With “Parks and Recreation” only a few days away from ending, we”ve been running a lot of stories about the show”s history, including Jim O”Heir recalling the strange life of Garry Gergich, and Mike Schur explaining the show”s weird recurring characters and running gags . One of those weirdoes was Jean-Ralphio Saperstein, Tom Haverford”s best friend and a monstrous human being. Earlier this week, I emailed actor Ben Schwartz a few questions about how he got the part, the origin of Jean-Ralphio”s hair, love of singing, and more.
The “Parks” series finale airs Tuesday night at 10 on NBC. Before then, I have one more big interview to publish, plus a look back at what made this one of TV”s best comedies.
Mike said that Jean-Ralphio was born out of you spending an hour in his office and making him realize you were funny enough to come up with a character for. What do you remember about that meeting? What role were you originally there to talk about?
Ben Schwartz: I remember hearing that they were looking for a love interest for Leslie (which I think eventually became Louis CK) and realizing I was too young for it. But they wanted to meet me anyway. I think Mike had seen some short films I did for ESPN and liked them. In the shorts I interviewed professional athletes in a character I came up with who basically was filled with confidence but knew nothing about sports and was stuck with these athletes and had to deal with it. He he probably saw the first few with Nastia Liukin and Tony Gonzalez. It meant a lot to me that Mike liked anything I did because I had been such a huge fan of the shows he had worked on in the past. In the meeting it was just me, Mike Schur and Katie Dippold, who I came up with at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in NY and has gone on to write “The Heat” and the new “Ghostbusters.” I don’t remember what we talked about but I remember it being unique and fun for me because it was the first time I was in the room for something and there were no sides, nothing to memorize. We were just talking. The show had just started it’s second season. I don’t know if this timeline is right, but I think that’s when Mike talked to me about how they wanted to populate the town with fun side characters, like “The Simpsons,” and would keep me in mind if anything came up. But we never talked about an actual role. It was just to meet me and chat. Later on, my very first episode was written by Katie. Mike came down to watch the rehearsal and the second I was done he came up to me and told me I’d be coming back. Insane.
Once they came up with the character, what were you told about him, and how did you decide to play him? Did you model him on anyone you know?
Ben Schwartz: I don’t remember exactly what I was told. I think maybe that he was Tom’s best friend. I didn’t model him after anyone I knew but the second I read the sides, I knew how I wanted to play him. There is actual a crazy story at how it began. I of course wanted to do anything in “Parks.” I loved the show, the creators and all of the actors in it, many of which came through the UCB Theatre in NY. I was an intern for the UCB on Sundays to get free classes, so I had the insane privilege of watching Amy Poehler perform in Asssscat every week and it blew my mind. She is so incredibly talented and wonderful, so the fact that I was going to be on the same show as her made it feel like a wonderful full circle. I had no idea at the time but someone at “Parks” contacted my agent to offer me the role of Jean-Ralphio but I guess my agent wasn’t in and an assistant answered the phone and then for some insane reason the assistant turned down the role without even contacting me. I knew nothing about this until a writer from the show contacted me personally and said, we’re super bummed you are passing on the role. I quickly told them I had no idea what they were talking about and whatever the role was I’m in and can’t wait. I said yes without even reading it and I was horrified that anyone at that show would think I would pass on any role. It was quickly cleared up, probably a miscommunication and they sent me the sides for Jean-Ralphio which was just one scene where Ron interviews JR to be his new assistant. It was a part of a larger montage and that was it. I was so excited that I got to be in an episode of the show.
Was your hair naturally that big at the time, or did you work with the “Parks” hair people to make it that particularly Jean-Ralphio coiff?
Ben Schwartz: I never grew out my hair when I lived in NY but when I moved to LA, I let it grow out because I was doing a lot of writing, didn’t have a ton of auditions yet and I didn’t know where I should get it cut. The first time I realized I should keep it big was when I auditioned for a Mitch Hurwitz pilot which I eventually got the role in. I got into the audition for Mitch and Allison Jones (who cast everything including “The Office” and the pilot of “Parks”) and my hair was huge, just a mess and I apologized for it and told him I’d get it cut and Mitch said don’t you dare cut that thing. It made me realize that maybe I should keep growing it out, it might help me stand out a little. When I came to “Parks,” it was a still huge and I went to hair and make up excited to get a free haircut and I heard that Mike didn’t want me cutting it at all. He loved how insane it looked, so I just did the scene with what looks like a small Jewish dog on my head. After that, anytime I did an episode of “Parks” the hair team and I would have the best time thinking of new, insane ways to make my hair look crazy. There was one episode where every single scene I had a completely different hair style. It got a little hard when I was shooting the TV show “Undercovers” at the same time because my hair was short in that show.
There are whole YouTube montages of Jean-Ralphio singing. Was the first time something scripted, or something you improvised that the writers wanted you to keep doing in later appearances? And do you have a favorite phrase that you got to sing on this show?
