From Soup to Spotlight

With a new NBC comedy and a co-starring role in The Informant!, Joel McHale moves closer to the celebrity world he mocks.

09.13.09 11:42 PM ET

“I can guarantee I will never run my assistant down with an SUV in a parking lot in Beverly Hills.”

Comedian Joel McHale is making promises.

“I will never not wear underwear when I go out to a club.”

He’s not done.

“And I am not going to kiss a prostitute who clamps down on my lip, and then punch her repeatedly.” (The reference is to Vince Shlomi, a.k.a. “ShamWow Guy,” most famous as an infomercial peddler of absorbent paper towels until he found himself lip-locked with a hooker he then was arrested for hitting).

“We don’t take apart Mad Men, because it’s awesome. On The Soup we make fun of reality.”

The occasion for these vows of gallantry come as McHale finds himself about to become that thing he’s spent his career lampooning: a celebrity. For after five years as host of The Soup —the E! Entertainment show on which he hilariously deconstructs the most surreal and cringe-worthy moments on reality and talk-show, in the process taking down much of the Us Weekly catwalk, as well as shadier, ShamWow types—McHale is suddenly finding himself in the incongruous position of being in the middle of the media spotlight, not casting it.

A sneak peek at McHale’s new show, Community.

He’s the star of NBC’s new, Thursday night comedy, Community, in which he plays a fast-talking lawyer who never actually became, you know, a real lawyer, so he has to go back to school. It debuts Sept. 17. And, the next day, he stars alongside Matt Damon in Steven Soderbergh’s new film, The Informant!. Asked what acting tips he picked up from the Oscar-winning Damon—who plays Mark Whitacre, the real-life Archer Daniels Midland whistleblower affected with a bipolar disorder—Joel cracks: “I learned to ‘ Be better, Joel.’ Because this guy’s amazing.”

As a 37-year-old stand-up veteran, McHale has no illusions about Hollywood, and he’s not relinquishing his duties on The Soup, even as his profile becomes more burnished.

“With a network show, you never know what will happen,” McHale says. “You can get yanked, it’s very unpredictable.”

Plus, he adds, “I love doing The Soup. It’s working.”

Read more about Stephen Soderbergh's The Informant!.Quite. Since McHale took over the reigns in 2004—stepping into shoes once filled by Greg Kinnear, who hosted back in the 1990’s, when the show was called Talk SoupThe Soup’s weekly audience has more than quadrupled to 7 million total viewers.

The timing of McHale’s arrival was propitious, as it coincided with the rise in reality television to beyond-saturated levels. Not only was there a wealth of material to mock, but suddenly The Soup played a necessary role, serving as a Cliff’s Notes to the dozens and dozens of shows that no one (or few, anyway) could possibly keep up with, even with the assistance of TiVo.

The Soup’s audience may not be as big as a major network show, like, The Office, but it’s a forceful following, made up of a cultish sect of “Soup” Nazis, who regard McHale as a kind of high priest of snark who’s relied on to guide them through subjects that, seemingly, never stop giving when it comes to opportunities for ridicule.

Joel sets his sights on frequent targets Spencer Pratt, Heidi Montag, and Spencer’s creepy flesh-colored beard.

As if “Speidi”—i.e., the blond, husband-and-wife duo Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag—didn’t provide enough air-headed fodder on The Hills, they had to go be contestants on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!—a kind of Survivor for alternately desperate or washed-up stars—only to bail on the show a few days into shooting. (Pratt memorably called up Ben Silverman, then head of NBC, and griped: “I’m too rich and I’m too famous to be sitting with these people and cleaning up their shit in the jungle, my man.”) But then, the strains of life without a constant camera proving unbearable, they came back. And then quit, again. McHale had a field day.

Other Soup muses include talk-show host Wendy Williams, the Paula Abdul of chat TV, whose frequent camera malfunctions perversely complement her own quirky segues; Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana (a recurring feature on The Soup is a high-pitched tween scream from off-camera: “It’s Miley!!”); and, McHale says: “Seacrest and Seacrest.”

It’s Miley! And Joel!

That McHale looks so much like the American Idol host—except for his height; he’s nearly a foot taller than Seacrest—is the source of great irritation. When one of his two young sons looked up at the TV once, and, seeing Seacrest, announced, “Daddy,” McHale says, “I ran out crying.” For once, it’s not clear whether he’s being serious.

In recent weeks, McHale has used The Soup to promote Community—with facetious knowingness, of course. But he says that once Community begins, it will be off-limits, not just because of a conflict of interest, but because The Soup has traditionally left what McHale calls “good TV” alone.

“We don’t make fun of things that are funny. We don’t show lips from Family Guy,” he says. “We don’t take apart Mad Men, because it’s awesome. On The Soup we make fun of reality.”

However, he says: “If I’m doing something that’s egregious and stupid, yeah, I’ll make fun of it.”

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Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.