Talk Soup: Hal Sparks, John Henson, Aisha Tyler on The Soup legacy
Long before Joel McHale boarded E!’s The Soup, Greg Kinnear kicked off the show’s run in 1991. That original incarnation was Talk Soup, a pop-culture commentary series that would go on to influence multiple like-minded takes on the zeitgeist until its end in 2002 with Aisha Tyler at the helm. In 2004, the network launched a rebranded and reality TV-focused version, which comes to an end Friday (an hour-long special will air on E! at 10 p.m. ET).
“For the past two decades The Soup, and its predecessor Talk Soup, has delivered the laughs each week by skewering the latest moments in pop culture with the show’s irreverent trademark humor,” a representative for E! said in a statement. “The long-running series launched the careers of hosts Greg Kinnear (Talk Soup host 1991–1995), John Henson (Talk Soup host 1995–1999), Hal Sparks (Talk Soup host 1999–2000), Aisha Tyler (Talk Soup host 2001–2002), and Joel McHale (The Soup host 2004 –present), and has earned its rightful place in the pop-culture zeitgeist.”
To celebrate the show’s run, EW spoke to past Talk Soup hosts John Henson, Hal Sparks, and Tyler to hear about how they got their jobs, how those jobs ended (Sparks claims he was “fired for improvising too much”), and how the show will and does continue to live on.
Both Henson and Sparks auditioned multiple times before ultimately getting the hosting gig, but Tyler had an extra obstacle working against her: people who didn’t think E! would hire a woman to host the show.
AISHA TYLER: I read they were looking for a new host, I think in Variety. So I asked my manager to submit me, and he said, “They’re never gonna hire a girl.” And so he eventually got fired.
The reason I got this show was because my comedy fit the show. My comedy is already very potty-mouthed and fraternal and very male-friendly even though it came from a female point of view. I remember telling them, right from the beginning, “I’m going to be able to tell the jokes guys can’t tell. I can be twice as dirty as a guy. I can make jokes about women that a guy couldn’t make. I can make jokes about black people that a guy couldn’t make, I can make jokes about guys. My range of what I can escape with unscathed is much broader than what a white guy can do. I just bought you guys a free ticket.”
I remember there were some very skeptical people who came up to me, being like, “Is this gonna work?” And I was like, [Pauses] “Lay back, buddy.” [Laughs] “Relax yourself.” I already knew that I was going to get them in and that what was I offering them was an opportunity to bring more people to the table than they were already getting.
Talk Soup is known as a comedy show, but what kind of comedy show — and to a certain extent, what kind of show, period — was up for interpretation.
JOHN HENSON: The year that I arrived, Talk Soup had just earned an Emmy [for Outstanding Class Program]. It was very much a flagship comedy. The whole reason that I was brought in was because of my ability to write and be a comedian. We kind of operated instinctively on, if we’re having fun, that will translate to the audience. It was a very self-indulgent show. All I was really worried about was making the crew laugh.
I think the show went through a big evolution over the years. Somebody once said to me, “I think this show began as a clip show that did sketches and it became a sketch show that showed clips.” I think I was fortunate enough to be there when the pendulum was really swinging towards comedy, and in my experience, the clips were almost just fodder and incidental.
TYLER: For a long time, we were just under the radar, and we just got to make a funny show and nobody was paying attention to us at all. And that was great. It worked to our benefit, because we were able to make the show we wanted to every day.
HAL SPARKS: At my first meeting when I met everybody and they unveiled me to the crew and the writers and everybody as the new host, one of the executives [who is no longer with the company] overseeing the show informed us all of two things: One was Talk Soup is not a comedy show, and the second thing was Talk Soup will never receive any off-air promotion — meaning no billboards, ads, anything.
That was partly why I dove in so hard and probably why I transitioned to doing my thing toward the end as much as I could, because I was like, this is not long for this world.
TYLER: Maybe they still feel the way that Hal thinks they felt, which is that Talk Soup is not a comedy, or maybe in the larger context of the network, that the network is not a comedy network. Maybe they want to move into scripted or maybe they want it to be all Kardashians. Maybe they feel like it’s not a brand fit, because [McHale’s] making fun of the very shows that are the bread and butter of the E! network.
I imagine that it’s a little bit of ouroboros, that image of a snake eating its own tail. This is a network for whom their day-to-day is exalting and lauding and praising celebrity culture, how great it is that these people are on a boat and their baby is wearing a fur bulletproof vest and her diamond cost $10 million, and she just ate a bowl of gold for breakfast or whatever, and then here comes Joel, or any of us when we were on the network, and makes fun of it, and maybe they feel like it undermines the earnestness of the network if you have one guy on there who’s like, “Oh my God, you guys, this is all total bulls—.” [Laughs]
Henson left Talk Soup in 1999. Sparks took over that year and left the next, and Tyler hosted from 2001 to 2002 until E! pulled the plug. The show would go on to take a short break before being revived as The Soup, hosted by Joel McHale, in 2004.
HENSON: My decision to leave Talk Soup in July of ’99 was kind of predicated on the cresting of the wave of talk shows. They were starting to die off. And there was a real gold rush of talk shows in the late ‘90s, and then they started to disappear and there was a move to kind of lean up the air waves.
We got to do a live show in Chicago in January. [Laughs] Who in the hell wants to go to Chicago in January? But I’ll never forget, the day of the show, there was a line around the block for people to get in. It was about 10 degrees below zero, and people waited for hours to get in. People showed up in costumes, people had signs. I remember we were sitting backstage and people started stomping their feet and chanting my name. It was like an out of body experience. Somebody looked at me and goes, “Dude, we’re Aerosmith!”
