BACKWASH premieres today – Joshua Malina gives us the details!
The first three episodes of Joshua Malina’s hysterically funny new webseries, BACKWASH, premiere today on Crackle and trust me when I tell you that you do not want to miss it. The official description goes a little something like this:
Told through action, animation, surrealist humor and song and dance, “Backwash” is the tale of three slacker friends and the adventures that ensue when they hit the road in an ice cream truck, after one of them inadvertently robs $100K from a bank armed only with a large salami. With echoes of the Marx Brothers and Monty Python, “Backwash” is a slapstick look at the effects of sudden wealth on three American losers—Val (Joshua Malina), Jonesy (Michael Panes) and Fleming (Michael Ian Black).
The series is also narrated by a talented list of notable actors and comedy veterans including Jon Hamm, John Stamos, Sarah Silverman, John Cho, Allison Janney, Hank Azaria, Michael Vartan, Steven Weber, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Ken Marino, Dulé Hill, Jeffrey Ross and Fred Willard, among others.
The show is one of the best things I’ve seen in a while. Malina, Panes, and Black are great together, with lightning fast dialogue, pure dumb luck, and a story that you have to see to believe featuring a Jean Valjean loving cop, some animation, dancing, singing, and, at the heart, a story of three friends making the most of a life on the run. I had a chance to speak with creator Joshua Malina last week and we chatted in depth, among other things, about how the series came to be, how the narrators got involved, if there’s a chance for more BACKWASH after the 13 episodes, and why you absolutely have to watch his show!
I’m excited to talk to you.
And I you!
I washed the first 7 episodes of BACKWASH. It is so good, so funny. I enjoyed it from start to finish.
Thank you! I so appreciate that! You made my day, as I wildly relentlessly search for any mention of the show. I saw you wrote some nice things which made me feel really good. We’ve been in that ridiculous tunnel of making it and editing for so long that we’re desperate for other people to look at it, and completely have no idea what they will make of it.
I feel like what you said – we’ve been hearing about it for a long time, and it’s very exciting to be able to watch it and enjoy what I’m seeing. How did this come to be, how did it start, what is the genesis of this series?
Michael Panes, who plays Jonesy, is a really old friend of mine. I’ve probably known him for close to 20 years. When I first moved to LA from New York, I got to know him, actually, appearing in things that he wrote. He’s a really great writer. We did a variety of stage pieces, and that’s how I got to be friends with him. I’m not sure what the exact first spark was, but the idea hit me to create these two characters for the two of us, just knowing him really well. I thought we could do this old school kind of slapsticky comedy type bit, and I started writing it, and I’m embarrassed to say probably 13 years ago, 14 years ago, I started writing these characters. And I showed it to him, and he was really into it, and I think I thought we would do it on stage, and I thought, no, I’ll make it into a screenplay, this kind of ridiculous road movie, with these two guys, and by then I had come up with a third guy, and I never really finished it [laughs]. Every now and then, he would say to me, that BACKWASH thing, why don’t you finish that because he’s a real writer, he has the discipline of a writer, so he was constantly, but politely always trying to goad me into finishing it. Over the years, I would kind of write it and stick it back in my drawer. I did write it a few different ways. I kind of wrote it as a screenplay that I never finished, I wrote it as a stage piece. And then recently, I revisited it, and wrote it as a sitcom pilot. I guess I showed it to Michael, but then I also showed it to my friend Ken Marino, he’s the guy from THE STATE, and old friend of mine. His take on it, was like, this is really funny, and I love it, but you’re not going to sell this to a network. It’s the most insane sitcom pilot, I’ve ever read. No offense, but don’t try to sell it. [laughs]. Make it, somehow make it. Make it as a web series, and that’s when the wheel clicked and he was absolutely right. I think one of the reasons that I never finished it, it was just too crazy. I had to find a medium as insane as the material, and it made a lot of sense, when he suggested I make it as a web thing, so I went back to finish it, and that’s how it really all started. It finally became something that could be realized.
How did Michael Ian Black get involved? I know you’ve known him for a long time.
The truth is, I’ve known him for a while, kind of through Ken, and through some other people, and he appeared on CELEBRITY POKER SHOWDOWN, which I co-produced, and since then, I’m a big fan of his but as I got to know him a little bit on the poker show, I really, really like him personally. I’m a daddy, and my social life is almost zero, but I really pursued him as a friend. [laughs] I stayed in touch with him, would call him occasionally, would more frequently email him. If I’m anti-social, he’s ultra anti-social [laughs]. He really resisted my repeated attempts at friendship. Finally, when we started getting going on this, on this webseries with Crackle. We knew that we needed that third main ingredient. I think Crackle sort of saw me and Michael Panes as old and not that appealing [laughs], so it was like, we need a third person who is appealing, popular, and maybe younger than we are! And then it sort of hit me that Michael Ian Black is the perfect person. I’ve wanted to be his friend, I’ve wanted to work with him for a long time, and the character was so insane, I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me sooner, but he’s the full package. This is absolutely the guy to play Fleming. Actually much to my surprise, and delight, I kind of pitched him the idea, he wrote back almost instantly, like, Yeah, I’ll do it. I was like, you haven’t read it! He’s like, yeah, I don’t care. He actually wrote something very nice, something to the effect of I’ve found in my career that you should just work with the people you want to work with and not worry so much about what the project is. Which actually started to make me nervous because I kept thinking when he finally reads it, he’s not going to want to do it. Even when I told Crackle, like, yeah he’s in, and Danny Leiner, and my producing partner Daniel Schneider, I was like, yeah Michael’s in but I’m nervous. I kept writing to him, please read it! I was almost starting to insult myself. It was like, the material’s really weird. He would always immediately respond, like, what do you want from me? I said I’d do it, leave me alone. All the way, almost until we started shooting, I was like, I wonder if he’s read it yet. Much to my delight, he never walked out, and he did everything we asked of him.
