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Ben Schwartz and Thomas Middleditch in their new Netflix special. | Jeffery Neira / Netflix

The comedy duo talk about their long-running partnership and how they learned to be funny together.

Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz are probably best known as familiar faces from TV comedies. Middleditch played Richard Hendricks in HBO’s Silicon Valley, for which he was nominated for an Emmy; Schwartz played Jean-Ralphio Saperstein on NBC’s Parks & Recreation (as well as a role on the upcoming Netflix show Space Force). Schwartz voiced Sonic the Hedgehog in the recent film; Middleditch voiced Harold Hutchins in 2017’s Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie. They regularly pop up in movies and TV shows, podcasts like Comedy Bang! Bang!, and web-based comedy series like Funny or Die.

But they’re also a comedy duo, which has taken its two-man improv show all over the country. Every show is completely different and totally improvised. They ask a question of the audience, who shout out their answers. Then they use one person’s answer as a prompt for an elaborate story written on the spot and performed by the two of them. It’s high-energy and funny, and sometimes things get very weird.

What’s always obvious is that the two trust and lean on each other for each show, which makes them a pleasure to watch. And it’s probably why Netflix tapped them to record three of their shows for the streaming platform — meaning their Netflix “special,” which drops on the streaming service today, is actually is three individual specials. Each is about an hour long, recorded at a different live show, and helps demonstrate how hard and rewarding improv can be. And they’re all extremely enjoyable, too.

I talked to Ben and Thomas by phone about why they decided to tape three shows, who they look to as great storytellers, and how you know you found your comedy match.

Alissa Wilkinson

So why drop three specials at the same time, instead of just one?

Ben Schwartz

I think there’s a couple things. One is that there’s a lot of the number three in improv. You know, like three beats, the rule of threes, and stuff like that.

But also, we shot four shows in two nights and we were trying to give ourselves a leniency there, so if there’s a show that we didn’t love, we can kind of put it to the side and just air three. We only had time to shoot four shows, and we were allowed to keep three out of the four shows, and that’s kind of how it worked.

Thomas Middleditch

And when you show more than one, it highlights the fact that it’s all different, you know? Like, I think if we just had one, it’d be a neat thing, but the fact that there’s three, and we ask the audience the same question to get started, shows that the show can go different ways. I think it helps underscore the fact that it’s all made up [on the spot].

Alissa Wilkinson

I think a lot of people are used to watching stand-up comedy specials, which try to create the illusion that the comic is making it all up on the fly. But of course those are pretty much all pre-scripted. It’s different in this case, because you really are making it up on the fly. Does the fact that you’re making it for Netflix — that it will be permanent, in a sense, rather than just going away at the end of the show — change things for you?

Ben Schwartz

We’ve done a lot of shows. We’ve been doing stuff for 10 years, and we’ve been lucky enough to play Carnegie Hall and Chicago Theatre and the Ryman [in Nashville]. And you know, when the show’s over, even if it goes a little bit like, Ah, we could have done a little better, it’s over. The audience is happy.

But with this, beforehand it was like, “All right, let’s just go on stage and make shit up and cross our fingers” — but this time it’s going to be viewed by perhaps millions of people. Not only that, they can rewind. They can see, like, “Oh, you didn’t call that back correctly.” It’s the first time ever that something of ours can be dissected. There’s only been like two or three reviews of our shows ever, by any newspapers!

So before we went out, we had that moment like, “Oh, wow. This is it. We’ve done so many shows and the only ones that are going to be filmed are these four.” So, there was added pressure.

Thomas Middleditch

I think this is probably a universal concern with improv, because it’s squidging out of your fingers in the moment. But a concern for me was … not that we’re all that controversial or anything, but somehow comedy of a particular moment gets judged through a lens 10 years from now. Suddenly, [people are] like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe they did that character” or something. We’re not doing anything crazy, but you know how things change. So I think, because it’s so spontaneous, and you have to live in that spontaneous world, it’s a bit of that fear.

But I think in terms of the mechanics — like, I’ll watch old Whose Line Is It Anyway? episodes. That show got me into improv. The improv translates. I think we knew in the back of our heads that it’s not impossible — there’s just some challenges. It wasn’t as straightforward as we thought.

 Jeffery Neira / Netflix
Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz in their new Netflix comedy special.

Alissa Wilkinson

How do you pick who in the audience you’re going to use for your starting point? Is there something you’re looking for?

Thomas Middleditch

A lot of the times it’s just the first thing we hear, because that feels the most, like, yes! You don’t want to come across as if you’re just waiting for the one that’s like, “Yes, that feels good.” That feels not as courageous.

