The controlled chaos of an improv show gets expanded to a full hour in Middleditch and Schwartz, a Netflix special/collection of three distinct taped performances showcasing actors Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz’s command of a form that they’ve been practicing for years. Silly and inventive, the task at hand is grand with both posting up as a reliable scene partner for the other while jumping between multiple characters, carrying the thread of a story, and occasionally breaking the fourth wall to comment on what’s happening. Middleditch and Schwartz is, quite frankly, like nothing else currently on Netflix (it’s available to stream now).
Uproxx spoke with both recently about leaning on each other in a scene, the allure of longform improv, hitting the stage post-fear, and why they’re never going to be on Cameo.
So tell me a little bit about your background performing with each other.
Ben Schwartz: We were rivals for many years.
Thomas Middleditch: I poisoned many of his pets and he said, “What’s it going to take for you to stop poisoning my pets?” And I said, “Do two-person improv with me.”
Schwartz: And the crazy thing is I started doing two-person improv with him and then he kept killing my pets and I was like, “Why?” And he goes, “Just to show you, I still have the power.” It was so fucked up, I respected him so much that I was like, “Let’s go on tour together.”
Middleditch: You love a good power play. I think the true story goes…
We can do the whole interview like this.
Middleditch: Yeah, that’s what people need, right?
Schwartz: [Laughs] Oy Gevalt.
Middleditch: Now listen up to me! I moved to New York from Chicago, and I didn’t have very many friends and Ben was kind enough to go get pizza with me! So we got some pizza, and we talked about doing some improv and then we did two-person improv at a night called School Night at UCB where we’d do like five or eight minutes, a real short set, and then we just kind of hit it off and then it was just something that we did here and there until I demanded that we start taking it more seriously. And Ben, after years, finally relented.
Schwartz: When Thomas came from Chicago, I saw him on stage and he was clearly so fucking good and so funny. And he’s exactly right. Two-person, five-minute shows and then a little bit longer, then I moved to LA, and then he moved to LA, and we started doing it there and some people started coming, and then we started doing a 30-minute show.
How do you deal with the challenge of extending way out beyond a five-minute thing and keeping track of all these characters — I imagine fear plays into it at some point.
Middleditch: It’s just entirely exciting. Fear isn’t even a part of it. The closest thing is maybe a little bit of anxiety. Like, when we first played Carnegie Hall because it was like such a milestone for us, so we just wanted the show to go well. And the extreme is Netflix, there was so much pressure. Improv is like, you just want it to be free. But here’s this high thing… “this is what you’ve been waiting for, I hope it’s good.” But even when we’re trying to do a scene, and it happens from time to time, we’re in the scene, or if there’s just like 15 minutes in the show and we’re kind of like, “Huh, not sure where this is going to go here.” Our little writer brains are maybe struggling to latch on to something. It’s not fear. It’s kind of problem-solving as opposed to panic.
Schwartz: I think a lot of that fear occurs at the beginning while you’re failing and failing and nobody’s seen you perform and you can’t get laughs. You’re making too many jokes. You’re not connecting with the team. I think, for me at least, a lot of that happened. We’ve been very fortunate in that we’ve been playing together pretty well for a while now, so there won’t be a show that totally bombs. But if there’s a moment that feels like, “We’ve got to get some laughs.” It feels like that moment exactly that Thomas mentioned. “Okay, we’ve got to figure this out. Let’s get into this, let’s push a little harder.” Because the best improv is always when you don’t see us working hard at all. Yes, there are some shows where we literally play ten characters each and you never know what’s going to happen. That’s hard work. That’s mental sweat. If we get into a corner or we can’t figure out a way out. But I think it’s just that we’ve been doing it for so long that we’re able to navigate, and also with each other, I’m able to trust Thomas that if we’re in this situation and I don’t have anything that he probably has something or vice versa.
Are there non-verbal cues or signs? How do you let him know, “Okay, this isn’t going well”?
Schwartz: There are no baseball signs that we’re throwing each other to do things. It’s literally just a matter of once you’ve been working with someone for quite some time — and the same with writing or acting or other jobs, — where you get a feel while they’re doing something, where you know where it’s going to go, where you can kind of join in, and where you can create it together. But very rarely will someone be like, “What the fuck is going on?” You know what I mean?