How long was it from when you started shooting until you finished the 13 episodes?
We shot 14 or 15 days over the course of three weeks, so it was really crazy, intense, guerrilla, kind of like shooting a low budget independent film. Altogether, it was only a couple weeks of shooting spread out over 3 weeks.
As I was watching the back and forth between the three of you, it’s so funny, you have to pay attention when you’re watching it. Was there a lot of flubs because of all of those words ha?
I’m glad that you appreciate that element. That was a part of the original pitch, too. Actually, one of the reasons I think it’s nice to have it on the web, which is, by design, we almost wanted it to move so quickly that you couldn’t keep up with it, you’d have to pause and go back, and like, what did he just say? What happened? We are going to throw 7 gags at the viewer at the time that he or she can only process 5. So definitely the speed of it was part of the plan. Actually, everybody was very quick on their feet. It didn’t’ feel like it was incredibly hard to do. Part of the joy of doing it was that it moved so insanely quickly and it was so absurd. It was a lot of fun. As a kid, I was weaned on the kind of joyous anarchy of the Marx brothers, and Abbott and Costello and that kind of thing, so I’ve always wanted to do something like that. That was part of the fun. There certainly were blown takes, and laughing in front of the camera at times which was not appropriate. There was always also a big pressure to get the shot. Every day, it was one of those, are we going to make our day? There was only one time, there’s an episode, that you’ve not seen yet, where we’re part of a road trip, and they’re begging me if we can play card games, and I’m like a daddy, and I”m like, NO! But then I finally relent and we play these card games. There were like 20 minutes left in the day and we were like, oh God, we’re not going to get this scene, and we’re never going to get it. Once today goes, we’re going to have to figure out how to do this episode without this scene, so we all piled into the car and ridiculously improvised and quickly had an insane, we gotta shoot something! That was the only moment, where it was like, Oh my god, we’re really under control of the ship.
Was it always written that the musical aspects, the animation, was that always something that was included between mediums?
Part of my feeling was, and when I wrote them, I had no idea what the budget would be or what we’d be able to do. Occasionally, I would write, “And now, we segue into our very low budget but strangely high tech car chase scene”. I had no idea what that meant or what that would be, but I thought, some way we’ll figure that out. I literally though it would be little card board cars on the end of a pencil, like a kid’s puppet show, and I thought, whatever it is, we’re just going to own the fact that we’re not going to have the budget for what we need to do. But then Danny Leiner came on, and I also always said, do we need to cut this? He said, don’t cut anything, don’t not write anything. Write anything that comes out of your mind, and we’ll figure out a way to do it. Then Daniel Schneider, third executive producer, knew this woman named Cat Solen, who does these miniatures, and we started looking at her stuff on YouTube, and I was like, wait a minute! We can do this! We can get her. I’m sure she worked for less than what she normally does. There were a lot of people doing it out of a labor of love, our budget, which was pretty good for a web series, somehow still reached beyond what it could really buy, because Cat signed on. She made these incredible miniatures. It was like, oh I thought we were going to have puppets on the end of a pencil, or like tube socks. I actually love how these miniature sequences look. And then I had written, there’s this kind of drug fueled animated sequence later in the series, but then I was thinking, are we going to be able to afford animation, I don’t know what that’s going to be, but I wrote that in, but then Danny, who had directed HAROLD & KUMAR, which had some animation in it, he got his guy, Andrew Soria to come in, so now we have an animated sequence. Everything was always prefigured in terms of my writing it in, but I never imagined that we’d be able to execute the way we did because so many people pitched in!
Besides all of the stories going on in William Makepeace Thackeray’s BACKWASH, you have the narrated intros and outros with some really fantastic people. You read through the list, and it’s like, oh I love that person, I love that person. Was it a lot of friends that you had, you asked them to do it? How did everyone sign on?
