When you watch Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz, both incredibly talented in their own right, perform onstage together, there is a natural chemistry. The sort of chemistry that two comedians would be lucky enough to stumble upon once in their life time for just 5 minutes. They both have similar styles and approaches to the craft that also help. But the most integral thing, to any comedy duo really, is trust. Trust that, no matter what weird turn Thomas may take, or if Ben wants to experiment with something new, the other will be right there in one swift motion. And that’s the thing you walk away with, is just how much trust each performer installs in one another.
Improv has been one of those art forms that hasn’t quite found a way to be properly represented on the screen. Sure, you have things such as Whose Line is it Anyway? that serve as an introduction to the sub-genre of comedy for many. But, as far as long-form improv goes, there hasn’t been a whole lot. It’s one of those things where “You know, you really had to be there.” It’s a very tricky thing to pull off, especially if you want to pull off three separate shows like they have here.
How Middleditch and Schwartz approach it, in their 3 new improvised comedy specials now on Netflix, is they spend the first 5 minutes talking to an audience member to create an idea, before they turn to each other and never turn to the audience for help again. They build upon that exchange they had with an audience member in that first 5 minutes, but that’s it. This way, when you’re sitting at home, you can enjoy it without feeling like you’re missing anything beyond the first few minutes. Middleditch and Schwartz have clearly found an ingenious way to hone in on this market that seemed nearly impossible. And they did so quite effortlessly, at that.
We recently spoke to Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz about their new specials, how their chemistry was formed, what goes on in their head after a show, and how to play improv to the back of the room.
Hi how’s it going?
BEN SCHWARTZ: Great, grand, wonderful.
THOMAS MIDDLEDITCH: Good. That’s a quote from, um, Billy Madison.
Right. Chris Farley’s character.
BS: The Big Lebowski.
TM: Yes. It’s a quote from when Chris Farley had that role in The Big Lewbowski.
I love him in that film. Now I know you guys have said previously that you didn’t want any videotaping going on at your shows because you wanted it to remain an experience that stays in the room. So what finally made you guys want to go ahead and film these three specials to Netflix? Was it a no-brainer?
BS: I would say that, for us, the live experience will always be that. Whenever you come to one of our live shows, outside of this taping that we did, it is still in that moment. So once we started touring, playing to these bigger venues, and it felt like an actual thing that we could do, we went out and tried to pitch it to people and found that it’s a difficult thing to pitch. Because when networks hear what it is and are like “Yeah, but what’s going to happen?” You just say “Well, we have no idea.” So it was very cool of Netflix that they understood it and said “Okay, we’re into it. Even though we have no idea what it is, let’s go for it.” I think once we started doing those shows for bigger places, like Carnegie Hall and the Chicago Theater and the Met, we thought about the idea of “Oh, we could get a bunch of cameras and really try to capture this so we hopefully get more people interested in coming to the show and enjoying showcasing our love of improv.
Was there that same uncertainty in terms of whether the live show would be able to translate to the audience at home?
TM: Oh, we didn’t know at all. We had a couple of ideas. We had more examples of what not to do than what to do based on like previous attempts to capture long form improv on film essentially. But we knew that it could work.
What were some of the things you knew not to do?
TM: (Laughs). Well, we’re not going to throw shade. But there’s a great improv documentary about T.J. and Dave, who are kind of like an inspiration for us. It’s called Trust Us This Is All Made Up. And it’s a lower budget, but they really do capture this team building. It’s a different thing. Two person, team building long form improv is different than Whose Line Is It Anyway, it’s different than a stand-up comedy special. It’s just like “How are you going to capture it? How are you going to not just bring the audience in, but bring them in at the same pace as the audience that’s in the theater? So no one’s ahead or behind.” There were a lot of question marks. We just knew that we had to have a ton of cameras. Just to make sure that we got everything.
BS: I think that was the best way to protect ourselves. We thought the more cameras we brought, the more coverage we could get, the more choices we had afterwards. And that was a huge thing. It was like “What can we give someone who comes to our shows in the special…” Where they’ll have a different experience on television than a live show. Like, if you’re in the back row of Carnegie Hall or wherever it is, and Thomas and I are having very minute expressions with our faces or whatever, you zoom the camera right in there and you can see it even more so. It’s like “Okay, let’s utilize the format we have and see what we can do.” And I think that was one of those things we were trying to do. “Let’s make it as unique as we can.”
