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LAist Interview: Joshua Malina & #sadsadconversation

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If you're write about TV and comedy, you're a fan of TV and comedy and so you follow the careers of people you admire and are a fan of and nothing makes this easier than Twitter. I'd been following Joshua Malina for about the last year or so as I've been a longtime fan of "Sports Night," "The Larry Sanders Show," "The West Wing," and have always enjoyed seeing him pop up in a variety of other TV shows and films. We're also a fan of the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, and you will often see us highlight their films in our TV Junkie column when there is a lack of decent new television available, which happens more often than you would think, so we were happy to check out Malina's original web series, "Backwash" on Crackle.com when it appeared last year. For the vaudeville-esque/slapstick series, Malina recruited another favorite of ours, Michael Ian Black ("The State," "Stella"), to co-star in the incredibly bizarre show.

Fast forward to a bit over a month ago when we spotted a tweet from @joshmalina referencing @michaelianblack and the hashtag #sadsadconversation. I followed the link to the YouTube channel "sadsadconversation" which appeared to be a series of video posts between Malina and Black. The conversation, always subdued, sometimes whispered, almost deadpanned, between the two seemed to be about how difficult it was to come by work or what recent project they had worked on, and the quiet and desperate boredom that occupied their time in-between these events.

About a dozen episodes in, Steve Agee of "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and "The Sarah Silverman Program" submitted a clip, soon followed by Steven Weber ("Wings," "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip"), Martha Plimpton ("Raising Hope," "How to Make It in America"), Sarah Thyre ("Strangers With Candy"), Phil LaMarr ("Futurama," "Family Guy"), comedian Morgan Murphy, and more. Aside from relating personal anecdotes and observations to each other, these participants respond to pains/concerns/complaints expressed by the others and the viewers who comment.

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There are now well over 200 clips on the channel with daily check-ins from several of the participants, whose list only seems to be growing. As a viewer of these (as a "Sadster"), I often go through a range of emotions: most of these are a mix of amusement, sometimes sad, sometimes I feel Schadenfreude ("at least I'm not going through that") but I've never felt angry at or envious of these people who all seem to have a very real perspective of who they are in an extremely fickle and chaotic industry. Since this is a conversation series, you have to check out more than one clip - if you can't start at the beginning, at least go back a few so you can pick up the thread being handed off between these people.

I talked to Malina about how sadsadconversation started, what it was like to work on his web series "Backwash," and he gave me an update on his involvement with the TV series "In Plain Sight" (USA) and "Scandal" (ABC). Check back here on Friday where we will publish Part II of our sadsadconversation investigative report: an interview with the incredible Mr. Michael Ian Black.

Thomas Attila Lewis: I've been enjoying your antics on the sadsadconversation's Channel. It really seems that the development of the channel has been very organic, it just started out with you and Michael [Ian Black] and it's been amazing to watch it grow, now there's a couple hundred videos up there.

Joshua Malina: Yeah, Michael and I decided that when we have more videos than subscribers we will close the thing down. [Laughs] That will be the sign!

TAL: So you've got this assorted cast of people, most of whom seem to be speaking to their computer camera although some are using an actual video camera.

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Josh Malina: Some people are more sophisticated than I and are driving and doing stuff. When I do it, I actually take my computer into the car - that's as sophisticated as it gets.

TAL: How are you doing that? Putting it down in the footwell?

Josh Malina: Yeah, and constantly experimenting both with getting myself on screen and figuring out where to put it so I look better, trying to get the lighting right in my car.

TAL: Forget about safety! You can't see out of the rearview mirror and stuff.

Josh Malina: Oh yeah, certain things are expendable.

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TAL: So how did this all get started? It first started as a kind of video telegraph between you and Michael?

Josh Malina: This is why "organic" is really the perfect word because there was little or no planning. I was in my Albequerque hotel room, I was there to shoot an episode of "In Plain Sight" and I was bored. I like Michael Black very much and I'm always trying to find a way to do something together or interact with him but we're not the kind of friends where I would pick up the phone and chat with him, that would just be weird. I mean, I've spoken with him on the phone but that's when we've had something to talk about. He's also not the, I think, the kind of person to pick up the phone and ask "How was your day?" He's, I don't know, I don't want to say "unapproachable" but he just doesn't seem like the kind of person that I would pick up the phone and say "How are you doing?"

So I sent him an email saying that I was going to start a video chat with him - "I'm going to film myself and you just respond whenever you get the chance." And I thought we would just respond to each other whenever we had the chance and that maybe I would edit it, really that means, ask the 15 year old next door to edit it into something funny, like a video conversation that we're having in real time. It was the germ of an idea that I had.

