Interview: Ben Schwartz on ‘Space Force,’ ‘Middleditch & Schwartz,’ quarantine hair and TikTok
You might know Ben Schwartz best as Jean Ralphio Saperstein (“The worrrrrst”) on Parks and Recreation but with over 40 television roles and two dozen in film, Schwartz is one of the most prolific actors working today.
Born and raised in the Bronx, Schwartz’s career path did not have ‘comedy king’ on his vision board. But as he neared the end of his college years, he joined a play to help boost his GPA to cum laude status. The acting bug stuck and after graduation immediately pivoted to a hopeful career in comedy, joining the legendary Upright Citizens Brigade and writing, directing and acting in his own short films. Despite no direct connections to the entertainment industry, he built them from the ground floor with his sharp writing, quick wit and mastery of the ‘yes and’ of improv theater. As a part of CollegeHumor, his web series Jake and Amir has accumulated over a billion views. He’s co-authored four books and consulted on Star Wars films. He’s an Emmy winner and multi-nominee.
Often cast as the snide and snarky sidekick, Schwartz has also curated one of the most respected voice over careers in the business. From Bob’s Burgers, The Simpsons, Robot Chicken and BoJack Horseman, you’ve definitely heard him. Most recently he’s been playing Dewey in the reboot of DuckTales and Leonardo in Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But it was nabbing the role of Sonic in the blockbuster Sonic the Hedgehog movie that came out this year that had him grabbing for and snagging Hollywood’s gold rings.
I spoke with the hardest working comic in the biz about his two newest projects, the three-part series Middleditch & Schwartz (currently streaming on Netflix, their first ever long-form improv special) where he and fellow improv and series actor Thomas Middleditch (Emmy nominee for Silicon Valley) build fully realized storylines out of audience suggestions filmed at New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, and his upcoming role on the comedy series Space Force, the government satire which co-stars Steve Carell and John Malkovich (it debuts May 29).
EA: How are you doing with all of everything that’s happening and most importantly, how is your hair doing?
BS: (laughs) My hair is so long, I don’t know what to do and I’ve already thought about trying to cut it myself and there’s just no reason to. Literally I have, I would, I would be watching a YouTube video or FaceTiming one of my friends actually cuts hair and just being like, now what do I do? It would be such a disaster. But other than that the same stress as everyone. I feel very fortunate but also terrified.
EA: I don’t recommend the self haircut. I did it and I regretted it immediately.
BS: What do you do? Did you use clippers?
EA: I went straight clippers in and started right in the middle. So there was no going back.
BS: Oh my God.
EA: That’s okay. We’re closed off from everybody so I’ve got time to recuperate.
BS: Amazing. Amazing.
EA: Something I’ve been really curious about is that you graduated college with a double major in psychology and anthropology, and then you were embedded in comedy gigs, almost immediately. What changed for you to make a pivot like that?
BS: When I was in college I didn’t know what I wanted my major to be and I just kept following the teachers that I liked in the subjects that interested me. So in psychology there was a guy named professor DeBono who I really liked. And then in anthropology there were two married teachers and I just loved taking their classes. So I ended up with a double major in two things that I wasn’t quite certain what I was going to do after college. And then the last year of college I did a play. I took an acting class because my GPA was almost up to be cum laude. And I was like, screw it, I’m going to take that class notoriously athletes at the school take so they don’t fail. But I’m going to take it to try to get cum laude. And so I took it and one of the prerequisites of the class is that you have to audition for a play. So I did the play and then I did an improv team that year and I asked my parents if it was okay for me to try comedy and they said, ‘You know what, we’ll give you two years, we’ll help you rent it for a year and then she see where you were after that.’ And I just worked so hard every day in those two years to make sure that I would do it because I want it to do it so bad. And then after that time, I was making enough money through commercials or whatever job I could get that let me keep doing it.
EA: It ended up being really successful. I feel like not enough people know that you won an Emmy for Hugh Jackman’s 2009 Oscar opening.
EA: I will repeat that as many times as I as I can because it’s such a great number and it’s usually regarded as one of and best openings in the modern era of the Oscars. What was that experience like?
