At 10:48 a.m. on a Wednesday, Joel McHale, host of The Soup, had been onstage for almost an hour filming an episode. To kill time between takes, he addressed the audience.
The first story he told was about camping, and how his friend’s 3-year-old accidentally pooped in the sleeping bag they were all sharing. “That’s a good argument to never have kids,” he said. The small audience erupted in laughter as he paced on the stage.
Then McHale stopped, turned, and asked the crowd, “Do you all watch Community?”
Less than 24 hours prior, McHale was filming an episode of the NBC comedy in which he stars as caustic former lawyer Jeff Winger. On top of Community — which returns for a fifth season on Jan. 2 — he’s also currently filming E!’s The Soup, and the show’s spin-off series The Soup Investigates. And next year he’s got two films slated to come out: Merry Friggin’ Christmas and The Familymoon. Basically, it’s a great time to be a fan of McHale’s, because if you can’t catch him on one of his three shows and two networks, chances are you’ll see him in a theater near you soon.
“The hardest part is that he’s [McHale] so busy and popular,” said Edward Boyd, an executive producer on The Soup. “He’s able to juggle a lot of things, but we’re just one slice of his life. He does an amazing job of focusing when he’s here, but I wish we could have him five days a week, to be honest.”
K.P. Anderson, who has been with The Soup since 2004 when McHale started hosting, and is the current showrunner and head writer, added, “He’s got a phenomenal work ethic. We wouldn’t be here still if he didn’t have a phenomenal work ethic; the show wouldn’t still be funny without that.”
The “we” Anderson was referring to is the show’s staff of 18, including McHale, who produce a new episode every week. On top of their regular production jobs, everyone who works on The Soup is expected to watch an insane amount of television each week.
“Almost all of us have been here for nine years; it’s like the same group of people, so we all have it down to a science,” said Lee Farber, a writer and producer on the show. “But covering the TV landscape is divided amongst the entire staff. So from Joel and K.P. on down to the PAs and the interns — everybody’s got stuff that’s assigned. And we try to assign shows based on the personalities of the people watching them, so they have a unique view of them.”
In a typical week, Farber watches 10 shows, including The Bachelor. “I’m just sort of obsessed with it,” he said. But some staffers watch more than that. “Writers are also responsible for jokes, so producers tend to watch more, because they have more time in the day to watch.” (Then there are those shows that no one wants to watch, like the Today show in its four-hour entirety.)
There are three clip meetings every week. The first meeting is on Friday, when the staff watches anywhere from 25 to 40 clips. The next — and biggest — is on Monday, when they’ll watch 50 to 75 clips. And the final clip meeting is held on Tuesday, and will usually range from 25 to 40 clips. Everyone is responsible for pitching the clips from the shows they’ve watched and subsequently trying to sell that clip to the room.
“A lot of people think they know what a Soup moment is,” Farber said, “but unless they work here, they’re almost always wrong.”
All of the staff watches the chosen clips, and the moments you end up seeing on the show are based, in part, on how they react: “It’s very much based off of the reaction in the clips meeting,” Anderson said of what makes a moment Soup-worthy. “If something gets a big laugh out of the whole group, then we know we should at least see it again.”
In the final Tuesday clip meeting, there’s a total of 26 clips shown, and it takes roughly an hour to get through them all. Everyone sits in a semicircle around a large flat-screen TV, notepads in hand, and they jot things down as clip after clip plays. Some of the shows, like Keeping Up with the Kardashians, are more well-known, while others, such as the Mexican telenovela La Tempestad, are less so.
But one thing that does remain the same is how the clips are presented: A staff member explains the show, the clip’s premise, and then hits play. The piece airs, and everyone waits to see what the overall reaction will be. Based off of that, Anderson makes initial notes on whether or not the clip will get passed onto the next round.
It’s a clip from Bravo’s I Dream of NeNe that gets the biggest laugh of the Tuesday meeting.
“It’s the wedding special,” a female Soup staffer prefaced. “I don’t know if it’s a clip, but it made quite an impression on me. This is called ‘Women Be Shopping,’ and it’s her aunt shopping for a dress for the wedding.” The clip plays, and even when it finishes, the room is still uncontrollably laughing.
“I watched it seven times before the meeting,” she said.
“Is she OK?” Anderson asked of NeNe’s older aunt. “I don’t want to make fun of her if she’s not OK.”
The Soup walks a fine line when it comes to who it can and can’t make fun of. Even the stars of the network they’re on aren’t safe. (Looking at you, Kardashians.)
“Some shows we tend to tune out, because it feels like they’re trying too hard,” Boyd explained. “We’d rather have crazy people who are being spontaneous.”
“If you’re a reality show with a prop department, I’m not sure how much use we have for you,” Anderson added.
