Occasionally, in the world of comedy journalism, you’re handed the opportunity to talk to a star that comes with strings. Sometimes it’s a hard time limit, or a very specific thing the star in question is promoting, that you need to work around. The question then becomes if you can make it worth your and the audience’s time to read this interview.
We here at Paste are big fans of Ben Schwartz, improv mastermind and actor best known for John Ralphio on Parks and Rec and Clyde on House of Lies. So when presented with the opportunity to talk to Ben for exactly 10 minutes, with at least part of that conversation being dedicated to a “towel jacket” he was promoting for a beer company, we said sure.
The important thing is that at no point did we pull our punches. With 10 minutes and a questionable beer tie in as part of the deal, we did our best with Ben Schwartz. Along the way, we uncovered the hard truths about what hidden ‘90s brand he thinks he could personify and what it’s like to do improv at Carnegie Hall. Enjoy.
Paste: Ben Schwartz, how you doing?
Schwartz: Hey, man, you guys have been very cool to me for my whole career, which is very nice. Even in the beginning when nobody was really paying attention, so I really appreciate that.
Paste: It’s our pleasure. You’re a very funny fellow.
Schwartz: I appreciate.
Paste: So, you’re an improv star, a stand-up comedian, a popular comedic actor, an author… after all of this why have you decided to risk everything to jump into the fashion world?
Schwartz: Oh my goodness. I’ll tell you exactly why. Dos Equis called me up and they said, “Towel jacket.” And I said, “I don’t understand.” And they said, “We made a jacket out of a towel.” And I go, “I literally have no idea. You made a towel jacket?” And they go, “Yeah. Would you come around and tell people about it?” I go, “And it’s a jacket made of a towel?” And they said, “Yeah. We made 2000 of them.” I go, “There’s no way you’re selling 2000 of them.” And they go, “Probably not.” I go, “I am in. I think it’s hilarious. I think it’s great.”
Paste: How much does this towel jacket cost? Is it intentionally expensive to be a symbol of hubris or?
Schwartz: No. It is a price that… I think a price that screams fashion. A cool 250 bones for this bad boy. And you may be asking yourself, “250 bones for a towel that looks like a jacket?” And I’m not going to respond and just remind you that a towel sips up water, just remind you what a towel does because you’re making a good argument and I’m not going to counterpoint it.
Paste: We’re obviously friends of Ben, but this is still journalism, I have to hit you hard with the questions. What separates a towel jacket from a robe?
Schwartz: Oh, how dare you, sir? How dare you, sir? You’re lucky I don’t come to the Paste office. A robe? You think we’re dealing with robes? No, this is basically a robe matured. This is basically a robe matured that looks like a jacket. So, no, it’s not a robe but it’s pretty close. It looks like a fancy jacket. It’s like something that when you go to the Emmys you probably pop one of these on. If you’re eating a big hotdog and you get ketchup on yourself, you can use it to wipe stuff off, stuff like that. It’s like… it answers itself. Why would you get a towel jacket? And then the answer is crickets. Nobody’s answering that.
Paste: So, you voiced Leonardo in the Ninja Turtles, Dewey from DuckTales, and now Sonic the Hedgehog. That’s like a trifecta of important figures of children in the ‘90s. If you could provide a voice for any ‘90s fashion brand, what would it be and what would their soul be like?
Schwartz: Great question. Wow. Remember Big Dog? I don’t know if it was big.
Paste: I remember Big Dog.
Schwartz: There’s this place in Harlem that did Olaf’s shorts that my friends and I were obsessed with. They were basically two-toned shorts. People in New York if they know this reference that’ll make me so happy. I would’ve loved to be the master of that because what you would do, where I was from you’d try to get, I think it was in Harlem or the Bronx. I think it was Harlem. One of those places, but you’d try to get your favorite basketball team colors. So I would try to get blue and orange, stuff like that, and we’d play basketball in them all day, and they were just super comfortable and they looked like they were just cool. That is such a specific reference. So I would do that.
Paste: How do you spell it?
Schwartz: Say it again?
Paste: Could you say the name one more time? Just so I can get the spelling right.
Schwartz: Oh, by the way, I mean I was just a child, I don’t even know how it’s spelled. How cool is that? Not only would you have to Google it, but you’d have to just guess. You as a reporter, you’re going to have to do some investigative journalism because I’m not even sure if they’re still open. I hope they are.
Paste: So, what would be—
Schwartz: There was sandwich shop called Gnonis that I would’ve loved to be the brand ambassador for. They made amazing chicken cutlet sandwiches.
Paste: And what would the soul of the chicken cutlet sandwich sound like?
