As we near the end of the Pandemic Era (for good, we hope), television will be erasing any evidence that COVID once stalked the land. Face masks and Zoom calls will disappear from dramas, coffee shops will come back into vogue, and late-night talk show hosts will play to a studio audience instead of a handful of crew members.
But there once was a show where the crew was the audience — and it worked. That show was Talk Soup. In its nearly quarter-century run on E!, Talk Soup was to talk shows what SportsCenter was to highlight reels, a clip show that was more entertaining than the content it was riffing on. You’re probably familiar with the Joel McHale version that aired from 2004 to 2015. But the show actually established its format and tone back in its original, ultra-low-budget run from 1991 to 2002, under four different hosts. Talk Soup was, indeed, E!’s signature show long before anyone knew what a Kardashian was. (Seriously! It debuted four years before the O.J. trial introduced the world to Papa K.)
And there was something about being in an empty studio, having to make his crew laugh, that made Talk Soup what it was. Greg Kinnear, the show’s original host, once recalled that he and his team started “yukking it up” mainly to keep from being bored out of their minds. Cutting back to a dead-quiet studio after an overamped Jenny Jones or Moral Court clip only drew attention to the absurdity of the video we’d just watched. Without an audience, Talk Soup was like stone soup — it made something out of nothing every single night.
Soon we’ll all be getting used to the laughter of hundreds of seat-fillers again. Talk Soup, though, serves as a timeless reminder that not all shows have to have audience outbursts every ten seconds. Besides, studio audiences cost money.
After Kinnear’s departure, John Henson and Hal Sparks each had a go as Talk Soup host before the mulltitalented Aisha Tyler closed it down. Here’s a fine example of Tyler’s comedic range that is well-known to fans of Archer, where she is the voice of Lana.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.