They’ve watched so much reality TV at this point that they’ve even started to notice stock tropes in shows. “At some point in every reality-show season, there’s going to be a new dog that craps on the floor,” Boyd laughs. But you can tell he’s serious, and right.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that a reality star, or show, would want to be a glorified part of The Soup. After all, while the show’s main staple has come from pointing out the ridiculous pop culture moments around us, it’s not exactly done in a mean way. Not really.
“We always try to stay away from the ‘this sucks’ mentality, because if it sucks, then why are you watching it?” Farber said. “We try to approach it from the ‘This is amazing, you’ve gotta see this’ [standpoint]. So it’s snarky without being negative.”
It’s that “you’ve gotta see this” approach that keeps reality stars happy instead of enraged when they’re being featured on a clip. Boyd even revealed that reality stars have sent the show tweets and emails trying to get featured on The Soup.
“The only person who said anything or threatened legal action was Tyra Banks when she had her talk show,” Farber said. “And we were relentless, because it was a very self-involved talk show. And we would do montages of her saying, ‘me me me me’ for 30 seconds, and then end it with her saying, ‘But you know it’s not all about me.’ So we didn’t manufacture anything negative about her. We just kind of brought certain things to light, and it didn’t jibe well. But I think it’s all water under the bridge.”
Choosing which clips to feature is a large portion of the staff’s week, but making those clips funny for an audience is a whole other part of the job.
“Once we pick what clips we’re going to put forth after the meeting, then it’s up to the writers to go and take all of those clips and write what we call ‘the wraps’ for them,” Farber explained. “We have to set up the clip in a way that provides context, in case people don’t know the show, so that the clip makes sense. But you also have to put the viewer in the perfect position to notice what’s funny about the clip if it’s not immediately obvious, or just be in a position to find it as funny as possible.”
Monday and Tuesday are the days when the writers — a core team of five, plus McHale and Anderson — spend most of their day churning out lots and lots of jokes. They then submit those to Anderson, who ends up assembling a script and deciding what fits into the tone of the overall show.
“The nice thing is, we’re encouraged to just write with reckless abandon,” Farber said. “We’re free to be as horrible and insensitive we want in those jokes.”
Once a draft of a script is ready on Monday, it’s sent off to McHale, who reads through it to give his thoughts and notes on jokes he likes, and jokes he doesn’t. At that point, he hasn’t seen any of the clips — he just has to get a feel for whether or not it’s something he’d be excited to say.
“It’s great to have Joel, who doesn’t come from the stand-up world, because it frees us up to do a lot of punch lines that rely on performance, rather than just a jokey joke,” said Farber. “He’s just such a talented actor. It’s hilarious when we come out of a clip of some weird person, and he’s imitating them, or something like that.”
The final clip meeting is followed by the punch-up meeting. The punch-up is the first time a draft of the assembled script is read aloud in Anderson’s office. If McHale isn’t filming another show, he’ll come to the meeting, and if he can’t make it then Dominic DeLeo, a writer who’s better known as Mankini on the show, reads his lines.
But on this particular Tuesday, McHale is able to make the punch-up. He wrapped filming an episode of Community with enough time to spare. The tricky part is that on Tuesday nights McHale also films The Soup Investigates, so immediately after the punch-up he’ll be off to hair and makeup to prep for another taping.
Before going to the punch-up, though, the first thing McHale does is pop into his personal office, which has been taken over by Boyd Vico and Brad Stevens, the showrunners of The Soup Investigates.
“The show tonight is going to be great — or a disaster.” McHale leans into the doorframe; it’s the only physical hint that he might be tired. “Maybe film some racist stuff.”
“We do have a lot of racist stuff,” said Vico.
“But more racist stuff,” said McHale.
He flicks off Vico as he leaves. It’s 4 p.m., and McHale still has a long night ahead of him. After reading through the script in the punch-up, he’ll film an episode of The Soup Investigates and wrap that around 11 p.m., then come back the next morning by 7:30 to tape The Soup. Both episodes will air Wednesday night, and yet there’s still no final script for The Soup. In fact, they won’t have a finished script until the show wraps on Wednesday.
“Something that we thought was going to be great won’t land, or Joel will say it in front of an audience for the first time and realize it’s not the take he wanted to go with,” said Boyd. “We’ve been doing it for so long that it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. But people who come see the show always react to how awesome it is that Joel and the writers huddle up and come out of it with a joke so fast. But it doesn’t feel fast, it feels like an eternity.”
A few snafus happened overnight. Chris Brown entered rehab, so new jokes need to be added, and Johnny Knoxville, the guest set to appear on the show, canceled at the last minute.
