The Joel McHale Show, Like The Soup Before It, Was Too Outdated to Survive

Comedy Features The Joel McHale Show
The Joel McHale Show, Like The Soup Before It, Was Too Outdated to Survive

On Monday, Netflix announced it was canceling The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale, which was basically a reboot of The Soup, which itself was a reworking of Talk Soup. The show, which debuted in February, completed its original 13-episode run along with an additional six episodes released in July. Netflix keeps its viewership data under wraps, but sources told Deadline that it suffered from low viewership. It certainly wasn’t a matter of budget, because paying McHale and various supporting characters to stand in front of a green screen in cheap, sometimes ragged costumes isn’t bound to add much to Netflix’s reported $20 billion debt..

It’s easy to see why people might not have tuned in to the show, despite nostalgia for The Soup, which was canceled in 2015, and the cult appeal of McHale, who has perfected playing the smarmy, upper middle-class jerk who thinks he has better taste than you. Some critics, including Paste’s own Garrett Martin, said that while the clips were often funny, the punchlines and ad libs delivered by McHale were weak, making the host seem superfluous. The weekly format—good for ensuring the content was fresh—was thrown away after the original slate aired, which felt like a confusing play by Netflix to make the show relevant. The idea of the clip show in the age of YouTube and constant video sharing by media companies on Facebook also seems laughably outdated.

There could be many reasons why The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale was canceled, but regardless, it feels like the final nail in the coffin for a TV format that couldn’t compete with the instantaneous nature of online video sharing. It’s all a part of a brand that was best left dead, despite how good or entertaining the effort may have been.

An incarnation of The Soup has been on TV for so long because the concept is so simple. Talk Soup debuted in 1991 with host Greg Kinnear specifically highlighting clips from talk shows. Other comedians, like Aisha Tyler, would go on to host and expand the format because, as TV grew, so did The Soup’s purview. The more channels and programming that appeared, the more there was to satirize. By the time McHale’s Soup came along, we were just out of the TiVo era and going into digital. Reality shows were rounding a cusp in both popularity and saturation. It was a program for those who wanted to separate themselves from the Kardashians for a while, who wanted a show that felt as baffled as they did by their success.

It was on E!, which also hosted the bulk of the reality shows it made fun of, but The Soup felt comparatively rebellious. It didn’t care about perfect takes (it was often filled with actors messing up their lines or breaking character) or what was popular. The Joel McHale Show took that spirit over to Netflix, making it clear on camera that it didn’t care about its corporate overlords or putting on a perfect show. It just wanted to be funny.

Back in the day, The Soup on Friday nights was required watching in my family—the one thing that both my sister and I would watch along with my aunt, uncle, and parents. It was how we wrapped up the week. We didn’t watch The Bachelor or the Home Shopping Network, but we could catch up on all the jaw-dropping acts of human stupidity or ignorance featured. We could see sports announcers mess up or game show contestants fail miserably. We could take the jokes and repeat them if we caught a Soup-worthy clip in the wild (or just repeat them ad nauseum like any good meme).

Poking fun at low-brow entertainment or human error is the easiest kind of humor to get behind and The Soup was consistently brutal towards it all. It didn’t even pull punches when it came to E!, its home network, which had just started airing something called Keeping Up with the Kardashians and continued to add shows to cater to that demographic. It may have been garbage for many TV watchers, but to The Soup the antics and shallow conversations of this well-to-do family was a well that never ran dry.

Keeping up to date on The Soup was still a challenge in canon and consistency, despite its haphazard structure. One-off punchlines could turn into side characters or inside jokes that ran for years. There was Mankini, the character played by writer and producer Dominic DeLeo who would show up wearing a bikini and either dance or do something disgusting. Before he was caught exaggerating a story about the Iraq War, NBC News anchor Brian Williams got his own segment because of his often sassy clapbacks. It wasn’t that you had to watch every week, but if you did, you were rewarded. The Joel McHale Show brought many of these back, but introduced new ones like Pizza Ghost and a continuing joke about the Netflix sound popping up every time the streaming service was mentioned.

These are clips that nowadays would get picked up by local news stations for morning show segments or online publications looking for quick clicks. However, back in 2004, when I started watching and when McHale took over hosting duties, it was a unique space.

Other networks attempted to repeat this success. The long-gone videogame network G4 had Web Soup with Chris Hardwick. Comedy Central had (and apparently still has?) Tosh.o. Both were Soup-style programs, but for the internet. While many people get their daily dose of short, ridiculous programming from YouTube, Web Soup and Tosh.o brought that to a weekly talk and clip show format on television, which became redundant much faster than The Soup as people started sharing videos online.

With video streaming, there’s no need for a host. You don’t need commentary on a 30-second clip of an anchor slipping up during a live report to realize why it’s worth watching. The video speaks for itself.

As much as I enjoyed watching the The Joel McHale Show every week, it was clear that there was a struggle for relevance in the digital age. A lot of the clips were evergreen, not tied to a specific episode of TV. The team worked to pull videos from other countries and from decades past and put them side-by-side with inane bits about Joe Manganiello being an expert weatherman or Ray Liotta being really into quilting. It aired pre-recorded bits about “That Happened” stories from Reddit or poking fun at other Netflix properties that that took up a chunk of the 30-minute air time.

Then there’s the question of whether the weekly format even works on Netflix. After a 13-week run, The Joel McHale Show released six more episode at once, taking away a lot of its appeal as a concise update of watchable clips. Netflix hasn’t figured out how to market its weekly shows, especially when priority goes to binge-able originals like Marvel’s slate or Orange is the New Black. The Break with Michelle Wolf, another weekly talk show, was also canceled. I never saw either consistently promoted with each new episode.

There was excitement when McHale came back with this new not-quite-the-Soup, but that was short-lived. It was a nostalgia trip for Soup fans, along with an experiment in how the format could work for a constantly-moving internet-focused world. However, not even McHale’s smug attitude, the show’s endearingly laissez-faire production, and appearances by Jack Black and Seth Rogen could keep the show around when there’s no need for it anymore.

Carli Velocci is a culture and technology writer and editor in Los Angeles with bylines in Polygon, Vice, SYFY Wire, and anywhere else brave enough to publish her. You can talk to her about her objectively good opinions on Twitter @velocciraptor.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin