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“Make sure you put the things that will get me canceled right up in the headline,” Ike Barinholtz jokes in early February as I leave the Los Angeles home he shares with his wife and three daughters.
We’ve just spent the past hour-plus talking about everything from casting to cancel culture in the guest house he’s converted into his office. The space is an homage to comedy, though mixed in with his books and posters sits his latest, crowning achievement: the trophy he has recently won as a contestant on Celebrity Jeopardy! As Barinholtz explains, he keeps it just behind his desk chair so it’s firmly in view whenever he’s on Zoom. “That way if someone disagrees with me, I can just swing around and tap it,” he says with a big, goofy laugh.
The former Mindy Project writer-star is even busier than usual these days, with three of his many active projects — Hulu’s History of the World: Part II, HBO’s White House Plumbers and the indie film Maximum Truth — rolling out in the coming months. The 46-year-old Chicago native talks candidly about the increasingly “distressing” state of the industry and the challenges of making comedy in the year 2023.
So, you just won Celebrity Jeopardy! Do you think it’s changed the perception of you, either Hollywood’s or your fans’?
The people who know me were not surprised because I’m a trivia freak — just an endless source of useless knowledge. But a lot of characters I’ve played are, oh, I don’t want to say stupid, but I can’t imagine they would do well on Jeopardy!, right? They’re all, like, folks on the margins of society. So, I think there were people who were probably like, “Oh wow, that guy’s not actually a complete moron!” (Laughs.) But I want those people to know that I still am. Like, I constantly figure out new ways to get my keys locked in my car.
You got your start in improv. Do you still dabble in that world or is it a young man’s game?
It’s definitely a young man’s game, but I just did an improv show. My first in ages. The last few years have not been good for improv. I don’t know who’s running these places. I feel like they’re all weird VC folks, like everything else in this country. I also think that improv gets shit on, especially by the fucking stand-ups. It’s like, check yourself. We’re not running around being like, “We’re truth-tellers.” We’re just, like, trying to make people laugh. (Laughs.) Now, could I do it constantly? No. A friend of mine asked me, “Will you do my show? It starts at 9:30.” And I’m like, “Bro, I’m hitting REM sleep by then.”
Mad TV was your big break, and yet I’ve heard you say the few years post-Mad TV were infinitely harder than the few before. Why?
I got hired by Mad TV about a year and a half after I’d been out here, and while that year and a half was very hard, I was busing tables and couldn’t even get an audition, there was a feeling of like, “Eh, we’re all broke actors,” and you don’t know any different. And then you get Mad TV, and I was on that show for five years, making a decent income and just busy, and then it ends and I don’t get anything for three, three and a half years. Initially, I was like, “OK, I’m just going to get a pilot now.” Like, I’ll head to the pilot district and find me a pilot and just do that. (Laughs.) That did not happen. I tested a lot, over and over and over again, but I’d never make it to the final level.
What was the feedback?
“Oh, we love him, he’s so great,” but this was 2006 to 2008, and there was a very specific type of guy that they were casting: guys that were just a little better looking, a little more model-y, a little more Josh Duhamel or Geoff Stults. Now, it’s like the freaks are it. “Oh, your head is five times the size of a normal person’s? You’re going to be the star of a sitcom!” I’d be thriving now. (Laughs.) But I never got there, and it was a bummer because there was really cool stuff happening: The Office and Parks and Recreation. I missed them all. [Around that time,] Dave Stassen moved back from D.C., and I said to him, “We’re just gonna write. That’s it. I’m not acting anymore because no one will fucking cast me.” So, we spent all day writing movies. They didn’t sell but people read them at least.
Isn’t that when you wrote Central Intelligence, the 2016 buddy comedy starring Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart?
That was the first one we sold. How it works is you write a script and, if it doesn’t sell, people read it and then they bring you in for “the water bottle meeting.” You get a fresh water bottle, and they say, “Oh, your script was so great.” And inside, you’re like, “If it was so great, why didn’t you fucking buy it?” And then they’re like, “What else are you working on? Oh, here’s a terrible idea we have. We’d like for you guys to work on it for free and then maybe you could pitch it back to us and we’ll pay you the minimum.” (Laughs.) Then our next movie, a few more people read — by the way, these movies that were insane. Like, we wrote a movie about like two buddies who are stoners that go and capture bin Laden. Crazy shit. The first one we sold was Central Intelligence. We sold that to Universal Studios, and from that point, we were able to at least once a year get a new writing gig. Usually, it was a rewrite of a studio film or something in development that isn’t working. But Dave wanted to staff on a TV show, get that steady paycheck, and the problem for me was, like, once you’re in a writers room, you’re not an actor anymore. You can’t say to your showrunner, “Hey, I have an audition at Lantana Studios, do you mind if I go?”