Schwartz: Oh, the chicken cutlet sandwich? I’m glad you asked. I have a specific thing already locked in. Can you talk to me as if you’re a human about to eat me, and I can respond as a chicken cutlet, sir?
Paste: Yeah. I feel like I can do that. Man, this is a beautiful looking sandwich, I’m so excited to put this into my mouth.
Schwartz: “Hey man, why you eating me? I’m a chicken cutlet sandwich, get off of me jerk.” So, kind of something like that. And I guess it would have its own movie or franchise. I don’t want to get too much into it because it goes over the Marvel Cinematic Universe and I don’t want to give any spoilers about the Eternals, or anything like that. So I’m going to keep it out a little bit, okay?
Paste: I understand. And appreciate the consideration. So you’ve got Standing Up, Falling Down coming out later this year, which must’ve been cool working with Billy Crystal. I’m curious, there’s a lot of media right now telling stories about comedians. What sets Standing Up, Falling Down apart from other stories in the media right now that focus on the lives of comedians and comedic actors?
Schwartz: Yeah, I think that the idea of the comedy in it is in the backstory of the film, which is cool. What it’s about is the idea that the generational gap between me and feeling messy in my 30s, the whole idea of the comedy aspect of it is that I failed, and now I have to come back home, tried to do my dream, and my dream failed. I come back home and Billy Crystal plays a dermatologist who’s having a rough time in his life, and doesn’t quite know how to deal with the messiness in his family. And because we’re both kind of lost at the same time, we connect, and we become friends, and we deal with our stuff through each other. So the comedy aspect of it is just a little piece of the movie, but I think that plays more in the idea of I went out for my dream, and I failed because I wasn’t being truthful in it, and then I try to figure my life out. And as my life starts getting better, the comedy starts flowing out a little bit better. So instead of the movie being about comedy, it’s just the job that the character does. But I do agree that there’s quite a bit of content about comedians and stand-up, stuff like that. So it’s nice to be involved in a project that didn’t concentrate on just that.
Paste: Cool. It seems like a more dramatic role than you’ve previously done. Did you guys stick to the script? Did you have a chance to improv with him?
Schwartz: Yeah, it was incredible because the structure of the film is dramatic, you know what I mean? And then it happens to be two people who are funny are in the lead. The characters are funny human beings. So we got to riff and I think the best moments are just like, we found a way to try to make the team feel very real. That was what we were trying to do, so even dramatically we riffed, and comically him and I went bananas. It was so fun, we would even pitch each other jokes for each other to say, it was really fun. He is such a hero of mine, the idea that he was so collaborative, I mean, it blew my mind. He was so lovely, it was really a great experience. I’m really excited for people to see it. It’s just in Tribeca and it’s being sold right now, so hopefully, people see it soon.
Paste: You and Thomas Middleditch are on an improv tour with Middleditch and Schwartz, and just played Carnegie Hall.
Schwartz: Yeah, we sold out Carnegie Hall, we sold out the Chicago Theater, which is 3600 people. The idea that people are showing up for long-form improv in these big theaters is one of the things we were really hoping to do, because often times long-form is only thought about in those tiny spaces, which is amazing and I’ve done that for literally 15-16 years, but the idea that it can grow like stand-up’s grown. I hope that people are digging it. The crowds are really being responsive and lovely and wonderful and I’m really, really excited about it. It makes me excited that we keep going to these huge venues, with people showing up and it translates well, it’s been nice.
Paste: How do you bring improv to a room as large as Carnegie Hall? Like when everyone can’t hear the suggestions being shouted out or…
Schwartz: This is a great question. So oftentimes, when people go to improv they think of short-form improv, which is, “Give me a location, what wacky thing am I doing?” But ours is something called long-form improv, which is developed in Chicago and one of the forms was developed by Del Close and Charna Halpern is the Harold, which is a bunch of people that I look up to, like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, some of those guys developed it. What it is, we ask the audience member a question, a real serious question. Like, let’s say, “What are you looking for? What are you dreading coming up?” And then we have an actual conversation about them—about a real-life thing. And then the audience doesn’t say anything for the rest of the show, and for an hour, we make a long show. Almost like a play, for an hour off of their story. And then we track it, you know, it’s a whole story with a bunch of characters and that’s kind of how it works. So, in the beginning, we go back and forth and just find one thing to latch onto, then we make a whole show out of it. You’re right. It would be incredibly difficult if every two seconds we had to go back into the audience and ask for another location or a whacky thing. But we have a real conversation. It starts in a place of truthfulness, and then we go for it. It’s been really, really fun.
John-Michael Bond is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. He’s on Twitter @BondJohnBond.