episode too. He fully directed the first one and those 22 minutes of screentime took almost an entire two weeks to shoot – much to the chagrin of NBC and Sony, who own the show, and so he is great to work with. Really a gifted director, taking a tiny budget and making that episode look like a full-on action film."
This is the same Justin Lin that in Fast Five took The Rock and threw him through several windows…?
"Yep, and he’s a very small Asian man, so it really is an incredible feat that he managed to do that."
SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004)
"Never in my entire life have I been recognised for my role in Spider-Man 2. No-one ever goes, ‘Hey, it’s that guy – that guy who’s in Spider-Man 2 for five minutes!’ Still, look at me in that movie, I was the Vice-President of Home Loans and I nailed it! So it’s not often that I’m telling people to leave me and my family alone because of that role, but it does happen occasionally. It’s very similar to what Taylor Lautner goes through, and Robert Pattinson too. That’s the sort of attention I get for that gig.
But I did get to work with the incredible Rosemary Harris, and she was absolutely delightful, one of the coolest ladies around. So beautiful and wonderful, I really did have a great time with her. Just lovely."
OPEN SEASON 2 (2008)
"I wish I were doing more voiceovers! And not because I would like more money. I really enjoy it. ‘We’re going to pick you to take over from Ashton Kutcher from the original, and we’re going to pay you 1/30th of what you made. Congratulations!’ It was really fun to do, and I lost my voice every day I was into it so much. Took two weeks. Really fun.
Maybe if I ever become a real star, I can do one of those, you know, big movies. Once The Soup: The Movie happens – I’m seeing it being shot in IMAX, by the way – that’ll change everything. I’ll be in Frozen 3. Not Frozen 2, but Frozen 3. The best one. I’ve decided."
THE INFORMANT (2009)
"The audition process for The Informant had me reading every scene with Carmen Cuba, who is one of the cooler casting directors around town in LA. She casts all of Soderbergh’s movies. I guess it was her idea that we do it, and I was told Soderbergh watched The Soup – it could have been a lie, but I refuse to believe it was a lie – and we basically did every scene a few different times in a few different ways, and then… we got a call. No meeting with the director or anything like that. From my experience, that’s how movies are usually cast. Offers, or a tape, as opposed to a television show, where you jump through all the hoops that are available to jump through.
With The Informant, I just got a call saying ‘You’re going to be in this movie with Matt Damon, and you’re going to be in a bunch of scenes with him.’ That was an incredibly cool moment. And Scott Bakula! And I’m a huge Quantum Leap fan. I remember the first day I was there – the first day – I drove up, they put me in costume, and I was in a very small room, and suddenly Matt was there, and so was Scott Bakula, and then there’s Soderbergh saying action and I’m responding with 'BLLLLEEEUGH'. It was thrilling, and he’s a great guy. Soderbergh spoiled me forever on that movie, as concerns how directors should be, because he is absolutely the nicest guy, and he knows exactly what he wants, and he gets it in the most collaborative way. It’s all, ‘This is how it’s going to look, we’ll do it in one or two takes, then it’s over.’"
SPY KIDS: ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD (2011)
"That was a great opportunity to work with Robert Rodriguez, and I got to shoot down in Austin, and he’s amazing, and I got to work with Jessica Alba, and Jeremy Piven, and that was really cool – plus it was one of the only things that I’ve done that I could watch with my kids.
It’s a very rare thing, but I do sometimes get kids coming up to me in the street asking about Spy Kids. Not many though. Some kids really adore that series of movies, and I really brought that franchise to the tool shed and had it shot in the head. They wanted to sign me on for three of them, and we were like, ‘Let’s just see how this one does...’, and it didn’t do well.
That was another role where, you know, Robert Rodriguez just offered it to me. Believe me, when I get to the point in my career where people go, ‘Will you do this?’ and I’m not like, ‘Well, yes, yes! I will, Robert Rodriguez’, that’ll be a strange day. To work with him on anything... I hope he hires me for a movie where I blow the head off a snake vampire. That would be great."
DIAGNOSIS MURDER (2000) / CSI: MIAMI (2005) / DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014)
"The Diagnosis Murder episode ‘By Reason Of Insanity’ was the third job I’d ever done in L.A., and my friend Sandy Smolan was directing, and I was a guest star. I did not get to spend any time with Dick Van Dyke, alas. It’s like when I did CSI: Miami, I did zero scenes with David Caruso. A woman called Lisa Akey was my wife on Diagnosis Murder, who I still sort of know, a very nice, very attractive lady.
And I got murdered! In the first scene! But because I got stabbed – or was it shot? – I remember thinking, ‘All right, I’m bleeding out! Just go ahead and cover me with the fake blood!’ And the props guy came over with a very small paint pot in his hand. ‘It’s Diagnosis Murder, dude. Not a lot of blood. You’re going to have to deal with it.’ So I did not get the blood bath I was looking for. I had to wait until Deliver Us From Evil for that (pictured above). Go see that movie! It’s scary! Incidentally, look out for plenty of Monty Python references in Deliver From Evil. I do a great thing that riffs off the ‘Dead Parrot’ sketch. No, wait, that’s not true. At all."
SONS OF ANARCHY (2012)
"It is a huge honour to be beaten up by the Sons on Sons Of Anarchy. It’s a privilege to be part of the beaten-up-by-the-Sons club, though there are quite a few people in it now. But I didn’t die! And that’s a very small club. I thought I should have died, and I don’t know why I didn’t. Should have. I shot a separate scene were I did die on my phone when I got home, of course. ‘Guys! I just had sex with Katey Sagal’s character, why am I not dead?’