BS: If you look at that team, that team is Dan Harmon before Community came out, Rob Schrab who was a genius and me and it’s like, I remember literally people were auditioning for Community, the pilot at the time I believe, because I remember Dan with chatting about different people and I would just chatting because I was in the comedy world, but it was amazing. I literally just moved from New York to LA. I made the decision to move into LA and I had like a bunch of shows at the UCB in Chelsea, I’ve been performing there for a bunch of years and moved to LA. And then one of my general meetings was with Hugh Jackson’s company about maybe writing stuff for them they said, ‘Hey, he’s hosting the Oscars this year. What would you do?’ And so I had some ideas and gave them a bunch of my jokes from when I used to freelance for Letterman and SNL. And then they say, ‘Ok, you got to go back to New York.’ So literally, I moved to LA and then immediately moved back to New York for a week. It was all very, very funny.
When I got there I was like, yeah, I’ll probably do a musical number about how we’re going through a recession, everything is pulled back. There’s not enough money. He has to do it himself. And when I got there, Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab had the same exact idea. So there was no fighting. It was like immediately we were on the same page and off to the races. But it shows you how good Harmon is. It’s also so funny you bring that up because you’re right, I’ve been nominated for three Emmys and nobody really knows I’ve won one or ever been nominated. I just sold this movie with Sam Rockwell and some of the articles are like, ‘it’s his first screenplay,’ but I sold six studio movies. They just don’t get as much attention as the other stuff.
EA: Yes. Come on. Do your homework, people. It’s right there.
EA: I think a lot of people were really excited for the return of Jean Ralphio during the Parks and Recreation reunion special, which was amazing.
EA: How was that to work on and put together so quickly?
BS: It was great. First of all, the easiest ‘yes’ in the universe. It was so fun and easy to just get back in the swing. They said, ‘Do you want to do it? I said, ‘Are you kidding? Of course. What do you want me to do.’ I was so excited they were putting it together. They sent the script and it was so sweet and so well written and so funny. And the writers wrote it in like three days. It’s truly amazing. It was all literally in a box outside my house. Doug, who works for the show, drops off a cell phone that had a light on it and a little camera on it and a tripod. And for me, they dropped off two stacks of bills, two stacks of fake money and a weird like pink coconut shirt. And that’s literally all that was in the box.
EA: Oh my God.
BS: Then we went on Zoom, I set up the camera and then on my laptop on my chair to the left, out of frame, with Morgan Sackett and Dean Holland, the editor, creator and director of the show. I think Morgan directed the episode and I would do it for them and Mike [Shur] would give me some notes, Morgan would give me some notes. We did a couple of takes and that was it. Then I took a bunch of pictures around my house where it looked like nothing was in my house. And a picture where it looked like I got hit by something and they were going to CGI and then I just put this stuff back in the box and someone picked it up an hour later. It happened so quick and it was on TV. It was incredible. I can’t believe it. And then it raised millions of dollars! It was so, so fun to do that. And it was so easy to get back into the character. The one thing I learned is that after doing voiceover for so many years, I couldn’t, like after the fifth take, I couldn’t sing and hit the high notes because my voice is just shot from doing Sonic and Duck Tales for years.
EA: It was a great special and highlights that the diversity of your projects is really wild.
BS: I feel so lucky.
EA: This dovetails right into your new show Space Force on Netflix, which was also created by Greg Daniels from Parks and Rec. It’s loosely based on the plan by the current president to have a Space Force. What excited you the most about this?
BS: I had just finished I did this TV show, this pilot for Showtime, that JJ Abrams, James Corden and Matt Baynton were producing The Wrong Mans, it was an American version of the show that James and Matt did in the UK. We shot it and it went really well, but they didn’t pick it up and every, and like it had just been done. I found out that it wasn’t going anywhere and the next day, and we were tracking this other show [Space Force] just in case this one didn’t go. And I’m like, Oh my God, it’d be so fun.
And then they said, you want to go and audition for it? And I was like, are you kidding me? It was Greg Daniels who I idolized. I’m a huge Simpsons fan. And then, you know, he did stuff on SNL and he helped bring The Office to America and obviously he worked on Parks and Rec, but I didn’t get to really see him on Parks and Rec because as a guest star I just come in like a day or so. I was always doing a different TV show at the same time, so I never really got to any of the table reads. So the first time I ever did the words for any episode of Jean Ralphio, I literally, when they rolled cameras, which I always thought was really fun and exciting. But to work with him and then to work with Steve Carell, well, I’d never met in my life. And then while the process is happening, you find out John Malkovich is going to be a part of it. It’s like those are heroes, heroes of comedy and stage. So it was, I would do anything. I could have any role in or do anything in that type of TV show. I knew that I’d be watching it anyway and I knew that if I didn’t at least try to get a role in it, I’d be so bummed that I wasn’t a part of it because it’s just such brilliant people that are involved.
