The Happy Sad’s Maulik Pancholy on Sex, Weeds, and 30 Rock

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Photo: Patrick McMullan

Brooklynite Maulik Pancholy, 35, spends most of the year in New York shooting NBC’s 30 Rock, playing Jonathan, the Eve Harrington–like assistant to Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin). When that wraps, he flies to L.A. to film Showtime’s Weeds, where he portrays Sanjay, a gay Indian-American drug dealer. In his few weeks of downtime — Weeds finished early last week and 30 Rock starts production on August 24 — Pancholy is co-starring in a weeklong production of a new comedic play by Ken Urban entitled The Happy Sad, premiering at the Public Theater as part of the Summer Play Festival. The show, directed by Trip Cullman, Pancholy’s former Yale School of Drama classmate, features several twentysomething and thirtysomething New York couples — gay and straight — who are contemplating the plausibility and perils of open relationships. Pancholy spoke to us last week.

What can you tell me about Happy Sad?
Michael Stahl-David from Cloverfield plays my boyfriend. And there’s some
nudity. [Laughs]

Are you among the nude?
Yeah.

Sandwiched between the Weeds finale and the 30 Rock season premiere, no less.
It’s scary, but what’s cool is that the play is dealing with sexuality and
sex in a really frank way. We have only two weeks of rehearsal, but the cast
is committed to jumping in and being as open about the situations [as] the way
they’re written.

When was the last time you were onstage?
A couple of years ago. It’s really nice to get to do this. When you first
read the play, it’s easy to think, “Oh it’s just about couples in New York.” But then you start to work on it, and realize there are all these complicated story lines. To fulfill that in a short rehearsal period is intense.

I’d think you’d be used to that, considering you straddle two shows on two coasts. What it’s like going from one culture-skewering satire to another?
It’s great to get to bounce between the two — both shows deal with commercialism and greed. It’s interesting how they touch on familiar themes
in very different ways. When we finish Weeds' season and I go back to New York to do 30 Rock, Weeds kind of just drifts away, because Tina Fey has created such a specific world.

Tina makes you sing!
[Laughs] I crave those episodes. Twice now Jonathan has burst out into song, and both times it’s been directed right to Jack Donaghy. It’s like, “I have something to say to you and I’m going to say it in song!”

Do they know your character arcs for the season ahead of time?
All I know is that Jonathan is around next season, which was left up in the air because of that episode where Jonathan got laid off.

What’s Alec Baldwin like?
Alec is an actor’s actor. He looks out for the other actors on set. There’s
a scene where he is showing Liz Lemon how to fire an employee and he fires Jonathan. The way that scene was originally scripted, he did it over the intercom, and you just heard me scream. Alec was like, “What if I pop open the door and we get to actually see him scream?” He brought me into the scene. He knows how to make a scene work.

Unlike Jack Donaghy, Alec is a Democrat, and has made overtures about running for office. Jonathan would vote for him — would you?
I’ve always admired that he’s been so outspoken politically, so I have a
feeling I’d be casting my vote his way.