It’s not called The Soup, but there’s no doubt Netflix’s The Joel McHale Show With Joel McHale is engineered to be a reincarnation of the comic’s long-running E! clipfest. McHale admitted as much in interviews leading up to the show’s launch, and February’s premiere episode kicked off with the host diving right back into the reality-TV swamp with virtually no preamble. About the only discernible difference between the two shows is that superstar movie producer Paul Feig is now a frequent on-camera presence. Feig’s appearances aren’t just a random recurring bit, though: The producer played a key role in getting the green-screen-and-clips machine up and running again. Vulture called McHale recently to talk about how he ended up on Netflix, why E! ended The Soup in the first place, his thoughts on Community’s enduring legacy, and a possible return to scripted series.
How did the idea for The Joel McHale Show With Joel McHale come about? And how in the in the world did Paul Feig become involved?
When [The Soup] ended, I didn’t think it was the end. E! ended the show for reasons which weren’t really ratings related, you know.
What do you mean?
There was a time when E! had a very strong comedy brand. It was me, Chelsea [Handler], and Joan [Rivers]. The Writers Guild came down and said, “You guys all need to become guild.” The writers were all thrilled, as we all were, because that is what should happen. But E! makes its money by repeating things forever without paying extra money for those things. That’s why we were on 18 times a week or something. When we were made union, we were the only ones left — Chelsea left for Netflix, and then Joan very sadly died — and they stopped repeating the show because it was costing money. We went from like 18 reruns to zero. They also asked us to stop making fun of the Kardashians. That was the writing on the wall there for me. But when it ended I was like, “This isn’t really the end, I don’t think. I’ll probably, hopefully, do the show somewhere else.”
In the meantime, you did The Great Outdoors on CBS.
I did a show on CBS for one season. And that was my plan, just one season. A lot like True Detective. Oh wait, not at all. That’s the opposite.
After the sitcom wrapped, how did you make The Joel McHale Show happen?
Paul Feig ran into [The Soup executive producer] K.P. Anderson, because they live in the same neighborhood. Paul wasn’t on staff of [The Soup], but he was a huge fan of it. He was our champion and he was incredibly enthusiastic about getting it going again. I was like, “Yeah, I would love to.” We just didn’t know where it was gonna live, or who would want it at this point.
Did you take the idea to a bunch of places, or just Netflix?
We pitched it around. We didn’t pitch it to any broadcast networks. We pitched it to a couple cable places, but mostly all streaming. A couple were interested and they wanted to do a pilot. Netflix was ready to do 13, so we were like, “Great, let’s do it.” It’s Netflix, and, you know, they’re the king of the world. We were thrilled.
I love that Paul Feig is a superfan of your show and willed it back into existence.
We didn’t know how much he’d be involved, but he’s there all the time. I mean, you have Paul Feig just wandering around the offices all the time! And he chimes in about comedy. It’s great.
David Letterman coming to Netflix had nothing to do with your show landing there. But for a student of comedy like yourself, it has to be a nice bonus, right?
Believe me, I was thrilled. When you realize the reach they have at Netflix, and how many different languages they’re in, it’s astonishing. We tape on a Thursday, and it’s translated into 30 languages and then dropped on Sunday. I don’t know if anyone in the Maldives or Madagascar are into it, but it’s nice to know that they’re getting it. And obviously when you get Letterman, you get a legend. You get somebody who’s moving into a Paul Bunyan–like legend zone.
E! told you not to make fun of the Kardashians. Do you think you would ever make fun of Letterman’s show?
Yeah, Netflix has been absolutely open. They were like, “Go for it, and go for anything you want.” We go after the things that we find funny and that we can say something funny about. Those are the only rules for us. I mean, the first bit we did was “What’s It Like to Work at Netflix?” And we made fun of a couple different shows. But they don’t have anything like The Bachelor, or Flavor of Love, or The Real Housewives, or Vanderpump Rules. They don’t have anything like that — yet.
One of the things I’ve loved so far is that the show is blessedly Trump-free. Did you decide to limit Trump jokes to stand apart from other talk shows?
Well, he is being incredibly well-covered, from Kimmel, to Samantha Bee, to Colbert, to Seth Meyers, to Trevor Noah. They do a incredible job, and way better than I could. I’m way better at telling fart jokes and making fun of The Bachelor Winter Games. Believe me, if Trump goes back on The Apprentice, we’re all over it. But there is more reality television on right now than there was television in 2002, so I am here to say that a lot of other stupid, silly television must be addressed.
Are you also trying to make the episodes less time-sensitive? Not that The Soup was really ever obsessed with current events, but as you say on one episode, it’s possible folks will be watching these episodes eight years from now.
