Friday, May 21, 2010

Watching TV Twice – Green Screens and Talking Soup

Someone change the channel! TVs spend a lot of time talking to us.

Correction: people on TV spend a lot of time talking at us.

Cable news, cable faux-news, broadcast news, sports coverage, DIY television, Oprah: a lot of television routinely crashes through the fourth wall like some kind of drunken punch bowl, clamoring for our attention and urging us to listen listen listen.

Pundits, comedians, and casters of the sports/news/weather variety stare earnestly or condemningly into the camera and chatter. Sometimes it’s useful. Sometimes it’s entertaining. Sometimes it’s neither. Sometimes it’s both.

One particular niche of the talking head genre falls squarely into the entertaining category: the green screen clip show.

You may have heard of The Soup. It stars that guy from Community – better known as Joel McHale. Its roots can be traced back to E!’s long running series Talk Soup, hosted by a number of people including Greg Kinnear, John Henson and Hal Sparks.

The basic formula: cull amusing clips from the week in TV and edit them together for the highest laugh/minute ratio. Why watch a whole episode of a terrible reality show when you can just skip to the part where the bro breaks down?

It’s head-slappingly simple – in concept and execution. For The Soup, McHale and his army of cohorts/interns (probably more of the army now that he’s a primetime actor) watch as much bad television as they possible can. They distill it to 22 minutes of clips and jokes for a small audience of friends, plug McHale’s upcoming stand-up gigs, and sign off. Sounds easy.

McHale would disagree. In a 2008 interview with the A.V. Club, he shares the team’s mantra: “90 percent of all television is bad, and ten percent has never been better. We make fun of that 90 percent.” With new channels being added second it seems like, it can’t be easy to cover that 90 percent. Making time for every heinous telenovela while simultaneously combing kids’ shows for disturbing costumed characters is surely an arduous process.

To alleviate The Soup’s burden, E! parent company Comcast called in reinforcements. Watch weird sports clips on Sports Soup. See Topanga mock people’s outfits on Style’s The Dish. Anyone remember MTV’s Singled Out? Yeah, the guy from that makes fun of web videos on G4’s Web Soup.

Were it not for the consistent quality of The Soup, I’d worry about format saturation. I spent a week or two with Sports Soup before giving up. Not only did it feel a little forced, I’m frankly a bit scared of the Versus Network. It’s too manly for me. And not in a Manswers sort of way. Topanga does a decent job, but – to be blunt – I’m not a woman. So I can only dig how she digs on fashionistas for a clip or two at a time. As for Web Soup, the less of Chris Hardwick I see the better.

In fact, if you want to watch a stupid web clip show, Comedy Central’s got you covered. Tosh.0 may have one of the most grating hosts ever in Daniel Tosh, but his callous, That Guy mentality jives perfectly with the exploit-myself approach of web videos. Onstage, his I’ll-be-ironically-racist-if-I-need-to-for-a-laugh comes across as mere shock-jockery. With a green screen displaying a kid strung up in a basketball hoop by his leg, suddenly the race humor doesn’t seem so bad:

The Soup’s continued success and the rise of Tosh.0 allay any fears of oversaturation. We’re caught in an age of irony and nostalgia, and we’ve shown no signs of breaking out.

Maybe that’s not true; Best Week Ever did finally die. That should come as no surprise, however. VH1 ran their Instant Nostalgia machine into the ground way before Best Year Ever was a sparkle in Paul F. Tompkins eye with their incessant decade-in-review shows. It was cute for the 80s the first time, but I’m sorry, I don’t need to know what Pee-Wee Herman thinks about Rainbow Brite. I just don’t.

So how has The Soup model outlived VH1’s Green Screen Bonanza?

Focus, for one. The best hosts (McHale, Tosh, and Topanga) are watchable enough as individuals and imbue the entire effort with endearing personal touches: McHale wearing skinny ties and towering over his guests, Tosh cracking jokes about his wardrobe, and Topanga poking fun at, well, her having played a character named Topanga.

Writing, for another. These shows function as the eBaum’s world (yes it still exists and no it’s not the same as L. Baum’s world) of television, perfect for our ADD brains. A good zinger or well-edited clip can transform ratings kryptonite into a colossal meme. While I can’t find the actual Soup clip, here’s a historic moment from the Shore I’d never known about if not for The Soup.

One of the biggest keys to their success (aside from cable television providing plentiful material) is the role of the audience. Since Talk Soup, the various Soup studio audiences have always been composed of a small group of friends and the members of the crew. Individual audience members can be heard hooting at in-jokes or enjoying a particularly hilarious line flub. Tosh play to a slightly larger house, but the noise generated is nowhere near the applause tsunami that regularly accompanies a finely-honed Jon Stewart barb. Shows in the Soup mold invite the viewer to watch with the host, rather than simply serve up prepared sample platters. This goes a long way when your show traffics exclusive in items that require watching.

Because when you’re watching The Soup, it’s dual-layered. You’re not just watching Spencer from The Hills. You’re watching him within the context of McHale’s critique of the dude’s “creepy flesh-colored beard.” The ironic presentation (and the literal use of the green screen) creates distance between the original thing and your viewing experience.

And in that distance lies all the fun.