So, what changed?
Mindy Kaling had this new show. We met with her and we wore blazers, like, “We’re just blazer guys, that’s who we are!” Then she hired us and found out we were really sweatpants-with-holes guys. After a few months, she wrote this character, Morgan, and said she wanted me to play him. After, like, eight years of nonstop auditioning and testing, I finally got past the network and only because Mindy, God bless her, was like, “He’s going to be the guy.”
You hear a lot of writer-stars say, “I wasn’t getting cast, so I wrote something for myself.” Has that been your strategy?
I do tell people, “Write for yourself, do a Lena Dunham thing.” But I’m also pragmatic. Even now, Dave and I will have an idea for a movie, and I’ll be like, “I’ll play the lead. Oh, they don’t want me? Cool, how about John Cena?” I have a list of substitutes that I’ll accept. (Laughs.)
How do you know that’s the feedback? Are you actively pitching yourself?
I’ll be a little tongue-in-cheek about it, like, “I mean, this is a part that Ike Barinholtz could play, but so could John Cena.” I’m not precious about it. Now, listen, if it’s a smaller budget, $10 million movie that I’m going to direct, I’ll be like, “I’m going to be in this one.” But if we’re pitching a big movie to Universal, I think it’s smart to give them the freedom to say, like, “While we love you, we love Dwayne Johnson a little more, and we would like him to play it.”
You’re working with Mel Brooks on History of the World: Part II. How did that come about?
Like most good things in Hollywood, it was a phone call from Nick Kroll. I’ve known Nick for a very long time. Do you remember they made a TV show based off of the Geico caveman [called Cavemen]? We both auditioned for it. He got it, whatever. I guess he had a better take. (Laughs.) But we kept in touch. And then he reached out to Dave Stassen and me about this opportunity. He was like, “I’ve got this show with Mel Brooks, History of the World: Part II.” And obviously I was all in, but I was just like, “Oh, interesting, keep talking. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Oh, OK. Mel Brooks, I guess …” (Laughs.)
What does a Mel Brooks note look like?
Having him laugh at something you pitch is the greatest thing in the world. You’re just like, “I can die now. I did it.” Thankfully, he didn’t give too many comedy notes, but there were times where we pitched him things that were fairly esoteric, and he was like, “Just play the hits.” Like, we don’t want to ask too much of the audience, and I think that served us well.
From where you sit, what is the appetite for comedy in 2023?
With the business where it is, everyone has to have, like, seven different side hustles. So, [in addition to TV projects,] we have a large-budget script at Netflix, a conventional horror comedy, and we’re about to bring out a much smaller comedy about grown-ups.
Who makes those comedies today?
It’s either huge — like, “Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson are twins” — or you’re making a comedy for under $10 million. I think the era of Adam McKay making The Other Guys, which is one of my favorite comedies, for $80 million is over. If you’re able to tell Warner Bros. or Universal that you have a great premise and they trust that it’ll be funny and you’ll keep your cast relatively small and not break the bank, you’re probably going to be able to make those movies. Where they end up being seen is anyone’s guess.
And that’s a win now?
The win now is getting your movie made. If you’re able to get a movie made in 2023, you’re a superhero. It’s tough and it’s going to get tougher. Our business has not been impervious to the destructiveness of American capitalism in 2023. We should not be surprised that the Reaper is coming for us now.
We are now seeing completed shows being dumped and older shows vanished. How concerned are you?
It definitely felt like a huge inflection point once someone made the decision in business affairs that it’s more cost-effective to delete a show than pay residuals. That was the first time where you were like, “What the fuck is happening here?” I just talked to a friend of mine and her show, which she grinded her ass off to make and made for cheap, and it was supposed to be really good, was just killed. Now they’re trying to shop it somewhere else, but all these places are owned by the same people, more or less, and they’re all looking out for their books. It’s very distressing.
You came up in a very different comedy environment. How much do you worry now about where the line may or may not be?
