Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz On British Dogs and West Village Cats
If the cardinal rule of comedy is “Yes, and,” Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz give the enthusiastic head nod of a teacher’s pet and toss the dice across the floor. In their new two-person improvisational Netflix special series, Middleditch & Schwartz, the comedy duo takes an existing situation (a wedding, a law school exam) and microwaves its kernels of absurdity into a surreal popcorn. Per its title, the show is entirely based on the comedic fluency of its leading men: one, the guy who played Jean-Ralphio, Tom Haverford‘s cocky confidante on Parks and Recreation; the other, the hoodie-clad wallflower who brought Pied Piper to Silicon Valley. Over the span of three specials, Middleditch and Schwartz cycle through a carousel of characters at a dizzying rate. While Netflix has become a mine for comedy specials, crowding feeds with countless hours of stand-up, Middleditch & Schwartz is the platform’s first improv show, bringing the thrill of live entertainment to an unmade bed near you. Though the duo couldn’t have planned for a global pandemic that would keep people in their homes, the timing was a sort of alchemy. When our daily lives call for an unprecedented level of improvisation, “Yes, and” has become universal truth.
It only seemed right, then, to have Middleditch and Schwartz speak on the phone on an isolated Friday evening, to grill each other on their inventions, video games, and what Middleditch would ask his dog, Potter. —SARAH NECHAMKIN
SCHWARTZ: Thomas, how are you? This is Ben Schwartz. Everything good?
MIDDLEDITCH: Yes, Ben Schwartz, it’s me, Thomas Middleditch. Everything’s fine. I’m in Big Bear, it’s been snowing all week, and I’m playing a tremendous amount of video games.
SCHWARTZ: I, too, am playing a tremendous amount of video games. I put in 15 hours to a game called Chrono Trigger, and I’ve set up a Mario Kart tournament called the Tournament of Champions for tomorrow at noon.
MIDDLEDITCH: Oh my god. I used to host a league here in Los Angeles called the League of Champions.
SCHWARTZ: Is that true?
MIDDLEDITCH: Yeah. League of Champs. First we played NHL and then we played FIFA, and there was a whole trophy and everything.
SCHWARTZ: We’re bringing that energy home tomorrow because one of the guys that plays in our group, this guy who goes by the name of Diesel on his Nintendo Switch who’s a friend of mine, he’s by far the best out of all of us. And then one of my friends from elementary school said, “I have a friend that could beat Diesel.” And I go, “No you don’t.” And he goes, “Yes I do, invite him tomorrow.” It’s going to be a mess.
MIDDLEDITCH: Oh, boy. That does sound exciting. I wish I had a Switch. I tried to buy one because Animal Crossing seems like it’s such a fun thing and they’re all sold out everywhere, so Nintendo, hats off, you’ve really moved some units.
SCHWARTZ: You’re a pilot. I’ve been friends with you since the whole process of you becoming a pilot started, and it’s been very exciting. Why is it that you wanted to be a pilot?
MIDDLEDITCH: Well, I like to think flying is like improv, Ben.
SCHWARTZ: Oh, god. Next question.
MIDDLEDITCH: Flying’s one of those things that I initially got into through having a few flights, and then being enamored with spitfires over the cliffs of Dover defending England from the Germans. And then flight simulators and all that kind of stuff. And I finally had the time and the means to get my pilot’s license, and I didn’t expect to like it so much, especially since the nausea was so intense. I’m proud of myself for knowing this thing and it’s really become a much larger part of my life than just something casual, as I thought it might be. But now I’m a proper flyboy. And you like collecting peanut shells. That’s your thing.
SCHWARTZ: Yeah. One day I got this peanut shell that looked like Walter Cronkite and I was like, “This is pretty cool.” So I’ve kept collecting peanut shells that look like celebrities. I have Wilford Brimley, Walter Cronkite, Ron Howard, Clinton Howard, Rob Reiner, Carl Reiner, Jaleel White. For me, it’s like a life path. I thought it was going to be a little joy, but in the end it was something that really affected my life because it’s the thing that I love, so I can look at those guys and realize that I have friends, too.
