On Friday, after 11 and a half years, countless “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” clips, and, producers say, numerous (voluntary) losses of dignity, E!’s clip show “The Soup” will air its final episode. It's not that host Joel McHale and his producers are starting to lack for material — at last count, per research from cable network FX, there were 409 current scripted U.S. television series. But a decade-plus is a long time to spend mercilessly mocking the worst of TV, and so E!, McHale and the producers opted to call it quits last month, giving themselves and fans time to prepare for the finale.
As of early Thursday afternoon West Coast time, though, the script merely read “Welcome to ‘The Soup.’”
“Oh, we should probably write the show,” producer Brandon Borders says to his colleagues in a phone interview with International Business Times. It’s a joke that perfectly illustrates the scruffy, low-key vibe of the clippy snarkfest.
“The Soup,” for the uninitiated, takes delight in pointing out the sometimes little-watched horrors of the ever-expanding TV universe. This was the show that popularized “Spaghetti Cat,” reminded us that rapper Flavor Flav had a “Bachelor”-like show of his own wherein one of his suitors defecated on the stairs, and introduced the whole of America to local morning show “Good Day New York” host Greg Kelly.
The last episode will be a celebration of all those moments and more, but lest you think it’ll be a glitzy affair, it will still be shot on the same tiny soundstage in the Los Angeles building that houses E!, with a few dozen plastic chairs for the audience and a green screen to serve as the background for McHale’s jabs.
“The Soup” was always a bit of a black sheep at E!, the televisual nexus of celebrity culture -- the home of “glam cams” and red carpet coverage and baby-bump watches. The show took shots at its own network on a weekly basis, hurling invectives at E! shows like “Kardashians” and the Playboy Bunny docuseries “The Girls Next Door.” But, says Borders, who started as an intern during the show’s sixth season, the network never really objected to the abuse. “I think they understood that if you put something on the air like ‘Botched’” — a docuseries about plastic surgeries gone horribly, sometimes graphically awry — “you deserve what you get.”
That black sheep was the big break for host McHale, who kept hosting even while pulling double duty as the lead on the NBC comedy “Community.” Executive producer Edward Boyd remembers being on board with McHale from the start: “I saw the audition tapes and I was like, ‘Oh that guy’s got it, A+,’” he says.
But while McHale was the frontman, he wasn’t the one strapped into an armchair with “Clockwork Orange”-type devices keeping his eyes open during marathons of “The Bachelor.” “Soup” devotees know producers like Dominic DeLeo (who played the on-camera character “Mankini”) and the hapless writer who kept getting fake-shot by McHale (producer Matt Carney), but it took a team of 15 producers and writers to comb through the fringes of the TV landscape and find the hidden gems. Morning shows, home shopping channels, game shows, reality series on traditional networks, and even telenovelas -- all had a dedicated staffer watching.
“Anything that we showed was something that had made the air before because of someone else’s poor decision,” Carney points out. “MTV chose to show Snooki getting punched in the face -- on a loop. That was the whole reason we existed, really: to make fun of that.”
That doesn’t mean there was no line. Associate producer Andi Porter recalls one particularly strange clip meeting, where the writers and producers choose the week’s best/worst clips. “There’s a show called ‘Dr. Pol’ on NatGeo Wild, and they showed a prolapsed pig anus,” she says. “I actually brought in a whole montage of prolapsed anuses.”
“That made it almost all the way to the taping,” Border says. “Before someone finally had the good sense to be like, ‘We can’t show this to people.’”
Having to sort through TV’s garbage bin has actually afforded the “Soup” staff an interesting perspective on the shifting nature of programming. The staff has seen reality shows, in particular, go from finding naturally occurring freakshows to carefully cultivated personas that are partially crafted by comedy writers, the industry's reaction to the pendulum of popularity swinging back to monster scripted series like "Modern Family."
“It’s like the rings on a tree,” Borders says, half-seriously.
Unfortunately for the tree, counting those rings means being cut down. “You gotta let it go,” says Boyd. “You gotta bury it next to your childhood and move on.” He laughs. “We’re all in a good place.” On the plus side: No more watching and editing together footage of prolapsed pig anuses. On the minus side: No more banjo-playing purple furry aliens.