Joel McHale Doesn't Care If the Stupid Sh*t on His Netflix Show Offends You
Joel McHale is a seriously funny guy. He's so funny, in fact, that we can still watch him stand in front of a green screen and ridicule clips from reality TV and the news -- a style of comedy he's been working in all its simple glory now for going on 15 years. From 2004 to 2015, McHale plundered the lowest depths of popular culture for punchline gold in E!'s comic clip show The Soup, a revival of the mid-'90s cult favorite Talk Soup. After the tragic demise of his hugely beloved (and long-troubled) NBC sitcom Community -- and after a stint as the star of short-lived CBS comedy The Great Indoors -- McHale returns at last to the format that brought him diehard affection. The aptly named Joel McHale Show With Joel McHale, essentially a Soup reboot for the digital streaming era, "airs" Sunday nights on Netflix.
We caught up with McHale this week by phone from his home in Los Angeles to talk about the new series, problematic jokes, and his alarmingly vast knife collection. Though not without some difficulty getting connected...
Joel McHale: Hello? Sorry, I have this weird thing going on with my new phone where I can't make outgoing phone calls.
Thrillist: That's convenient.
McHale: I know. It's great. It seems like the one basic function of a phone that should work.
Do kids even use a phone as a phone anymore, though?
McHale: No. They don't even phone into interviews. They just text back and forth, and Twitch at each other, or whatever kids do.
The new show is great so far.
McHale: You like the Pizza Ghost?
Love the Pizza Ghost. I liked your joke about the timing of the episode: you're watching this on Netflix, so it could be eight years from now. Is that a real problem for you with the format?
McHale: We don't know what to do. We say, "this happened last week," but who knows? We're just gonna steer into that stuff instead of trying to pretend that it's all evergreen.
How do you make it last? Is there a way to future-proof the jokes?
McHale: No! No. And we don't want to. I mean, America's Funniest Home Videos is technically future-proof, but then again if you see a video from 1989, it's pretty clear that it's old. We're not going to attempt to hedge our bets by saying something like "oh, this happened... uh, a while ago." We're going to put it in its time and that will be part of that time. We feel like no matter how old it is, if the joke is really funny coming off of it -- like Pizza Ghost -- I feel like we should be fine. Or, it'll be a total disaster, and I'm completely wrong.
Only time will tell. Is there anything too ephemeral or becomes too irrelevant too quickly?
McHale: As you probably noticed, we're not doing as much celebrity news -- there's hardly any of that, unless there's something big happening that we have to address. Instead, we get right into, say, The Bachelor. Yes, that's caught in this time, and specific to this season. But if you like these funny jokes, we might be able to keep you.
Do you think given enough episodes the timing won't matter as much?
McHale: Well hopefully Netflix will pick it up for another 7,000 episodes and it won't matter so much. It will become more like a late-night show, where you just tune into a new episode and you get what you need for that week. You see what's happened on Love and Hip Hop in Miami and catch up on the latest trends in South Korean soap operas. Netflix drops their comedies and dramas all at once and they're there to watch forever. But this is definitely a topical clip show, and it's a different beat. It doesn't mean that Netflix can't do that either.
It seems to work surprisingly well with the Netflix format, despite how unlike Netflix it is.
McHale: I hope so. When The Soup dropped on Friday nights on E!, we knew a lot of people caught up with it on Saturday or Sunday morning. That's how we've always seen it: the new episode drops one day, and then people watch it over the next three or four days.
In terms of content, are there targets you feel you shouldn't go after? Do you think about, say, "punching up" versus "punching down?"
McHale: The only rule we have is that we're not going to go after anything that was made to be funny. Early on with The Soup, there were a couple of executives who said we should cover late-night shows and see what happens there. But no, those bits and what they did were intended to be funny -- we can't do more comedy on top of those things. We're not going to show a celebrity interview on a late-night show, because that's what our job is, and we'd be stealing from them. We're focusing on reality shows and Korean soap operas and/or South African dramas. Netflix has such a huge global reach, and as the show is translated into 9000 different languages and goes around the planet, we hope that we can open up and explore this whole world of crazy television. At the same time, we're gonna make fun of streaming services. We're going to make fun of everything. It's broad -- not in the sense of broad comedy, but in the range of material. That was a really long and exhausting answer and I apologize.
When you start getting into international territory, are you concerned about political correctness? I feel like you're risking 10,000 essays about why Joel McHale is problematic.
McHale: Oh, yeah, I'll tell ya: I don't care. If we get a searing indictment from a South African writer saying that we shouldn't have used the word "cunt" -- if we get blowback on that, I can't help you. We found it funny. I think you can tell from the way we introduce the segment that we're coming at it with the approach of being not necessarily well-informed Americans. I hope that self-deprecation will buy us some latitude. But at no point are we saying, "this culture is stupid," or "this culture is crazy." We could do that with any clip, about almost anything: this is stupid. We never do. We embrace it, we find joy in it. Isn't it great that we have all this crap? I think the phenomenon in South Korea of people getting hit by cars on soap operas can fairly be seen as peculiar.
Besides which -- and I say this as a loving Canadian -- there's no culture stupider than American culture.
McHale: Well, you're just jealous of us, my friend. We make all the cars. See, I think American culture can be some of the smartest and some of the dumbest. Whereas in Canada, you guys try to cover up the silly parts of your culture. Like when you had that guy who was running for national office and was a plumber and there was footage of him peeing into a cup. I was like, there we go. That's the Canada that we're gonna find out about. Remember that guy?
I remember that guy. I also live in Toronto, where you may recall we had a crack-smoking mayor.