MIDDLEDITCH: Great. Now, Ben.
SCHWARTZ: Yes, Thomas?
MIDDLEDITCH: You’ve been in a lot of improv troupes, and you’ve done a lot of improv. Why is performing with me the best in the world for you?
SCHWARTZ: Your question is asking me why you’re great?
MIDDLEDITCH: Why am I so much better than all the other people that you’ve been on the stage with? In your own words.
SCHWARTZ: There’s no way for me to use someone else’s words.
MIDDLEDITCH: You could use famous quotes from history if you wanted, but I’d prefer you to use your own.
SCHWARTZ: Let me just put “famous quotes” into my computer right now. “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who don’t mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”
MIDDLEDITCH: Wow. Who said that?
SCHWARTZ: “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” I remember when we first started doing improv together at UCB in Chelsea and nobody was showing up, it was just a two-person and we were doing a midnight set. We really made each other laugh. I always thought that you were an incredible overall improviser, but especially incredible with characters. When most improvisers do characters, they do versions of them. You have each mannerism, each accent, everything. Usually improv is six or eight people, but do you prefer two people? And why?
MIDDLEDITCH: Well, it all depends on the crew. I think sometimes in improv shows like ASSSSCAT or something random where people are being pulled together, you’re suddenly on stage with people who you’re like, “Man, we’re all friends. You’re so funny. But I perform with you once a year, if that, or have never performed with you.” So you’re finding out everyone’s chemistry right then and there. What’s so fun about performing two-person, especially with you Benjamin, it’s that I find the show itself is very nimble, as it were. It can change directions and tones and energies at the drop of a hat, and then if we potentially don’t even like where it’s gone or it’s too much or it’s not enough or whatever, then we can switch back the other way. I know there’s anything I can throw your way and you will make sense of it and weave it like a comedic loom. You’re a comedy loom.
SCHWARTZ: Oh, what a weird thing to hear.
MIDDLEDITCH: Yes. And you can kind of just go anywhere with this newly woven fabric. And sometimes even with people that you perform with for a long time, the more people that are in there, there are more minds competing with where a particular scene should go. It’s very fun to be able to trust-fall, knowing I can fall from any height, and that you’re there. It ends up being this kind of controlled absurdity.
SCHWARTZ: One of the things I love about when you do six or eight-person stuff, you can hang on the wall for half the show. You can snipe, as you will, which means that you just come in and say a joke or add a little walk-on, and be funny. But for two-person, it’s a greater challenge because there’s no resting. You have to be alert and ready at every second because there’s nobody else to look at behind you. That type of challenge is exciting.
MIDDLEDITCH: Would you say that you perform better or that you’re more present when you have to be there the whole time? Because I find when I take breaks, I take a break. I just watch.
SCHWARTZ: I think when we’re doing two-person improv, I’m way more present. Sam, a friend of ours, came to one of our shows and said, “When you guys are on stage it’s like meditation, because you cannot think of anything but what’s happening. Your brain cannot think about the outside world, but all you have to think about there are the show drops.” With the two-person shows, you can’t wander. You have to be in the moment every second.
MIDDLEDITCH: Yes. The idea of being able to do the show and think of nothing else but the show, a lot of times has offered a brief respite to otherwise problematic times in one’s life. We all have feelings. And then the show, it just slices that in half for a little bit. And then naturally when the show’s over, I go back to my car and I give it a good cry.
SCHWARTZ: You’re absolutely correct. Whatever’s bothering us at that time, once we get on stage, it kind of evaporates.
MIDDLEDITCH: Now Ben, for years you’ve been trying to come up with a device to get a fully pooped out poo to go back in the bum. Why?
