Improv may be the easiest form of comedy to mock, giving shitty open mics a much needed break from being the subject of ridicule. Even if you’ve never been to a terrible improv show (lucky you), there are plenty of representations in media: the horribly unfunny troupe member Ilana Wexler dates on Broad City, The Office’s harrowing look at Michael Scott’s improv attempts, yes and, yes and.
Honestly, though, the artform (I use this term loosely) gets a bad rap. Here to change any improv skeptic’s mind is the inimitable duo of Middleditch and Schwartz. Both members are familiar thanks to their popular television roles—Thomas Middleditch as the nitpicky coder Richard Hendricks on Silicon Valley, and Ben Schwartz as Parks and Rec’s most obnoxious yet beloved eccentric, Jean-Ralphio—and have been performing long form improv together for about a decade.
“We met in New York City through UCB, we became friends while eating Two Dudes Boots Pizza,” Middleditch tells me. Meanwhile, Schwartz initially claims that they met when they were meant to meet on top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day.
Middleditch and Schwartz are now expanding Netflix’s already bursting comedy special section to include long form improv. It’s a fairly straightforward concept: using a prompt, they create a story together—it just goes on for a lot more time (about 45 minutes) than your average improv scene. In execution, though, you can’t help but admire the fact that both comedians (mostly) keep multiple characters straight throughout the set and make you laugh aloud. Though they make their freewheeling storytelling look easy, it’s anything but.
“Thomas is, like, very good at accents,” Schwartz explains when I ask about what strengths the other possesses that they find hard to match. “I don’t know if it’s because he grew up in Canada next to all these accents… or if he’s just an incredible mimic, but I do not have the skillset where I’m very good at accents, so if I establish a character, it’s great, it’s fine for me because we play each other’s characters. If I establish a character, I can handle my own crappy accent, but if Thomas—Thomas is so good at these characters that he’ll come in with a perfect French accent and then when I try to do it, I’m trying so hard to match it so the joke isn’t that I’m terrible at it.”
Middleditch, on the other hand, finds himself out of his depths compared to Schwartz’s wide knowledge base and musical talent.
“We can’t really [sing] so much in the Netflix specials because everything is copywritten [sic] and oh my god, legalese, but on the live shows he’s always having a nice old song, and they’ll be actual songs and he’ll point to me to finish the line, I’m like, ‘I—I do not know.’ ” the Canadian actor explains. “It’ll be a very famous song and I will not know it at all and then he’ll just keep on singing away. He’s got a voice like an angel.”
Despite their lack of copyrighted songs, the three specials each showcase their talents effectively. The sets are even more impressive considering that they were filmed only over the span of two days, with a pair of shows being recorded each night. Creating a variety of characters under such pressure can be stressful. While no two personas they create onstage are exactly alike, the comedians find themselves returning to the same wells every now and then.
“I mean, we are our own brains. We can’t escape that and what we think is funny and the type of voices that we tend to, like, slip into,” Middleditch says. The Dungeons and Dragons aficionado adds, “There may be—and this may come as a shock to you—I may have played a few wizards in a few improv shows and I can assure you, every wizard is different. They’ve got different names, different wands, different backstories.”
And while we’re on the vaguely nerdy train, I had to ask the former Silicon Valley star: what happened to the fateful flash drive at the end of the HBO sitcom, which Richard misplaced?
Schwartz has his own theory (“I think that um, Martin Starr’s character… takes it, swallows it, and he’s like, I’m the captain now.”), and Middleditch answers like someone who’s used to dealing with the unexpected onstage every night.
“I don’t know. Isn’t that the fun of it all?”
Clare Martin writes about comedy, music and more for Paste.