The average American television viewer probably knows Ben Schwartz for his portrayal of Parks and Recreation’s debilitatingly douchey self-described “baller” Jean-Ralphio Saperstein. That same average American television viewer might know Thomas Middleditch as debilitatingly nebbish and brilliant programmer Richard Hendricks on HBO’s Silicon Valley (but he or she almost certainly knows him as the pitchman in recent Verizon commercials). They have myriad other projects, of course — Middleditch pops up often in rock-solid mumblecore flicks like Joshy, and Schwartz is brilliant in the web series The Earliest Show.
What most folks don’t know is that both actors are extraordinarily talented long-form improvisors who make frequent appearances on cult-hit podcast Comedy Bang! Bang!, where Schwartz (also known to Bang! Bang! fans as Benny Schwa and The Elegant Mr. S.) is known for riffing at great length on juvenile topics and for making up meandering but nevertheless catchy nonsense songs. Middleditch, on the other hand, is known for crafting an array of characters with peculiar accents and maladies — like, for instance, jelly salesman Alan Buchanan, who suffers from something he calls “wet crotch syndrome.”
The two perform frequently at Largo in Los Angeles, but this weekend's Nashville appearance (as part of the loose conglomeration of shows known as the Nashville Comedy Festival) is a rare and surprising treat. In advance of Middleditch and Schwartz's April 22 performance at the Ryman (tickets here), I caught up with the pair via phone. It stayed mostly on the rails. Read our full conversation below.
How’s it going Thomas?
Thomas Middleditch: Pretty good, I just got done doing Ellen.
[Ben joins call]
Ben Schwartz: Hello!
TM: [Whispering] Hello.
TM: And the other guest was Cardi B.
Oh shit, you met Cardi B? How was that?
TM: I did. Pretty good. She’s a very big and powerful star.
BS: She a big Middleditch and Schwartz fan?
TM: Yeah, she said, “I heard you guys are doing a Nashville show, can I get tickets?” And I said there are some available.
BS: There are a handful available.
[Sound of liquid being poured]
TM: That’s not me peeing, by the way, if you can hear that. It’s me filling something up.
Either one is fine.
BS: This is what he says. His thing is he loves to pee during interviews, so this is literally what he’s doing now, but he wants to not make it sound weird.
Oh, no wonder you guys wanted to do the interview so badly.
TM: Yeah, this is my pee. Hold on. Listen. [Whoosh of noise followed by screaming.]
BS: Oh my God!
It’s a healthy stream, congratulations.
TM: It just hurts. It’s a lot of buildup and then excruciating pain.
BS: It sounds like it wasn’t just urine — it didn’t sound like just urine.
TM: I piss steam power.
Well, I’m a fan of Comedy Bang! Bang!, so last night I listened to the most recent episode with you two, and I’ve had the “Milk and Cereal” song that you guys were doing in rounds stuck in my head all day.
BS: You know what’s so funny, Thomas? I had no idea that was a real song. I thought you made that up.
TM: No, it is a real song, it’s from some stupid commercial.
BS: It’s G. Love and Special Sauce.
Yeah, it’s a G. Love and Special Sauce thing. Anyway, that’s been a real delight. I know you guys perform at Largo in Los Angeles pretty often, right?
TM: Yes, twice a month.
So that’s a smaller-size theater. Is there anything that’s going to be changing with the show now that you’re upgrading to bigger theaters and auditoriums? Does that affect the show?
BS: Fireworks! Elephants! Big-game animals! We’re going to have huge holographic images of dinosaurs from past and stuff like that.
TM: We’re going to get the Tupac hologram to come and do a set with us. We’re gonna improv.
BS: Hopefully, fingers crossed. He’s tech avail.
TM: He just went through UCB 101. We’ll see.
BS: What I hope is that we’re going to do our show just with microphones that will amplify for 2,300 people.
TM: We hope that we’ll translate, but that’s the big question mark. I think that, for us, is the challenge that we nervously accepted by doing the Ryman.
BS: It’s also really exciting because the Ryman is literally the first — I mean, we’ve done a little show in Atlanta, but it’s our first real venue. So we’re excited, we’re very, very excited to get there and see what happens.
And in a historic venue.
TM: Yeah. And we put together this tour of theaters [with capacities] around 600 to 800. We have Town Hall in New York, which is like 1,500 seats. And then lo and behold, the Ryman. Nashville Comedy Festival is like, “You can do the Ryman.” And we’re like, “Oh Jesus, right off the bat? Uh, yeah, sure.” We’ll find out, we’ll found out. And yeah, historic. No pressure — Elvis performed there. Two nights before us it’s, like, Tim Allen. And then Middleditch and Ding-Dong, Twiddleditch and Snorch come on. “Yes, who wants to see some characters and scenes!”
