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Profile : 'Soup's' On for John Henson

December 17, 1995|BETH KLEID | Beth Kleid is a regular contributor to TV Times and Calendar

John Henson has a head cold, so the wacky host of E! Entertainment Television's "Talk Soup" offers a disclaimer: "If I say anything strange, it's because of the Nyquil."

But he took a non-drowsy version of the cold medicine, and a half-hour away from taping today's edition of "Talk Soup," Henson is raring to go. "I'm just twitching like a fish on a dock," he says, launching into one of his goofy cartoonish voices and making a silly face.

It's his nutty brand of humor, those random off-the-cuff comments and the elastic faces that are Henson's trademarks on the irreverent talkfest. But a year after he began hosting the show, which spoofs the talk-show world from Maury to Mark to Montel to Marilyn, the name John Henson is still lost on many channel surfers who dip into "Talk Soup" (which isn't hard to do since it airs five times a day on E!).

Viewers might know him simply as that "Talk Soup guy" or "the guy who took over for Greg Kinnear," the show's former host now starring in "Sabrina." Or, most commonly, "the guy with that hair thing."

So, what is that hair thing anyway? "That's the million-dollar question," Henson says. The streak of white hair on the side of Henson's head is not alien bar coding, as "Talk Soup" sketches have suggested, nor is it a highly contagious virus that other "Talk Soup" staffers have caught, including copycat guest hosts like Roseanne who sported a white streak during her "Talk Soup" stint.

"It's just a birthmark. It's a lack of pigment. Throughout my childhood and adolescence the skunk reference was incredibly recurring," Henson, 28, says. "When I got to 'Talk Soup' they were like, 'What do we do? Do we dye it? Do we make fun of it?' " Guess what they decided? The show is now planning a whodunit series on Henson's white spot. Henson offers a sneak preview: "Somebody stole my spot," he cries out.

These days, Skunkboy, as he is sometimes called, is indeed coming into his own. Soon, people other than the die-hard "Talk Soupers" who converse about Henson on America Online actually may be able to attach a name to the white spot. Henson this year was nominated for a CableACE award for outstanding host of an entertainment show, joining Garry Shandling (who won the honor) and Dennis Miller, among others. "Those are some of my comedic idols--guys that I revere. To be put in the same category--I have a hard time wrapping my head around it."

But a nomination is not the best thing about being on TV. "Free stuff is the best thing about working on television," Henson says impishly while showing off his new Seiko watch. His old one got water under the crystal, and when Henson called the watch company he got a "Talk Soup" fan who sent him the new watch gratis.

For Henson, fame has taken some getting used to though. When he walks into E!'s ultramodern lobby each morning and sees a giant photo of his mug in the place of honor right next to Howard Stern (who has a show on E!), "It feels weird. This has sort of blossomed into much more attention than I had even really had to deal with ever remotely in my life," says the former stand-up comedian, who has been acting since he was 8, when he appeared in student films at NYU's film school. (One of his four older brothers was a student there.) He eventually worked his way up to a role in the film "Longtime Companion."

Was it hard to be the new ingredient in "Talk Soup" after Kinnear left the show? "It would have been hard if it had dawned on me what I was doing. But I just tried to fill my own shoes, to be as good a version of myself as I knew how to be," Henson says.

Because of Henson's strong comedic voice, the transition was smooth, according to the show's executive producer, Alex Duda. "The show has sort of taken on a whole new life with John because he has a different comedic vision. He's so sure of his own sense of comedy," she says.

Henson reveals his "Talk Soup" recipe: "I try to be very approachable and very self-effacing--I always try to turn it back on myself. I feel like that creates sort of a universality in the show."

It's time for today's taping of the show "that makes your neighbors look normal," Henson deadpans during the intro. He's sitting in front of a large blue backdrop, his feet tapping anxiously when he's not on camera. He presents the clips, which include such talk-show oddities as a woman who has her stomach harvested for fat cells to be injected into her lip, a family who was visited by aliens and a woman with size 120 JJJ breasts. Henson does a lot of eyebrow-raising. Although he reads his script from a TelePrompTer, part of the show is done impromptu.

Was he always such a class clown? "Well, I wasn't the class scholar," he laughs. Henson dropped out of Boston University to pursue stand-up. That was hard for his dad, a businessman, to grasp. "It was like telling him I was going to become a carney and guess weights for a living. Now I don't think he fears for me in the future."

Henson's biggest challenge is keeping things on "Talk Soup" fresh. "There are certain recurrent scenarios. For instance, 'Oh my god, that woman is a guy!' " he mugs. "Each day you have to throw out everything you've done before."

But Henson is grateful for the material on talk shows. "I welcome it because so much of my job is done for me."

He has no plans to host a talk show himself, like his predecessor. "I love what I'm doing right now. Short of this, I'd like to do what I consider my first love, which is acting."

Plan B for the future: "I'll have my real-estate license. I'll be living outside Tucson, probably developing a drinking problem and raising several idiot children."

"Talk Soup" airs at 6 p.m. Monday-Thursday on E! with repeats throughout the week . In addition, "Talk Soup Weekend" airs Friday-Sunday.

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