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Inside Joshua Malina and Hrishikesh Hirway's West Wing Podcast

What they've learned so far and what's next

Joyce Eng

Arguably the best thing since LemonLyman.com, The West Wing Weekly podcast is here, and it's required listening for The West Wing fans everywhere. Hosted by Joshua Malina, who played Will Bailey on the last four seasons of the show, and his longtime friend Hrishikesh Hirway, a composer and host of the Song Exploder podcast, The West Wing Weekly will bring you the finest muffins and bagels discussion of the beloved Aaron Sorkin series in all the land.

The podcast, which is on iTunes and its website, drops every Wednesday (a nod to the show's original air day), and the duo plans to go through the seven-season series episode by episode with occasional guests (Dule Hill is on this week, pegged to Charlie's first appearance). Two episodes in, the fan response has been "overwhelmingly positive," Malina tells TVGuide.com. "That's a first for me." But the hosts are understandably still finding their sea legs and figuring out "what works for us." Check out our interview below to see what they've learned so far, their dream guest-episode pairings, their upcoming guests, how they think the show would be received today, and if they think The West Wing and Scandal exist in the same universe.

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I know you've been working on this for a while, but was it a coincidence that you launched in an election year?
Hrishikesh Hirway: Not a total coincidence. For sure that was what inspired it -- just wanting to talk about the show. That's a perennial thing, at least for me. And getting the chance to talk to Josh is just extra-delightful. There was a feeling of urgency that kept happening. Pieces of news, contemporary news would pop up and I would recognize a parallel with The West Wing and how much better it turned out on The West Wing. I just wanted to talk about that. So I was like, "Josh, we've got to do this. There are so many parallels and counterpoints to things in the real world."

Why did it take so long getting it off the ground? Was it just convincing Josh to do it? I know you were hesitant at first.
Joshua Malina:
I think that was part of it. Frankly, I felt unworthy. I felt unqualified. I was on the show, I'm a huge fan, but I'm not a Wingnut. ... I watched it originally and then probably once I joined I watched it less frequently because who wants to watch me on-screen? [Laughs] So I thought, hmm, could I really do this? And really what inspired me was, I went back to watch the pilot and I was like, "Oh, my God! I really do love this show." It really is fantastic. It's dense material, it's beautifully done and I can hop on a mic and chat with a friend for 45 minutes once a week. Once we started to record it, I was like, why didn't I do this sooner with Hrishi? Now I really look forward to it. Now the hard part is not watching seven episodes ahead.
Hirway: I should've impressed on Josh more deeply: If not being qualified kept someone from talking on a podcast, we wouldn't have 98 percent of podcasts!

Josh, were you worried you couldn't be completely objective?
That's a great question. It continues to not be a point of concern for me. ... One thing [a commenter] said was, "I don't like it. It's more of a love-fest than a critical look at the show." And I think if we were to write a description of [the podcast], that's not a bad one. ... That being said, we are discussing what works for us, what doesn't work for us so much. If you're looking for a hardcore, deeply critical look, maybe you should look elsewhere. And I would admit that it is hard for me to be super-objective. The people in the show are friends of mine, the person who created it and wrote it is a friend of mine, so I am affected, and so be it. Part of a podcast is getting to know the actual people who are hosting it. If that's a flaw, I'm guilty. But at the same time, I do try to give my honest responses to what I'm watching. We both come to the show as big fans of it. That's the bottom line.

Hirway: There are plenty of shows where I feel like I can mount a really vehement criticism against, but I don't love them enough to want to make a podcast of 155 episodes about them. ... Although I just found my original email that I sent to Josh proposing the podcast and ... I said, "Should we do a podcast where we start from the beginning and we end with your first appearance on the show?" I guess I was thinking that once he was on the show it would be harder to be objective, but I'm so glad we're going to do the whole thing and get the inside view of all this. Once we get to Josh's episodes, I'll be even more excited.
Malina: I also expect that once we get to my episodes, I'll be far more critical. That's the nature of watching yourself and I have no hesitation in taking down my own performance. I might be less objective talking about my friends, but I'll be delighted to destroy myself. [Laughs] ... I like to beat other people to it. "Oh, I got there first!" Everyone can pile on.

I don't think you need to do this for every episode or plotline, but will you go more in-depth for something that merits a longer discussion? Hrishi, I really like what you pointed out about the passive treatment of the women in the second episode, and obviously that's been a criticism of Aaron's work over the years, but you guys only lightly touched on it.
I got lightly and probably deservedly criticized by some who felt I was shutting him down. When I re-listen to it, I think I sound like I'm teasing him a little bit. I hear myself agreeing with him. I said that I was screaming at the screen when I was watching the Sam (Rob Lowe) and Laurie (Lisa Edelstein) plotline, but some people felt I was dismissive. I was trying to be funny. [But] there are times to display a sense of humor and there are times to dig in a little deeper. Upon re-listening to it and especially now realizing -- which I should have beforehand -- I'm realizing in people's reactions and response what an important topic it is: women, power in relationships, gender types in the workplace.