BS: “Take your time! We’re going to take an hour and 15 to unfold a beautiful story for you.”
TM: Yeah, here’s some patient improv.
In the tradition of Elvis and Johnny Cash, here’s some character work.
TM: Yeah, exactly.
So, the long-form shows that you do, is it similar to what fans of Comedy Bang! Bang! and the other podcasts that you do hear there? Do you craft a narrative or a story or an arc with each show?
BS: What we try to do is we talk to the audience in the beginning, and for people in Nashville who maybe haven’t seen long-form before, what happens is every single word is made up. We construct these scenes — we ask for a suggestion, and we build this world, and we build this series of characters, and we live in these scenes. The hope is that they kind of connect, and you come on a ride with us for an hour and 15 where we’re playing characters, we’re playing each other’s characters, we’re inventing things with you, we’re calling things back. It’s kind of like a fun theater experience, but literally every single word is made up on the spot.
TM: I would say also for anyone who’s caught us on Comedy Bang! Bang! or other things, you will definitely experience the playfulness and spontaneity — that is very tangential. But as Ben said, the additional element that we’re doing is kind of telling a story. And there’s going to be elements, hopefully some scenes — but we don’t know — but there’s going to be some scenes where maybe it gets a little slowed-down. There’s going to be peaks and valleys and stuff. But again, we don’t know. We’ve done shows where it’s completely absurd, bonkers fantasy dreamscape for the whole time, and we’ve done shows where it’s like two boys in their bedroom talking about monsters. That was just a very earnest play about brothers, you know? It really is — both us and the audience find out what this little play, what this little show is going to be like as it builds itself.
[Sirens growing loud in background]
TM: And that’s my cue!
BS: I’m robbing a bank right now.
So you guys shoot for roughly 75 minutes most nights?
BS: Yeah. We talk to the audience up top, we talk about what’s happening. We’ll probably — again, nothing is really scripted. We’ll chat about stuff, about Nashville, who knows.
TM: Yeah we’ll just goof around.
BS: We’ll do goof-’ems and yuk-yuks.
TM: Get to know the audience! In the stand-up-comedy world they call that crowd work, you see.
BS: Ooh! Crowd work! We’ll do some crowd work, and then the idea is that, you know, you see that we’re going to make sure you’re taken care of. We’re going to make stuff up and we’ve done this a bunch of times. Sit back and enjoy the show, and we’ll just make up a lot of stuff. A lot of people who think of improv think of Who’s Line Is It Anyway, which is funny as well. But ours is more long scenes and then jumping into characters and being them and finding real moments within those characters.
TM: I think that’s the big difference between a lot of other improv shows [and ours]. Seven or eight people, they’re doing sweep edits. Every show is a different premise, and the show is a little scattered. This is — we say play, only because that’s the thing that’s most akin to it, but we’re not really billing ourselves as a play because we don’t want to have the misconception that you’re going to an evening at the theater. Although it sometimes ends up kind of happening like that, but it is a bit different from the average UCB show.
BS: There is some beauty in it where literally you can get a show where it’s two people shedding, like, their love for each other, like a couple. Or literally there are shows where I will be like, “I have to go to a different universe!”
TM: We crawl up each other’s buttholes.
BS: And jump into Thomas’ butthole. And inside Thomas’ butthole is an alternate universe. It could be anything. And I think that’s one of the things that makes it exciting to come to the shows. The level of difficulty is extremely high. These shows are usually done with six to eight people, it’s not really done with two people — very rarely it’s done with two people. And we’re going to not only do our characters, we’re playing a billion characters — or however many characters a show warrants.
TM: No, a billion.
BS: We’re going to play a billion characters. Every show we guarantee 1 billion characters.
TM: And — I know, Ben, you told me not to leak this, but I’m gonna go ahead and do it anyway.
BS: Oh, I hope you don’t, Thomas. Don’t do it! Don’t do it!
TM: Rumor is, Daniel Day-Lewis might come and see the show. He’s promised that he’d come like a bunch of times and kind of just flakes last minute. But he might see this one.
BS: We really want him to come. He’s one of our idols, and we heard there’s a chance he may be coming to this Ryman show because it’s such an incredible venue.
Is that in preparation for a role, or he’s just a fan?
BS: I don’t know, man, listen —
TM: [Laughs] This is part of our putting it out there in the universe to actually get him to come. We’re hoping he’s a big fan of your magazine.
