Flip, Clip, Rip
In the Pop Cultural Buffet, There's a Lot of Empty Calories. Then Again, There's 'Soup.'

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 2, 2008

LOS ANGELES We're getting to the end of this decade only to realize it was all one big clip job linked to URLs that perhaps ultimately all link to a blank screen in the brain.

Along the way to despair and ruin, came a television show called "The Soup," which airs lightning-fast highlights from the worst that the boob tube and YouTube have to offer. One night "The Soup" showed us a few minutes of Tila Tequila forcing her would-be paramours to eat specially prepared slices of obscure parts of a pig.

That's a lot to take in, isn't it?

Too bad. That is the world now.

Here is where some of you will say: Tila who? A pig's what?

Here is where the rest of us will say: Tila Tequila, duh. Old stuff now. Of course you know.

(If you don't know, we wish we were you.)

"She was here," Joel McHale says, about Tequila, the bisexual skank of reality TV's "A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila."

"I said that I will only do it if I get to wear a hazmat suit when I give her the Entertainer of the Year award with tongs," he says. "And she agreed."

McHale makes a living out of saying the meanest things he and his writers can think of to say about people on television. He has special scorn for people like Tyra Banks, the Kardashian family, Miley Cyrus, and, most of all, his E! network colleague, the height-challenged Ryan Seacrest. Having McHale notice you, and snark about you -- it is not a negative thing. In fact, it's the best thing that can happen to a quasi-celeb. The worse he disses you, the more likely it is that you will go on his show and let him say it to you in person. Meta-contempt is the only evidence of love anymore.

* * *

Life is reduced to people telling you about all these videos and highlights and bloopers and gotchas you have to see, things you have already missed, things that whiz by you in a constant battle of mind-mush. You gave up on breadth and depth and comprehension and the New York Review of Books. You fell into the arms of Arianna Huffington and Entertainment Weekly magazine. You bookmarked the Web sites of ESPN and Funny or Die.

People who will survive this particular era of culture have all armed themselves with the weapons of aggregation.

They are cruel and fast.

This has the weird, added effect of making them sexy.

McHale is a prime example of this: whip-smart about nonsense, which becomes somehow attractive. He is 6-4 and built like a handsome, high-wattage streetlamp.

Women (and a few fellers?) slobber all over his MySpace wall. He is about to turn 37. His hair is beginning to thin. He is married and has two sons, a 3-year-old and a 7-month-old. He grew up in Seattle, and was on the University of Washington's football team. He was an altar boy. He moved to Los Angeles and got little parts in TV shows. E! hired McHale and some other writers to breathe new life into an old idea -- the clip show formerly known as "Talk Soup."

"The Soup" was relaunched in 2004 to virtually no acclaim (nor viewers, McHale points out). It airs Friday nights on one of the junkiest channels in the basic-plus lineup. "The Soup" is not like "Talk Soup," which E! aired in the 1990s and early '00s, and was hosted by Greg Kinnear (and other hosts who followed, and flailed about at it). Back in the day, "Talk Soup" assembled the most shocking moments from daytime talk shows. To look at old clips of "Talk Soup" is to be struck by how slow and simple and innocent it seems, even with Jerry Springer and Morton Downey Jr. supplying the raw fodder. It might as well have been filmed in sepia tone. It is pioneer women in spiral perms lunging violently at pioneer men in mullets.

Today "The Soup" is the capital planet of we-watch-so-you-don't-have-to. Six million or so viewers watch it each week (according to the network), in order to not have to watch so much else.

"So much of pop culture is awful, so much of it, and unless they cut electricity to the world, it will never stop, there will always be more of it," McHale says. "Ninety percent of what's on television is not good and 10 percent is a little better. We show the 90 percent."

Because why would anybody watch something good anymore?

Bad is what's good.

Ergo, McHale is a hero.

Dumb becomes very smart. It is all arranged for you like an appetizer, a pu-pu platter -- nay, a poo-poo platter. "It's an ideal job because I used to yell at the TV when I was alone at home and now I can yell and be paid for it," he says.

McHale is a hero because you want to know everything and you cannot know everything. You just cannot. Cody is who? Heidi told Lauren that, hunh? Kardashians do what, now? Dr. Drew said? Cloris Leachman's 82-year-old decolletage is bouncing this way and that on "Dancing With the Stars," and you want to know about it the way everyone else knows about it, and yet you don't want it at all.

What's spaghetti cat? Who is Onch? Who is Kenley? Does Kenley have anything to do with Miley? Does erp do lorp when it's time to zurp? That's what it starts to sound like, unless you're 19.

But you do have cable.

You'll always have cable.

* * *

McHale is every bit the aloof jerk you would hope he'd be.

"You didn't come out to L.A. just for this, did you?" he says, collapsing into a chair in the makeup room backstage at the E! network one recent Thursday evening.

Um, no?

"Good," he says.

The show starts taping in a half-hour and he must be as cocky as humanly possible. He is sharp and stinging like a paper cut. This is his good mood, it seems.

He turns to a photographer, who has started taking pictures of him getting his makeup done. "That's cool -- but you know I have done this exact same thing for a photographer before, the exact same way, in this exact same sweater."

