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Left Coast Bias: Is Joel McHale A Late-Night Contender?

Covering late-night television leading up to the changes that are coming next year has been an industry-wide, drawn-out game of Fantasy Football. And if you're like me, it's been fun to talk about Jay going here and Jimmy going there and when Jon is going to replace Dave.

But for about the last year or so, when I was talking to network execs or late-night hosts or their producers about who might go where, something happened multiple times that left an impression. We'd talk through all the regular names, and then someone would say to me, “And you know who is really good, that guy Joel McHale from The Soup.”

And I would nod knowingly, despite carrying a secret as deep as the fact that I actually don't own a high-definition TV set: I had never seen one episode of McHale's show.

So when enough people I trust mentioned McHale's name totally organically, I figured I'd better check him out. I set up a meeting with him, but then figured I'd better watch his show once or twice before our meeting. So I had E! send over some DVDs. And now I get why McHale has some buzz.

Soup is a once-a-week clip show skewering everything and everyone ridiculous on television, especially talk show and reality personalities. The four or five episodes I watched were often laugh-out-loud funny. And that ticked me right off because the ladies in my office all think he's dreamy. Plus, he's tall. Bastard.

We sat down in a closet full of boxes and booze he calls his office, and I prepared to sit through the stable of jokes he often went to in the previous press clips I had read. But after about two minutes—and once we started talking seriously about late night and his career—for the next hour we had a surprisingly introspective, and intelligent, chat about the world of television and McHale's place in it.

Here is the bottom line with Joel McHale: He clearly has gained attention from industry insiders for his work on The Soup, but the guy is in Los Angeles for one reason—he wants to be a movie star. He saw Greg Kinnear use a turn on the same show (then called Talk Soup) to do so, and now he's taking a crack.

“I came here to do movies, and that's what I'm starting to do,” he says, referring to an upcoming role in a 2009 Steven Soderbergh movie.

So as for his innate drive to host a nightly talk show, he is much closer to the Craig Ferguson “we'll see how this goes” route than Jimmy Kimmel's tireless passion to become a late-night franchise.

“If a show was available, yeah, I'd like to throw my hat in,” McHale says. “But it's not even worth thinking about because there are so few jobs and there's no real audition process.”

But don't dismiss McHale's knowledge of the game. With a young family and a fledgling standup career, McHale doesn't watch as much late-night as he used to, but when he does, it is Conan O'Brien's show or Ferguson's monologue. He has been a guest with Conan, Craig and Kimmel, and desperately wants to land an appearance on Letterman, whose show he has watched forever. He's not a Leno guy, but appreciates why a plurality of late-night viewers are, and he's never heard a bad thing about the guy.

He does convey a deep and sincere appreciation for, if not amazement at, the guys who are making it work. “It requires so many things: You have to be funny and you have to interview well, but you can't just be those things,” he says. “There is still some X-factor, and I don't know if I have that. I just don't know. Like when Letterman went down with his heart surgery, some of the funniest people in the world hosted the show and it was really bad.”

There is also the question of whether a guy who has made his name absolutely killing celebrities could suddenly pretend to care about their silly stories. “I don't know, that's a good question,” he acknowledges. “I would hopefully do what the good hosts do. When Conan has someone really good he lets them just go, and when someone like a model gets on there and isn't very engaging, he just kicks in and has to be the entertainer. I would have to learn how to really support the person without being overly dominating.”

His current show is weekly, and while there has been talk in the past about making it nightly, he doesn't think it would work. The current format has around 40 clips slammed into 22 minutes.

So while he may want a crack at a nightly show, it probably wouldn't be this format. “I think it would be too tough,” he says. “It's just not going to be the same show. If this show was on Fox every night for a half-hour up against late night, I think we'd get killed.”

But McHale may be worth a shot. Watch his show or a recent appearance with Keith Olbermann on MSNBC in which he had a lackey throw shoes at his head the entire time, and you can see that he can bring the funny.

But impressively, the smug guy you see on The Soup was really nowhere to be found during our hour-long chat. He actually is very thoughtful and serious when it comes to the television business and his career. And that combination of humor and depth makes me realize why some people who matter in television are talking about him.

So while Jay Leno staying on NBC may seem to bring to an end the late-night sea change of 2009, hang on just a second. On broadcast alone, you have Fox out there looking for late-night help, ABC potentially with real estate somewhere and CBS not exactly locked into a long-term strategy. Carson Daly's spot after Jimmy Fallon is also up for grabs if NBC decides to replace him when his deal expires in 2009.

And that's not including cable where, for instance, a USA Network nightly show was already pitched to Jay Leno, and Showtime has been rumored to be thinking about other talk programs.

So there is some fantasy football still to play. And it will be interesting to see if anyone tries to spend a draft pick on a former University of Washington tight end named McHale.