The golden rule of writing celebrity profiles is to keep yourself out of the story as much as possible. A good interviewer makes themselves lens through which audiences view the subject and doesn't put themselves in the frame. Well, before we get any further into this story, I should warn you that when TV Guide and Netflix gave me the opportunity to profile Ben Schwartz for his new comedy, Space Force, I broke that rule. I broke it so hard.
Here's the deal: I've been a fan of Schwartz since his first appearance as the beloved, scruple-less, vagabond Jean-Ralphio on Parks & Recreation. At that time, I had also just moved to Los Angeles and like a true Angeleno was taking improv classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), where Schwartz performed monthly charity shows called "Snowpants" with the best improvisers in the city and a random celebrity he invited that had never done improv before. Those, and his improv show "Hot Sauce" with Gil Ozeri and Adam Pally, were legendary events. My devout following of those shows and idolization of Schwartz led me to his episode Riki Lindhome's podcast, "Making It with Riki Lindhome," which not only gave great insight about the hustle it takes to make it as a professional comedian, but provided several great anecdotes about being a good human in general.
Fast forward to present day where I talk more about comedy than perform it (and that's probably for the best), and Schwartz has moved on from a recurring guest star in an NBC sitcom to co-starring in a new comedy from The Office co-creator Greg Daniels and Steve Carell, chewing scenery with John Malkovich. In 2020, Schwartz also released an indie film opposite Billy Crystal called Standing Up, Falling Down, could be heard as Sonic the Hedgehog in the motion picture film (one of multiple iconic blue '90s characters he's voiced over the past few years), and released three improv specials on Netflix with his best friend, Thomas Middleditch, called Middleditch & Schwartz.
That's a pretty impressive list of accomplishments in a year that doesn't include a global pandemic forcing the world to change as we know it, let alone one that does. When the interview offer came up, I seized the chance to not only talk to Schwartz about his impressive year so far, but to also reflect how far he's come since his days of hustling at UCB and what he thinks the path forward out of these unprecedented times looks like. Another solid rule about doing profiles is that you should never meet your heroes, but I broke that one, too, and in this anxious time I felt it was worth acknowledging that it worked out pretty well. You can watch an abridged version of the interview in the following video, with the extended Q&A below.
(Note: This interview took place in early May, when most of the U.S. was under stay at home orders due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but George Floyd had not yet been killed in police custody, leading to weeks of nationwide civil unrest.)
How did you get involved in Space Force?
Ben Schwartz: All I knew at the time was Greg Daniels, Steve Carell, [and] Space Force. And I was like, "Of course. What, are you crazy? Of course, whatever, whatever they want." I auditioned and then during the audition, Greg and I had a conversation about how if I got it, how I wouldn't want it to be like Jean-Ralphio. He was totally on board for that and understood, and then I just got lucky enough that I was the person that they chose.
On that note, talk to me about the formation of F. Tony because he's not like Jean-Ralphio where he's an out-to-lunch idiot, but I also wouldn't describe him as the sharpest tool in the shed. How did you ground him as a real character without losing the funny?
Schwartz: That's exactly what it was in my head. I needed to ground it to be a real character and for the comedy that comes from a character perspective, as opposed to me doing something so stupid, you know what I mean? Because I love Jean-Ralphio, but I had done it long enough. I was like, "I want to make sure that things don't feel exactly like this." So in my head, he's a grounded guy. The backstory that Greg and I talked about was he probably worked for American Apparel or Urban Outfitters, was a media manager, and did something inappropriate, [then he] got fired, could not get another job. Then, in his head, got this demotion to work for the government and work for Space Force... The way that I'm playing it is that he's pretending to be confident, even though he has no idea what the hell [he's doing]... He never had a military background.
So he's showing his competence through that, but he slowly wants to get to power again so people respect him and have meaning for him. That little secret that I keep is when he's home, I've imagined he's a pretty sad guy by himself. He likes being out there and he might have... a billion Facebook friends or whatever it is, but he has nothing when he goes to real life. He's trying to find some real human beings to connect with.
Do you have any theories on how his first name became F?