I recorded a video and sent it to him and he responded to it pretty quickly but he didn't send me the actual video, he sent me a link to watch it. So I sent him a message, "Michael, you're not getting it, I need the actual clip, I can't edit this." But he was never able to cross that technological divide. I was like "Dude, put it in an email, or use YouSendIt." I'm not the most technologically savvy guy but I guess he is one step further away from that. So we ended up continuing to do these things and just sending each other a link to watch it. Weeks passed and finally I just got frustrated and said "I'm just going to put mine up on YouTube and you put yours up and we'll Tweet it" and we did and very quickly people started watching it and it turned into a thing.

Our friend Steve Agee became aware of it through Twitter and so he made a video responding to the two of us. Very quickly the whole thing had devolved into Michael and I bitching about our careers and how badly everything was going, it very very quickly turned into that. So Steve Agee, from his apartment, I think actually he's living downstairs at Ken Marino's house, which he has found depressing. He sent a video saying "You guys think you have it bad, I live in Ken Marino's basement!"

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We're just interacting and talking about our bad middle-aged lives and next thing we knew our friends started emailing us "Can we get in on this?" Michael would shoot me an email saying "Hey, this person wants to do it!" and it just kind of grew into this thing. At some point Michael and I said it needs its own YouTube channel, "What should we call it?" and Michael instantly said "Josh & Michael's Sad Sad Conversation" but apparently there's a limit to how many characters you can have in the name so it just became "sadsadconversation."

It's very shocking to me how many people are watching it. You read the comments, and it's overwhelmingly positive, and what seems to be striking a chord with people is "Wow, these guys' lives are also not great - how reassuring!" Not that any of us is a big star, they're not going "Brad Pitt is also sad" they're going "Even these people that I kind of thought were doing ok, they're not! And that makes me feel better." [Laughs] It's an interesting thing to be a part of, it's interesting to see the reactions, and I think it will continue for quite a while.

TAL: It's a group therapy website.

Josh Malina: Yes! Truly. I thought more people would react by saying "My God, what a self-indulgent, self-pitying bunch of ridiculous actor types." I think it can be enjoyed on even that level. I don't think it's any less intriguing to watch and say "My God, what is wrong with these people? Snap out of it!" But a surprising amount of people are hooked into it and see something in it that reflects what their lives are like. Some people are starting their own versions, and whenever I see a link to that we subscribe to them and I've been watching other people's videos. It's an interesting phenomenon, and in this day and age this is one way to do it.

TAL: I think Steven Weber's are hilarious and he, somehow.... does he have someone come over to feather his hair before he... he always looks very dashing.

Josh Malina: He has remarkable hair. That's true, he's a dashing guy. It's funny, some of these people... the really interesting part for me is that I actually feel close to these people, I feel like they're my friends, and every now and then I think, wait a minute, I haven't met most of them. Weber I know, Phil LaMarr and I went to college together, Michael Black I know..

TAL: ...And worked with on your "Backwash" project.

Josh Malina: Yes! Worked with him, and I know him socially, we have a lot of the same friends. Somewhere in there I actually offended Steven on YouTube which is an interesting part of this. Something happened where Steve Agee, in one of his videos, tells the story of how, subsequent to this whole thing beginning, he ran into Steven Weber at a party and Steven didn't remember having met him earlier and Steve was nonplussed by this. He said that he had spent an evening together with him, Sarah Silverman, and this bunch of people were watching Single White Female which Weber was in and how could Weber not remember that night and so on. So just to make Steve Agee feel better I did a video where I said "Don't feel bad, Weber's a douchebag" and I didn't mean it at all, I figured I could do that: I know Steven, he's not going to take offense - but I think he did! But we worked it out through the medium of sadsadconversation. Any other situation I would have picked up the phone and said "I was just kidding, I'm sorry" but instead I apologized on camera.

TAL: Again, the openness of this whole thing going back and forth! It's so much fun. And now you have Martha Plimpton jumping in - it's so amazing!

Josh Malina: It's fantastic - watching Martha Plimpton use her Neti pot to rinse her nasal passages before performing at the Tonys is strangely riveting. It might not sound so intriguing on paper but people really really reacted to it. But she was talking about it, and stage fright, and the dread of performing live while she poured this pot of hot water into her head.

TAL: It makes me wonder what is next?

Josh Malina: It makes me scared about what may be next! There was that whole series of Steve Agee talking about sneeze yelling - something that was brought to his attention that he does. I guess Ken Marino and his wife were upstairs and apparently reacted to it - his incredibly loud sneeze-yells. And I do that too, and I was determined to do it on video so I spent several days snorting pepper so there's a whole series of us trying to make ourselves sneeze. It's pretty sophisticated stuff that we're doing.

TAL: So when is this going to make the leap from being a web series to getting on Adult Swim?

Josh Malina: There you go! I do think that there's that potential there. I will say that Michael and I had no end game in place when we started doing these, they were just fun to do together. They're very candid, "life of" a certain level of actor could be interesting, hence, and of course, sad sad.