Ben Schwartz: I don’t have a favorite phrase, I love them all but the four that are most commonly sang back to me is “I got run over by a Lexus,” “Technically, I’m homeless,” “The woooorst,” and “Flush with cash.” Almost every time Jean-Ralphio sang it was scripted. I just found the script on my computer from the first time, it was written like this- “(sing-song) fluh-ush with cah-ash.” I tried doing it a couple of different ways, there’s actually a deleted scene or outtake of it somewhere, all of the different ways I tried it the first few times. After that, the writers found more and more ways to make him sing. One of my favorite parts of doing “Parks” is that they let you play. Even at the beginning, they let me try different things, sing different ways, improvise at the end of scenes. I would look around after and think, oh no, is that ok…and everyone would be happy and into it and it just gives you confidence to try more. If you watch, Jean-Ralphio gets a little crazier every time you see him which is a combination of me getting comfortable and the writers being amazing. Every script that is handed to you is hilarious because the writers are all geniuses. I really think that when people look back at this show, they will regard the writing team as one of the best in modern day television.
Dr. Saperstein seems like a perfectly nice man, and yet his children turned out to be… who they are. Whether before Henry Winkler was cast or after, have you put much thought into the Saperstein family history, or do you think the “pills” line from this week”s episode says all we need to know?
Ben Schwartz: Ha! I don’t think Jean-Ralphio is the way he is because of drugs or alcohol, etc. I think that’s just who he is from the moment he was born. He wants so badly for everyone to like him. I never thought in a million years we would get introduced to Jean-Ralphio’s family. It made me so happy. I remember when they were throwing names around for who they were thinking of for JR’s father, it was so exciting. And then when they got Henry Winkler, I mean…come on. That’s perfect and he’s the nicest human being in the universe. He was just so good. He played it so well where he is stable and so used to watching these hurricanes of terrible destroy things in front of him. Then I think Jenny Slate had just been cast in “House of Lies” so I hung out with her there and around the comedy world and she was just perfect. I remember the first time we acted together in “Parks,” she was playing Mona-Lisa for the first time and was so good. I think all I said to her was, you can always be crazier, the Sapersteins are basically cartoons. And one time I asked the wardrobe department if we could wear matching denim on denim outfits.
Even after “House of Lies” started up, you’ve appeared fairly often on “Parks.” Has it been easy juggling the two schedules? Were there ever times when “Parks” wanted you for something and you just couldn’t make it work because of the day job?
Ben Schwartz: I don’t know if I missed out on any “Parks” episodes, I’m almost nervous to find out, but I remember early on, after I was cast in the JJ Abrams/Josh Reims show “Undercovers,” I was worried I wasn’t going to be able to do as many “Parks” episodes and it really bummed me out. There was one instance when “Parks” really wanted me on a particular day but I was filming on Undercovers with stunts and locations and it wasn’t going to work. I figured this would be happening from time to time so I tried to be OK with it then something crazy happened. I got an email from my agent saying that Greg Daniels (who is one of my idols) is personally going to contact JJ Abrams (who is one of my idols) and see if they can figure something out. The fact that either one of those humans knew my name still makes me smile. They worked it out and so began the long beautiful relationship of me filming two shows at the same time. When I took the job at “House of Lies,” I made sure in my contract it allowed me to do a certain amount of “Parks” episodes a year. And I have to give SO MUCH credit to Showtime and “House of Lies” because they really worked hard to make sure I could make it whenever “Parks” needed me which is not easy with only four lead characters. The two productions became friendly with each other over the past 4 years and there were many many days where I would work “House of Lies” in the morning then “Parks” at night.
The regular castmembers talk all the time about what a fun place it was to work, how close they were, etc. As someone who was frequently part of the show, but not there full-time, what was the experience like for you?
Ben Schwartz: It was like coming home. Every time I was on that set they made me feel like family. The writers, directors, crew and actors, I couldn’t wait until the next time I got to play and chat with everyone. I am going to miss it so much.
As a Knicks fan, was it fun to work with Detlef Schrempf and Roy Hibbert during the Entertainment 720 arc, or did you have to swallow various remarks about the old Reggie Miller rivalry?
Ben Schwartz: Right now, as a Knicks fan, we are looking for anything to bring us joy. I was so excited when I found out I would be doing scenes with actual NBA players, both of which were All-Stars. They were both so amazing and wonderful. All I wanted to do was shoot around with them in between takes. When you act in “Parks,” you get to do something called a fun run, which is usually after they have enough takes that they are happy with, they would say OK, this one is for you, do whatever you want. And originally scripted in a scene I was supposed to just miss a jump shot and then say my lines to Adam Scott. I remember going up to Roy and Detlef and asking if they could somehow lift me up so I could dunk. And Detlef said that sometimes little kids would run and jump and instead of picking them up, they could give them a boost so they could actually dunk. And I said, that would be so amazing to which he replied- i’m too old to lift you up, make roy do it. And Roy was so excited to try it out. I didn’t tell the director Dean Holland what was happening but we tried it once beforehand (which I filmed on my iPhone) and it worked and then I told Dean we were ready to try something and we pulled it off on the first take. That’s what they used. You will never see me happier than in that scene right after I dunk that basketball with two NBA All-Stars guiding me to the rim. Deltef and Roy were game for any stupid bit and so kind. We’re all still friends.
Jean-Ralphio will basically hit on anyone who moves. Does he have an actual type? If, hypothetically, every single woman on the show – not just the regulars like Leslie and Ann and Donna, but Joan and Marcia Langman and Ethel Beavers – were to reciprocate his interest, whom would he choose?
Ben Schwartz: Jean-Ralphio’s type is D- all of the above.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com