A reappraisal

Joel McHale's Tiger King Netflix episode reveals an ugly truth about him, and us

McHale treats real people from a documentary like characters in a TV show.

Should you watch "The Tiger King and I"? Yes, if you want to see a stark example of a tone-deaf talk-show host condescend to subjects of a documentary, or if you are ready to confront what you really found intriguing in the show itself.

Tiger King is a phenomenon, and Netflix will always find a way to create more content out of a phenomenon. So last week, when Netflix announced an aftershow titled, "The Tiger King and I," hosted by Netflix favorite Joel McHale, it didn't come as much of a shock.

The episode is essentially 40 minutes of McHale interviewing a handful of people who worked at the G.W. Zoo, and knew Joe Exotic firsthand -- from his Libertarian campaign manager to his ex-husband. Why, then, did it feel so different from the documentary?

Interview-based aftershows are not new. AMC and Chris Hardwick have formed a small empire of them, starting with Talking Dead, which aired directly after new episodes of The Walking Dead, then branching off to shows like Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, and Orphan Black. The aftershow works for those shows, but it's not transferrable. While Norman Reedus can wax rhapsodic about Daryl Dixon's character evolution, at the end of the day, he's an actor playing a role.

The people from Tiger King are people, and McHale didn't seem to grasp that.

The interviewees for "The Tiger King and I"


McHale treated his interviewees like they were sideshow subjects to be mocked. There were standard questions, normal "Are you getting recognized on the street, what did you think of the show, do you think Joe got what he deserved" fare, but then he would ask Erik Cowie what he thought of Mötley Crüe and Jeff Lowe how many Affliction t-shirts he owned. The patronizing tone was laid on thick, and is generally pretty ugly. McHale signed off from his interview with Cowie this way: "Don't stick your fingers in any cages!" (Cowie took in stride the joke, made about a hazard someone accepts because they like their job that much.)

The treatment of the subjects of Tiger King exposes a harsh truth: the fervor surrounding the series is, in some part, focused on ridicule. Even if that ridicule is focused on Joe Exotic, a convicted felon, it reverberates to the other people interviewed.

Having a celebrity, McHale, in his house in California, interview Josh about how he hopes the success of the show allows him to afford therapy, illustrates the tremendous power differential, not only between McHale and those in the documentary, but between him and the viewers who might know and love people not all that different from the employees of the G.W. Zoo.

Joel McHale interviewing Josh Dial


In the Tiger King documentary, a distance was created by the production: Editors cut out all the interview questions and allowed the words of those involved speak for themselves.

Adding a charismatic, wisecracking interviewer and a quick turnaround, just adds an air of sensationalism that exposes the exaggeration of the show.

Especially in a pandemic, it would have been easy just to give those involved a list of questions, and tell them to film their answers. Instead, McHale is there to talk about how bad everyone's hair is, and poke fun at John Finlay for never wearing a shirt.

It's tough to swallow, but it's the takeaway from the entire Tiger King series: in a sense, we are watching to laugh at those less fortunate, those caught in abusive relationships, dealing with addiction, or just living outside of social norms.

While it's still entertaining, asking those people who they want to portray them in a movie draws a line under the fact that to McHale, to Netflix, and, possibly, to viewers around the world, they are merely side characters in The Joe Exotic Story.

Oh, and there's no Joe Exotic in this Zoom-focused interview show. He's still an inmate at the Fort Worth Prison Medical Center, in a coronavirus quarantine.

See also: 8 shows like Tiger King: Stories of far-out folks in strange circumstances

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