It’s a question I think everyone, when they find out I work in comedy, wants to talk about now. Sensitivity is definitely up, and a big part of that is social media. There are people who’ve been marginalized for a long time, and now, if you make a joke about them, they can get you back and that makes a lot of people angry. I think when people in comedy talk about cancel culture, what they’re mad about is being called out on their shit. And, by the way, I don’t know any comedians that are actually fucking canceled. [Dave] Chappelle just won a Grammy, Louis C.K. just sold out Madison Square Garden. Nine times out of 10, those complaining about cancel culture are just mad that someone that they’ll never meet is saying, “You suck.”
Do you find yourself checking yourself either pitching and/or in a writers room in ways that you wouldn’t have when you were starting out?
Yes, in the sense that, first of all, you’re on Zoom, at least for History of the World, which is, you never know. But if you’ve built a good room where people aren’t reactionary and they understand what we’re doing. And we had a little code in that room, where would say, “That makes me feel a little itchy,” and if someone said itchy, we’d stop and talk about it. The rooms that get in trouble are the ones where the showrunner is waiting to go off on the younger staff, or the younger staff is, like, “I’m gonna Tweet about my boss.” I remember hearing someone say, “Oh, if you want to be a writer in this business, get on Twitter.” But I think it’s the opposite.
You prefer they be offline?
If I’m looking for writers and someone’s like, “I’m not on Twitter,” I’m already so much more into them than someone who is. Because Twitter fucking sucks. It’s absolute dog shit. And people who are on Twitter all the time are perpetually online and the real world has no idea what you’re talking about. Twitter always has, like, the main character every day. “Oh, yeah, today we got Coffee Dennis. You didn’t see this guy? This guy had a tantrum at a Starbucks and his pants fell down. Oh, Coffee Dennis!” And then if your writer is tuned into that, they’re pitching you, “Oh, I have a great take on Coffee Dennis.” And you’re like, “Oh, cool, yeah, I’m online too, so I know what that is.” And now you’re doing a fucking storyline about Coffee Dennis and then the show comes out six months later and people are like, “Oh, Coffee Dennis murdered his whole family. What are you doing?” This cultural moment lasted six seconds and you’re making it feel like it’s War and Peace. So, just get off of there. Instagram is fine. Whatever. (Laughs.) But to your greater point, I was very pleased with running a hardcore comedy in 2023.
I asked the question because that sounds far more daunting than it would have, say, 10 years ago.
There are more landmines, yeah. Like, there are certain words that just get deleted from your mental lexicon, which I’ll remind people, has been happening since time immemorial. There were things that people in 1950 where like, “Can you believe we can’t say what we said in 1920?” And it’s like, “Uh, I can totally believe it.” But I was so happy with the show we put out because it’s filthy. It is so dirty. There were so many times in editing where I was like, “This is too much, we have to cut this.” So, I think if you go about it the right way, if you are inclusive, if you’re not just saying, “Oh, this character of color, they have to be this straight man,” [you’re OK.] I was very glad to see that in 2022, 2023, you could still have rooms where people say things where people are shocked and, like, “Oh my God,” without really hurting someone.
Given all that you’ve done behind the camera, how willing and interested are you in taking projects where you strictly act?
Very. If I can keep doing what I’m doing for the rest of my life, I will be the luckiest person ever. The last year or two, there’s been something that I’ve written or am working on, and I’ll get to be there from the infancy, but then I’ll zip off and do White House Plumbers. It’s like going from being the captain of the cruise ship to just having a cocktail on the lido deck. When I did The Afterparty, I was like, “So, all I have to do is just sit here and look pretty and say a couple lines? You got it, boss.” But then my wife always makes fun of me because I do a show for a long time and I start to come home and be like, “I just wanna write. I mean, do you know how long my hair took? It took them 45 minutes to spray my hair!” (Laughs.)
You and your brother, Jon, have both found success out here. What was going on in your house growing up?
We have very funny parents, and my dad was an actor when he was younger. He used to hang out at Second City when John Belushi was there. But he had a child and thought, “I should be responsible.” So, he went to law school. Then, last year, a friend of a friend reached out about a comedy set in a courtroom and said, “Maybe your dad could audition to be a judge.” My brother and I put him on tape, and we’re looking at, and we were both like, “Woah, he’s really good.” We sent it in, and he booked it. He’s one of the leads on this Amazon show. It’s fucking crazy!
Yeah. My parents, at 70, moved to Los Angeles. My dad joined SAG. He just booked an episode of Physical. And he got a commercial. It’s insane. He’s so happy. And it’s a really sweet ending for him because, for years, he’d live vicariously through my brother Jon and me. He came to every improv show, and we’d bring him up onstage sometimes, and he was always funny. And now he gets to be a TV star!
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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