6:00am PT by Kirsten Chuba
Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz on Convincing Netflix to Buy Its First Improv Special
While stand-up has become a key part of the Netflix strategy — it's shelled out millions for specials from Jerry Seinfeld, Dave Chappelle and Amy Schumer — the streamer is breaking comedic ground with its first long-form improv comedy special, the three-part Middleditch & Schwartz, starring Silicon Valley's Thomas Middleditch and Parks and Recreation's Ben Schwartz.
After touring the country with their improv act, which starts with an idea from the audience and snowballs into an hour-long story, the two filmed three performances at New York University's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, with improvs ranging from a wedding to a law school classroom to a Saturday Night Live-inspired job interview.
Ahead of releasing the trio of shows during a pandemic ("Posting a promo video when there's far more important and crazy things going on always feels a little silly," Schwartz says), Middleditch and Schwartz spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about their "really hard pitch" to get the specials made, their approach to performing and their crusade to make improv more accessible.
How and when did you two start doing improv together?
Middleditch: Ben and I have been doing improv on an individual basis each for over 20 years, and I think together it's been somewhere around 12 years. When I first moved to New York from Chicago, I had done all of this improv, but I didn't want to go through a whole other training scheme at UCB [Upstanding Citizens Brigade]. I just wanted to perform. Ben was like, "I think you're funny, I'll do it," and I was like, "I think you're funny!" We just got Two Boots Pizza one day walking around the city of New York — what a hell of a town! The Big Apple, god dammit, you can do anything there. We were having a fun time, and there was just so happened to be some kind of variety show Wednesday night at 11 p.m. where you could go up and do like eight-minute sets. We would just do eight minutes of really fast-paced, insane improv, and we're like, "I like this."
Improv is a little bit like — you need other people to do it, so both of us had other groups and other people we performed with, but I think in the past four years we started to really double down and think we've fallen on a rhythm and a way of executing improv. There's so many different ways to do it, but we've fallen into something that really feels like unique to us, and then [it was], let's cultivate the show a little bit. We've been doing Largo shows — a theater in L.A. — and then started touring, and then we were booking theaters and we're like, "Man, wouldn't it be cool if we could do a special? That'd be crazy." It was just bit by bit, it was never some Machiavellian plan; we just sort of got little bread crumbs that were like, "Wow this might be possible, let's keep going."
Schwartz: In the beginning, there was never a piece of us after our performance 12 years ago that was like, "Oh my God, maybe one day we'll do a special," because they didn't really exist; specials for long-form improv are few and far between. I will give Thomas credit, he wanted to tour way before I wanted to tour, because it's another example, there are very few examples of a long-form improv troupe touring big theaters. When we did Largo and we started selling out two shows at Largo — so every night would be 560 seats, 280 a show — we were like, "Let's try some small venues and see what happens." It just happened that people were showing up and people want to see it, and the reactions were so positive. It felt so nice to go to different cities and make all these people laugh, and it kept growing, and it grew to this, which is incredible.
Middleditch: I'll say this, though, it's always been a campaign to change people's minds. I think these Netflix specials were a couple of years in the making, like when we got the idea of, "Man let's try to do that," no one's really done it the way we're thinking of. We had to convince Netflix, and to be honest, they were like, "Hey, this is kind of risky. Don't screw this up." So we hope that we haven't. We hope that they're pleased so we can do more.
Schwartz: It is a really hard pitch, because when we went around and pitched it's literally, "OK, what are the specials?" We're like, "Oh, we have no idea. We're going to set up cameras for two nights; we'll do four shows. And whatever happens happens." It's a lot of trust that this network has to give you when you're like," Hey, we have no idea what these specials are going to be; we have no idea what the content is going to be; we don't know if it lines up with whatever your network is. It's just this is what it is." And Netflix was the one that said, "Screw it, let's do it. We believe in you guys." So we got very lucky that they said yes, and we're happy with how it came out.
So you have three coming out but recorded four. How did you choose which to release?
Middleditch: We shot four shows over two nights, two shows a night, and the fourth show, it's good, we like it — there's a couple technical issues that kind of made it be the one that got left out, but who knows? It's good enough to maybe be a bonus show or something; it all depends on like how well this stuff does. That was always part of the thing, because you never know what's going to be great and what's going to just be OK, so we were always going to shoot more than we were going to air just to give us the safety so that we're not going on stage so tightly wound.
Schwartz: We could have one dud.
Middleditch: You want a more relaxed way of delivering improv. You're going to get a better show.
Schwartz: In pitching, the big thing was like, if you give us a stage for two nights, we can give you four separate specials. That doesn't exist with stand-up — or maybe it does now, but it takes months and months for a stand-up to get their routine. They practice it while they tour and then they do a special, the same special [filmed] like three times, and they use the best bits from each of those to make the special. For us, every show is different, so the big pitch for us to try to sell the specials was "You give us two nights, like what you do with a stand-up, we'll film four separate specials, and we'll take the best three." So the idea is we can get three separate episodes at the same time, and it shows how improv could really be valuable in this space. If it succeeds, it can be really nice and we can keep doing it.