Middleditch: This is a show that’s a little different, where Ben and I break the fourth wall all the time. So if we’re in a scene and just don’t know what’s going on, it’s happened before where one of us was like, “I don’t really know what’s going on with this, but we can figure this out.” And we keep it loose because I think we slide in and out of, “okay, in this particular moment we’re really 100% from the point of view of the characters” and it’s like a very sincere thing. And then we’ll flip off the switch, we’ll sidebar and make fun of each other on a personal level or comment about “What the hell are you doing?” We dart in and out, which I think is super freeing.
Is that the difference between good improv and bad improv: not taking it too seriously?
Schwartz: That’s not the case. There are very strong, very serious and great improv groups. But also, the inverse of that, if nothing has any meaning, there’s no space to anything, then you get bored watching what’s going on on the stage. I think that you have to have a looseness with your partner, or whatever that means. And I think that Thomas and I, we kind of developed this version of a form that we have where we do a show for an hour and, you kind of pace yourself. You know exactly how long you have and stuff like that. Right Thomas? I wouldn’t say there’s…
Middleditch: You wouldn’t say there’s a what?
Schwartz: I don’t know. What was the question? What is this interview?
We’re talking about House Of Lies season 2…
Schwartz: I didn’t understand why Cheadle had to that…
Exactly, yeah. No, I’m trying to figure out what the difference is between good improv and bad improv and Ben was basically telling me that I’m a moron. And then Thomas, you were going to redeem my thought.
Middleditch: [Laughs] I’m actually going to piggyback on Ben. I think it’s a mix because, just as Ben was saying, TJ and Dave out of Chicago are legendary. They do a show that is honestly a big inspiration for us, but they don’t really break the fourth wall. They’re in it and they act the hell out of that and it’s really great. But it’s a different pace, it’s a different style. But you can’t say, “Oh, they’re not having enough fun. They’re not good.” They’re legendary, they’re masters of that. And I would actually argue, and I’ve seen very silly, like “I don’t give a fuck” improv where it’s like nonsense after nonsense, but it’s a good time. It feels a bit like you’ve had popcorn for dinner, but it’s a good time. And I would actually say that, because that feels so alluring as a new, young improviser, where you see a group that’s just shooting from the hip and they bail on scenes and characters, that there’s often a wave of almost unaffected improv that I see a lot. And I think that’s kind of boring. I think if you just have a couple of people quote, unquote “playing” characters in a scene and they’re not really in it, it’s just sort of two people standing and delivering dumb stuff to say. I need a little bit more investment. Even if I’m going to totally negate that, and two seconds later break the fourth wall and talk to Ben as Ben, I still want to snap back in and play that part. I think it makes for a more engaging show, at least how we’re doing it. Again, we’re doing a show where there’s a narrative, characters, and story unfolding. Right? There’s plenty of shows that are just, the scene resets, and it’s new people, new premise, do whatever, and that’s going to be its own little thing. And those can be fun too.
Yeah, of course.
Middleditch: But the key to it is definitely not like whatever the fuck you said.
Schwartz: I can’t even remember what stupid, fucking, idiotic thing you said.
Middleditch: Oh my God!
[Laughs] This is amazing. You guys could put this on Cameo, and people who want self-abuse could just pay you guys 200 or 300 bucks.
Middleditch: Do people want to get put down on Cameo? Is that a thing?
I don’t know. I’ve only done Cameo one time. I did it for a friend of mine and I asked them to leave a specific inside joke about Hitchhiker’s Guide and they ignored the ask and I left them a good review anyway because I’m not going to give someone notes in the end times.
Schwartz: No! But they gave a message to your friend, how fun is that? I’m sure he flipped out.
Yeah, he lost his mind. But it seems to be a growing thing. I imagine if this thing continues a few more months, more people will be on there.
Middleditch: Not me.
Stay strong. I’m sure it’s not exactly a joyful task.
