“Scandal” Fans, Joshua Malina Enjoys That You Hate Him

For the first time in his career, Malina is on a big hit show, and he’s reveling in it. Here, he talks about Scandal, his friendship with Aaron Sorkin, and why both John Cusack and Jon Favreau hate him.

Joshua Malina, middle, on Scandal. With Katie Lowes (left) as Quinn and Guillermo Diaz as Huck. ABC

On last week’s penultimate Scandal of the season, the final moments revealed that Joshua Malina’s character, David Rosen, has been undermining the Gladiators — the show’s purported heroes, led by Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope — by helping the mole who’s been screwing with them. It was another insane cliff-hanger delivered by the TV season’s most gasp-inducing show, which is cresting in popularity in ways rarely seen these days: The Shonda Rhimes–created drama has been building in its ratings and exploding in conversation (both online and in person). The season finale is tonight on ABC.

To be at the center of such a phenomenon is new for Malina, 47, an actor who has worked steadily for years (on Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night and The West Wing most recognizably), but who has had the career of a successful working actor, not one of an object of heated fan speculation and ire. This week during Scandal’s pre-finale publicity assault, the cast appeared on Good Morning America, The View, and at ABC’s upfront presentation to advertisers.

Which meant a lot of yelling at Malina for David’s perceived betrayal of Olivia & Co.

When Malina and I sat down for an interview recently at Sunset Gower Studios, where Scandal films, he had just finished his work for the season — and because of Rhimes’ obsession with spoilers, he couldn’t tell me a single thing that was to come in the remaining episodes. So what does he have to say for himself now that he has experienced the wrath of Scandal fans?

“I’d urge readers to remember that at worst, I’m mole-adjacent,” Malina wrote in an email Wednesday. “And no matter how much younger and cuter than I the Gladiators may be, they are nonetheless guilty of lying, stealing, torturing, election-rigging, and the wanton spilling of blood. Is exposing their misdeed not the honorable thing to do, Twitter dummies?”

It’s safe to say that Joshua Malina is having a good time with this new phase of his career. In the interview below, we discussed his friendship and working relationship with Sorkin, the fear he’s experienced when he hasn’t been able to find work, whether acting is easy, and why he’s so confrontational on Twitter. Disclosure alert! Malina and I both went to the Horace Mann School in New York City, but we didn’t know each other there — in recent years, we’ve talked on Twitter, but still had never met in person until now. Disclosure done. Onto the interview.

You’re on a hot show, which hasn’t always been your path.

Joshua Malina: Even the first season on this show it wasn’t the situation. I’ve been on plenty of things that never took off, and I’ve been on one thing, The West Wing, that was a big hit, but took off well before I was on it. Some would argue took off until I was on it. What I’ve never been on is the rocket ship, like during the countdown, and then actually feeling the thrust. I thought in my ripe middle age that had just passed me by.

You were recurring in Scandal’s first season?

JM: I was the recurring guy who was in every episode. I remember Kerry Washington and I were shooting a scene, and she said, “What’s the difference between you and the regulars?” And I did the international sign for money. “You know the way you get a lot at the end of the episode? I get very little.” Shonda has been very good to me. I knew it was potentially recurring. Then they asked me, “Well, Shonda would like you to do every episode.” We negotiated a deal that if it went to a second season, I would be a regular. That was a season of intense prayer and creative visualization.

Malina this week at the ABC upfronts. Slaven Vlasic / Getty Images

It was an interesting slow build.

JM: I woke up to ratings news saying, “soft bow,” “soft start,” “modest bow.” That’s not what you want to see. And then it’s that phenomenon that I’ve never been a part of: Something’s catching on, and a lot of it’s word-of-mouth, and people are starting to write about it. Oh, wait a minute, we’re up a tenth! I’d have these talks with my dad, and he’d be, like, “It looks to me like — didn’t it inch up in the key demos?”

Your dad!