Schwartz: Yes, I talked it over with Greg. So F. Tony is a play off of F--- Jerry because I think the Fyre Festival had just come out, and they had dealt with that. Then the second half is named Scarapiducci, kind of [Greg]'s play on the Mooch. But I made sure not to do any research about either of them because I didn't want them to feel like I was parroting either one of them...That's how I kind of created a different new character.
I am going to nerd out a little bit now because when I first moved to Los Angeles and was taking classes at UCB, you were king of the theater. I still have all of your tweets saved to my phone in case you post about "Snowpants."
Schwartz: "Snowpants"! We have to tell people what this is. So "Snowpants" is a charity show that I put together that's a bunch of really incredible improvisers and one or two people who have never done improv before. So that was Blake Griffin, J.J. Abrams, Jane Fonda…
The Blake Griffin show was so much better than anyone expected it to be.
Schwartz: Blake Griffin is probably the best improviser who's not an improviser that I've ever seen.
If the Middleditch & Schwartz specials continue to do well, you should pitch "Snowpants" to Netflix and have Blake Griffin come back and pretend he's never done it before.
Schwartz: How cool that if the special gets big enough that it can open up a world where that's even possible, that other people can jump in? [Lauren] Lapkus could do something or you know what I mean? It'll be pretty good.
The reason I bring up the theater and that time period is because I used to spend a lot of time listening to you on podcasts, and on your episode of "Making It with Riki Lindhome," you talked about getting burned out with auditions.
Schwartz: The thing that I remember the most was commercial auditions. First of all, that was the way that I was making money — that and bar-tending at UCB... I needed to go to [the auditions] in order to pay my rent and stuff like that... One time I took three subways to get to someplace, and I got there and it was literally like, "OK, so now just react to that." There's no lines, no words. I waited in the waiting room for 45 minutes. I was like sweating... And it was just like a look. And they go, "OK, one more time. OK, that's it." I remember, there's that disillusion thing because I had been doing it for so long.
I want to know what Ben Schwartz now, starring in a Greg Daniels comedy with Steve Carell and John Malkovich would say to the Ben Schwartz taking three subways to do a commercial audition.
Schwartz: I wouldn't want to say anything. I wouldn't want me to know that I had any form of success because my whole career I've worked so hard. It's that fear of, "Who knows when it's going to end?" That fear of like, "Who knows if I'm ever going to get anything?" Especially then, man, I was writing jokes for [David] Letterman. I'd wake up at six in the morning, write jokes for Letterman, be a page at Letterman, and then go intern at UCB and take classes at UCB. Then [I would] go home, get like four hours of sleep so I could wake up early enough to fax in my jokes next morning. I worked so hard, and I think that work ethic at the beginning is part of what has given me a little longevity. I think it takes luck, skill, and just putting your head down and really working your butt off. If myself then had any idea that I would have any of the things I have now, I think it would it would take away that, "Oh my god, I'm so afraid that I'll never make it I'm gonna have to find a real job," and stuff like that.
GLOW's Betty Gilpin Is Ready for Debbie to Take 'the Least Likable Path'
You also introduced your zoo philosophy in that podcast, which says when you start working too much, you have to make time to go to the zoo in order to have interesting stories to tell.
Schwartz: I know exactly what you're talking about. I was taking too many improv classes in a row and I was performing. There was this great improviser named Christina Gausas who came from Chicago and was teaching a class. I said, "I keep doing the [same] type shows. I can't get out of these scenes." This was 2004... and she said, "Tell me what your week is." I explained her exactly what you said, you know, I'm writing jokes and I'm paging and I'm interested in it. And then I'm watching shows." She goes, "You're improvising off of improv. Go out and do things. Go to the zoo, go on a date. Get real life experiences. You're gonna have nothing to write about, nothing to improvise about." It was a huge moment for me because I was so in so excited about improv. It's all I did. And then I was improvising off of scenes that I saw instead of living my life.
It's 2020, and this year you had Sonic come out, an indie movie, three comedy specials, and now Space Force. And we're in a global pandemic. How are you "going to the zoo"? Is it playing Animal Crossing?