We are not going, “Every jokes has to be evergreen.” In no way are we pursuing that. At the same time, we’re not trying to go, “Here’s exactly what happened with this Jennifer Lawrence dress situation.” We just gotta gather everything we’ve got, and if it’s funny, we find it funny, and we can make a funny joke, then that’s what we’ll do.
For so much of your TV career, you’ve been at places where you got a ratings report card every week. I know that was tough sometimes, particular for Community. Is it odd to no longer get that instant audience feedback? Particularly since the initial Netflix order is only for 13 weeks?
It’s actually much more liberating. I suppose you could go the opposite direction and say, “I’m not getting any information on ratings and it’s driving me nuts.” For us, it’s more like we don’t have to worry about that. “Oh, what were the numbers? What were the overnights? Were they the same in the big cities as they were in the rural areas?” All that stuff, I don’t have to worry about, which is great. And Netflix has been only encouraging. I could also see from my social media that there was a way bigger social-media response [to the Netflix show] than I’ve ever had. I could tell immediately that people tuned in. So I see it as more of a liberation than being driven mad by not knowing.
Would you like to do more than 13 every year? I imagine that’s the goal.
As far as the order, yeah. I never know the reasoning behind those sorts of numbers, but it’s a thing where, again, it’s liberating in a weird way. All we can do is find the funniest clips and tell the funniest jokes — other than that, it’s out of my hands. And I would love to do more episodes this year. I would love for there to be more, but, you know, they have the crystal balls and the Magic 8-Balls up on the top floor.
It’s been almost 15 years since you started The Soup. Are you more conscious of potentially offending audiences than you were when you began? Some comics think it’s a good thing to be pushed to be more sensitive, while others, like Bill Maher, seem to resent it. Where do you come down?
I think comedy evolves in the same way that plants and animals do. It’s just faster. There were things said years ago that you definitely wouldn’t say the same way now, but at the same time, I don’t feel restricted. When it’s like, “Oh hey guys, you should stop doing that,” when the collective [comedy] conscious says that, other doors are always opening. So I don’t feel scared or nervous. At the same time, at no point have I ever been trying to please everyone — and clearly, by the ratings, that’s true.
There’s never been a #BoycottJoelMcHale campaign.
Yeah, I’ve never had one of those. I guess I wasn’t popular enough. But we have a pretty diverse staff of young people, and if we ever have a question, we will throw it out there. I don’t feel restrained.
I want to go back for a minute to your Community days. It seems amazing to me in retrospect how it and other NBC half-hours from that era, like Parks and Recreation, had to fight for their lives. Now, almost everyone from those shows has found significant success — most of it outside of network TV. Why do you think they weren’t seen as more valuable resources back when they were on network TV?
I think there was a weird time where people were leaving [network] television, when ratings were beginning to go down, and networks didn’t know what to do. So they sometimes would blame the shows: “Oh, this comedy’s too niche, so that’s why the ratings are going down.” In fact, it was the rise of streaming, and the rise of a thousand different forms of entertainment that you could get really easily. That’s my working theory. I think that people felt that that lineup on Thursday nights was high-quality but not always well-watched. That was the perception. But those shows — the 30 Rocks and the Parks and Recs — affected the culture quite a bit. Somebody was watching them.
You’ve always seemed proud of Community’s legacy.
When Community was on, I always felt, “This is a very special show.” The scripts were so mind-blowingly great. I was just grateful to God to be a part of it.
Obviously the new Netflix show is taking up a lot of time right now, but are you looking to get back on a scripted series? Or do more movies like A Futile and Stupid Gesture? What’s up for you on the acting front?
It’s nice that you think I still have an acting career, so God bless you. [Laughs.] No, I’m kidding! This is going to sound so cliché, but when Community came around, and I read that script, I went, “Oh, this is perfect. This has everything in it, and it’s also well drawn, and I would love to be a part of it.” So I fought for it. If something comes along like that, then I’m going to jump at it. We don’t know if The Joel McHale Show With Joel McHale will continue after 13 [episodes], so if it gets picked up for more — say, in a miracle world, it’s picked up for 30 more — then that kind of puts me out of things. If it gets picked up for 10 or 13 more, that allows me to have some wiggle room at the end of the year. So it’s a little bit ambiguous. I do have a piece that I’m developing with [Doctor Strange director] Scott Derrickson. If that all works out, then I can’t wait to do that.
Is the project with Scott Derrickson a TV show or a movie?
It’s an eight-episode-a-year TV show.
Would you ever want to do a 22-episode show again?
If the script is great. Dan [Harmon] is such a creative, comedic force, and his level of quality is so high — if someone like that comes along again, I’m all over it. As long as it doesn’t interfere too much with the show I’m doing.
New episodes of The Joel McHale Show With Joel McHale stream Sunday on Netflix.