JM: Oh, yes. My dad is a very good sounding board. He’s very, very smart. Both of my parents are very, very sharp, much smarter than I, I’m happy to acknowledge. My dad in particular I tend to use — I call him “The Brain.” If he’s accessible, I’d rather put it through his brain. My wife, Melissa, maintains that the closer he is in proximity to me, the less I think for myself. And I think she’s actually correct. So anything worth mulling over, I will mull over with my father, and that includes ratings. Although admittedly, neither of us knows anything about the business. So it’s really two people who are desperately hoping for something just talking over whatever raw data they can get their hands on, even though they have no idea how to interpret it.

Obviously, the show is also engaged in social media in a way that’s — for once — not annoying.

JM: I’m happy to hear you say that. I was already well into tweeting, and I was definitely one of the rah-rah people saying, “Those of you who don’t have accounts, sign on. I will be your tech guy.” I think Shonda once referred to me as “the tech guy” in an email.

Who were you tutoring?

JM: Kerry was well into Twitter, Shonda was well into Twitter. I think we got Tony on; Bellamy still has a very fragile grasp of Twitter. Darby, I think, wasn’t really in, but she hit the ground running. I’m delighted that we’re not annoying you. I’m sure there are some people who are annoyed. Once in a while, I’ll see, “I used to like Josh Malina’s feed, and now I’m inundated with Scandal bullshit.” I can understand that. But I also think there’s no question that’s part of what helped light up the show. I’m sure part of it is also people who watch our show tend to be very social-media-conscious and active, and then all of a sudden, “Oh, the entire cast is available every Thursday night? For two different showings?” It’s just kind of cool. Nobody was ever hesitant. I think immediately the cast was, like, “Hey, this is fun.” You get the immediate reaction, and it’s kind of fun to see what people are saying, and people’s questions. And I’ll get as big a kick out of someone saying how hideous I am with my shirt off as by somebody who’s enjoying a scene that I’m in.

You love a troll.

JM: That’s true too. I’m a provocateur.

Let’s get to that in a bit. One of the things I think is interesting about the show is how truly dark it can get and yet still be very mainstream, fun entertainment. But these people are fixing elections and murdering. Your character has been one of the only ones pointing out that our heroes are maybe fucked. Like, don’t bring down the Gladiators!

JM: People act like I’m the villain because I’m pursuing them: You rigged a national election, there’ve been various murders. “Drop it, David! Get off Olivia!” I think it’s an interesting experiment in hero worship. You can see Huck with a drill torturing somebody, and you’re still going to be, like, “Lay off my Huck, Rosen!” Shonda is very, very good at throwing out these characters, having them do all sorts of, not even dubious — things that are explicitly horrible and illegal and immoral.

People on her Grey’s Anatomy might be adulterers, but they’re not murderers and torturers.

JM: The president of the United States murdered a sitting Supreme Court justice. How do you pull that off, and have people the same night going, “Olitz! I love Olitz!” Wait a minute, half of Olitz just murdered an old lady!

Where is the David character going?

JM: His career path is definitely addressed by the end of the season. By the same token, I still feel I don’t know where she’s going for Season 3. All I know is that David Rosen will be lighter. Because I am determined to lose weight during the break.

You are very trim. Coming from the Sorkin school, you can fast-talk with the best of them: It’s a form he and Shonda Rhimes have in common. I think you’re the only person who’s been a regular on both writers’ shows. Do you find other similarities between them?

JM: I don’t know if she did this on her other shows as much as Scandal — she’ll also do serious speeches. You’ll open up a script, and there’s a page and a half of dialogue. It’s Cyrus going off, or it’s Tony — or Kerry or Bellamy. I’ve had a scene. Which is really nice, because the dictates of television don’t usually allow for anybody speaking for that long. I think the assumption is, we’re going to lose the audience if this person has too much to say. I think she’s bold in that sense. And similar to Aaron. Quick talk. Smart people.

A favorite scene of fans of Sports Night.

You’ve been a familiar face for years, but this show is definitely in the zeitgeist. Has it changed anything for you, both in your daily life and in your career?