“We’ve had a lot of mornings where we’ve come in and the star has canceled on us,” Boyd said, “and sometimes it’s actually better, to be honest. Joel’s hilarious, and sometimes it’s better to have more of Joel than it was to have some finicky celebrity. He can sell anything, so even when we have limited resources, he still makes the show amazing.”
“Remains to be seen if he can sell Klondike bars,” Anderson added. Still, changes to the script needed to be made so only Joel could sell it.
McHale sits in a chair in the center of the room, his feet propped up, a coffee in one hand, directly in front of the teleprompter. The writers sit on chairs against the wall, far enough to gauge McHale’s reactions and watch his delivery. Changes to the script are made as Joel reads it, and often by him.
There’s a Kanye West and Kim Kardashian joke that needs a punched-up intro, and the changes happen almost as one long stream of consciousness:
Anderson: In “you made them famous, so deal with it” news.
McHale: Well, Kanye West is legitimately talented.
Farber: In obligatory Kanye and Kim news.
Anderson: In “news we can’t avoid, because Kris Jenner will hunt us down and kill us if we try.”
Farber: In black–Armenian relations news?
McHale: All right.
Anderson: In obligatory black–Armenian relations news.
The greenroom read-through lasts for a little over an hour. And during that time, McHale inserts commas, rewords jokes, thinks of different punch lines, and works on his delivery. He even remembers jokes from past drafts that were cut, and ones that were unintentionally left out.
“We did cut it at one point,” McHale said of an abortion joke. “That was cut, right?” He was right, it was cut.
More coffee is brought in. A potential new YouTube clip they could use is watched on an iPhone, then dismissed. McHale makes a subtle Silence of the Lambs reference mid-reading to himself. He asks if anyone has seen Masters of Sex.
“I could watch Michael Sheen do anything,” McHale said. “He’s amazing. I’m not even into the sex parts, that’s the weird part.”
It’s clear that McHale isn’t just paid to host a show about pop culture, he actually enjoys digesting it. By the end of the hour, the script is close to being finalized, a promo for the show has been fine-tuned, and a “Condensed Soup” segment is written. When there are no further changes to be made, McHale heads off to hair and makeup, while the writers take a half-hour break.
Before the audience even gets to see the stage, The Soup staff sits to watch McHale film the promos and “Instant Soup.” And sometimes the writers huddle up to watch even more clips before the taping.
Mankini prepares to film a promo for the show backstage. Then he actually films it in front of an audience filled with his coworkers.
Another promo series, this time with McHale’s stylist, José Camilo, is filmed.
“We try not to show him [Camilo] the script,” Anderson said. “We like him to cold-read it.” They end up filming Camilo’s rehearsal, along with a few more takes.
Then McHale is brought back to his dressing room while the audience is loaded into the studio. Anderson warms up the crowd by telling them that Johnny Knoxville canceled on the show.
There’s not much wait time between Anderson and McHale, and he comes out to greet the crowd and start the show. McHale sets up each clip, lets it roll on the monitors, then delivers the punch line.
Most of the time, he nails it on the first try. But sometimes he re-reads the script and changes it on the fly.
This is what the audience sees: McHale, the green screen, and the monitors showing the clips. McHale sees the audience and the teleprompter.
DeLeo comes onstage as the part of the punch line for a clip. This time he’s covered in “cocaine” and money.
No word on what happened to all that coke and money after the show.
The staff watches the taping on monitors backstage as the “Clip of the Week” debuts: It’s from I Dream of NeNe, chosen during Tuesday’s clip meeting.
In between takes, McHale talks to the crowd. “Do you all watch Community?” McHale asked.
A few enthusiastic replies were mixed with even more hesitant nods. (How do you say “no” to the person standing in front of you?)
McHale scanned the audience until he found a girl who could be in college herself. “You watch Community?” he prodded, dubious.
She nodded back, but something about that nod gave away just enough.
“What’s my character’s name on the show?” he asked. He already knew what her answer would be.
The audience, whose attention had been fixed on McHale, suddenly shifted to this one woman. The sound of her “Ummm…” filled the small studio.
“Don’t tell her the answer!” McHale shouted, almost excitedly.
Eventually, someone else in the audience fed her the answer. “Jeff Winger?” she said.
McHale gave a satisfied nod in her direction, then moved back to his mark to film “The Clip of the Week,” the last segment of the show. Despite currently appearing on three shows, including a cult-favorite comedy on a broadcast network, McHale — arguably one of the hardest-working actors in Hollywood — is still most notably known for hosting The Soup. Not that it’s a bad thing; McHale seems to relish the position he’s in and he genuinely seems to appreciate the show’s fans.
When the show ends, McHale tells the audience that he’ll stick around for photo ops. And he waits until every last person gets their photo taken.