When you started playing large venues like Carnegie Hall, how did you go about bringing something as intimate feeling as improv to such a large space?
TM: I think that was also a big question mark and a challenge that we were excited to take on. Because I think improv, especially, is done in smaller spaces.
BS: Like little cabaret spots.
TM: I mean, UCB theaters don’t hold more than, what, 115? Even the place we perform at in L.A., Largo, is a 200 seat theater. And so you’re kind of like “Will it even survive past that?”
BS: You’re kind of bred to believe that it can’t. And we worked ourselves up. Actually, the very first theater outside of L.A. was the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
TM: It was great. I think once you do those things, as performers and comedians, you swing for the fences and you’re like “Well, I don’t know if this is going to click.” And if it does, boy it’s encouraging. And I think all we did was we just put up the same shows that we always do. We don’t like sing it to the back row.
BS: And I think when we were doing those venues, every time we did one, it was like “Let’s see if this works for this big a venue. Let’s see if it works for 2,000 or 3,000. 3,600.” And so far we’re not at the point yet where we have to change anything. We’re still trying to bring all those people the experience of what our shows are at Largo for 250 people or whatever. And it’s the same thing when translating these specials, we want to do the same show. The only restrictions were we couldn’t sing copywritten songs or whatever. We’re trying to give them the same feeling as coming to our show.
And another thing is, because it is so of the moment, do you ever walk offstage after a show and think “Man, I really wish this was recorded.”?
BS: Especially since we did these specials. The shows we did after the specials every now and then we’ll come off stage and be like “Ah man. That would’ve been a great one to have as the special.” Because when you’re a stand up, they’ve been doing their material for 6 months, 7 months, and it’s finely tuned. They know the jokes they’re gonna say for the most part. And for us, you never know if we’re gonna have a great show, or a good show, or an “eh” show, or one of those top 10 “Holy Sh*t” shows. There’s no way to know because we have no idea what the material is, so every now and then we’ll walk offstage and be like “Ah, that was a good one. Too bad. Too bad we weren’t filming that one.”
Tell me about the chemistry you guys have. You’ve been doing it so long, was it pretty instantenous the first time you worked together?
TM: I would say it’s pretty instantaneous. I would say all good comedy partnerships that I’ve ever had have been instantaneous. But this one’s very special in the sense of it just starts out of like “I think you’re funny.” “I think you’re funny.” “Okay let’s go up.” Because improv is kinda like a team, even if it’s a team of two. So we would go up on Wednesday nights at UCB at midnight. Wasn’t it midnight?
BS: Yeah. Or 11 o’clock.
TM: It was so late on a work day. And we would do these 8 minute sets. And I think that was exciting because we both were realizing that we like the same level of controlled absurdity kind of stuff. And then what happens is just years of being friends and performing together so much, that trust built so that when you throw something out, you’re confident that they’ll be able to weave it in or deal with it or react to it or vice versa. So you end up being able to take bigger leaps, which sounds very esoteric and a little bit artsy but that’s… It’s like “I’m gonna swap this thing in, I’m going to save this character, I’m going to initiate this, I’m going to make this part of our scene that we’re making up on the spot now a reality.” And the other person has to go “I agree with it. Let me intergrate it and make it real.” It’s having a partner where you know kind of where they’re going, or even if you don’t, you fully understand and accept that it’s going to be great.
BS: I can’t tell you, I don’t know if you guys know but I just got kicked off the phone. So I literally missed the question where Thomas was probably saying really nice things about me, which is the biggest bummer out of all.
TM: No, I went on a whole diatribe about what a bummer it is after all these years still having to carry you.
BS: Whatever Thomas said, I can agree with. Do you want me to stop sanitizing the phones? I can chill if you want. It literally goes “BEEP”. “What? Hello?” Alright, I’ll stop. But still weird.
TM: This is weird.
We were talking about the chemistry you guys have, if you can add in on that Ben?