However, if we hear in the background, in the din of audience suggestions, something that feels like a little bit boring, or something that in particular feels quite interesting, we’ll just latch onto that and say, “Okay, I want to know about this.”

Ben Schwartz

And we can’t see who is saying anything. Like, we can’t see faces from the stage, unless we put up our fingers. So we have no idea who is saying it. We want to make sure we don’t double up on something we’ve done exactly. And if there’s an asshole, or someone that’s trying to be too funny or weird, it makes it not as much fun, if they’re not truthful. We want it to be truthful. We want it to be a real story from their lives. We have learned that someone can say something boring in the beginning, and then we talk to them for two seconds, and they’re like, “Yeah, and you know, like, my dad is an assassin.” Like, what?! You never quite know where it’s going to go.

We’ve gotten such great stuff off of very normal stuff — “I work at a box factory” — and very boring things, and then we find nuggets or characters that they didn’t even think about themselves.

Alissa Wilkinson

Do you remember any of your all-time favorites of, like, super boring ones?

Ben Schwartz

We talk about this show we did once — just to show you how different all the shows can be, we did a show once where we were all around a table and we played, like …

[warped bass-heavy plane noise in background]

Are you in a plane, Thomas?!

Thomas Middleditch

There’s an airport near where I am. You know, I could be in a plane. You know I can fly a plane. You know that I can fly airplanes.

Ben Schwartz

I know. Of course.

We did a show around a table. There were, like, seven family members, and all we’re doing is switching between all these family members, and we’re playing 100 characters, and they’re wacky. In one show we literally did two brothers on their different twin beds talking about what they’re scared about, talking about how there’s monsters under the bed, and the whole show is just that one scene of these two brothers. It went great, and it was so fun. I love the idea of that.

I remember there was a guy who jumped out of a hot air balloon when he was going to propose or something? Remember something like that, Thomas?

Thomas Middleditch

Oh, yeah. I occasionally ask if people have had a health scare. One night, I was like, “Has anyone else been scared they might die?” And someone said, “Yeah, uh, I was in a hot air balloon accident.” [Laughs.] Oh, Jesus. Yeah, we asked about that and took it from there.

Because we end up doing a lot of shows, we want to keep it fun for us. The more we’re surprised, and the more we’re like, “Whoa, that sounds interesting,” the more we’re going to be enthusiastic and get excited to do it. We’re the ones that are going to have be on stage for an hour and a half or whatever.

Alissa Wilkinson

You’re kind of flinging yourself off a cliff with only this one thing to hold onto and just seeing where it goes.

Thomas Middleditch

Yeah, exactly. The more juicy bits that you get in that conversation, the less you have to just invent random stuff in the middle. When we’ve had to do that, we get off the stage and feel mentally exhausted, cause we’re like, “Boy, we just had to, like, throw in the Mayor of Mayor Town to figure that one out.”

Alissa Wilkinson

I’ve always wondered how a comedic partnership like yours evolves, and how you know you’ve found “the one.”

Ben Schwartz

I’ll tell this story, because Thomas is sometimes weird about telling it. When I was born, and I don’t even know who put it on my neck, but I had this amulet on my neck that was only half of a smiley face. And, like, my entire life, I was going to …

Thomas Middleditch

Ben, don’t tell this story.

Ben Schwartz

Let me do it, let me do it, let me do it. Then, we were doing comedy one day, and he was just randomly on a team with me …

Thomas Middleditch

So embarrassing …

Ben Schwartz

Stop it. We had a scene where we had to hug and wink at each other. I forget what the scene was. And when we winked and we hugged, we ran towards each other, and he had the other half of the fuckin’ amulet. And when we hugged, it clashed and turned into one full happy face, and we realized that it was destined from birth, I guess.

Sorry, Thomas.

Thomas Middleditch

And then we both screamed, “By the power of Grayskull!”

Ben Schwartz

Yes, “By the power of Grayskull!” And then we became one full comedy team.

Thomas Middleditch

It’s really embarrassing.

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s just right out of Greek mythology.

Thomas Middleditch

And He-Man.

Alissa Wilkinson

Okay, but … so …

Thomas Middleditch

[Laughs] Sorry, yeah, I can give you a more authentic answer. I think it boils down to a couple things, really. You’ve got to be friends. How we started comedy is we both thought the other person was funny after seeing them on stage. Then we walked around Manhattan and ate Two Boots pizza and talked about life and Game Boys and stuff like that.

In improv, I want to essentially pimp you out on stage to ensure that you do more of the things that I think are funny. Then over time, you build trust — like, I know that on stage I can essentially fall down and you’re going to be there to make it look like I was completely graceful, and vice versa. Especially when you’re in a two-person thing, where it’s just you guys, and you have to entertain the audience with one suggestion for an hour and a half. You need to like one another, think the other person is funny, and then trust each other. That’s it.

