Ben Schwartz

In the comedy world, improv has long gotten a bad rap. It’s looked down on by other comics and considered cringey by punters. Usually, its shows are confined to smaller venues – a reflection of the attitude towards it. But, in recent years and with a variety of live shows, Ben Schwartz has been growing his improv touring to prestigious new levels.

“It’s very surreal,” the comedian – widely known for playing Parks & Recreation’s Jean-Ralphio or voicing the latest Hollywood incarnation of Sonic The Hedgehog – tells NME. Last year, he took his current show, Ben Schwartz & Friends, to iconic venues like New York’s Radio City and London’s Eventim Apollo. Next month, he’ll return to the UK to headline another – the Royal Albert Hall.

“When we first started touring Middleditch & Schwartz [his previous show with comic pal Thomas Middleditch], it was like, ‘Will anybody show up? Will anybody care?’,” he recalls, squinting in the morning sun across a stone table at an outdoor cafe in LA’s Griffith Park. “Now, with Ben Schwartz & Friends it’s like, ‘Well, how big can we go?’ It’s to try to show me and the improvisers I bring on tour what we’re about, what we love doing and try to spread it.”

Ben Schwartz
CREDIT: Sela Shiloni

Schwartz first fell in love with improv over 20 years ago, after he auditioned for a short-form group at the behest of a friend in college. He also tried his hand at stand-up and, while he says he had “one or two good shows”, most of his attempts didn’t go so great. “It was so lonely and sad when I failed, but [with improv] when you fail, someone picks you up on stage,” he says. Where many people might find the prospect of getting on stage with no script and no idea of what’s about to unfold terrifying, he relishes it. “I love the idea of coming on with nothing and us creating together. It feels like magic to me.”

The 42-year-old doesn’t just do improv, but is actively trying to improve its reputation – or at least turn more people on to it. He theorises that comedy fans’ attitude to the form likely comes from seeing “a class show and it wasn’t good” and has worked to make improv more accessible, including through three Middleditch & Schwartz specials on Netflix. “That was a big deal – we were like, ‘Hey, we could be just like stand-up in those big venues and we can also do specials.”

One tricky thing about improv when it comes to getting more people interested is also one of the things that makes it exciting. Each show begins with a new prompt and builds from there, meaning no performance is ever the same. Other than Middleditch & Schwartz, improv TV specials are rare. There are few chances to just stumble upon it without actively going to an event. “Improv exists in the moment and then disappears forever – I love that!” Schwartz explains. “I love that nobody will ever know [if they weren’t there]. The joy of it disappearing is so fun.”

“I love how improv exists in the moment and then disappears forever”

Lately, though, that temporary nature has been something he’s been thinking about more, both in terms of promoting the discipline and his personal career. “I’ve done thousands of shows and three are online,” he says. Right now, he’s considering taking a break from touring next year, but has “nothing to show” for the time he has been on the road. Recently, he’s begun recording the audio of his shows to give him some document of what he’s done. “So much comedy has just been dying and, after 22 years of everything disappearing, I want to have something to remember that I did these things.”

Schwartz has done a lot since he started as an intern at New York’s famed comedy theatre, Upright Citizens Brigade – a venue he was drawn to because of one of his heroes, Amy Poehler. “I was like, ‘Well, if she’s so talented, so funny, where did she start from?’” he recalls. His night on the rota happened to coincide with Poehler’s show with Ian Roberts and Matt Besser, while the likes of Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, Seth Meyers and Jack McBrayer were also involved in UCB at the time. “This tiny theatre was underneath a supermarket – I was like, ‘I can’t believe the funniest place in the world to me is underneath this place and I’m barely a part of it right now’,” he smiles.

In 2010, Schwartz’s breakthrough on-screen role brought him back alongside Poehler. Originally, he was in the running to play the boyfriend of her Parks & Rec character Leslie Knope – eventually portrayed by Louis CK – until it was decided he was too young. “Then I got offered Jean-Ralphio, but they offered it to an old agent of mine and his assistant passed on the role without talking to me,” he shakes his head. [Parks writer] Katie Dippold called him a few days later to find out why he’d turned it down. “Someone made a huge mistake, it was insane – it was my biggest role and changed my life.”