BS: I didn’t hear what Tom said, but it would be the same thing. I saw Thomas onstage and then he saw me onstage, and I thought “Oh my God. This guy is insanely talented.” And the first show out, I don’t remember our first show, but as Thomas said, it was a school night and we did 5 minutes or something. It went really well, we made each other laugh and we made the audience of, like, 10 people laugh. But it was cool. And it started as a 5 minute show, then a 10 minute show, until we got to 30 minutes. I had not done as much 2-person improv before. So it was kind of like how Thomas and I, as a two person team, could get more comfortable together. And then we did the show at UCLA and then we took it to Largo. And, as Thomas explained I’m sure, we put our trust in each other explicitly. And you’ve seen the goofiness. And then the plot, where we decided that our show should maybe have a throughline. It was like to challenge ourselves and it ended up going well and it opened up even more opportunities for what could happen in the show. It was all very, very exciting. When you find a good partner, it just keeps building and you keep getting better together.
Totally. And what are some really great cities, you’ve found while touring on the road, for improv? Like somewhere you weren’t expecting it to go over as well?
BS: First of all, we really like Toronto.
TM: Toronto is great, yeah. Detroit’s got a good improv scene coming up.
BS: Our crowds are like a mix of like fans who know us from T.V. or a film or something. And then like passionate improv dorks, like ourselves. I say dorks affectionately. When we did Boston, Boston was a big one that was great.
TM: They’re all good. I feel like if I don’t say a particularly city, they’re gonna be like “What the heck?”
BS: It’s true. They’re all our babies.
TM: They’ve all been different. They’ve all been good.
BS: We haven’t had a bad experience where we go to a city, we go onstage, and we’re like “Uh oh.” That hasn’t happened yet, which is nice. And people are supporting us and then also supporting improv, which is really cool to be around.
It seems like, within the last 10 years, more and more people have been starting to embrace improv. I grew up around Chicago, though, so I’ve been surrounded with it my whole life basically.
BS: Yeah. I think a lot of people’s idea of improv, at least mine was at the beginning, was Whose Line is It Anyway. And then you have short form improv, which is like games and stuff. Which is super fun. And then you start to learn about IO and Second City and read those books. When UCB became a bigger thing, I think improv helped comedians. Like with Apatow movies, where him and Garry Shandling used improv. So people started to use it more and more. So it kept growing and growing. There’s a scene in Detroit and Canada and stuff like that. So for us to be one of the first to have a comedy special that’s just for long-form improv, and definitely the first to have three specials come out on the same day, that’s a huge deal for us. The fact that we can be part of it is a big deal. We’re very excited by it.
Your show seems to have so many working parts, with a lot of different tangents that have to be tied together at the end. And with you both having to be so present in the moment, you ever have those times realizing, once offstage, that there are certain elements that you forgot to tie together at the end?
TM: I think it stands out more for us than anybody. And the fact that we kind of do a narrative type of shows, we’ll have these moments where we come offstage and maybe be like “Oh wait. You know how we should’ve ended that?” Of course we’re very critical of our own selves and we could pick apart a whole bunch of details. But we’ve repeatedly found that if we walk offstage all hum glum… I don’t think that’s a term… We’ll have folks come up, people who have come multiple times, and say that was their favorite one. And so, obviously we’re going to analyze and we’ll never stop because we’re crazy. But you really can’t be the most accurate of directors from within the show.
BS: I think also there will absolutely be those moments where, Thomas is right, we are by far the hardest judges on ourselves afterwards. And we’ll be like “Oh, that was a clumsy landing. We got it there, but that was a little bit of a clumsy landing.” We’ll talk about it. But for me, at least, when I started improv I would torment myself. If I had a bad show at the beginning, because in your head so much is riding on it. So it would bother me for days, and then slowly as you do it more, you don’t allow yourself to beat yourself up for as long. And I think Thomas and I are pretty good at that show was there at that moment and we’ll talk about it a little bit, “That show was good. That show felt weird.” We give ourselves a couple minutes afterwards, but then it kind of goes and then it kind of disappears. And for the most part, I know for me, I kind of forget about what happens at the show. Because we do so many of them now that you kind of forget exactly what happened. But when I was a kid coming up in improv, Thomas I don’t know if you did this at all, if I had a bad show, I would beat myself up so bad for a day or two and be so upset. And now that we’ve done so many shows, you don’t allow yourself to do that anymore.
TM: Yeah, I don’t do that at all. Every show I do is incredible.
BS: Oh sh*t. Sorry.
Middleditch and Schwartz is streaming on Netflix now.