Joel McHale: A ‘Late-Night’ Host Who Doesn’t Want to Talk About Trump
The comedian tells us about his new Netflix talk show and what it was like to play his one-time Community nemesis Chevy Chase on screen.
For more than a decade, Joel McHale relentlessly mocked reality show stars and the vapid media personalities who breathlessly covered their every move on his show The Soup. Now that America has a reality star serving as president, he’s ready to do it again.
But as the comedian and actor tells The Daily Beast by phone just a few days before the egocentrically titled The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale is set to premiere on Netflix, he couldn’t be less interested in covering Donald Trump.
“I am not smart enough to do that,” McHale says bluntly, noting that other members of the ever-growing late-night landscape are better equipped than he is to talk politics. Instead, he’s setting his sights elsewhere.
Thanks to Netflix’s quest for world domination, his show will be available in over 190 countries, which has led McHale to take a more global approach than he did in his days on the E! channel. Among the international shows McHale plans to skewer are a Korean soap opera in which lovers “are so distraught they throw themselves in front of cars” and a Japanese prank show in which people are “terrified within inches of their life.”
Never one to take anything too seriously, McHale is quick to respond to questions with deadpan jokes before pivoting to more genuine answers. Below is our edited and condensed conversation, in which we discuss returning to a familiar format, the celebrity who tried to “stop” The Soup, and how his frenemy Chevy Chase took the news that McHale would be playing him in the film A Futile and Stupid Gesture.
How are preparations for the new Netflix show going?
Oh shit, what are you talking about? Fuck! No, uh, they’re going good. It’s a really fun time. I’m genuinely very excited. And I’m not just saying that as everyone does when they’re talking about something like this.
Your new show looks on the surface to be very similar to The Soup. How is it different?
The green screen we’re using—the one at E! was kelly green. Ours is more of an evergreen.
That’s what the Netflix money buys you?
Oh my gosh man, you have no idea. We even have two cameras, so read ’em and weep other shows with one camera. You know, clip shows are not some sort of copyrighted format, but we are going to open it up to the world. Obviously we’ll be covering American reality shows, because secretly the entire nation watches The Bachelor, whether they admit it or not, but we’ve found all these great shows in Asia and Europe, so we’ll include that. I always like to see it as a long late-night monologue with clips. It’s been great, because at Netflix, there’s no commercials. So you can just keep going. It’s crazy. We were like, “How long should the show be?” And they were like, “How long do you want it to be?” And I said, just to test them out, nine and a half hours. And then they said that’s too long. So my guess is it’ll be like 20 minutes. It’ll be the length of a regular show without commercials.
There are so many more late-night type shows on now than when you were hosting The Soup. Have you learned anything from watching all of those other hosts about what you do or do not want to do with this new show?
Oh you mean what have they learned from me? Is that what you’re asking? Wait a minute! No, I’m joking. I’ve been inspired by those guys for a long time and they’re super professional and very funny. And it’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to talent on late-night. I’ll look at someone like James Corden and go, “Well, I can’t sing like that.” This show is very different. I don’t have guests that sit and have a chat. I’d probably just talk the whole time, so we don’t want to do that. It’s funny, I don’t think you are this way, but some reporters will think, because the old show was on E!, that I have some sort of insight into celebrity gossip. And I don’t know shit when it comes to that. I just see the stories each week and say, “Let’s make this joke.” As opposed to, “Did you hear what Kendall Jenner painted her baby’s room?”
You’re more interested in making fun of the people who do have that deep insight and knowledge.
The one goal of the show—well, is for me to take money—but other than that it’s to make people laugh and make people happy. The Trump administration, no matter what your party is, takes up 90 percent of all entertainment now. And news. But I want you to know, there is actually way more dumb programming out there that must be made fun of. There are a lot of silly reality shows that people are missing.
But at the same time, the Trump administration has sort of become a reality show as well. Do you see yourself getting more political in your commentary because we have a reality show president?
Well, as I said, we are going to make fun of the world. It isn’t a political show, but if stuff comes up—we always have covered the coverage. We never were like, “Can you believe that dress?” We would always cover other people covering that dress. So we will probably make fun of most of the news outlets and all that stuff. But I will not be doing intense political discourse, because I am not smart enough to do that.
What have you made of Omarosa’s Celebrity Big Brother confessions?
Boy, she is really stealing the thunder from Ross Mathews, is what I have to say about that. He has got some confessions that, just you wait, will set your hair on fire. It’s incredibly compelling. Omarosa has been a reality star for how long? Fifteen years? Then she was an adviser to the White House. It’s pretty remarkable that it’s all happening. The thing with that is, our show drops on Sunday and that story gets a ton of coverage, so it’ll be played out by the time the show drops. But I will tell you, there are Korean soap operas where, when lovers are so distraught they throw themselves in front of cars, which needs to be shown on television.
