You may remember Joshua Malina as the incredibly astute, fast-talking, and endearingly nerdy Jeremy Goodwin on the short-lived-but-brilliant Sports Night, or as the masterful wordsmith Will Bailey on The West Wing. Since then, Malina has created his own series, Celebrity Poker Showdown, and played several bit parts and smaller roles—on Numb3rs, Psych, and In Plain Sight, to name a few.
His latest project is a web series called Backwash, premiering today on Crackle.com and co-starring Michael Panes and The State veteran Michael Ian Black. The show is part masterpiece mystery theatre, part animated adventure, part variety show, and part absurdist/slapstick comedy; I spoke with Malina about the advantages of the internet vs. TV, Backwash's many prestigious stars, the art of the pratfall, and his old pal Aaron Sorkin.
TV.com: Your new web series has many different dimensions, to say the least. How would you describe it?
Joshua Malina: Backwash is an old-school, slapstick-y romp between three eccentric loser friends who inadvertently rob a bank, armed solely with a salami and a sweatsock, and then find themselves on the run pursued by singing cops. It’s kind of a classic piece, a sophisticated piece, if you will.
What inspired you to create a series like this?
Originally, it was just to create some funny material with these two ridiculous characters I had in mind for my friend Michael Panes and myself. And then I started writing scenes with these two kind of Marx Brother-y kind of physical comedy characters. And over a ridiculous period of time, a decade, I would add to the material and change it, and, think, ah, it’s gonna be a movie, no, it’ll be a play, and no, it’ll be a TV show. It kind of never really amounted to anything other than a tremendous amount of raw material in my desk drawer. And every now and then, Michael Panes—who is a very talented writer and actually finishes things and sees them through—every time I’d speak with him he’d say, that Backwash thing, why don’t you finish it? And I’d say, yeah, yeah, I’m gonna get to that.
Why did you end up turning it into a web series instead of a television show?
I finally revisited it a year and a half ago and thought, 'I’ll make it into a sitcom pilot.' And I did. And it became clear right away that it really wasn’t a sitcom pilot. It didn’t seem like the most commercial television project, and Ken Marino suggested making it for the web. And instantly it became clear to me that that’s what this always wanted to be.
The web is a great outlet for doing things off the beaten path, and hats off to Crackle because I sat in their office and described it largely just as I described it to you and they said, "Yeah that sounds good." And I thought: "Ohmygod, you guys are as crazy as I am. That sounds good? Because as I’m saying it, it sounds ridiculous!" So they were definitely in the market for not-your-standard-fare, and I think that is one of the huge advantages of the web right now. The internet is kind of the playground for people who want to create material that is distinctive and different. ... To a large extent [networks] don’t want you reinventing the wheel on TV.
In television, you're most known for your roles on Sports Night and The West Wing. How does the role of Val compare? How would you describe the character?
Part of my motivation was to write a character for myself that I wouldn’t play otherwise. I think if you read the character description—someone who is an acerbic, insulting, nasty, deeply dysfunctional guy who abuses and mistreats his dear friend of 25 years—the casting people wouldn’t say, “Josh Malina! He’s perfect!” So in a sense, I was going to write to my strong suit that people don’t know about. Aaron Sorkin has been incredibly good to me, I don’t know that I would have an acting career without him. Thanks to him, people think I’m smart and nice, but I’m neither. (laughs) And dammit, the story has to get out!
What kind of relationship do you have with Sorkin after working with him on Sports Night and The West Wing?
I was actually a friend of his before I became a serial employee of his. I became friends with him just after I graduated from college and we both lived in New York City. Even as a kid, he was good friends with my cousins, and so I always knew of him a little bit. First and foremost, we were friends and then he turned into this massively successful, incredibly talented writer and very loyal friend. So much to my good fortune, I’ve gotten to work with him a lot of times and we’ll work together again. We’re doing a screening of all the Backwash episodes on Monday and he’s going to be there. And that means so much to me. I keep trying to brace him, explaining, "It’s not your kind of material. I don’t write like you." But he’s been really supportive all the way.
It’d be a love/hate acting relationship. All three of us get along very well. Panes-y, as I like to call him, I’ve known for about 20 years. Michael [Ian Black] I’ve known for just a few years. He played on the poker show that I produced, Celebrity Poker Showdown. I pursued him, which is unlike me ... I don’t even see my regular friends. But I pursued Michael as soon as I got to know him playing poker. I knew I really wanted to be friends with him and work with him sometime. And I admire him very much as a person and as a performer. He was one of the few people that I just targeted and thought I’m going to do something with this guy, even though he actually showed no interest in becoming my friend. (laughs) I sort of pestered him and hounded him and finally forced him to be in my show. So it was very friendly-slash-insulting. We gave each other a lot of grief, but I think thoroughly enjoyed each other's company, the three of us.