It also doesn’t hurt that … Ben and I, we’ve both been doing it for over 20 years. I was lucky enough to start doing it in eighth grade. It comes with some experience.

 Jeffery Neira/Netflix
Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz in their new Netflix comedy special.

Alissa Wilkinson

Even just a good friendship is something that you sometimes develop because you’re both on the same wavelength. You get the other’s jokes, you know where they’re going before they get there. In this case, it’s tied up with performance; you need to make other people think you’re funny, too.

Ben Schwartz

Also, Thomas is a good improviser. You can have a very, very funny person on stage, and they can be funny, but sometimes in their comedy they’re being selfish and only looking out for themselves to score laughs. For me, when I look at Thomas, he’s incredibly funny, he’s incredibly great at doing characters. But also, because we tell a narrative in our shows, anywhere I go, he’s willing to follow and trust, and he’s good at improv. Whatever we throw at each other, we know the other person can handle. That’s a huge part of it all, because you can be the funniest person in the world, but if you’re not a teammate and you’re not a good partner on stage, then the shows won’t ever really work.

Thomas Middleditch

Improv is weird in that sense. All the improvisers go to some aspect of, like, improv school, comedy class. You all learn a shared philosophy, or some shared rules or guidelines that help you become more effective at spontaneously building a scene with characters. If one person had all that language to do all that, and another person didn’t, it would be very difficult to trust that if I go here, that person’s going to know where I’m going, because they haven’t had that.

But I also feel like once you get to a certain point, and you know all your little philosophies, break them, mold them, shape them, do whatever you want. You earned the right to do your own business. The people on stage have to have that shared — my God, I don’t want to say it …

Ben Schwartz

Do it!

Thomas Middleditch

A comedy education or something. [Laughs.] Comedy education! Otherwise you won’t know the moves. I don’t like that that has to happen, but you need to take some kind of class, some kind of training.

Ben Schwartz

I also think it’s really cool, because Thomas came from Canada and then he got his training in Chicago, and I was in New York the whole time from UCB, and so we got trainings from two different schools, and yet when we came together, it’s like a language we can kind of stay with each other. It’s a fun thing with people who do long-form improv comedy. You can get on stage with someone who does long-form and, for the most part, do something together. But it was very exciting that we come from two schools, but came in and had the same language, the same vocabulary. We kind of knew what the other was doing. I always thought that was really cool.

Alissa Wilkinson

Your comedy is all about telling stories. Are there any storytellers you especially admire or look to?

Ben Schwartz

Oh, that’s interesting. What do you think, Thomas?

Thomas Middleditch

[Mike] Birbiglia comes to mind. He’s built his career on funny, engaging, sweet, thoughtful storytelling. I think Birbiglia is a great storyteller.

But, like, also, who tells good stories? Like … Spielberg? [Laughs.] He tells pretty good stories! And I love a good Radiolab episode!

Ben Schwartz

Garry Shandling was it for me, because I love The Larry Sanders Show, and I loved the way he told jokes. Episodes of The Larry Sanders Show were always so interesting, because there was comedy, but it was always very heartfelt, and the characters kind of reigned supreme in that show. Shandling was a big one for me.

Alissa Wilkinson

Sometimes I think about how folk singers are such great storytellers.

Thomas Middleditch

Oh, yeah! Little bit of Phil Ochs: “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.” It’s great.

Ben Schwartz

Bill Withers, who just passed away. All of his songs are these beautiful little stories, and they’re so simple. I loved Bill Withers’s music for that reason.

Thomas Middleditch

For me, on a personal level, there’s a lot of UK influence. Any time Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant have done something, all their characters have this sadness underlying them. I really like building characters with stories where there’s some aspect where not everything is hunky-dory silly-billies.

There’s a bit of that in our shows too: “What are the stakes here? What will matter to these people if what they want doesn’t happen?” We’ve done so many improv shows, with us and other people, where it feels like, yes, that was very funny, but it just felt like we got full off popcorn. What we’re trying to do — whether or not we do it is up to the audience, but we’re trying, with a little bit of storytelling, with a little bit of stakes to the characters and their wants, is add a little bit more, I dunno, some kind of dimension to it. We’re not the first ones to do that. T.J. [Jagodowski] and Dave [Pasquesi], for example, out of Chicago …

Ben Schwartz

T.J. and Dave are great.

Thomas Middleditch

They’re a prominent and inspirational duo for us. They’ve been doing their two-person improv show for a very long time.

All three versions of Middleditch & Schwartz are streaming on Netflix.

Author: Alissa Wilkinson

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