JM: It doesn’t feel revolutionary to me. In one sense, I just feel like, “Eh, I’m old.” So nobody is super excited to see me. A lot of people stop me to say nice things about The West Wing, nice things about Sports Night — so many people that I’m, like, where were you when it was on? Young people clearly are watching it on Netflix. Scandal definitely is a little bit different: I’m doing more posing for pictures with people in the grocery aisle. Aisle 7 at Ralphs in Malibu is very hot for me; sometimes I’ll just walk up and down. Noah Emmerich, who’s on The Americans, who’s one of my oldest, best friends, we were talking recently and saying, “We very effectively avoided the pitfalls of early success. We sure were good at that! That didn’t happen to us.” But as I just tweeted recently, I think it’s been since 2005 that a job has ended and I’ve had any sense that it’s going to continue. “Oh, so this is vacation, as opposed to unemployment.” So in that sense, it is a very welcome change in my life.

That sounds fun and relaxing.

JM: I’m incapable of truly relaxing. I remember when I was younger and less wise or experienced, actors that I knew would always talk about jobs ending and wondering whether they were ever going to work again. Now that’s my life. I’ve been very lucky, and usually something comes up eventually. But I have that kind of thing where it ends and I’m, like, “Well, all right. What’s going to be next?”

How seriously have you worried about that?

JM: Horribly. White-knuckle, gripping the sheets at night because I’m wondering how I’m going to clothe and feed my children.

But if you look at your IMDb page, it’s long.

JM: Sometimes I look at it. I go, “Where’s all that money?” There’s like 60 things there! It is an illusion. Because the truth is, sometimes it’s weeks, very often it’s months, sometimes there’s a slow year. One of the worst was [when] I bought a house, and I bought it off the strength of a 13-episode order of a sitcom. The day I moved in, the day, which was Halloween, 2001, I was actually — this is the last time I even attempted to relax, Halloween 2001 — I had a moment where my pregnant wife was with my young daughter in Sacramento, trick-or-treating, having a little visit with in-laws. And I had this moment of sitting in my house — you wouldn’t buy it if you saw it in a movie — I was looking at the kitchen that we were doing work to, like, we were putting money into the new house, and I had a moment of actual satisfaction: “I bought a house! And I love it. And I’ve accomplished something.” The phone rang, it was someone from work saying, “Don’t come into work tomorrow. Nothing to worry about, it’s just NBC doesn’t love this script.” I had a moment of thinking, “Huh, that was weird.” Then a friend of mine who was on the show called and was, like, “It’s over.” What do you mean it’s over? “I talked to blah-blah-blah, and we’re not coming back.” We never did go back to work. All of a sudden, I was, like, “Wow, the day I moved into this house.” That turned into a nightmare of, What have I done, am I going to be able to stay in this house? Luckily, I’m surrounded by friends and family who are supportive — emotionally and financially — and I kept my house. Somewhere down the line, Aaron came knocking again with West Wing. Although it’s really more like I came knocking and he answered.

Is that right?

JM: He would tell you that they were already talking about me. But I know that I wrote him an email after reading in Variety that Rob Lowe was thinking about leaving. I wrote him a probably not-very-subtle, “What about this? What about hiring somebody less famous, less handsome, who would work for less money?” That’s really what I wrote. Very, very quickly I got an email back, and I was, like, “Honey, come read this!” He said, “Tommy and I were just talking about it.” I never really believed. I really think he was responding to a friend.

That’s very nice.

JM: He is one of the great friends. Loyal and true. And then has the talent to actually create things that he can cast friends in. He’s been ridiculously good to me. But it’s very easy to go, “What if that had happened? What if my really good friend who’s such a good writer and had that hit TV show hadn’t offered me the part on it?” I really went into acting just blindly, assuming it would work out. And I guess in one interpretation, it has — currently. But the truth is, it just isn’t an easy road. And if I’d really known what all this entails, who knows what other decisions I would have made. I don’t know. By the same token, I’m doing what I’ve wanted to do since I was 8. And every time I walk onto a set, I’m, like, “Wow, that really looks like the Oval Office. I get to act in it.” It’s still cool to me. And I appreciate what I’m doing.