Middleditch: You can put that in the article, I’m not doing Cameo, so will the representatives from Cameo please stop DMing me on Instagram? Every other week, there’s some guy like, “Hi, we’re from Cameo, we would love to have you on our platform.” Not happening, quit bugging me!
[Laughs] I can’t tell if you’re being truthful or not. I hope you are. So I’m going to keep it in.
Middleditch: I’m being 100% truthful.
That’s awesome. Ben, you gonna do Cameo?
Schwartz: No, I’m okay for now.
How much would it cost for you to do Jean Ralphio for people, for birthday party greetings? How much money? What’s your price?
Middleditch: It’s $50k.
Schwartz: The only thing I would do is like a charity thing, but even then, I’d be like, “Hey, if you want something for charity, I’ll just make you a video or something else.” My friend bought the exact same thing you did to try to get an NBA player for her friend’s birthday and they flipped out. So I understand why it exists. But Thomas is not going to play Richard Hendricks to tell your daughter to have a happy quinceañera. He refuses to.
Middleditch: I don’t care about your daughter. I don’t even know her!
Again, I think that’s the right attitude to have.
Middleditch: Thank you.
So, with the special, how different is the mindset going into something where you’re recording it versus having it live only that night? Are you setting any kind of limitations on yourselves?
Schwartz: We tried not to put restraints on ourselves, but there are obvious restraints. One is that we can’t sing copyrighted songs, stuff that you don’t even think about. But, you’re told beforehand, “If you sing this, it’s going to cost blank amount of money, and we don’t have any money for the special, so we can’t pay for that.” These rules for television that we never have to think about when we’re on stage. You can’t talk about a celebrity and stuff. Even if you’re playing them in a fictitious way, you can’t do it in a disparaging way, blah, blah, blah. So, that’s the first time, for me at least, performing where you have to stop your brain if it’s going to go in that direction, or if we did do something like that, we couldn’t use it. I think that was the biggest thing.
Middleditch: Yeah, we got used to it. I think the goal was to just, as accurately as we could, capture what we do on any given night that we’re out on the road or at some nice theater and we’re doing what we do. Just capture that, translate that, put it on a TV screen, or a laptop, computer, or whatever the hell.
Schwartz: The other thing to keep in mind, is that when a standup puts out a special, they’ve worked on that specific work for six months or a year, and then they make the special. For this, it’s whatever we film is what our specials are, and I think you can feel the excitement of that in the special. Hopefully, people feel that, that it’s like, “Oh, it’s all being made up on the spot.”
Is the goal to do this as a somewhat regular thing?
Schwartz: Yeah, I would love that.
Middleditch: That’s up to Netflix. And in return, it’s up to the people who watch it. Just hopefully, they watch it, and whatever crazy Netflix algorithm happens, they can go, “Oh wow, this is successful. Let’s see more,” because it’s possible. You just rent out a theater for a couple of nights and bada boom.
Schwartz: We love improv. We’ve been doing it for so long, and the fact that we get to do these shows and maybe people who’ve never seen improv before are going to see it for the first time, and they’ll buy “Truth in Comedy” or go take a class. That’s really exciting for us. In the end, that’s the reason why we do longform improv and it’s something we did for free for 18 or 20 years. It’s just that we love it. We love it so much. So, our hope is that people will get to see that we love it and stuff like that.
How do you take it to the next level?
Schwartz: You talking about taking it to the max!?
How do you take it to the max!?
Schwartz: Thomas and I want to go out of the country, and if these Netflix shows do well and all these people in different countries get to see us and enjoy the show, that would be a trip, man. To go to the UK, to go to Australia. That stuff would be pretty cool. And because I’m from New York, if there are bigger and bigger venues we play in New York, it’s just a trip for me because I grew up looking at those venues and watching shows. So, that’s always like … There are all these little things that we don’t even know are on our bucket list. Then, we do them. We’re like, “Oh my God.” Like Carnegie Hall was crazy. For a two-person improv troupe to play Carnegie Hall for an hour and 25 minutes, it was really, really special. So, I guess we just keep doing it until people don’t want us to.
‘Middleditch And Schwartz’ specials are available to stream on Netflix right now.