I like it, you kept each other on your toes.
Yes, you can never entirely rest comfortably with Michael Black or Michael Paynes.
My producer/partner is Daniel Scheider, and he and the director and I had put together a wish list. Basically we needed thirteen hosts, though we wound up book-ending it with Jon Hamm twice. We’ve all been around long enough that we had an impressive group of friends and people that we wanted to work with. Nobody was there just for name’s sake. Like, "Ah, I hate him, but he’s famous!" By and large, the cast was made up of people we know and like. I’ve known Sarah Silverman a long time and I play in a card game she has occasionally, and Jon Hamm plays in that game. Also, shmoozing is not my forte, but I was like, "I’m just gonna go for it and ask people." These people with big careers view it as a fun outlet to go do something different, and everybody was all really up for being self-deprecating. The only difficult sell was getting Michael Vartan to introduce himself as “Handsomeness is Michael Vartan.” (laughs) He called me and said, “I’m begging you, please, write me something else." I said, "Michael, I’ve got news for you. You’re handsome. Nobody’s going to be shocked that even you know it."
I was particularly impressed with Dule Hill's dancing skills. And his soft-shoe with matzoh crumbs... were those totally improvised segments?
That’s a good question. I wrote Dule’s intro, then I wrote that he would say, “If you haven’t had a chance to watch the show, here comes the most entertaining fifteen seconds." Then I just wrote some stage direction that Dule does an incredible tap dance for the next fifteen seconds. I know him, and I know that he’s just a sick dancer. And the matzah thing, which I think was just the weird callback recurring joke we decided to go with, was his idea. I probably wrote “Dule grabs a box of matzah and does something.” And I think he had the brilliant idea to throw the matzah down and start tapdancing on it. If anybody had any brilliant idea, we’d say, oh let’s try that.
It works out. He is a crazy good dancer.
You know, I think he was like 12 or 13 on Broadway as the tapdance kid. He has this insane talent that most people don’t know about unless you worked with him on The West Wing, as I did. During breaks, he’d be doing insane stuff.
The pacing of the series and the sort of slapstick work it contains hearken back to another era of comedic performers—Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers. Are there any physical performers who particularly inspired you?
I hate to even mention my own work in the same breath as these people, 'cause I aspire to that style. I would not put myself in the realm of the greats. I grew up and I was weened on the Marx Brothers. They were sort of my all-time favorite. My parents showed me their movies when I was very young. And as I got older, I became a Charlie Chaplin fan and I love Buster Keaton. As a kid, I watched a lot of Abbot and Costello movies. I think the art of the pratfall and the beauty and the grace of physical comedians has always appealed to me. It’s the kind of thing I love doing and want to do. I also love live theater and people like Bill Irwin, who is an incredible comedian. There are these two Canadian clowns named Mump and Smoot of whom I am an enormous fan.
Mump and Smoot?
Actually, there’s a funny story: I guess it was probably, I graduated from college in 1988, maybe in '89 or '90 at the Lafayette theatre in New York. There was this show called Mump and Smoot in Caged with Wog. And it was an insane and dark crazy play starring these Canadian clowns. They’re still performing. I was so taken with it that I immediately organized this huge group of friends to go back and see it. One of whom was Aaron [Sorkin]. And they were not as taken with it as I was. There was also an element of very humiliating and threatening audience participation. I remember afterward, that Aaron was not pleased and wanted to know whether I dragged him to this thing as some sort of practical joke. I was like, okay, well, maybe my taste is slightly different. (laughs)
There isn’t a lot of that kind of comedy on television these days. I suppose that's another advantage of the internet?
I totally agree, you don’t see much of it. There are exceptions here and there. I’m actually a big fan of Modern Family, and there's a fair amount of really funny physical humor in it. But I agree, you don’t see it much and I think that made this piece very suited to the internet where you can do something that you don’t see much.
Speaking of which, you do a lot of card tricks in Backwash, and you seem pretty practiced at them...
I do a lot. I try to fit in as much of what my wife would call my schtick as I possibly can—stuff that I use largely to entertain seven-year-olds. Even my kids are over it. I could get it to work in Backwash. I’ve always kind of been into feats of dexterity and juggling and balancing, i guess I’m sort of a circus nerd at heart.
The first three episodes of Backwash premiere today on Crackle.com. New episodes will launch every Monday and Wednesday through December 20.