I went out on stage and we got a very warm standing ovation, and I remember in that moment thinking, “It’s never going to get better than this.” I loved the show too much to ride it into the ground. I didn’t want to see the tail end of it. And so I made a decision that I wanted to leave on a high.
I think it’s unfortunate that Hal — and to a degree, Aisha — were having to work with a bit of a dying medium in the talk show. There weren’t 25 or 30 on the air. And then they made the decision to fold Talk Soup and bring it back to recognize reality shows, which had become the equivalent of talk shows. It was a very astute shift in focus on the part of [the] programming [department] to recognize that the currency of pop culture was changing from daytime talk shows to reality shows.
I think you’re seeing it in the new paradigm: Daniel Tosh, who I know through shared friends, grew up watching Talk Soup and loved that show. The new version of that is online, is viral videos. Talk shows gave way to reality, and reality is giving way to viral videos. I think the entire industry is changing.
SPARKS: I think they were expecting me to be upset [when fired]. And they were weirded out when I wasn’t, because I realized at that point my career had changed. I had been on television for a year straight with my name under my face, which is invaluable in this industry.
TYLER: The show was doing very well, and they were moving us around constantly. We couldn’t build up any momentum because they kept moving the show. And they promised us they were going to put us on after Howard Stern, so we spent a lot of time coming up with a new concept for this show that was more pop culture-driven, that was more focused on current events, more focused on news, and we actually shot a couple of pilots for a show called The Soup.
And then on a Thursday, I got to work, and they told me the show was canceled, and it was ending on a Friday and we had one day to put together the last episode of the show. One day. The show was 10 years old — it had been this beloved cult hit for a decade. It felt very frustrating to me that we couldn’t give the show the send-off that it deserved. I went on right after that to do Friends — obviously, I’ve done fine. [Laughs] Personally, I went on to land on both my feet, but I was really bummed because a lot of the writers on that show didn’t have an opportunity to find a new home. They weren’t given the opportunity to look elsewhere. The show just went away abruptly.
Shows go away all the time. Shows get canceled. That’s the nature of this business, and I don’t think you can cry about it. We all know what we get into when we sign up for it. But I do think that if I had only one regret, it was that we weren’t given a shot to say goodbye to a show that we all really loved and believed in and put a lot of energy and time into.
I remember, before I got [the job], I was doing stand-up and I had a day job. When I quit my day job, I was like, “I’m so happy, I don’t have to get up every day, shower, make my lunch, and drive to work.” And then when I got Talk Soup, I was like, “God, I love getting up very day and showering and making lunch and driving to work.” I loved that job. And I loved everybody that worked there.
SPARKS: The design of that show spawned every [other show like it]. It’s a perfect show in that regard. You weren’t even charged for using the clips! It’s amazing. It cost nothing. […] You could meet Friday afternoon for 45 minutes and put on Talk Soup these days. [Laughs] You could do it at Upright Citizens Brigade on their stage with a green screen and no one would know the difference. Nobody. [Laughs]
Ultimately, what Talk Soup was, we’re on the couch next to you as your best friend talking about the show that’s crap that we’re both watching. It’s like having a great friend with a great wit sitting next to you all the time making just the right joke. What you were thinking, articulated slightly more comically. That’s it. And there’s a camaraderie with the viewer. It was like the early stages of that personal relationship with the viewer, which is really what everybody talks about with modern YouTube branding and that kind of stuff.
There’s no way you can’t do Talk Soup about nearly everything. You can do a Talk Soup about all the zombie shows and never run out of material right now. You could do it as a weekly, you could do a daily show where you’re talking just about The Daily Show. [Laughs] So there’s room for four Talk Soups on the air right now. The question is, who can brand it and put it on the air?
Henson later co-hosted Wipeout from 2008 to 2014, Sparks went on to star in Queer as Folk and now stars in Disney XD show Lab Rats, and Tyler had recurring roles on TV giants C.S.I. and Friends and now co-hosts CBS talk show The Talk. Each of the former hosts credits Talk Soup with giving them their “break,” including Henson, who was reminded of the impact comedy can have over a decade after leaving the show.
HENSON: When I left Talk Soup, I boxed up everything in my office and I put it into storage, and 11 years later, I went to clean it out. I opened up an enormous moving box, and it was unopened fan mail. I knew I would never open them all, but I picked one letter off the top, and it was from this girl who wrote me a very eloquent and moving letter saying that she had gone through a very difficult time in high school and was battling depression and discovering Talk Soup helped her to laugh at a time in her life that she really needed it and helped her to not take life so seriously. She, in a very eloquent way, said, I bet when you were taping those silly sketches, that you never imagined the impact that it would have in my life. There was a number at the bottom and I called that number 11 years later and I got in touch with that girl. She’s gone on to have a great career and be very happy and thriving.
You put stuff out into the world on television and you have no idea how it’s being received or processed by the audience. I think in a way making somebody laugh is one of the kindest things you can do for them. It made me remember that there’s some nobility in entertaining people, and it can mean a lot when you least expect it. It just made me very, very grateful for the opportunity.
I’ve had a couple of instances where, over the years, you just realize that sometimes entertainment is more than entertainment. Sometimes comedy is more than comedy. And it can be healing and powerful in ways that you wouldn’t expect when you’re dressing in drag and making a sketch for 75 cents. It was one of those things where I look back on it and when I think of my experience on Talk Soup, more than anything, I just think of how grateful I am to have been a part of it.
See The Soup‘s series finale when it airs Friday at 10 p.m. ET on E!.
These interviews have been edited and condensed.