At one point in the new film Central Intelligence, a character played by Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson pulls a move straight out of Road House, ripping out the throat of a villain.
"I just ripped out his trachea, man!" Johnson exclaims with delight, handing the viscera to co-star Kevin Hart. Audiences don't see any blood – this is a PG-rated buddy comedy – but the surreal moment and several more like it hint at the darker, more anarchic movie Central Intelligence was originally intended to be.
"It was really much more of an R-rated Pineapple Express-type comedy, just pretty vulgar," confirms Ike Barinholtz, who wrote the original screenplay with writing partner David Stassen. "We both loved R-rated comedies growing up, whether it was Beverly Hills Cop or Vacation. The script didn't necessarily have a dirtier tone, just a much more adult one."
Barinholtz goes on to name-check a slew of his edgier comedy icons who were once attached to the film before the squeakier Johnson and Hart came aboard – Danny McBride, Zach Galifianakis – all while not quite realizing that he himself might be considered among their ranks. Maybe not this summer, but perhaps the next. That's because, thanks to a delightful mix of timing and persistence, Barinholtz is poised to become the next great adult-comedy star.
This summer is laying the groundwork. In May, Barinholtz confirmed his good graces with the Judd Apatow crew with his riotous supporting role in Neighbors 2. The Seth Rogen-led vehicle opened the same weekend as Angry Birds, in which Barinholtz lent his voice alongside McBride. And just to ensure he's covering all possible bases, the 39-year-old co-stars in August's Suicide Squad, the comic-book adaptation that Warner Bros. hopes will turn around its flagging DC franchise.
If Suicide Squad hits its tracking numbers, and if Central Intelligence performs as well as a Johnson-Hart project should, then Barinholtz may become just the kind of versatile player who's impossible to avoid at the multiplex, be it in front of or behind the camera.
Still, he knows it could all disappear at the whims of a few fickle executives.
"I mean listen, for me, I will never forget my years in L.A., when I was 22 and bussing tables post-MADtv, when it was three years in the wilderness and I couldn't get anything going," Barinholtz recalls. "So when I'm able to say I have a couple movies coming out, I'm legitimately excited and touched – and very, very lucky. I try to never forget that."
For others, it's all too easy to forget that Barinholtz was not only a key player on MADtv, but that MADtv existed in the first place. Although the sketch-comedy series aired for 14 years, Fox's Saturday Night Live competitor is largely left out of the cultural conversation, its cast members (including Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) only now headlining more mainstream projects seven years after the show's cancellation.
"After MAD ended, I just assumed I'd be the star of my own TV show. It was really kind of the opposite," Barinholtz says. "I found myself in this wasteland oblivion of being just another actor in Hollywood trying to find a gig. It was very tough, not what I would describe as a fun period. I did whatever I could to make money."
Hence an IMDb profile populated with such parts as "Dane Cook Look-a-Like" in Meet the Spartans and "Javier Bardem Look-A-Like" in Disaster Movie.
All the while, though, Barinholtz was writing with Stassen, who he met in high school. And just after Barinholtz landed a role on McBride's HBO series Eastbound & Down, the pair's pilots began to make waves around town, earning the notice of Mindy Kaling.
"Once we were both hired on The Mindy Project, I learned the ins and outs of writing and producing and directing and just showing people I could be funny," says Barinholtz, who turned the writing gig into an on-screen role as the crude and clueless nurse Morgan, quickly becoming a fan favourite. "After that, it was just a snowball effect of getting Neighbors, and then [the Tina Fey-Amy Poehler comedy] Sisters."
The proliferation of high-profile parts has also allowed Barinholtz the occasional detour into drama, including the upcoming Felt, a biopic of Watergate whistle-blower Deep Throat. "I'm sitting between Liam Neeson and Brian d'Arcy James and Diane Lane – all real actors, as I call them," Barintholtz says. "I hear them saying, 'The fourth time I did Chekhov is when it started to click,' and I'm just, 'I played Kevin Federline on MADtv.' People say comedy is harder than drama. But I don't know about that – if you're funny, comedy is easier."
Audiences – and box-office returns – will be the judges of that as Barinholtz attempts to vault himself into the leagues of Rogen, McBride and the like. He's certainly on the right track, recently joining the cast of Amy Schumer's new movie, and, along with Stassen, selling the script for Poehler's next big-screen comedy. (Then there's the pair's Police Academy reboot, developed with Key and Peele, though that's in development hell: "When we pitched it, this was before Ferguson," Barinholtz says. "If you're writing a drama or action film, it can change in terms of what's going on in society. But comedy is different.")
Still, Barinholtz is intensely aware it might all evaporate – everyone just might one day forget his name. "The great thing about Hollywood is there's an equalizer factor. Everything changes. One year, some Vine guy could be the biggest star in Hollywood," he says. "You have to keep your perspective and try to remember how lucky we are."