That was mainly through personal contacts. Through people, friends of mine really coming through. The whole thing, I have to say, the whole thing was a really nice experience, I have to say, because almost to a man, the people asked that I knew personally, that I asked to be involved said sure, happy to do it. And there was a while where Crackle, obviously, they were really into the stars and the celebrities, and that was part of our pitch, they kept saying, are these people really going to show up? [laughs] I was promising all these great people, but you can’t give them signed contracts saying, oh you know, Sarah Silverman is going to be there on this day, even if she gets a job that offers her more than $100 dollars for a day. All I could tell them was that these people read the material but ultimately it was going to be around their availability. They had to take a leap of faith at some point that we would just work it out. Allison Janney and Dule (Hill) from my WEST WING days came through; I’ve know Sarah since we worked on the movie BULWORTH together and I play in Sarah’s poker game sometimes. John Hamm plays there, so I kind of approached him, having gotten to know him a little bit across the card table. Ken Marino, I know for almost 20 years. He understudied me in the national tour of A FEW GOOD MEN. I got to know David Wain a little bit through Ken. I’ve been at it, one of the blessings of middle age is that I’ve been in the business so long that I’ve met a lot of nice, talented friends, and they were all very cool about coming through for me. And then you know, John Cho starred in HAROLD AND KUMAR, so other people got their friends, too. I don’t want to take all of the credit. It was all of our relationships and friendships.
Do you have a favorite episode or narration?
One of my favorite episodes is episode 6, when we finally make it to the casino in Reno, and Jonesy on a whim places his bet on a single number rather than on black as was the plan. I love that we were able to actually go and shoot that in Reno, on the floor of a casino. It seemed so insane for a web series. I always thought the casino thing would be hard to do, could we rent a roulette table, is there any way to make it seem? For a while, I think I wrote it as a really dingy, almost illegal back room casino somewhere, and the next thing I knew, the producers had found a way to get the Grand Sierra Resort Hotel and Casino in Reno to put us up, and give us access to the casino. To shoot on the casino floor was beyond my expectations. Other than the fact that I just like that it, I think it’s funny and it came out well, I love the fact you can see that Jonesy is really on the casino floor at a real roulette table.
Is this series set up to have ongoing seasons, or is this contained as one story, or maybe the idea of the same group of people getting back together to shoot a second segment of series?
I would love to make more. And I definitely, if you watch through to the end, when it airs, you’ll see, I certainly left it, I mean, you’ll see, there could be a second series. But at the same time, it’s like, we sort of caught lightening in a bottle and we don’t really want to mess with that.
[Here’s where I had a terrible audio issue with my recording device and the wonderful Josh was able to get these answers back to me via email.]
Tell me a little bit about the difference between shooting for the web versus shooting for TV or film?
While I would say that the process of shooting for the web is similar to shooting for TV and film, the real difference lies in the kind of content you can put out. Material that would be considered too different or risky is welcomed and heralded on the web. There’s an intense pressure to make TV shows that will appeal to everyone and movies that are blockbuster, tentpole hits, but an internet piece can be 3 minutes of inspired lunacy, get viewed by a million people, and be considered an enormous success. That’s a very freeing new set of parameters.
Web series are being embraced more and more by actors – you have Meryl Streep showing up on Lisa Kudrow’s series.
Oh I saw that!
Doesn’t it feel like the web is almost becoming as mainstream as TV, more the way of the future?
I certainly think that more and more established actors, writers, and directors will be drawn to work in this still emerging arena where they can experiment with relatively low risk. And we’ll see more actors writing and writers directing, and so on. At the same time, the web will continue to be a place that allows new artists to draw attention to their work. For relatively little money, a young kid with a fresh idea can get his or her project shot and up on the web in short order. And if it’s good, there’s a decent chance they’ll get their work seen. The traditional route to getting a film made in Hollywood is a daunting, pricey proposition. The web offers a playground that that’s quite a bit more inclusive, and that’s tremendously exciting.
Why should people tune into BACKWASH [starting Monday with 3 episodes, and continuing with a new release every Wednesday and Monday through December 20]?
People should tune in to BACKWASH because it offers them something you don’t see much of anymore: joyful, anarchic, surreal, slapstick comedy. Where else can you find: the forbidden combination of (Jon) Hamm and matzah? Michael Ian Black in a unitard? John Cho exotic dancing? Check out the first three episodes on Monday, and if you’re not entirely satisfied, return the unviewed portion of our show for a full refund. Also, you should watch because it’ll make my parents happy, and they’re very nice.
What else is coming up for you?
I have been working on Mary McCormack’s show on USA (IN PLAIN SIGHT), I did the last half of last season. I go back in January to continue working on that one. I did an episode of a show called THE GOOD GUYS, with my friend Bradley Whitford.
Oh I love that show!
So do I, I’m such a fan. I’m disappointed that it hasn’t found an audience. I love it. Because there’s not a lot like that on TV. You hear original and different. Original and different is risky on TV. Not easy to find an audience. I love THE GOOD GUYS.
Thank you so much for chatting about BACKWASH today. Like I said, I watched the first 7 episodes, and I find myself dying now because I don’t get to see a new episode for weeks!
I’m glad. I’m excited that it left you wanting more. You’ll have to tell me what you think are you watch all the way through!