Behind the Scenes at ‘The Soup’: Joel McHale, Brian Williams & More

The E! show’s host and producers dish to Kevin Fallon on how it rode the reality-TV boom to hit status.

Timothy White/E!

“I can’t believe Brian Williams is rehrrr-ing us in person!”

That’s The Soup host Joel McHale standing in front of a green screen alongside the venerable NBC Nightly News anchor, marveling that the subject of his E! clip show’s catty recurring bit—“Rehrrr with Brian Williams” (a sassy kitty cat provides the sound effect)—had the good humor, and the gall, to pop up at the recent New York City taping for a cameo. After Williams issued a hilarious, and quite catty, takedown of Zooey Deschanel’s commercial touting Apple’s Siri technology last year (“Siri, is it raining?”), the bit laughing at the anchor’s occasional sauciness was born. Williams’s Rock Center suddenly was roped in, alongside reality-TV gems/horror shows like Mob Wives, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, and The Bachelor, as targets of Joel McHale’s merciless mocking each week on The Soup.

“I can’t believe I’m here either,” Williams quipped, as the small audience gathered for the show’s New York City taping Wednesday cheered. “This is quite possibly a game changer for a network that thinks news is following Selena Gomez to a Pinkberry.”

Williams’s appearance on The Soup is symbolic of the mutual relationship and appreciation the series has with its roasting targets. Since its debut in 2004, and throughout the course of the 441 episodes and specials McHale has hosted since, The Soup, which airs Wednesday nights at 10 pm EST on E!, has become both a nightmare and a haven for the growing—both in popularity and number—crop of reality series taking over television. Shining a harsh spotlight on the Real Housewives’ most vapid moments or Duck Dynasty’s most teaseworthy, down-home countryisms, The Soup celebrates and exploits reality TV’s, well, stupidity with segments like “Chat Stew,” “Gay Shows,” and even “Let’s Take Some E!,” which bites the hand that feeds by skewering the Kardashians and E!’s other reality series.

Though eventually evolved into a format much like the Talk Soup franchise that was a 1990s staple for the network, The Soup started out as a clips-show experiment called The What the ...? Awards. “I thought it was going to be a 13-week job,” says executive producer K.P. Anderson, who joined the series once the network realized that What the ... was essentially Talk Soup and should be renamed to capitalize on that. Nine seasons later, the show is a top ratings performer for E! and a staple of pop-culture nerds’ weekly diets. How did a show with such low expectations become so hot?

As proven by Williams’s veritable giddiness at popping by the show, which also featured frequent butt of the joke Dr. Oz, the very series The Soup makes fun of are the ones that embrace it the most. “With very few exceptions, the people who we make fun of love to come make themselves available to us, to come on and make fun of themselves,” says Anderson.

“We came from real studios,” Williams ribbed, as McHale joked around with the audience. “Oh, are you here to promote Smash?” McHale fired back. Chastising what he called the “control-room card table” when there were issues with his microphone, Williams reminded McHale that “I do have to address the nation at 6:30” and therefore things needed to speed along. Not before one more jab from the Soup host: “Does anyone watch Girls?” McHale asked slyly, reminding the audience that Williams’s daughter stars on the show, and “last week she had sex with a gay dude.”

The entire exchange embodies The Soup’s relationship with its subjects—the idea coming from both sides that “we can dish it as well as we can take it.” As biting as McHale’s jokes can be, they’re equally self-deprecating. Often, he’ll ridicule his status as a basic-cable TV host, or tease his crew’s dog-and-pony setup (Williams wasn’t far off the mark with his control-room-card-tables burn). Producers and stars of the series being made fun of began to see the value of the show: free publicity, essentially, and an impetus for keeping their names in the cultural conversation—even if it’s for laughs. Producers of several series actually contact The Soup’s staff to lobby to have their shows featured in segments, says producer Matthew Carney.

Not that everyone is overjoyed to be burned by The Soup. Tyra Banks, for one, was not pleased with her portrayal on the show. “She was the only one that tried to make us not feature her show on ours, but then she changed her tune, and then she went off the air, much to our great disappointment,” McHale says. Apparently her studio sent The Soup’s studio a letter asking them to ease up, but over time has come around so far to offer to be on the show. Hugh Hefner also demanded a few apologies when his E! series, The Girls Next Door, was fodder for Soup fire a few years ago.

That the show’s writers never eased up on those targets, particularly the talent from their own network, is a tribute to the E! executives. “I think they saw that what we were doing was actually helping publicize the shows,” Anderson says. “Every now and then we’ll get the Kris Jenner call.” But it’s rare for the E! brass to demand jokes be taken out of the show.

The embrace by those who are mocked is also a testament to the careful tone that the writers strike. McHale is mean, occasionally, yes. But every barb is delivered with a wink—and a chiseled, dashing smile. “He’s just kind of the kid that everyone went to high school with and had something funny and mean to say, but who got away with it because of his muscles and good looks,” Carney says. “He’s just got a likability about him that makes it all go down easy.”

For the most part, like Williams and Dr. Oz, everyone is game. “Reality stars without exception have come up to me and have said, ‘Thank you for making fun of me,” McHale says. Case in point: the astonishing array of reality-TV personalities assembled for “We Ruined the World,” a woefully off-key parody of “We Are the World” pegged to the Mayan apocalypse about how their antics on TV over the years have been harbingers of Armageddon. Tiffany “New York” Pollard (I Love New York), Gretchen Rossi (The Real Housewives of Orange County), Sanjaya Malakar (American Idol), and Jerri Manthey (Survivor) were among those game enough to participate.

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That The Soup reached this point—nine seasons, viral success, and a fan base among those it’s meanest to—is considered a miracle of sorts to those who were around for its humble beginnings. “We started with very low ratings, and no one knew we were there,” Anderson says, and each of the first several pickups was a surprise. “But we just started hammering away and being as stupid as we possibly could, and it eventually caught on.” Now there are around 15 writers producing an average of 53 shows and specials a year, diligently combing through an ungodly amount of television for clips to feature on each episode. It takes three people to wade through the Today show each morning, for example, and that’s just a microcosm of the TV landscape The Soup covers.

Even McHale, who is seen huddling with writers to recraft a punchline when a joke doesn’t land during taping, has his keen eye to the reality universe. Just bring up the now defunct Discovery series Dirty Jobs, for example, and hands immediately go to the hips in rage over its cancellation. “Maybe they should’ve had him do some really dirty jobs,” he ventures. “Like fluffer.”

The past few seasons of the show, in fact, have been a ratings boon for E! According to Nielsen ratings, the show has averaged 1 million viewers for 4 of the last 5 seasons—impressive for a late-night, basic-cable show—and, E! recently bragged, The Soup posted the highest numbers in its time slot in the female, 18–49 demographic across all basic-cable networks.

So, while it may not be a mainstream smash in the way of The Big Bang Theory, say, its pop-culture presence these past nine years has earned The Soup a certain prominence. “A lot of people probably couldn’t tell you one character’s name on The Big Bang Theory, but a lot of people know who Joel is,” Carney says. Yet that doesn’t mean the show doesn’t self-effacingly relish its, as Brian Williams would say, “control-room card table” status.

There was a recent Jeopardy! clue to which The Soup actually was the correct response. None of the contestants knew the answer. “I didn’t know that, either,” Alex Trebek said. “Everyone has heard of this show except for Alex Trebek,” Carney says. “Out of some perfect storm, the four people who haven’t heard of the show are on Jeopardy! the same day.”

The clip was turned into a recurring bit on Wednesday’s episode of The Soup and, really, just fits.