EA: I was nervous for you every time you were in a scene with John Malkovich because because he seems intimidating.
BS: It was wild. He’s so amazing. He’s such a kind, lovely man. He loved to laugh with us. He loved to be involved as needed. He was just, we had such a good time and still we have little Zoom meetings where we all talk and have like a little sip of wine and just tell what’s up for the past couple of weeks. It’s been lovely. It’s so funny. He’s the guy that like if I’m on the phone with some of my friends that are really established in the acting world and I’ll be FaceTiming with somebody and John Malkovich is walking in the background, he’s going somewhere, they’ll be like, ‘Holy shit, was that John Malkovich?’ That’s like, the version of what Steve Carell is to comedians is like, Malkovich is a legend in the acting world. I was so fortunate to learn from both of them because you learn so many different things from both of them.
EA: I feel like there’s almost a through line from the management consultant Clyde Oberholt on House of Lies that you played and the publicist F. Tony Scarapiducci on Space Force. Is F. Tony based on anyone in particular or more of just kind of a composite of a publicist?
BS: No, but by the way, that’s such a good call. The idea of what Clyde Oberholt did, the idea that he’s a hustler, he’s always trying to get to the top of the field kind of screw over anybody. F. Tony is not nearly as ruthless, but he is looking out for himself and the fun in that is where were House of Lies would bend more dramatic, Space Force bends more comedic. The spine is dramatic but it’s a comedic show, which was so much fun to play because I hadn’t played a character like that. The inspiration, I want to make sure I wasn’t copying anything. So I know that the idea Fuck Tony is kind of making fun of the Instagram account Fuck Jerry, which was a big media thing. I think it’s still around and it helped with the Fyre Festival, getting the Fyre Festival out there. And then the name Scarapiducci is obviously making fun of the Mooch of course (former White House Director of Communications Anthony Scaramucci). But I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just making fun of either one of those people. When I saw him [F. Tony] he’s this guy who kinda like lost his media manager job at American Apparel and probably has nowhere else to go. And this is his last hope of keeping a job. So he has to pretend for a present to everybody that he’s under control and like has a nice confidence to him.
But in essence he’s just trying to keep his job and he’s trying to impress Mark Naird enough so he doesn’t get fired because Steve Carell’s character (Naird) couldn’t care less about social media or media or anything like that. So it’s a fun balance to play where I think this guy, if you actually followed him when he got home, is a pretty sad guy and has a bunch of followers but has no real friends. So it’s really fun to play that.
EA: Absolutely. There are moments, especially that press conference that just were hilarious. I’ve been in enough situations where you have a publicist that is consistently diverting the target and it was great. You were fantastic.
BS: Aw, thanks man. I think also if you watch, that character, I think the first four episodes were written before I was cast and then you start to see them with me in mind and play around with the character a bit. I’m very excited for the set up for season two because with any of Greg’s shows, you really watch how the foundation is set in one but then they really grow out the characters. They really write towards the characters’ strengths as the seasons go, look at The Office or Parks or anything. So I could not be more excited about what could possibly happen if we get a second season.
EA: I think it’s a really fun mix of people because you have this NBC comedy team, you have Christopher Guest people like Fred Willard and Don Lake.
BS: Oh my God, Don is so good in this.
EA: Your scenes with him might be the funniest part of the show. You guys play off each extremely well.
BS: Right? I love it. I love him. Everything he does makes me laugh. I’m so happy for the world to see Don Lake again because he’s so fucking funny.
EA: Yeah, he is. I think it might be one of the bigger platforms for people to see him outside of all of us Christopher Guest fans.
BS: I agree. I’m so excited.
EA: You’ve also got Middleditch & Schwartz, which is also on Netflix and that’s a series of three live improv shows with you and Thomas Middleditch, which are also fantastic.