“They offered ‘Parks & Rec’ to an old agent of mine and his assistant passed!”

Jean-Ralphio has stayed with Schwartz ever since, both as “pieces of him in other roles” and as a mainstay fan favourite. “There’ll be 10-year-olds that come up to me about that character and then 70-year-olds,” he says. Sometimes, he admits, he misses him and suggests a Parks & Rec reboot would be “great”.

“I wonder if I have the energy to play him,” he ponders. “It was exhausting. We did a reunion thing and I remember I was singing like him and I did four or five takes and was like, ‘God, I used to be able to do this forever’. He has so much energy, but that would be the only hard part.”

Much like Schwartz’s mission to take the written-off improv, his on-screen career has largely seen him take unlikeable characters – or “arrogant idiots” as he fondly puts it – and turn them into ones you cringe at but still root for. As well as Jean-Ralphio, there’s the likes of Space Force’s media relations officer F. Tony Scarapiducci and House Of Lies’ Clyde Oberholt. “I try to make my characters arrogant,” Schwartz laughs. “They don’t know that they’re fucking up. Amy had a great line where she’s like, ‘Jean-Ralphio’s like a puppy where, if he pees on the floor, you don’t yell at him. You go, ‘Aw Jean-Ralphio, there he goes again’, because he doesn’t know that he’s being weird.”

Ben Schwartz

Making the unlikeable likeable is something Schwartz thinks makes his characters “even funnier”. “And it allows me to get away with more. If you hate me, it’s probably harder for me to get away with the shit I get away with. If I can make you smile a bit more while doing some stuff, you’re like, ‘Oh, what is this motherfucker gonna do next?’ To get the audience on your side is such a fun thing – and improv is the same. You can be a naughty villain, but if you’re doing it in a fun way, the audience can’t wait to see you do it again.”

Along this path lined with douchebags and idiots, Schwartz has worked with some of film and TV’s legends, from Poehler in Parks to Billy Crystal in Standing Up, Falling Down, Nicolas Cage in Renfield, John Malkovich in Space Force and Don Cheadle in House Of Lies. “I was doing a scene with Cheadle where he was acting so well that I was just in awe – he had a monologue that was four pages long and my character is supposed to look at him,” he says of ‘pinch me’ moments. “You know your line is coming and you have to remind yourself that you’re a character in the scene and not just be like, ‘What the fuck?’. Nic Cage’s Dracula was pretty fucking insane too – when he was dressed up as Dracula choking me. That’s crazy.”

In Space Force, Schwartz appeared alongside Steve Carell, who has his own links to improv. Sure, he spent years studying the form at Chicago’s Second City, but he also played The Office’s improv-busting dunce Michael Scott. What notes would Schwartz have for him? “None. Perfect. He’s flawless,” he responds straight away, before caveating. “I’d tell him that he should just take his time. Try not to kill anybody. Take your time to be confident that we’ll find something. You don’t have to invent something in the beginning.”

Ben Schwartz
CREDIT: Sela Shiloni

Schwartz doing improv with Michael Scott – or, at the very least, Carell – isn’t beyond the realms of possibility. Over the years, he’s invited famous friends onto stage with him, particularly at his old show Snowpants, but recently at Ben Schwartz & Friends when Stranger ThingsJoe Keery joined him. “He did two shows back-to-back and he was like, ‘Next one! Whenever the next one is. I literally can’t wait’,” Schwartz shares. “Sometimes people are afraid and they’ll pass, but it’s so freeing and exciting to live in that scary moment of, ‘What the fuck is gonna happen?’ and to then get big laughs from the crowd.”

After Schwartz finishes up his current scheduled run of Ben Schwartz & Friends, he doesn’t know where to take the show next. He has, after all, reached the kind of venues he dreamed of performing at. “I don’t know if the venues can get bigger – maybe if Sonic 3 is huge,” he laughs. “I have some ideas for bringing improv to TV and making a serialised version, but in terms of the stage show, I’m already way beyond the biggest dream I had for improv and I cannot believe it’s happened.”

‘Ben Schwartz & Friends’ will take place at London’s Royal Albert Hall on May 19

The post Ben Schwartz is on a mission to save improv: “So much comedy has been dying” appeared first on NME.


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


 © amin abedi 



Log in with your credentials

Forgot your details?