As Will Bailey on The West Wing. NBC

Our high school was much more academically focused than arts focused. What happened when you were 8 that made you love acting?

JM: Camp musicals. I also had cousins in high school who were way into the Scarsdale — I don’t know what they called it, I guess they called it the drama club there. I used to see them in shows. I grew up going to see them in plays. I saw Aaron in Godspell at Scarsdale High School.

Wait, what? Who did he play?

JM: I should probably remember that. I remember that he was very good.

You knew who he was because he was friends with your cousin?

JM: Yeah, he was friends with my cousin Stu. Which actually ultimately is how I reached out to him and became friends with him when I graduated from college. In 1988, my wife — my wife. My mother. My mother! Erase! Rewind!

What’s happening!

JM: My mother suggested that I call Aaron: “You’re moving to New York, you want to be an actor.” He didn’t have any success then. Unbeknownst to me, when I started playing poker with him and becoming friends, he was writing A Few Good Men at the time. Because somewhere in there, he said, “I wrote this play if you want to audition.”

And who did you play?

JM: In A Few Good Men, I played various small roles and understudied three of the leads. And then in the last eight months on Broadway, I played one of the two Marines who’s on trial for murder. I played a five-word role myself in the movie: “Sir, yes sir, yes sir.”

That’s all such a theater path. What made you move to L.A.?

JM: Thanks to Aaron, I got A Few Good Men, which was literally a childhood dream — being in a Broadway play. That ended — it was, like, a 15-month incredible first acting job — and I couldn’t get any other work. I was auditioning and not getting jobs; it was frustrating. It was a large cast of young guys, and everybody was kind of calling and saying, “Oh, all the work is out here.” Sometimes I wish I had stuck it out a little bit longer, but it’s easy to play that game. Noah Emmerich was my college roommate — he’s a year older than I, but we lived together for one year in college. He also decided to move to L.A. We decided, “Let’s live together, let’s move to L.A. and see what it’s like out there.”

And how was it?

JM: It was also very hard to get work. Very soon after moving here, I got offered the national tour of A Few Good Men, and I was, like, “OK! Well, I’ll do that.” I started getting auditions, and started getting little jobs: most of which were provided by Aaron, still. A Few Good Men and Malice. For a long time, it was frustrating. I sort of assumed I would move here and become a successful comic actor. I’d get a sitcom and hopefully parts in movies. I would never have guessed that, no, I’ll be more thought of as a dramatic actor — a guy in suits playing lawyers and political types. There’s just no predicting it.

In Malina’s two seconds in the film version of A Few Good Men, he comes into Col. Jessup’s office in Guantanamo.

Is that OK?

JM: I feel like for the most part I go where the work is. I don’t have stacks of scripts that I’m choosing — “I’m going to do a comedy next.” It’s not like I’ve never turned anything down. But largely, I get offered work, and I’m, like, “OK, now I’m doing this drama.” I think part of it is that work begets work, and even though we’re in a town that runs on creativity, there’s also sometimes not that much imagination. “I’ve seen you in a suit speaking quickly and being dryly comic. But I don’t know if I can see you in a sitcom.” All right. I’m glad people are thinking of me for anything, in any sort of way. Shonda sort of dishes me some dry humor in the show, which I enjoy. I wrote myself a ridiculous web series — that was my way of doing something no one was going to cast me in.

You have written before. Is that another thing you want to do more of? Or are you, like, I’d rather be a series regular on Scandal?

JM: It’s certainly easier! When someone else does all the writing, and you show up and just memorize the words. No, I would like to write more. I’m hoping during the hiatus I’ll write; I have a friend with whom I sometimes write. Nothing’s ever gotten done. I’ve done that thing — sold a pilot, but it didn’t happen: Did a rewrite of a screenplay, but they never made it. But I enjoy doing that. God knows it’s harder work. Acting, the great secret that is not acknowledged is it’s very, very, very, very easy.