I wish I had, rather than teasing Hrishi, dug in deeper. I think that is something we will do in the future. That, to me, is one of the great things about a podcast. I do an episode of Scandal and six weeks later, it comes on. There's a lack of immediacy, which is not an issue with a podcast. You record it and not that much later, it's out and people are reacting to it. We hear what people are saying. We can't respond to every single person. ... But it's nice to hear the general consensus and I am hearing that people want to discuss that aspect of the show more, so I think we will.

Hirway: Yeah, and I think that's something that might come up again in other issues and it'll come up again on our show. ... One thing too is it never felt to me that Josh was being dismissive. Knowing Josh for years now, we agree on most everything. Most of our conversations about the show is one of us will bring up something and the other person will say, "Yeah, that's very interesting" or "Yeah, that's a great point." And I know him well him enough that when I say there's this point of potential injustice and he says, "Fine, fine, Mr. Sensitive," of course he's teasing me.

You were being such a Miranda about it.
[Laughs] Exactly! I still don't know what that means. We're just going to say that every episode.

Josh, is there an episode from the first three seasons that you wish you were in?
Malina: Oh, absolutely. I got -- I don't want to say robbed [Laughs] -- I got a little shortchanged of the Aaron Sorkin years. He gave me this absolute gem of a role on this incredible television series, but then not too many episodes in, he went away. I've always said, given the herculean task of trying to replace Aaron, I think John Wells and company did a really great job. The show maintained a very high quality, but I came in with this close friend of mine writing for me, and I was very disappointed when he left. I mean, I understand why. It's all good and I got this great job. So when I watch the incredible early years, I wish I was in all of them! That's not a negative thing. The show really pops and there's this incredible ensemble of actors I was lucky to join. I say jokingly that this podcast is an attempt for me to associate myself with the early years.

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What are your least favorite episodes? Is there an episode coming up where you'll be like, "Oh, we have to talk about this one now"?
I am curious about "Isaac and Ishmael." I'm not going to [rewatch it] until the proper time for the podcast. I remember at the time being both impressed with the fact that that Aaron would even attempt so soon after 9/11 to create a piece of fictional TV that addressed it in a new way, but at the time, I remember it wasn't my favorite episode. I'm curious on the rewatch how I'll feel about it.

Hirway: Oh, man, I love that episode! [Laughs] It's almost a mistake to admit it. Well, the cat's out of the bag. I liked it! I shouldn't say too much more.

Malina: Hrishi and I are such huge fans of the show that the temptation is to discuss things off-mic. Any time we start to, it's, "No, no, no, wait! I don't want to hear it until we're recording." Now I'm really looking forward to revisiting that one.

I'm looking forward to Episode 5 because Mandy (Moira Kelly) says the first choice for Toby's (Richard Schiff) job was David Rosen. So, is David Rosen on The West Wing the same David Rosen on Scandal?
Ah, yes. Look, I posed the question directly to Shonda [Rhimes], who I know is a big fan of The West Wing, after I got the part of David Rosen. I said, "So is my character's name a direct response to this?" And she didn't say anything. [Laughs] I got no response whatsoever. The answer is, I just don't know. This is a mystery that will not be solved because I'm too scared to pose the question a second time.

Hirway: I don't know either. Certainly in my head, the gleeful version of it is, yeah, of course. This is all one connected multi-verse.

Can David Rosen and Will Bailey be in the same room?
Excellent question. How can they not? I think we have the technology for it.

Is this the first time in your life you were the first choice over Richard Schiff?
[Laughs] Yeah, sadly, yes. Certainly as an actor.

Was that too harsh? I'm sorry. I was just piling on.
Nope, there is no too harsh for me! I entirely deserve that and I'm sure you're right. [Laughs]

Have you locked down any more guests?
Yeah. For Episode 5, we have Eli Attie, who was a writer on the show and who was also in the communications department himself. He wrote Al Gore's concession speech and he worked also on the Clinton administration. We have one of Obama's speechwriters, Jon Favreau, who's joining us for, I think, the State of the Union episode. Kathleen York, who played Andrea Wyatt, is going to be joining us for her first appearance in Episode 20.