That’s definitely something that no one else is talking about.
No! And it needs to be. There’s also a Japanese prank show where people are terrified within inches of their life. Like, this guy goes into a job interview and all of a sudden the windows explode and they all get shot by a sniper. And he is crying and crawling on the ground trying to get out. And they have his wife in the corner laughing. That’s a show! We need to talk about that.
I’m curious, in the 14 years since you started hosting The Soup, have you noticed a big change in terms of what comedians are allowed to joke about? Are there things you got away with then that you can’t get away with now?
I don’t know. We’re going to find out real quick when the lawsuits start. That’s a good question. I always say nothing’s off limits as long as you can make a funny joke. A lot of the time people try to make jokes about stuff that’s pretty intense. And it doesn’t work. Then all of a sudden, it’s either “that guy’s so edgy” or “you need to make a huge apology.” My goal, as I’ve said, is just to make people laugh. So it’s case by case when stuff comes up, you just don’t know. I had a [stand-up] show last week in Pittsburgh and this woman was super loud and drunk. And I was like, “Ma’am, you need to stop talking.” And then she screamed, “I had cancer!” That’s a show-stopper. And I guess, you know, if you just conquered cancer then getting drunk at a comedy club is OK to do!
So how’d you move on from there?
I said, “You know what? Carry on. And if anyone else just conquered a horrifying disease, feel free to speak out loud.”
You recently got to come face to face with one of your favorite targets, Nancy Grace, on The View. What was that like for you?
Yes! It was awesome. You know, you never know how those things are going to go. Some people might be truly offended. But she was very cool. I really liked her. She was friendly. And she is clearly smart. Just from her long career on television, she’s dynamic and knows what she’s doing. That didn’t stop me from making fun of her when she would say something about the “Tot Mom” or whatever she would say about Lindsay Lohan. That stuff was gold for us and I had to thank her on air for all the money.
Are there other people that you’ve made fun of over the years that you’d like to get on the new show?
Well, we’re having Kevin Hart on our first show. He’s like an A-list celebrity and is going to help me. So thank you, Kevin. But there’s no sort of like, “Oh man, we’ve gotta get this reality star.” We don’t really do that. Maybe if it goes with the clip and we put a request out and it works out. You know, years ago, Tyra Banks hated the show because we were making fun of her every week. And she’s the only one who tried to stop us. That was a long time ago. She tried to get the company that syndicated her show to not allow E! to use any of the clips from any of their shows. So that was the fight we had there. But that was the only time that really happened. Without exception, everyone we made fun of, when I would see them, thanked me. No one walked up to me an said, “You son of a bitch” and took a swing at me. That has not happened yet. But maybe on this Japanese near-death experience prank show, maybe someone will come after me.
So, I also want to ask about your performance in the new film A Futile and Stupid Gesture, which I really loved. In your 2016 book Thanks for the Money, you wrote about how Chevy Chase would antagonize you on the set of Community. Does playing a younger version of him in the movie feel like a sort of revenge?
No, I mean if it was some sort of weird stand-up act where I had a vendetta against him, that would be the way to do that if I was going to do that. But I don’t have a vendetta. With this movie, he was Doug Kenney’s best friend. And [director] David Wain, I think because Chevy and I are the same size, asked me if I wanted to do it. And I obviously jumped at it, because I’d never worked with David and I’d never worked with Will Forte or Matt Walsh or Emmy Rossum or Tom Lennon or any of these rock stars. It was a huge challenge, because I wasn’t doing an impression. I wanted to do his essence of being the most confident person on the planet in 1975. I called Chevy to tell him I was doing it. And he was happy, because Doug Kenney was finally getting the due that he deserves. Doug Kenney was like the Hamilton of comedy, where nobody knew he built these things like the National Lampoon, wrote Animal House and then wrote and produced Caddyshack and then died really young at 33. It’s pretty bonkers. People like Doug Kenney, SNL, Monty Python, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin and obviously—and this is not a great example anymore—Bill Cosby, who is now a terrible, horrible person, but those guys really changed comedy. Those were all titans I just named and no one knows this guy’s name.
But playing Chevy, the only thing I really tried to copy was his voice. Because his voice was the deepest voice that you’ve ever heard in interviews. And then when he’s performing, because he’s a very dynamic performer, his voice would get very high sometimes. Because if you listen to him, that first “live from New York, it’s Saturday night” is literally like, [his voice goes up an octave] “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!” I was nervous, because he’s one of the most famous people in the world and I didn’t want to screw it up.
Well I guess you got his blessing to play him, but have you heard anything from Chevy in response to the film?
I called him to let him know the movie was about to be released. And I said, “I’ll send you a link.” He then joked, “What’s a link?” So, yeah, same old Chev.