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With a hit sitcom and a burgeoning film career, Joel McHale is proving he can have his Soup and eat it too.

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There was something markedly different about a recent episode of E!’s The Soup: It was all about host Joel McHale. True, for the show’s die-hard fans, the program is always all about McHale, in the sense that the handsome, skinny-tied, wisecracking ringmaster who satirizes reality stars, celebrities, and television personalities with panache makes the five-year-old program -- an extension of the Talk Soup brand -- what it is.

But this episode was McHale-centric in a different way, as the mischievous emcee was the star of several of the featured clips. There was a snippet of Wendy Williams, talk-show host and frequent Soup target, calling out McHale by name. Then there was footage of McHale forecasting the weather alongside Al Roker on Today as well as a clip of him bantering with Soup favorite Willard Scott. In an instant, McHale had gone from being just another spectator, like his audience, to the featured attraction.

McHale’s guest appearances on his own show, which have been occurring with increasing frequency lately, are not precipitated by ego; the 38-yearold Seattle native is as modest and self-deprecating as they come. They’re simply a result of the fact that -- with his new sitcom, Community, bolstering NBC’s Thursday-night comedy lineup and with the debut of his biggest film role to date, in Steven Soderbergh’s recently released The Informant! -- the guy is everywhere these days.

“Just like [Ryan] Seacrest, I’m desperate for work,” he jokes. “But believe me, if you had told me nine years ago when I got to L.A. that I’d have a couple of jobs, I would’ve been very happy.”

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McHale’s surge in popularity has without a doubt been hard-earned. He’s working more than 13 hours a day on the set of Community, taping The Soup on Thursday nights, and performing stand-up on the weekends. In between gigs, he squeezes in as much time as he can with his wife, Sarah, and his sons, Eddie, four, and Isaac, one. But McHale knows as well as anyone that success comes with sacrifice, and he’s had to make his fair share.

“I can’t watch TV as much as I used to, so I have to be informed about what’s happening on More to Love and [Toddlers & Tiaras], which, when you think about it, is kind of a blessing,” he says. “And I will not be doing my regular run of Kabuki theater in Kyoto -- I’m taking a couple weeks off of that. And I’ve decided to put my Russian-ballet stuff on hold.”

Though he’s kidding (we think) about Kyoto and toe shoes, he does come from a theatrical background, having earned a master’s in fine arts from the University of Washington. But McHale admits that before he discovered drama, he felt a little lost in his undergrad studies, an experience that helps him relate to his Community character, Jeff Winger, who is forced to return to school when his law license is revoked.

“When I was in college, I spent a lot of time going, ‘What am I doing here?’ “ he says. “Obviously, the circumstances are different for my character, but it’s the same thought that I had, which was, ‘How do I get out of here the fastest way? Where is the exit?’ “

The show has given him the chance to work with comedy greats like Chevy Chase, John Oliver, and The Hangover’s Ken Jeong. And if that wasn’t enough, McHale now suddenly finds himself part of a powerful Thursday-night roster that includes names like Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Carell.

“To be even mentioned in that company is an honor,” he says. “I mean, I don’t mind being mentioned with Bret Michaels and Flavor Flav and that Canadian girl from The Bachelorette, but it is just crazy and so cool to be a part of [this group].”

But don’t think he’s turning his back on Michaels and company just yet. McHale is committed to The Soup through 2010 and says he still loves doing the show. After all, he admits, his Soup shtick is second nature.

“I feel like I was doing the same thing [before The Soup] -- on my couch, without pants on, yelling back at the television with a beer in my hand,” he says. “The fact that I can now wear a suit and yell into a camera about it and get paid -- I can’t believe it.”


COMIC GENIUS

What makes funnyman Joel McHale crack up? We found out. -- J.J.

MONTY PYTHON: “Growing up, I was just obsessed with it,” McHale admits. “John Cleese is just one of those people that I always looked up to.”

BILL COSBY: “I grew up listening to his records,” he says. “I played them until they were broken.”

STEVE MARTIN and RICHARD PRYOR: “Their stand-up is just out of this world,” he says.