What's the latest on Aaron?
Aaron has canceled. "You didn't love 'Isaac and Ishmael'? I'm not coming on." If you leave that out, I suspect we will get Aaron. [Laughs] No, I sent him an email, like, I should give him a heads-up I'm doing this and I said, "Would you consider coming on?" And he responded very quickly and said, "Absolutely." Now we have to actually schedule it around his rather busy work schedule, but we'll get him in. It will happen. I'm not ready to say yet what date, but I think we'll get him in.
If you could only have each actor on for one episode, which one would you pick for them?
Oh, that is an excellent question. I love that we got Dule Hill for his first appearance and Kathleen York for her first appearance. ... I would love to have Allison Janney on for "The Long Goodbye," the one where she goes back for her high school reunion with Matthew Modine. She did some incredible acting in that -- just a tour de force -- and I'd love to talk to her about that. We can also have her on for every episode and I'd be happy. We have to get her on to do "The Jackal." But I guess lip-syncing doesn't work that well on a podcast.

You need to see the dance.
That's true. We might have to do a video podcast.

Hirway: Yeah. We'd love to have everyone on for Season 1 too, but I'm just jumping ahead because you said I could only pick one. So I'm going to say "Holy Night" for Richard Schiff. Gosh, there are a lot of good ones. ... For Bradley Whitford, I think "Noel" would be a good one, another Christmas one.

Their Christmas episodes were always strong. Those were a lot of their Emmy tapes.
Yes, absolutely. This might be too much, but this would be incredible if we could do this. Josh, please make this happen. If we could get Martin Sheen for "Take This Sabbath Day," that would be incredible because it is the first time and most prominent invocation of him as a Catholic. He asked that Bartlet be made a Catholic as a Catholic himself and that really became part of the character. That played such an incredible part in this episode. It's about the death penalty and it's one of my favorite episodes, and that he was able to inject that part of his own life into the character and then the character takes that part of his life and makes it part of the episode -- I would love to talk to him about that.

Malina: I will call him and remind him who I am. [Laughs]

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Does he not remember you? Did you prank him too much?
No, I think that's a Martin thing altogether. I remember we were in the sixth season and he was still calling Allison "The Tall One."

What did he call you?
"Hey, you." [Laughs] I would like to think he remembers me. We'll see.

The show was very prescient, sometimes eerily so. What do you attribute that to? Is Aaron a soothsayer or is it just the nature of politics?
I think there's some element of monkeys with typewriters writing the first line of Hamlet. There are only so many plots that are going to play out in D.C., especially domestically between the legislative, executive and judicial branches. Those are a little bit fixed in amber. When you have to come up with dynamic, exciting plot moments every week for years, you're going to hit something that is inspired from real life and, you know, history repeats itself.

Malina: There's also a certain depressing aspect of how it reflects on politics and how progress is certainly made, but at a very slow pace. We just got to "Five Votes Down," the fourth episode of the first season, and it's about a gun control bill, and that was 16 years ago. How much has been accomplished since? Very, very little.

There's a line in the show too about that. And the first season is about how they're stuck in neutral.
Yeah. It's predictive, but also reflective of the fact that so little changes.

The TV landscape is so different now. I don't know about ratings, but I feel like the show would be received well and have its pocket of supporters if it premiered today. It was obviously an antidote to the Bush years, but it'd be a welcome antidote to all the insanity now. What do you think?
I do too. I also think things that were stylistically risky back then, now, as a result of the show and the work [director] Tommy Schlamme and Aaron Sorkin did, they're more accessible. There are more shows like it. It was welcomed when it first came on, but now it would be less jarring because of other shows. But at the same time it's different than the shows it opened the door for.

Hirway: The only thing I wonder is if it would have the same kind of heraldry it did when it first came on. ... When The West Wing was on, by virtue of the TV landscape being different and there being fewer shows, especially of that caliber, at the time I felt like a lot of people were watching with me. A lot of people were engaged in ways that doesn't happen as much now because there are just so many shows that it's segmented a lot more. You can't keep up with everything and it's a lot harder to have that kind of critical mass The West Wing really captured. And time-shifting has also become such a huge element that people aren't watching things at the same time. The West Wing felt like appointment television, and that's gone by the wayside. People don't feel the need to watch a show at the time it's on.

It's a long way off, but do you think you will continue the podcast after you finish the series?
: I think after three years, Josh will be so sick of me. [Laughs]

Malina: I'll be in my mid-50s. God knows if I'll be able to get around at that point.

Then it's perfect. You can be sedentary and talk for 45 minutes.
Yeah, maybe that'll be the only thing I'm qualified to do. We could theoretically move on to Sports Night. It's still a few years away. We'll see how many people are still listening to us then.

You should continue and figure out what the president's secret plan to fight inflation is.
[Laughs] There you go!