TAL: There is a kind of camaraderie that people are identifying with when they watch it, and they feel reassured while watching these. I also like how drained you guys look as you're talking into the camera. I'm not sure what you're looking to present. Like Michael's Father's Day message, where being a father seems to be an experience devoid of any meaning.

Josh Malina: Yes, and he seemed to be OK being across the country from them. It's very candid. It's the antithesis of a talk show, Steven Weber aside, as he always looks like he could step on a talk show. A talk show is where you've been in hair and make-up for an hour, and you've already pre-rehearsed the anecdote that you know is funny... but this is the complete opposite. You step in front of the camera, you haven't bothered shaving, you look like crap, and then you just talk about whatever, whatever that was not necessarily funny or exciting that happened that day. It's an anti-talk show in a way.

TAL: Particularly Michael, it looks like he brings his computer to a level with his face where you're unsure of the physics of the room he is in - is he vertical? Upside down?

Josh Malina: I think he's largely supine [most of the time] which I always appreciate. I think what he's saying is "I don't even have the mental resolve to sit up right now but I'm still going to share with you what's in my mind. I'm lying on my back, maybe on the floor, maybe on the couch, this may be my last communication with anyone in the world." I like that element that he has.

I feel like I really have discovered a side to him through this medium that I wasn't so aware of. I actually look up to Michael very much. In terms of our friendship, I pursued him, forced him to be friends with me. I really look up to him - I feel like he's a really entrepreneurial and motivated man. He writes kids books, he writes books of essays, he's about to do a political book, he does stand-up, he tours, he's created three shows. He's done a lot of things that I would like to pursue. It's been interesting to find out that he has a certain dissatisfaction with what he's accomplished and what he's doing. I should be even more bummed about what I'm doing - I look up to this guy!

TAL: There's something about you both, you can present such a drained attitude.

Josh Malina: It's true! Like we're beaten down by life in the business. He clearly has a different situation because I normally, just because of a mixture of shame, and self-loathing about the entire experiment, I'm either in my office doing this while my kids and wife are asleep. I know that my wife and kids are probably rolling their eyes at me so I usually hide and do it. Phil LaMarr in an early video made me laugh very hard because I've done the exact same thing: He's clearly in the bathroom with the fan on and saying "I'm recording this in the bathroom because it's easier to do this than try to explain to my wife what I'm doing." [Laugh]

I do a lot of whispering in these things, hoping to god that no one is listening to me and then I release it publicly on the Internet to the whole world.

TAL: Has your wife talked to you [about sadsadconversation] after seeing one of these?

Josh Malina: My wife has seen a single video. There's one about four or five in, where we decided to put them on YouTube, I recorded a little "Welcome to sadsadconversation" video. She watched that and I think that ended her interest in the experiment. Which is maybe for the best that she said, "Maybe I don't need to know what it is that you are talking about." But I give credit to the other people involved because I think that I have a candor ceiling that they don't have. I do draw a line, where I say "I'm not going to talk about that." Some of what these people are saying is really really private and honest. Maybe I'll play the recorder with my nose and I do talk about some stuff, but I have to tip my hat to the others that are willing to share something deeper.

TAL: That's what's remarkable about the medium - the immediacy of it. But perhaps somehow feel that this is a safe place to say these things?

Josh Malina: You're on to something, this feels like a safe forum - the way people are responding and interacting. For people that really are strangers, they are really supportive and sympathetic and people write thoughtful responses in the comments, it's somehow a safe place, ironically.

TAL: You guys are shedding a light on the reality of what it's like to be involved in television and show business. It's very frank, real, and educational on how stuff works.

Josh Malina: That's one of the things that has surprised me. In my 20+ years of being in the thick of this I didn't realize that this isn't normal, to pursue this. Living in LA we're a dime a dozen, people don't necessarily know what it takes, or what a grind it is, or the fact, at least in my case, that I have to go out for one hundred jobs to have a reasonable expectation of getting one. That is a side of the business that people don't know about.

TAL: A lot of people don't know what pilot season means - all the auditions that people are going out for and the process a project went through to even be shot for a pilot and if a pilot even got shot, chances are it won't even make it on the air.

Josh Malina: The truth is that I've been very lucky even though I might complain about how things are going. I know, looking at the sum of my career, I've been hugely fortunate! That's, in a sense, how awful this business is. I can look at my career and go "Wow! I've done OK and I'm really lucky." I happen to know Aaron Sorkin, he's a friend of mine, and I had opportunities that arose from that because we were friends - that's just luck. Luck is a huge element. This is a roller coaster, one year is great and then one year is tough. I'm still way ahead of what I could have reasonably expected going into this.

TAL: Between both "Sports Night" and "West Wing," you were involved in these series that broke the formats.