BS: Thanks man. We’re so, so proud of it because it’s very hard to get love for improv, and a big audience if it’s filmed, so this was a huge one for us. We’re so happy, we cannot believe how positive and like the critics have been so kind and people seem to be eating it up so we could not be happier.
EA: I know that you’re a seasoned improv guy and you and Thomas are are close friends but how do you really prepare for something like this that is just so naked?
BS: The biggest thing for us is literally just a ‘yes and’ to every single thing that comes out of each other’s mouth. But for us, the way to prepare it, the scariest part of it for us is that we’ve done, I mean I’ve done in for 20 years, Thomas has done it for a little over 20 years we’ve done thousands, literally thousands of shows and none of them matter. We were filming four and gonna release three of the four, so whatever happens, whoever we randomly picked to give the story, we’ve got to hope that the conversation we had at the beginning isn’t boring or about a story that nobody’s going to like. You know what I mean? It was a definite added pressure to be like whatever happens happens because in stand-up specials, if you filmed two of the same set, you kind of can just use your favorite bits from either and if a joke doesn’t work, you can cut it. For ours, you can’t really cut a big section of our show because it’s a storyline. And if we cut that then the story won’t make any sense. So it’s just a matter of crossing our fingers and hoping that it works out. Hoping that it shows you kind of what happens when you come to one of our shows. And I think you’d get a pretty good example from the three different specials of like, ‘Oh you know, sometimes it’s one team, sometimes it’s like 20 characters, sometimes it’s like five,’ you know, stuff like that.
EA: I couldn’t even imagine editing that because you guys are working so hard as it is to keep the through line of the stories that you’ve already started creating and remembering each other’s names. And honestly some of that ends up being the funniest part of watching you and Thomas worked through the motions of which of ‘wait, does my character have a name. What was that name?’
BS: Yeah, because it shows you if anyone was unsure that we’re making it up. It’s so lovely when you don’t see any of the strings while we’re playing. But there’s moments where you see us being like, it’s better to take those moments and figure shit out as opposed to us not being sure what’s going on and the other one keeps going and then it gets a little muddled and weird. So we take advantage and we’ve been doing it for so long that we kinda like said play with those rules and we like to break the fourth wall. Not a ton, but when it feels like would be a fun moment to do so. It’s really fun to see that stuff translate and also a treat, because that’s another thing; people were like, ‘well, will that make sense if you’re not in the audience?’ And that turned out it did, which is so great.
EA: I understand you’re a big video game fan. What are you playing right now?
BS: Yes! You know, it’s funny, I beat a lot of games but mostly like Super Nintendo, Genesis games. But the past couple of months, I ran through the whole like, the Sonics again and Castlevania on SNES. I’ve kind of been going through old games. I beat Chrono Trigger again, which was one of my favorite games as a kid. I loved that game. And then a game called Out of This World, which was another favorite. I’m finding myself reverting to older movies and older stuff to like kind of calm myself down during this remind me of being young.
Me and a bunch of my friends have Mario Kart 8, we all get on at the same time and we play like even if it’s just for a half an hour and it almost feels like you’re hanging out with people even though, I mean, we are very much not, but that’s been really fun.
EA: I love that. I know you’re aware of the rise in popularity of ‘Don’t be Suspicious‘ from Parks and Rec on TikTok.
BS: I just found out like two weeks ago!
EA: It’s really, really huge and almost like 90% cats. It’s the coolest thing ever.
BS: (laughs) I don’t have TikTok so I can’t see how truly big it is. But people have sent them to me, and I tweeted it out, it seems like it’s huge and many of the kids that are doing it don’t even know that it’s from Parks or Jean Ralphio or anything like that. But it makes me laugh so hard.
EA: I scroll through TikTok almost and have almost exclusively cat content now and when they come up it’s funny every single time. I love it, it’s lasting.
BS: Man, there were so many funny ones. I feel like if TikTok had come out right when I was coming up in the comedy world it would have been my favorite thing. It literally looks like everybody just ‘yes and’ing each other and taking a bit and exploding it to be like a huge thing. It would have been so much fun for my friends and I to be playing with that world.
EA: Ben, it was so great to chat with you.
BS: Yes, you too.
EA: Please take care. Please be safe and, and have as much fun as you can during all this.
BS: Thank you, brother. Same to you. Take care.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.