But telling ball jokes on cable TV for a living wasn’t McHale’s plan. “I never dreamed I would be doing what I’m doing now,” he says. Raised Catholic in New Jersey and then Seattle, McHale, 36, always wanted to be a serious actor, and after college he enrolled in the three-year graduate acting program at the University of Washington. He left Seattle for Los Angeles in 2000 and spent a couple of years caddying at the Wilshire Country Club and assembling wine-and-cheese baskets at a gourmet shop. Eventually he landed representation, but he was dropped by the agency after he booked nothing for six months. When he was lucky, commercials, including a Christopher Guest–directed Super Bowl ad for Dockers, paid the bills. Bit parts in films like Spider-Man 2 and Lords of Dogtown kept his acting dreams alive—barely.

By the time E! came calling in 2004, McHale was open to pretty much anything. Talk shows, the program’s bread and butter, had all but disappeared from the pop landscape, and E! was unsure what to do with Soup. “A lot of friends were like, ‘I don’t know if you want to do that,’” McHale says. “But if the show could do half of what it did for other hosts, I’d be very happy.”

As it turned out, McHale and E! had stumbled, hand in hand, into the golden age of trash TV. That meant that not only could The Soup do for McHale what it had done for Kinnear, it might even do more. So McHale began gorging on what he’s called “this horrible buffet.” He’d always had a knack for comedy—“We were those irritating kids who memorized Monty Python sketches,” says Dominic DeLeo, a.k.a. Mankini on The Soup, who’s known McHale since fifth grade—and proved to be a natural as an on-air personality. He’s affable enough not to alienate publicists but not so clean that he can’t hook raunch-hungry fans of Perez Hilton and TMZ. “There’d be lawsuits if a creepy dude said the things Joel does,” says his friend Adam Carolla, on whose radio show McHale appears weekly. He’s also skilled at exploiting the symbiotic relationship between The Soup and the shows it lampoons, to which it essentially provides free publicity. When Bret Michaels, the former Poison frontman, was a guest, “he was like, ‘Don’t call it Rock of Love, call it Rock of Fluids,’” McHale says. “Which was what we had been calling it, so we were like, ‘Okay, great!’”

One target who’s not such a big fan is Tyra Banks, whom McHale regards as manna from marginal-network heaven. “Her greatest fear in life is dolphins,” he says. “How can you not make fun of that? And Tyra, I will continue to talk about you if you continue to talk about whore baths.” He gets giddy explaining the term: “It’s when you clean your armpits with a wet paper towel or baby wipes,” he says. “She’s said it like 20 times.” About two years ago, E! executives say, they got a letter from Banks’ lawyers warning of possible legal action.