Schwartz: Listen to me, I just started Animal Crossing. It'll be too much. I [can] see where it's going. I can see where it just envelops every moment of your life… The past couple years, I've worked very hard, but I always make sure I get myself weekends off, if I can. So it's very crazy that all these things are happening at a time where you're kind of isolated and inside. There's far bigger things to worry about.... My friend's friend is a flight attendant on JetBlue, and he still goes on flights and stuff. And the [flight attendant] took a picture of the video screen [on the plane] and Standing Up, Falling Down and Sonic are right next to each other. So people have two of my movies that I'm the lead of next to each other, which will never happen in my entire life ever again. It's been such a surreal couple months... You're right. I haven't had much time to go to the zoo, but now I am playing Mario Kart. I'm relaxing.
In times like this, I feel like comedians take one of two perspectives: This is too much and I need to stay quiet, or we need comedy more than ever to make sense of everything. Where do you think you fall on that spectrum?
Schwartz: I think I feel both, but one is that when those Middleditch & Schwartz specials came out, the response we got, not just people enjoying it, but people saying like, "I gutturally laughed. I haven't laughed in so long. And this is such a release for me. I've been so anxious and so unhappy."... That made me feel so happy. Because one of the things that I love about doing improv... to get that audience laughing at the same time, to get a shared experience, get everybody like so happy — the idea that I could supply that for anybody, makes me so happy... Often times, the comedy that I'm doing now is in response [to the situation], like a charity thing... But then there's these moments where we can put ourselves in our work, we can put ourselves in old movies. Then there are these bouts of anxiety where you just realize what's really happening outside, how scary it is, and how the unknown is terrifying. I think it's a matter of juggling both of those — making sure that the people you care about are taken care of and OK, and helping in any way you can the people you can't reach.
Star Trek: Picard's Sir Patrick Stewart on Black Lives Matter: 'I Am Passionately Behind the Spirit of Those Protests'
How should comedy tackle COVID-19 after the quarantine is over?
Schwartz: I think I'll look out for the filmmakers that I've always looked to when I want to be inspired and those people to see how they tackle it. I don't want to have to look through everything and every channel talks about it because we're living through that right now. But I will seek out those really cool filmmakers and writers and see what they have to say… Are people going to want to make films and television about things in enclosed spaces, or people want to do these huge, vast Lord of the Rings-type things? I don't know. My head is ready for escapism right now because I do feel the anxiety and the trouble that's out there... There have been aspects of this in America that we felt, but on a worldwide scale? In our lives. I don't care how old you say you are, in our lives, I don't think we've been through anything like this.
I'm going to bring it back to Space Force. What was it like improvising in this show?
Schwartz: My love was improvising next to John Malkovich, because he does an improviser's dream. He plays every scene truthful and responds. The roots of improv are just be in the moment and respond in a truthful way. John is such a good actor that he's always doing that, always. So whatever you throw at him, it's his character responding to you and never him breaking character... There's one instance where an improvised scene ended up working beautifully, where I do something wrong. I messed up something for Carell's character. The scene that was supposed to happen was, "Can I talk to you for a second?" Then there's a whole different scene where we're in his office and we're supposed to be talking... But Carell, in the scene where he finds out I did something wrong, says "Come over here," and he brings me outside the room and he starts — none of this is in the script — he starts screaming profanity and yelling. It's so much. You can't even hear the words he's saying. It was so funny that that's what's in the [show] that we just erased the whole next scene because he did it with these funny, improvised screams.
What is your big hope for F. Tony if you get a Season 2?
Schwartz: I want him to do something great. I want him to do something good... I want you to see like the layers that kind of separate him from Jean-Ralphio, the idea that maybe he's sad at home. Maybe he really wants the respect of Carell. I find Carell is his like militant father who doesn't give any love and Malkovich is the cool dad who does give them love. I can't wait to see the layers that can go with him because what's happened at the end of the first season is going to take an incredible media manager to spin on America's behalf, and F. Tony is not an incredible media manager yet. I think it's going to be really funny watching him try to pretend he is, and then slowly learning that he is pretty good at it later on.
Space Force and the Middleditch and Schwartz improv specials are now streaming on Netflix.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.)