BS: Maybe he reads your article.
TM: [Doing English accent] I will come!
[Doing worse English accent] By God, I’ll be there! I know each night is done differently. But do you find sort of a rhythm? Seventy-five minutes — like you said, there are peaks and valleys — but at a certain point do you get a feel for when the middle needs to be, when the end needs to be, that kind of thing?
BS: That’s a good question. When you say peaks and valleys, I don’t think there’s a moment where you’re like, “Ohh boy.” When we talk about valleys, if we’re having scenes where it’s incredibly energetic, we’ll then counterbalance them with a scene that feels grounded. You’re laughing, but it’s like, “Oh OK, OK, OK,” you know what I mean? So we take you on a bit of a roller coaster. I think we know around what time it’s going to end, but we don’t know how we’re getting there, we don’t know how it’s going to end, we don’t know what the middle is. We know the suggestion you give us, and what time approximately we should end. And that’s literally all we have.
TM: If we had any kind of structure, if we had that structure planned, I don’t think it would be as fun for us, just to be honest.
BS: I agree.
TM: Part of what we like about the show, and I think part of what audiences like about the show, is that literally everybody is figuring it out as it goes along. And that discovery of like, “Oh interesting, it’s going here now, or not going there, or now we’re in someone’s flashback,” everyone’s sort of realizing the crescendo of the narrative that’s happening all at the same time. That’s what keeps us coming back, because — to be truthful — we say it a lot: This show, for us, is a happy decompression of, I don’t know, life. We’re filing along through a career and looking at the news and all this kind of stuff. We want to come onstage and kind of fart it all out for everybody through some kind of weird show. And in a very self-serving way, we want to keep it as fresh and as malleable as much as anyone who’d wanna see it. Hopefully.
BS: I think Thomas is totally right. And I didn’t think about it until you said it, Thomas, but throughout all of our careers, throughout whatever’s happened to us, we’ve always been performing improv. And for most of that time we’ve been performing it together. So we always can come back and do this. For a decade, or more than that, we’ve been doing this. It is a real joy. And we mesh with each other onstage. If you see us having fun then you guys feel like you’re having fun as well. It is a really special thing for us, and I think that’s why the audience keeps coming back.
TM: I was fortunate enough to have an improv team in, like, the eighth grade, so I’ve been doing improv for over 20 years. And I’m sure Ben is pretty close. Right?
BM: Yeah, 15 years. 2003.
TM: A combined amount of improv experience is in the show, for sure. You’re not going to watch people who just learned struggle to figure out how to, like, agree with one another in a scene.
Right, novices just saying, “Yes, and?” back and forth for an hour.
TM: Because I can understand — anyone who may be hesitant, we’ve all probably seen a bad stand-up show, and the only thing they could probably think of that might be worse is a bad improv show. But rest assured—
BS: Which could be true, by the way! [Laughs] We could choke.
TM: It’s true! And what better place to fail than the Ryman Auditorium.
Well, the thing with the Nashville Comedy Festival — it’s sort of a loose conglomeration of shows. I don’t think there’s much crossover with the Jeff Dunham crowd and the Middleditch and Schwartz, personally. I could be wrong.
TM: I would love some Dunham-heads — Dunham-heads, I’m calling them — to sit down in the theater and be like, “Wait, where’s the two-drink minimum?” I would love to convert them. And they walk around being like [affects Southern accent], “Hey y’all, I saw this incredible improv show. They did some make-’em-ups and some goofs, it was wild.” That would be great.
BS: We would love it. And by the way, also, the idea of this tour is that we so long have been performing for just New York, or just L.A. And now we get to go out and be like, “Hey, this is what we do, this is what we find funny. What do you guys think?” We’ve been really lucky where people from Nashville seem to be very into this type of comedy, so it feels like such a good fit.
TM: We’ll see if the rest of America thinks improv is as cool as we do.
Well, best of luck!
BS: That’s how the article ends?
Anything else you want to share with Nashville?
TM: [Whispering] See you soon.
BS: I’m excited to try some Southern barbecue, I’m excited to perform in front of a big crowd. This auditorium — it does not go over our head how special of a venue this is and how lucky we are that we get to play there. We are holding onto it. It’s hilarious that our very first tour show is at the most magnificent place in the world. It’s something we’re very, very excited about.
TM: It’s interesting, for the first time in a while performing in a while, I’m legitimately nervous, and I’ve been riddled with anxiety for the past few weeks, and it will continue until the show. So you’re going to get probably two guys who are just struggling to act cool and calm in front of everybody.