McHale: He was amazing. He's dead now! I can't believe he's dead.
You would think he'd live forever.
McHale: You say America is the dumbest culture, but you had a crack-smoking mayor of the biggest city in your country. It's pretty remarkable. I wish I could do that. I guess he was your Marion Barry.
So a friend of yours, Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson, once mentioned to me that you had an amazing collection of knives. I don't know if that's something you want to talk about--
McHale: Oh I'm more than happy to. I brag about that stuff. I've always been obsessed with edged weapons. I don't know why. It's been since I was a child. Back in the 60s, my dad brought back a whip and a cool curved sword from Egypt, and I loved it since the moment I saw it. Growing up I played with swords. I've taken fencing. I've done lots of stage combat. And I started collecting knives. My wife thinks I'm insane. I leave way too many of them lying around. As I'm looking around my study right now, I'm looking at five swords, a bowie knife, a boot knife, an African knife I love, a number of axes. I would say it's problematic, but hey, it's better than doing heroin.
I am holding an 18-inch knife in my hand right now, with a pressure point on the handle. It's really a glorious thing that I like a lot. Oh and here's a small katana -- I'm pulling them out as we speak, this is great.
In Scott's film, Deliver Us From Evil, you have a great knife fight. Was that something you asked to do?
McHale: Scott wrote the part for me, and he put a knife fight in probably just to satisfy my deep arousal for that sort of thing. But I had to audition, twice, for the role -- I almost didn't get the role that he wrote for me. Think how embarrassing that would be.
You're known mainly for comedy, and you are sort of the comic relief in that film, but do you aspire to work in more feature dramas and thrillers of that kind?
McHale: Yeah, it's just one of those things. I have never said that all I want to do is comedy. I never wanted to limit myself like that. It's people like Scott who have taken a risk and fought for me to do that who've made it possible for me to try. I just did this movie, A Futile and Stupid Gesture, which is a comedy, but definitely very sad and a true story, and it's tragic. I love that stuff. I would never limit myself just to comedy. For those that would have me, I'm all over it. And believe me, when I was looking at pilots over the last couple of years, I was definitely considering doing a drama. But then this came along, and I couldn't pass up the opportunity.
Do you consider the new show a return to form?
McHale: It's literally a return to form, since it's the same exact form. Thank God E! can't sue for format rights. When I got here to Hollywood, back in 2000, when you were probably a junior in high school, I was not a host. I had never hosted anything or done any stand-up. So The Soup was a win. I got very lucky. When that show started we thought it was going to be off the air in a month. We were just doing the jokes for ourselves. At 10 o'clock on Friday nights on cable in 2004, nobody was watching television. I came here to act, so in a strange way it's a departure. It's just a departure that I've been doing for 12 years and will continue to do again.
How do you keep yourself interested after so long?
McHale: Oh, I have very simple tastes. Last week, when I asked Kristen Bell to see her special talent, and she said I don't think I should fart the alphabet on TV, that brings me a joy that makes my heart rise out of chest. I am endlessly excited about ridiculing or commenting on crappy television. Or good television, for that matter. I can't get enough of that stuff. With The Soup, I never found it boring. It's easy. Like, when I did The X-Files -- now I'm name-dropping another thing that I'm in -- those guys work so many hours and they work so hard and I can see how that would take a physical toll on everybody from Chris Carter down to the PA. There's no doubt that we work incredibly hard, and I don't just walk in and make it all up, but it's easy for us. When I see The Bachelor: Winter Games come on, I think, Oh yeah, this is why I'm on the air. Let me make a joke about that.
It's funny, you've kind of become the world's foremost chronicler of reality television. How has it changed over the last decade?
McHale: It's definitely evolved. It's way slicker than it used to be. Survivor and The Real World really broke reality TV. Survivor especially was getting Super Bowl numbers in the summer, which no one thought was possible. But there was a whole other side of reality that was very inexpensively made, and because of that was a real open frontier. You had shows like Whitney Houston's show with Bobby Brown. Today, no one near her stature would allow that to be broadcast. Or Britney Spears' show: they were like, take these handheld cameras and videotape yourself all the time. She didn't look great. That would never make it on the air now. I suppose with Snapchat and all that crap there's a version of it out there. But that rawness is gone.
Is the slickness more difficult to mock?
McHale: No, the slickness adds itself to the ridicule. And just the sheer volume now is staggering. There's more reality television on right now than there was television in 2002.
Your shows, especially Community and The Soup, really seem to generate an intense fandom. What about you or the things you do get people so excited?
McHale: I don't know if that happened with The Great Indoors. Maybe it did, and they didn't tell me about it. I think I've gotten incredibly lucky, and I'm very blessed that of all the things I've done, two of them have gone well. The Soup came along and filled a whole that I didn't know I was going to fill. When I read the pilot for Community -- you read a lot of pilots, most are awful, once in a while they're OK, and then once in a while they're fucking great. I knew the writing was good and I knew that I could kill it whether it gets picked up or not. Also that cast was the best I'll work with ever. You try a thousand things, and you hope one will work. I certainly didn't think The Soup would run 12 years. On Community, we fought every year, and then got canceled, and then got brought back by Yahoo. And even though we shut down Yahoo's entire streaming service, we got to make a great last season.
Do people still identify you with Jeff Winger?
McHale: It's ironic. I think people think that I'm that guy. I have a wife and kids and I go to church on Sundays, and that guy is a womanizer and a liar, but if that's how people see me and they want to pay me I guess I'll play him. But I hope people can see when I do other shows or movies they can see that I can do other things -- because if that happens they'll pay me, and I can afford to keep my house and send my sons to school.