If you’re good at it!

JM: Well, I guess. I mean, look: I’m not Daniel Day-Lewis. What he does does not look easy to me. He’s on another level. Memorizing lines, standing in front of a camera and saying them while simultaneously standing on the piece of tape that has been put down for you, is not, in the grand scheme of things, that difficult. Obviously, there’s intangibles. Every day I work on the show, and I will often say it out loud, it is clear who is doing the real work: It’s the crew that does not take a break and sit in a trailer and watch television for 35 minutes. The people who are doing the real work do not get the acknowledgment they deserve. But I guess that’s not a revelation.

No. But being a good actor does require having a gift.

JM: Right. But being good at it does not make it any more likely to get work. I have friends who are more talented than I who haven’t gotten the opportunities that I’ve had. There’s luck involved. There’s being in the right place at the right time, looking the right way — having an enormous stroke of good luck, like having Aaron Sorkin be your friend who wants to cast you in things. It’s not a meritocracy. You can be so good and have so little success. It’s not something I would necessarily encourage people to pursue. If you’re dying to do it, and that’s your dream, I wouldn’t want to crush some young person’s dream. But I’ve also seen plenty of people who have really given it so many years — sacrificed a lot of what life is about — in order to succeed in this industry that doesn’t necessarily reward, “Yes, you’re great!” Which is also why I don’t want to whine so much about, like, “I thought I’d do more comedy.” I’m so happy that I’ve got a job, and that I’ve been lucky enough to work with frequency. People also misapprehend how difficult it’s been for me! I have long periods of time — the IMDb list, they don’t list the months when you weren’t working.

From Imagine That, a short-lived sitcom starring Hank Azaria in 2002.

Is it ever awkward when Aaron Sorkin has a new show that you’re then not on?

JM: I think it’s awkward for him, is the answer. I don’t know if he would honestly answer that, but I think it’s awkward for him because he is the kind of person who really doesn’t ever want to say no or disappoint you. And I know him well enough that I’ll ask. I’m just crass. I’m, like, “I want to be on that.” What I’ve also said to him, and I don’t know if he hears, is, “If you never cast me in anything again, you’ve done more for me than anybody else. So understand you have my undying gratitude.” Obviously, we’re on completely different sides of it. He has all sorts of people that want something from him. I want something in the sense that I want to be on whatever show he’s doing — I’ll do one episode, I’ll do one scene. I think that also makes it hard on a friendship.

It could have been an awkward situation when you sent him the email about Rob Lowe and West Wing.

JM: That’s true! I would say, one, I was desperate enough to put him in an awkward situation, and two, one of the nice things about knowing Aaron is I feel like I can be very frank with him. Like, for The Newsroom, which shoots here: I totally wanted to be in that. But I also got maybe at a certain point, you want to be working with different people. It’s not Tommy Schlamme, it’s a different director: They were probably like, “For the love of god, can we find people on our own? Not use Brad Whitford or Josh Malina?” I get that.

So did you ask about Newsroom?

JM: Before this started, I lobbied. Yeah. He’s that rare exception. Even though I know it makes him feel — I will put him in that situation. I always add the disclaimer: “Dude, I get it. I’m just letting you know, I’m not tired of working for you!” I lobbied him hard for Brad Whitford’s job on Studio 60. Even to the detriment of Brad Whitford. “For the love of god, not Brad!”

Was it between the two of you?

JM: No! I was never even being considered.

Was that why you impersonated Brad Whitford on Twitter?

JM: You were the one who really busted me. I was having so much fun!

I didn’t mean to. I was, like, “Oh, Bradley Whitford’s on Twitter? I’m going to ask his publicist.” And then she said it wasn’t him. And then it turned out to be you doing it. Which…was strange, and a surprise.

JM: We go back to A Few Good Men on Broadway. I actually love Brad.

Do you play pranks on him, and he plays pranks on you? Or do you just play pranks on him?