It's all so simple, so cheap, here at E!, where the hallways are lined with the grotesquely smiling visage of Ryan Seacrest. An episode of "The Soup" involves McHale standing in front of a green curtain in a no-frills studio, trashing the week in schlock.

There is one camera. On your TV screen, the green curtain is digitally replaced with a computer-generated talk-show decor. From there, "The Soup" is a whole world, split into little segments populated by McHale, sacrificial interns, a man in a bikini top and a Chihuahua named Lou.

"The Soup" moves so fast you want to take anti-anxiety meds: There is "Reality Show Clip Time," which picks out something oleaginous that occurred on a reality show this week. There is "Chat Stew" ("so meaty") that does the same to daily talk shows, usually "The View," though special venom is reserved for "Tyra." (McHale's abhorrence of Tyra Banks grows each week, deliciously.) There is "Chicks, Man," in which one can keep track of various boobs on the tube, including Hugh Hefner's current harem.

It took a while, but then, about a year ago, it seemed like everyone noticed McHale. It used to be in Hollywood if you went around badmouthing other celebrities and their projects, your own work would dry up. Now it's a canny career move. (Ask Kathy Griffin.)

McHale puts in three days a week on "The Soup," and this makes time for movie offers -- next year he'll be seen as an FBI agent in "The Informant" with Matt Damon, directed by Steven Soderbergh. He just finished voicing a mule deer in "Open Season 2," taking over the part from Ashton Kutcher, "because when it's straight to DVD you can't pay the Ashton Kutcher prices."

Money is a constant self-harangue, it seems. He points to his shoes, his watch, his jacket -- "Free, free, free, free."

E! pays him only "enough to support my meth addiction," McHale says. So he added a stand-up routine -- he had never done the comedy circuit -- and took his show out on the road, which has been a surprise hit. (His show this Friday at the Warner Theatre sold out, so a second show was added.)

"Why do I tour?" he says, repeating our question. "Because I have two kids and a house that's being remodeled." His routine involves even more dish about celebrities and stuff that goes on around "The Soup," but he also talks about growing up, and his family. He talks about things his 3-year-old says.

"I've seen [the stand-up] show. It's greeeat," says Danielle Fishel, 27, a former child TV actress who is sitting in a chair in the makeup room, taunting McHale, and waiting to give him a pair of size 13 platform heels that will factor in the night's taping.

Fishel hosts "The Dish," which is a knockoff of "The Soup" but aimed toward a younger, more girly audience on the Style channel. (Comcast Networks, which owns E! and Style, also owns the Versus channel for guys, where it added "Sports Soup" in October, with host Matt Iseman. Where is this heading? Perhaps a universe where all shows are just clip shows, blip shows, snip shows.)

"Joel is the greatest," Fishel says. "I wouldn't have known what they were looking for when I auditioned for 'The Dish' if I hadn't seen him."

"Who is being interviewed here?" he asks her. "Go away."

* * *

No one is being interviewed here because no one reads whole articles anymore, just as no one watches whole television shows. It is time to walk down the hall and stand in front of the green curtain and make the world just a tiny bit more embarrassed about itself.

Is there a psychic toll? Did McHale ever have a day where he just felt his brain dissolve from all this stuff? Is there a toxic hazard to the soul?

"Remember, I chose this," he says. "I think digging ditches would take a bigger toll on me. This? This is easy."

Sure, it means he (and his staff) have to watch a lot of television shows that they'd probably rather not watch. For McHale, the worst of it is having to watch the entertainment-news shows -- "Entertainment Tonight," "Access Hollywood," "Extra," "Inside Edition." That stuff has a particular drone, known mainly to hospital patients and others who are in front of televisions in the 5-to-7 p.m. time slot and lack the motor function to work a remote.

"You kind of feel like you have the devil's knowledge all the time, like a Navy SEAL who knows how to snap somebody's neck 112 different ways. I might accidentally snap someone's neck while giving them a back rub and I can't help it. The entertainment shows drive me up the wall," he says.

"But then, there's a part that I really enjoy, like finding something like 'Dutch Oven' " -- a cooking show where a Southern bubba makes entire meals in his Dutch oven -- "and God, that is a great show. And for as much as we rag on 'The Hills,' it never stops giving. There's a clip tonight that is spectacular. But yeah, ultimately our culture is whittling away to horrible Tila Tequila, making people eat" --

Don't say it. Just go do your thing.

About 40 people cram into "The Soup" studio, on plastic chairs, to clap and whoop and egg McHale on.

Midway through the show, there's a clip from the reality show "Top Design," featuring the regrettable but inevitable dismissal of a twee contestant named Wisit, who left the show singing an aria in falsetto. This is exactly the sort of sissy pinata "The Soup" can't help bashing to bits.

But in taping the joke as written, McHale and the producers decide it's just not devastating enough. The writers jump out of their chairs and everyone huddles quietly trying to think of something worse to say about poor Wisit. McHale leaps back in front of the camera with an evil grin. They roll the Wisit clip again.

"I can see why he got voted off," McHale then says. "He should never have clipped his [testicles] and used them to make that chandelier."

Everyone in the audience screams, with the most vicious glee.

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