Joshua Malina talks 'Backwash,' his surreal celeb-filled summer web series
Image Credit: Sony Pictures Television / Jordin Althaus What do Jon Hamm, John Stamos, Sarah Silverman, John Cho, Allison Janney, Hank Azaria, Fred Willard, Michael Vartan, Dulé Hill, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jeffrey Ross, Ken Marino and David Wain have in common? They all cameo as themselves in Backwash, a 13-episode web series written by and starring Joshua Malina (Sports Night, The West Wing) debuting on Sony’s Crackle.com this summer. The series, directed by Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle’s Danny Leiner, follows three eccentric losers (pictured, from left to right, Malina, Michael Ian Black, and Michael Panes) who hit the road in an ice cream truck pursued by the police after one of them inadvertently robs $100,000 from a local bank. With production wrapped as of last week, Malina phoned PopWatch to answer a few of our burning questions:
Question No. 1: How exactly does one inadvertently rob a bank? To fully understand, we need to back up. The plot grew out of characters Malina and Panes created for themselves years ago. Malina toyed with them on-and-off for various mediums (film, stage, TV), but it wasn’t until he sent a rewrite of a pilot script to old friend Marino that he was given the idea to take them to the Internet. Marino (The State) got the humor — and that it wasn’t something you’d sell to NBC. Malina’s and Panes’ characters have what Malina describes as “a very weird, almost Beckett-like master/slave relationship.” Perhaps you’ve seen Malina’s self-portrait twitpic of himself preparing for “the big Jacuzzi scene” while wearing a fanny pack? His character always wears a fanny pack. “I treat Michael Panes’ character a little bit like a trained seal, giving him positive reinforcement with treats that I carry in my fanny pack when he does a good thing,” he explains. Right. Now, we can answer the question.
“For various reasons that will be revealed, I’m very focused on getting a free toaster from a bank promotion that is going on,” Malina says. “[Panes] plays kind of a hypochondriacal, agoraphobic, OCD, terribly neurotic character that doesn’t even like to leave the house, so, of course, I insist that he goes to the bank to get our free toaster. I send him off with a salami and a sock, à la the movie Alive, where they go off with meat in a sock, and his salami is mistaken to be a shotgun in the bank, and basically, they’re like, ‘Just take the money!’ and he doesn’t even know what’s going on. Very quickly, these two guys implicate a third friend of theirs, and then all three of them end up on the run with a lot of money…. I know. Every time I describe it to someone, I go, ‘Can you believe Sony paid to have us make this?'”
Question No. 2: How are the celebs playing themselves? In addition to animated sequences, miniatures, and the anarchic spirit of the things he grew up on (Abbott and Costello and the Marx Brothers), Malina also wanted to incorporate old friends and actors with whom he’s always desired to work. “The conceit of the entire thing is that a long-lost novella by William Makepeace Thackeray has been unearthed in London and a Masterpiece Theatre-type production has been made based on it,” Malina says. Therefore, each episode begins with a person of note introducing a new chapter in the story. “So it’s, ‘Good evening. I’m Jon Hamm. Welcome to Backwash this evening.’ It’s all taken very, very seriously, and then the material is completely lunatic.” Hamm, sporting a thick professorial beard, opens and closes the entire series. Most of the celebs serve in this host capacity, including Malina’s Big Shots costar Vartan, who had to be talked into performing his introduction, “Good evening. I’m handsomeness’ Michael Vartan.” (“I had to take him aside and say, ‘Michael, you’re handsome. Accept it. Nobody will hold it against you. It’s fine for you to admit that even you know that you’re handsome. The whole world knows. Now say it,'” Malina recalls.) Others, like Stamos, have internal cameos. He appears as himself in an ’80s flashback that reveals our lead characters used to have jobs in advertising, “which went disastrously badly, as demonstrated by the commercial, which we show,” Malina says. “It was John Stamos for adult diapers. He is rather game coming in as himself: ‘I’m John Stamos. You may know me as Blackie from General Hospital or from my darkly comic turn as Uncle Jesse on Full House.'”
Other recognizable faces will include Steven Weber and Jamie-Lynn Sigler, who do a musical theater number representing the fantasy of what Michael Ian Black’s character — an extremely odd, free-spirited ice cream truck driver who’s in a battle with Malina for Panes’ soul — would like to do with his money. “He’s long wanted to produce a musical he wrote [Sticky Wicket — the Nougat Musical!]. Now he has the money to do it with his dream cast, which is of course Steven Weber and Jamie-Lynn Sigler,” Malina says. How did they work that out? “I was like, ‘Steven Weber would be brilliant. Let me call Steven Weber.’ I shot him an email, within an hour, he was like, ‘Yeah, sure. I can’t do it Saturday. My kid has baseball tryouts. But how ’bout Sunday?’ ‘Okay, great.’ And then Lindsey Kraft, who plays our female lead, said, ‘I went to high school with Jamie-Lynn Sigler, incredible voice.’ We’re like, ‘Ohmygod, they’d be brilliant together.'” (The music, by the way, doesn’t stop there: The State’s Joe Lo Truglio and Little Children‘s Noah Emmerich play the cops chasing the trio. Emmerich’s is a musical theater-obsessed officer who, after a car wreck and brain trauma, thinks he’s in a musical. “He’s played a lot of cops in his career, but not a lot of crazy singing cops,” Malina says proudly.)
Question No. 3: Are those pants the worst thing we’ll see Michael Ian Black wear? “I realized in writing this I should probably have years of therapy ahead of me because I really put my friends through the ringer, including multiple, multiple absurd outfits for Michael Ian Black,” Malina says. “I share a hot tub with Michael Black at one point, and as we were shooting it, I said, ‘I’m living the fantasy today.'”