JM: Largely goes towards him! It’s happened on Scandal too, where I can’t believe people haven’t come back at me. I’ve gotten them so rocked back on their heels; I keep waiting. Every time I go into my trailer, I check to see whether there’s something nasty, like ointment, on the handle, because I’ve done that to so many people.

West Wing. NBC

Let’s talk about Sports Night. That show was so horribly mishandled. What was that like from the inside?

JM: Those days, there was a special phone line you would call, and somebody would endlessly read off all the ratings for the night. And I’d wait to hear Sports Night, and it was always not very good news. It was always like we were just hanging on. I remember it being iffy whether the show would be picked up for a second season, then it was, and that was very exciting. I remember the laugh track being a big thing: They just weren’t getting what Aaron was about, or what the show was.

Did you know that you were on a really good show?

JM: The scripts were really great. It was my first time being a regular — again, because of Aaron. The third episode, I had a page-and-a-half-long monologue about hunting, and I was, like, “Really? You’re going to let me do this?” I felt like I was doing something good.

And then with The West Wing, you joined the show in Season 4. Aaron Sorkin left acrimoniously in the middle of your first season. Did you know that was coming?

JM: No, I didn’t have any particular heads-up. Before it hit the press, Tommy and Aaron had a cast meeting, and they basically said, “You’re going to read about this tomorrow — Tommy and I are leaving.” There were a lot of tears, people choking up, and snatches of “I don’t want to continue to do it if…” And I was, like, “I am also very sad! I want to continue to do it. You’re on your fourth season! I just got here.” No, it was very emotional. That was also a very tight cast. And it was a huge disappointment to me that Aaron and Tommy left: I felt like I was their guy, they brought me in. But John Wells was very good to me, and kept me around, and wrote for me.

Was there truly almost a cast revolt?

JM: People were emotional. For sure there were tears. And I remember people starting to say, “I don’t know if I want to continue to do the show without you guys.” Tommy and Aaron had so put their stamps on the writing and directing — the look and everything. I think people were questioning, well, what’s it going to be? Aaron, being as loyal as he is, and Tommy, too, elicit that fierce, “I’m on your team! This is a team!” To their credit, they were like, “We’re not asking you to walk out. This is not the end of the world. The show should continue, and you guys should continue having jobs.”

Was that then a happy place to work?

JM: John Wells really was a very good boss. While Aaron is certainly irreplaceable, they did a really good job of continuing that show at a very high level of quality. His vision was so strong. Four years in, there was a road map to how you make The West Wing. And that cast got along very well. And they were very, very nice to me. John Spencer at my first table read, came over to me, and said something like, “I’m such a fan of yours.” Who knows if it was even true? But he did just the right thing to make me feel comfortable.

How did it happen that you created Celebrity Poker Showdown?

JM: I’m a very avid poker player and fan, and have played for years. I was driving to Hollywood Park, and I called my friend Andy Newman, who’s an actor and an old crony of Aaron’s, and a Scarsdale High guy. He and I have played in Hank Azaria’s home game for years and years and years. I said, “I have this idea —,” and he said, “I’ve been thinking the same thing.” We got together and realized it didn’t have to be a televised special; it could be a series. Because I was on The West Wing, we went to Bravo, among other places, because it was NBC owned. We have a big pool of celebrity friends: Like, “Here are the people we can put on your network.” And we also had a vision for how to show poker on TV. That was just a weird synchronicity of the World Poker Tour starting around the time. So we were part of the phenomenon of televised poker, which has become a huge thing.

So switching topics. Your Twitter persona. You seem nice in real life, but —

JM: I’m horrible. I know. In the lack of doing the comedy I would like to do as an actor, I feel like I have a comic outlet on Twitter: Insult comedy, shock comedy, trying to be edgy is the kind of comedy I like. That’s how I try to be on Twitter. I also do thrive on confrontation.

So you seek it.

