Quite fittingly, recollections of the first Middleditch and Schwartz improv extravaganza are a little hazy for the two guys that were there.
“Weirdly, I don’t remember our first show,” Ben Schwartz tells the Straight, “although that’s kind of par for the course. Because everything is made up on the spot, it disappears from my head right when we get off-stage.”
The Nelson, B.C.–raised Thomas Middleditch recalls knowing early that he had something special with the man with whom he’s now shot four Netflix specials and headlined Carnegie Hall. He remembers teaming up with Schwartz for the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, a celebrated improv troupe whose alumni include Saturday Night Live’s Amy Poehler and Horatio Sanz.
“I had recently moved to NYC and Ben and I were just walking around,” he recalls, “getting a slice of pizza, figuring out if we wanted to be friends. In the early years of improv, you’re just looking for someone you enjoy being around and think is funny. We started out doing eight-minute sets for a midnight UCB show on a Wednesday.”
Today, Middleditch and Schwartz have blown up into one of the most celebrated hits in improv, packing soft-seaters with an act billed simply as “A completely improvised two person show. Every performance is different and made up on the spot.”
At the beginning of each evening, Middleditch and Schwartz spend 15 minutes or so mining their fans for an idea on which to build an hour-and-15-minute ride.
“We start the show by having a conversation with one audience member,” Schwartz says. “We ask a question of the audience, and then whoever in the audience wants to respond yells something out, and we usually choose the first thing we hear. Then we have a conversation with just that person to learn more about them. Then that’s it—we use that as all the information for the show and the audience sits back and watches us make stuff up.”
The challenge is that each Middleditch and Schwartz performance tells a single story, rather than stringing together a bunch of random vignettes. When, for example, a woman and man in Chicago last April stood up to announce they were worried about becoming parents for the first time, the show became about that.
After offering that they don’t need an “insane suggestion to get an insane show”, Middleditch says, “Our goal is mainly just to leave nothing behind. To feel like character arcs got resolved and details were used correctly. It’s about characters and their relationships over countless zingers. But, yes, ideally it’s very funny along the way.”
Both have thriving outside careers. Middleditch stars in HBO’s Silicon Valley and has a film résumé that includes everything from Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie to Godzilla: King of the Monsters. You’ll know Schwartz from appearances on Parks and Recreation and his roles in movies like Sonic the Hedgehog and The Intervention.
The two partners praise the live-wire aspect of Middleditch and Schwartz, with the freedom to take things in whatever direction they choose being a major departure from their day jobs. And tellingly, while their memories of their early performances might be a bit hazy, neither can say enough about the other today.
“I think you have to pick the right person to play two-person with,” Schwartz says. “There’s a lot of heavy lifting for both improvisers. You can’t lean on the back wall and just pick your spots to interject; you’re in it the entire time, so you have to trust each other on-stage, and Thomas and I really embrace that trust. After we played once or twice together, we knew when we had the chance we wanted to keep getting on-stage together.”
JFL NorthWest presents Middleditch and Schwartz at the Orpheum on Saturday (February 15).