SCHWARTZ: Because for me, I feel like it’s wasteful. Our body is taking all this energy and pushing it into making a poop, and then we’re expelling it when there’s so many nutrients, so much stuff in there. I’m a big environmental guy, so the idea that we keep everything, we reuse, we recycle, that type of stuff—it’s enormous. I’m trying to keep that flavor going. I don’t know if it’s okay to talk about your invention. Is that fine right now or is that not nice?
MIDDLEDITCH: Go ahead.
SCHWARTZ: Stop me if I get this wrong. You’re trying to invent a painting for which when you look at it, it tells you your fortune, but all the fortunes are very weird. Nothing is quite right, it’s all very weird fortunes. Why is that?
MIDDLEDITCH: I want people to be able to gain a little bit of insight into to themselves. However, humans can’t handle the truth. I believe it was said in the film, A Few Good Men, by Jack Nicholson. And he said, I quote, “You can’t handle the truth.” So with my paintings, with my cosmetic inter-realm cyber transfusion, you just get a glimpse, but not the whole thing.
SCHWARTZ: That’s unbelievable.
MIDDLEDITCH: And really, they’re in memory of my father, who’s still alive.
SCHWARTZ: So why do you say in memory?
MIDDLEDITCH: It’s in memory of my father. He’s still alive, God rest his soul.
SCHWARTZ: U.R.I.P. Unrest in peace, I guess.
MIDDLEDITCH: What do you think your hobby is going to be when you’re 70?
SCHWARTZ: What about squash?
MIDDLEDITCH: Sure. You ever been in the West Village and see those cats playing handball?
SCHWARTZ: We used to play that, where you hit it against the thing. Very difficult game. I would love to find a hobby like racquetball or squash where I have to wear goggles and be in a tight room. How fun.
MIDDLEDITCH: But you don’t want to be too active because you don’t want to risk an injury. You don’t want to break your knee.
SCHWARTZ: That’s smart. My question is pretty serious, too. If your dog Potter was able to speak, what would you want to talk to Potter about?
MIDDLEDITCH: I think in the first little bit, I’d want to know what his awareness is, because I think that if Potter could speak, he suddenly wouldn’t be like, “I say Thomas, I’ve been having a cracking good time with this dog thing.”
SCHWARTZ: You think he’s British?
MIDDLEDITCH: Well no, but he wouldn’t be this articulate little chap. He would be like, “I like you fun. Me want ball,” or whatever. He would still be a dog.
SCHWARTZ: No, I’m giving him full articulation. He knows every word in the dictionary. He’s not going to flaunt it, but he is down to have a conversation.
MIDDLEDITCH: I would want to make sure that he knew that he was loved and that I was always going to be there for him, and I would want to know if he’s happy and if he needs anything. And if he just goes, “I want squirrels,” then I’m going to say, “Buddy, you can’t have squirrels, okay? You’re going to eat these dried up little crumbles. That’s your food because you’re trash. You understand me? You’re trash. You’re nothing but a dog.”
SCHWARTZ: And what if he said, “It’s me, Potter. Is there anything I can do for you, Thomas?”
MIDDLEDITCH: I would say, “You’re doing great, buddy. But if you wouldn’t mind, just take it easy when you see those big dogs. Stop yapping at them and pulling on the damn leash. And don’t worry, the garbage trucks, they’re not going to hurt you. You don’t need to bark at them.”
SCHWARTZ: Smart. These are good questions. I’m happy we’re doing this.
MIDDLEDITCH: We worked really hard to do the specials and you should go watch them, but that’s not really a question. I don’t want to get too earnest because I sometimes think that’s scary to me. I think we did a good job.
SCHWARTZ: Well Thomas, it was great to talk to you during all this. You sound very lovely. I’m very excited to see what people think of this.
MIDDLEDITCH: You sound lovely, too. Can I just say this? You actually sound really sexy.
SCHWARTZ: Thanks, man. I appreciate it.
MIDDLEDITCH: What are you wearing, sweats? Or did you put on pants.
SCHWARTZ: All right, we’ll talk soon.
MIDDLEDITCH: You going to answer that one?