'Backwash': Josh Malina and Michael Ian Black on the run, on the Web

michael-panes-joshua-malina-backwash.jpgJoshua Malina ( "The West Wing," "SportsNight") was once just a guy with an idea.

"It's been noodling around for a very long time," he tells Zap2it, " Michael Panes is an old friend of mine. He is very old, I'm not. I've written this in various forms over the years. I wrote it as a movie. I wrote it as a pilot.

"I created these two main characters for Michael Panes and myself, and every few years, he'd say, 'Why don't you finish that thing?' I'm not big on completion."

At long last, the characters -- Val (Malina) and Jonesy (Panes) -- have found a home, and it's not in a movie or a TV show. On Monday, Nov. 15, Sony's Website for original video, Crackle.com, premieres "Backwash," a series of 13 episodes, each seven to nine minutes in length (and featuring some very salty language).

They tell the story of what happens when Jonesy inadvertently robs a bank of $100,000, armed only with a large salami, winding up on the run with Val and their pal Fleming ( Michael Ian Black) in Fleming's ice-cream truck.

On this day on the San Fernando Valley in Southern California, production is underway on green-screen shots in which the trio pelts a pursuing police car with ice-cream treats. In the final version, clay animation replaces part of the chase.

The series also features occasional bouts of musical-theater singing.

Each episode opens and closes with a faux- "Masterpiece Theatre" introduction featuring a new host each time, including John Hamm (bearded, in episode one), Allison Janney, Hank Azaria, Michael Vartan, Dule Hill, John Stamos, Sarah Silverman, John Cho, Steven Weber, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Ken Marino, Jeffrey Ross, Fred Willard and Mary-Lynn Rajskub.

michael-ian-black-backwash.jpgThe introductions jokingly claim "Backwash" is a lost work by William Makepeace Thackeray, but Black has no such pretensions.

"My character is an ice-cream vendor caught in a world of unfortunate circumstances," he says, sitting in his dressing room. "But that doesn't even begin to describe the plot, which is, at best, nonsensical. I mean, the best we could possibly hope for is some critic somewhere saying 'nonsensical,' because that's what it is."

But with the big budgets of television and movies these days, nonsensical probably wouldn't get a would-be producer very far.

"I think it'll work great [on the Web]," says Black, "which is the joy of it. That is the whole reason to do things like this. The Web is what cable was maybe 20 years ago, where you can go and operate without a whole lot of rules. It doesn't have the same constrictions that television or films do.

"There's not the same kind of bureaucratic nonsense, not when you get this far along. I know how hard a time Josh had, just getting this running, but once he did, they've pretty much left us alone. That's all we can ask for."

"Very early on," says Malina, "I got a good piece of advice, to go to Sony and Crackle.com. It's one of the few places that will really put significant money into this kind of programming for the Web."

As a writer and executive producer, Malina oversees many of the decisions -- and he knows that the budget is "between six and seven figures, is all I can say" -- but he has not always wanted to direct.

"I'll never direct," Malina says. "I'm delighted that I have the lovely Danny Leiner to direct. I'm happy to be collaborating, but I feel most comfortable when somebody outranks me."


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Photo credit: Kate O'Hare

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