JM: I do seek it. Online it’s very, very safe. I also feel like many, many celebrities and people that we as a society idolize — not to get overly serious — but I like to mock celebrities. Fuckin’ Mike Tyson, with his 2 millions followers and one-man show: To me, you’re just a convicted rapist. I remember early on, he was tweeting a link to an article, saying, “Apparently, I’m the No. 2 most influential athlete online.” So I retweeted him, and said, “How do you rank among rapists?” People were like, “Oh my god, he’s going to kill you!” I was, like, “Really? This is Twitter. He’s not going to find me — he’s probably not going to notice me.” I still have managed to alienate and be blocked by some very high-profile people.

Like who?

JM: Chris Brown.

Really?

JM: Yeah. It’s, like, “You have 10 million followers and you notice me enough to block me?”

He does seem to get upset.

JM: He does. Who else do we got? Deepak Chopra. Russell Crowe. Chris Brown. Quack psychic James Van Praagh. John Cusack.

John Cusack?

JM: I might have made a crack about his appearance. Which is a terrible thing to do! That’s really where you should draw the line and never do it. But I kind of thought it was funny, and he took great offense. I’m like a gnat on the ass of somebody like John Cusack. But the fact that I can get his attention and actually annoy him — and then I had to go push it a little bit further.

Famous people who come on Twitter for some sort of gratification or reinforcement must have a harsh awakening when they realize that people can then directly say “I hate you” to them.

JM: That’s true. I don’t know why: I get off on horrible reviews of myself. It amuses me. I’m proud of my work, and I try my best. But I get that if 7 million people watch an episode of something I’m in, a million of them probably think I’m the worst thing they’ve ever seen. It’s just numbers. Many other actors aren’t like that; I’ve learned that lesson. I did a TV movie with John Stamos, and I remember sharing all these terrible reviews with him and him writing back: “What are you doing? Why are you sending me this?” I think if you take any of this too seriously, the good or the bad, I think you’re making a terrible mistake.

What if you ran into John Cusack?

JM: That would be uncomfortable. I had that with Jon Favreau. Jon Favreau hates me. Jay Kogen — comedy writer, Emmy-winning comedy writer — created an online group called “The Stump.” It was anonymous; my name was just an ampersand, which I thought was terribly clever. I would write horrible things, about myself and — I think I was on Sports Night at the time — about Sports Night. None of which I meant. It was all very funny, we would constantly take shots at each other. Then there was a big push that we should stop doing this anonymously. But something about the technology revealed everything you’d previously written under your own name. There were a lot of hurt feelings. I had to explain to a lot of people, “I was Mr. Ampersand! Just kidding!”

It lasted for years and years. Jon Favreau jumped on: Occasionally, a celebrity would join. There was always a lot of ass-kissing, and he really reveled in it. And I offhandedly wrote something nasty about his newborn baby. I’m not going to share the specifics of it! I thought it was really funny. To me, if you write something nasty about someone’s baby, you can’t possibly mean it: It’s a baby! I have babies. But he very quickly quit. It turned into a big discussion about whether I had gone too far. Which I also enjoyed.

Flash-forward many years: We book him for Celebrity Poker. Then he came, and I was very polite to him. There was some hanging out playing poker whenever our celebrities would come. At a certain point, I was like, I’m not being a good executive producer. And maybe not a good human. I said, “By the way, I don’t know if you remember three years ago on The Stump, I said that thing. And I’m sorry.” He got really, really close to me, and said: “If this were three years ago, I would punch you in the fucking face.” He was quaking and very, very mad. I remember saying, “Thank god it’s not three years ago! That would be horrible! I would hate that.” I tried to give the explanation of, “I was kidding! I have kids!” He was not having any of it. He was, like, “Some things you don’t joke about.”

I’m not sure why I told this story. The answer is: People have real feelings. And sometimes you have to be careful about what you say. I had a friend in high school to whom I used to make cutting jokes, and then I would always go, “Just kidding.” At one point, she said, “Saying ‘just kidding’ after making a nasty joke doesn’t erase the joke.” And then she gave me the silent treatment for a long time.

That was 30 years ago, and you’re still doing the same thing.

JM: That was 30 years ago. And I’ve learned nothing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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