The words “improv special” have never really inspired desire in me. And yet, watching Ben Schwartz’s improv special was what convinced me the 38-year-old comedian is really hot. He’s best known as Jean-Ralphio Saperstein, the sort of cocky, failed entrepreneur from Parks and Recreation, though I mostly knew him as the voice of Sonic the Hedgehog. But after seeing his preternatural ability to spin deranged, fantastic narratives out of thin air and perform them with astonishing confidence, I now knew him, unexpectedly, as my new crush.
Middleditch & Schwartz, the special in question, features Schwartz and his longtime improv partner, Thomas Middleditch, doing what they do best: crafting insane, fictional stories out of anecdotes from audience members. It’s funny and clever and possibly genius, especially Schwartz, who is so absurdly convincing in all of his modalities, be it a jilted bride or alien-child. He’s a force of charisma throughout the show and occasionally does a Jersey accent, which really works for me.
When I video-call Schwartz, he’s wearing a dark blue polo and eating Cheerios while we talk. His hair is big and black, and I guess the correct word for it is luscious.
I ask Schwartz if he’s always been funny and he shrugs the question off (he seems vaguely embarrassed by praise) though admits he was voted class clown in high school and recalls his superlative picture looked “so dumb, so dumb. Especially next to ‘cutest guy’ or whatever.”
That was back when he still figured being an actor or writer seemed “as crazy as being an astronaut.” He grew up in the Bronx and says he was “terrified of Manhattan” but moved to Koreatown in his 20s. His first comedy job was faxing jokes in to SNL and Letterman (he used the money to pay off the fax machine he bought to do the job.) Before that, he worked at a sneaker store called Athlete’s Foot. He wrote his first movie about its rivalry with Foot Locker (it wasn’t made).
Now it’s more than a decade later, and he’s writing his sixth studio film while in lockdown in Los Angeles. He’ll be starring in it alongside Sam (“Sammy”) Rockwell and seems genuinely startled by his own success. His first acting gig was in 2005, and it wasn’t glamorous: a commercial for Publix, the infamous Floridian supermarket chain. He had no lines and says he was “fucking terrified,” but they were flying him to Tampa, first class, which no one in his family had ever flown. He says he was flabbergasted when he was offered breakfast. He ordered eggs, and while he ended up with cereal mixed with half-and-half, he was just thrilled he could say he’d eaten breakfast in first class.
He works on his Cheerios while we talk. When I praise it as a meal choice, he spirals, briefly: “I’m trying so hard to eat well. I can’t, I can’t. The world is crumbling … I’m eating Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups frozen three times a day.” It’s one of the few glimpses I get of how he’s coping in quarantine; when I ask outright, he deflects, expertly, saying that there’s a weird smell every night. He thought it was him at first, but saw on Twitter that someone far away smelled it too.
The character that put Schwartz on the map was Jean-Ralphio on Parks and Rec (who, incidentally, works as salesman at Lady Foot Locker when he isn’t grifting). It’s a mode Schwartz has mastered. He “excels at playing those kinds of slippery and insincere people: He’s portrayed a lot of suits, scumbags and fruitless strivers,” the Independent writes of Schwartz’s oeuvre.
“When people meet me, they’ll say stuff like: ‘That’s so weird, man! You’re not an asshole!’” Schwartz says. He says it’s the comedy of these kinds of characters that appeal to him: “I love playing people that are falsely confident. People that think they’re fucking nailing it, but they’re not.”
He takes on a similar persona in Netflix’s Space Force, out today, alongside Steve Carell and John Malkovich. The show imagines what a space agency under the Trump administration might look like. Schwartz plays a douchey, overconfident media manager named “Fuck Tony Scarpiducci” (a riff on Fuck Jerry and Anthony Scaramucci). “When it comes down to it, he’s very sad. He doesn’t really have any real friends. All of his friends are on Twitter.”
As we talk, Schwartz has been pushing his hair back — it’s thick, wavy, and very beautiful, which I tell him. “I can’t do anything with it! I’m trying so hard!” he exclaims, grabbing it with both hands. “I’m having so much trouble with it, and I don’t know how to cut it.”
I wonder if he has someone to cut it for him. He tells me he’s quarantined with his girlfriend, but he won’t tell me anything else about her, which gives me hope that maybe she’s imaginary.
We’re nearing the end of our time, so I take a last stab at flirting and remind him I’m interviewing him for a column about celebrity heartthrobs. This is news to him: “Oh my God” he practically screams. “So what are you going to do? Are you just going to say: ‘and also I interviewed Ben.’” I tell him that actually he is a hot person. He denies this, rather gravely, explaining that he’s lost too many roles to more attractive people to believe that. I wonder if his self-depreciation is genuine or if it’s a comedian thing. Either way, it’s charming.
Before we hang up, he muses, “You know, I don’t love talking about my personal life and yet we just went on a wonderful date. How beautiful. Just two friends hanging out.” Later, I’d wonder if he really did think we had a wonderful date or if he’d just gently friend-zoned me. In any case, I’m still hanging on to the hope that his girlfriend is imaginary.