Josh Malina: I agree with you, Aaron really broke the mold, he did something new. I think television is slow to embrace the new and I think that's why "Sports Night" didn't last that long. I think people are really appreciating it now but at the time, usually "different" is not immediately embraced by networks - they're more in the business of the familiar. Sometimes the new becomes the familiar and I think there are a lot of shows that owe a debt to Aaron. He practically created the whole genre of single-camera comedy that is so popular and familiar now.

TAL: So many elements: densely layered scenes shot in one take, the "walk-and-talk," these are things that we never saw on a TV show before.

Josh Malina: That was Aaron and Tommy Schlamme and their close collaboration. Substantively and stylisticly they did stuff together that is now quoted and referenced and used all the time.

TAL: The stuff that we see in those shows are now shorthand in scripts everywhere of how to put a show together.

Josh Malina: Yes, exactly.

TAL: It's been good to see you on TV regularly throughout this time - you're a semi-regular on "In Plain Sight" (USA) which has a big fan base. I wanted to ask about your other projects. Your "Backwash" web series was fun for me as I'm an old-time slapstick fan.

Josh Malina: I'm glad to hear it, we're very similar then. I feel like I was weaned on the Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy, I love W.C. Fields, I'm a big Chaplin fan and Buster Keaton. Yes, I knew when I was making this that it wasn't going to be everybody's cup of tea. I wanted to make a new version of a throwback to knockabout comedy, slapstick, it would be surreal and ridiculous with weird archetypical characters that don't necessarily develop. It's one of those things that I wish I had been doing it sooner, I should have listened to my mother all these years "You should write more."

It's one of the frustrating things about being an actor - I guess if you're a painter, if no one is buying you can go home and paint more, but if you're an actor if you're not working you can sit in your room and work on a monologue but it's not really the same. You really need a job to be acting. So "Backwash" was just an attempt to do my own thing, to make something happen. It was very touching, all my friends came through to help me get it done. I do think it could make the jump, to go from web series to TV show. It won't be network TV but there are places out there that do experimental things where "Backwash" could work. I have multiple other ideas along those lines.

TAL: We have seen some transitions have been made from web to TV, like "Childrens' Hospital" on Adult Swim and "Funny or Die" on HBO, which unfortunately only lasted a couple seasons. There will probably be more, right?

Josh Malina: It makes sense to me to use the web as a far lower risk, financially, incubator, for television ideas. Some things are uniquely suited to the web but I also think that there's a way of getting the material going and getting something shot so you can see whether or not it works and could make a transfer to TV. I never quite understood how the TV business works with the millions and millions of dollars spent on TV pilots that don't go anywhere. They get made at extraordinary cost and have no value. They might get played 20 years from now on TVLand in a show called "The Ones That Didn't Go." It seems like on the web you can go a little riskier and see if they work for a lot less money.

TAL: Talking about experimentation, with "Backwash," you guys have the most amazing things happen. You would have a car chase and suddenly a scene would cut to stop-action animation [for example].

Josh Malina: We told Crackle.com that we would own the limits of our budget. We were going to celebrate them, we were going to flaunt them. If I had a scene, as we do, with a parade float that has a Mariachi band on it that has to be pushed into a lake, we'll do that in miniature. We had a brilliant woman named Cat Solen whose animation was so good that if we had a $100,000 scene to have done the scene for real we still would have chosen the animation.

TAL: You also had some spectacular guests opening each episode.

Josh Malina: That's what's great about it being on the web. We had some high profile people like Allison Janney, Jon Hamm, Sarah Silverman, the list goes on and on, I think one of the reasons they did it was that since it was on the web they saw it as lower risk as well as an opportunity that they weren't going to get in a traditional forum. Everybody who came in was game for it and they had ideas, there was ad-libbing. We had so much fun shooting those.

TAL: "Backwash" was great and I think a lot of people appreciated it and would be interested in seeing you bring a project to any size screen.

Josh Malina: I've always been very happy being a cog in the machine which is what it is to be an actor, to be a part of the puzzle. But it's been fun to have a little more say and to follow your own inclinations so I've continued to write. I'd like to continue to do "Backwash" either on the web or on TV.

Also, I just finished "In Plain Sight" for the season and it was picked up for another season so I'm hopeful of being a part of that next year.

TAL: Are you a regular on the show? How is your role defined?

Josh Malina: I guess I'm a semi-regular. The first couple seasons I did 6 or 7 each season but it was a week-to-week thing, then last year they called and wanted me to be a semi-regular where I would do 7 out of the 13 episodes.

I'm also going to be part of Shonda Rhimes new show "Scandal" which is a mid-season replacement on ABC. That will start shooting next month.

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Check out the sadsadconversation YouTube Channel, Josh Malina's Twitter, and his "Backwash" project at Crackle.com.

Come back Friday for our interview with Michael Ian Black.