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Sunday, August 22, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Television

From Mercer Island, jumping into "The Soup"

Seattle Times staff columnist

You spot "Diagnosis Murder" on Joel McHale's acting credits, and have to ask: What was it like to work with the Poppins-prancing, ottoman-tripping Dick Van Dyke?

"I got murdered, so I didn't even meet him," McHale said from Los Angeles recently. "I was hoping it would be a really cool murder, but they didn't even put any blood on me. My best friend kills me to get my wife.

"I guess I have that kind of face."

It's a face we're seeing more and more of, as the Mercer Island native's acting career takes off.

Tight-fisted bank officer

McHale, 32, has a memorable part in "Spider-Man 2" as the bank officer who denies Peter Parker and his elderly aunt a loan. (Wouldn't even give them a toaster for opening a new account. Sheesh.)

He will also appear in the coming surf-and-skateboard film "The Lords of Dogtown," and play an office worker in "The Onion Movie," based on the side-splitting satirical newspaper.

But McHale is getting the most buzz as the spanking new host of "The Soup," on which he counts down the week's most absurd moments in the worlds of celebrity and reality TV.

The show doesn't ask how a 15-year-old boy overturned an ATV on the Neverland Ranch, but why his parents would let him set foot on Michael Jackson's property. And McHale soberly reported that, upon hearing that Halle Berry wanted to do another "Catwoman," her best actress Oscar "jumped off the mantle to its death."

"The Soup" is a second incarnation of the E! Entertainment Television channel's "Talk Soup." For a short time, the show was called the "What The ... ? Awards," but E! executives axed that name in favor of "Soup" name recognition. The show airs at 10 p.m. Fridays and repeats numerous times over the week.

"It's very busy all day long, but it's a fun busy," McHale says. "I sit and laugh and write mean things."

They rewrite those things that are too mean, McHale says, "but the truth is, we are walking this weird, fine line.

"Hopefully, we offend universally."

Local connection

It helps that McHale is essentially back in high school. Two of the writers on "The Soup" are Dominic DeLeo and Ethan Sandler, both former classmates from Mercer Island High School who honed their skills watching "Mystery Science Theater 3000" together.

"The chemistry is the same," DeLeo, 31, said of the trio's Hollywood reunion. "I never thought it would be our place in life to watch television all week and then write about Paris Hilton. And it's amazing to work with your best friend."

McHale is perfect for the job, DeLeo said, "because he has this nice mix of goofiness, and there is also this dark side to him.

"He's kind of Willy Wonka-esque," he said. "There's a bit of an edge behind his big grin."

Now, instead of classmates and teachers, the friends' subject is Hollywood, a target-rich environment filled with people like the sisters Hilton and Jessica Simpson, and reality-TV stars of every ilk.

"I worried about coming off as this mean guy," says McHale. "But with reality programs, you have to tee off on it all. It just screams to be made fun of.

"I mean, have you seen 'The Player' ?"

(This is the show where several men do things like freestyle rapping to get dates with a woman who confers with her two friends before making a choice.)

"It's so stupid, we were so happy it came on the air."

Who's watching this?

Same with "Newlyweds," starring Simpson and Nick Lachey — whose recent dinnertime conversation centered on whether acorns were made of wood.

"They are living these completely idle lives and have absolutely nothing to talk about," McHale said. "If (Simpson) wasn't hot, can you imagine having to talk to someone for that length of time?"

McHale — who was also a cast member on the Seattle-based "Almost Live!" — auditioned for "The Soup" in February.

Several months later, he joined a pedigreed club that includes former host Greg Kinnear, who was nominated for an Academy Award in "As Good as It Gets"; Hal Sparks, who went on to star in Showtime's "Queer as Folk," and who also had a small role in "Spider-Man 2" as an elevator passenger who finds himself riding with the man himself. ("Cool Spidey costume.")

In other words, things look promising — and McHale looks perfect doing it.

There's a measure of seriousness in how he stands there in his suit and tie, clean-shaven and clipped. If he wasn't doing this, you think, he might be doing something bloodless. Hostile takeovers. Florida real estate.

But once he opens his smart mouth and starts mugging for the camera, you see how he landed in just this spot at just this time.

Fun times at home

He credits his family for making him this way:

"The reason why I am such a smart-ass is because my dad is equal or greater a smart ass as I am, and so we get along very well," McHale said. "Growing up was a very funny, jokey, laughy place."

Still, this is not what McHale thought he would be doing when he completed the Actor's Training Masters Program at the University of Washington in 2000. He moved to Hollywood six months after graduation and got a role on "Will & Grace" six months later.

Since then, he has played a state trooper on "The Guiding Light," and done commercials for Burger King, IHOP and Nutrigrain. He is now a spokesman for Aspen Edge beer. His commercials for DHL are running during the Olympics.

But it was "Spider-Man 2" that sparked his current high profile.

"To be asked to do it was one of those moments in my life when you think, 'This is the greatest thing,' and then you worry that you'll sleep through your alarm."

He was impressed at director Sam Raimi's relaxed control of the production, thinks Tobey Maguire is "a nice person, very quiet and reserved," and said Rosemary Harris, who played Spider-Man's Aunt May, was "beautiful and gracious" and listened to McHale's Shakespeare speeches in between takes.

At home, he loves to play "Halo" and crank up the White Stripes, Nirvana and Loretta Lynn. He and his wife, interior designer Sarah Williams McHale, are expecting their first child in January.

McHale misses the Thai food in Seattle but thinks that L.A.'s Mexican food and Korean barbecue are "unstoppable."

Some of his idols

He admires actors Paul Newman and Richard E. Grant, and considers "Almost Live!" colleague and KJR-FM radio host Pat Cashman "one of my inspirations and one of my idols."

"Training at 'Almost Live!' really helped because I was able to screw up and do stupid things and be bad and work out some of those bugs, so I wouldn't fall on my ass as hard.

"And now, I sort of trust that what I am doing will be OK. I have such a good time doing it."

Nicole Brodeur: 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published August 22, was corrected August 23. A previous version of this story contained an error. In a story that ran in the Arts & Entertainment section, Ethan Sandler was listed as a staffer on "The Soup." Sandler does not work on the show.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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