Why do you specifically use the audience prompt "something you're looking forward to or something you're dreading"?
Middleditch: That's the question that gets us in. Then we have a little bit more of a chat to gain some more information. You want something that gets a snapshot of something a lbit more significant in someone's life than "What do you do for a living?" It just gives us a little bit higher stakes, where our shows are telling a story and these characters are having often very absurd things happen to them. But I would also argue that we've had pretty good shows where like the response to that question of "What are you looking forward to or dreading?" has been a little bit mundane or underwhelming, and then we're like, "OK, well, we're gonna make that utterly insane if need be."
Schwartz: I think what we do also, which is fun, is that there'll be shows where there are actual dramatic scenes within it that aren't like goofs and jokes every second. Someone will be like, "Oh, I'm pregnant and I'm scared of being a mom, and this is why," so there will be comedy but also the drama. It's funny, because we used to ask the audience a different question every time. Every show we did at Largo for a while I'd be like, "Thomas is going to ask you a question" or "I'm gonna ask you a question" and we just asked a random question, we didn't even think about it beforehand. But I think there's something cool in these specials about finding how different a show you can get — we're asking the same exact question and every show is completely different.
Did you do anything differently for the taped shows versus when you're on tour? Did you vet audience members or anything?
Schwartz: No, there's literally a person in the audience with a boom mic that when people yell out a suggestion — and oftentimes whatever the first one we hear is, we'll go to that — then a person with a boom mic literally runs in the crowd and gets it there. By the way, the first show — that's the one that we didn't show out of the four — it's us learning that process quickly, because you could not hear that guy really well because we didn't get there in time. The only thing that we had to do is pick the backgrounds; we wanted them to look like three separate specials. And we were told what we can't do, which is you can't sing copyrighted songs unless you want to pay for them, which would cost one tenth of our budget. We couldn't afford that, so we couldn't really sing copyrighted songs, but outside of that, there's literally no preparation — we get out on stage, we put the mics on and hope that we do one of the shows that we like.
Middleditch: I think if anyone watches it and thinks that there's a plan or anything is preconceived, I would preemptively say that for Ben and I, that would make it so much entirely less fun. We're up there having a good time, and what's fun for us about it is the same level of discovery that the audience has of like, "Whoa, this is going in a new direction." It would entirely defeat the raison d'etre to do a totally falling-off-a-cliff improv special if we did any of that, so I want to underscore the fact that everything is truly, truly made up on the spot.
With so many characters and details and accents, what's the key to keeping it all straight in your head?
Schwartz: For me the thing that helps, even though we're amazing —
Middleditch: Whoa, Ben.
Schwartz: Oh, sorry. No, but for me, the way I keep memorizing things is usually if I create a character or I'm watching Thomas do a character, we'll do a physical motion or we'll stand a certain way or our voices will be different —t here's a character in one of [the specials] where she keeps playing with her ponytail, so anytime me or Thomas plays with our ponytail while we're talking as this woman, or stands a certain way or has a certain accent, we'll know it's that character. That's the easiest way for me, at least, to remember where they are.
Middleditch: Yeah, repetition and things. But what I like about what Ben and I have allowed ourselves to do is just break the fourth wall whenever we want. If things are getting crazy with character counts or with what is happening in the show, either one of us as the character or one of us as us is going to be like, "Hold on, let's recap." That happens in the law school special, when that guy comes on and it's like, "All right, we've got to figure this out." And he's like, "Hold on, we have to go over the stakes here." That was me, as Thomas, going through the voice of that character being like, "I gotta make sure we all know what's going on because I can barely figure it out." And that's kind of fun, just taking a moment and being like, "All right, everybody, raise your hand and say your name." And then it forces us to remind ourselves of who's in the room, and then the audience can do that too — sometimes they're like, "Oh, you forgot someone!" And then we're like, "Oh no, we forgot someone!" It's part of the fun. Keeping it loose, I think, is a good time.
How do you know when you're done with a story?
Middleditch: To me it's if you've had an hour of characters and you've done your job where they all have their wants and their emotional stakes and stuff, if they feel resolved or about to be resolved as soon as you come on as this one character and say, you know, "They're married," or whatever it is. When it all sort of feels like it's come to a head and feels satisfied, that's when you go, "OK, great, all we need is a joke and then we're out." The times where we've walked off stage feeling like "Oh man, we ended it early" or something felt wrong, it's usually because it's like, "Oh, that one character was left hanging a bit, and we didn't conclude them." But that's kind of the fun of doing a story-based improv show; when the story feels complete, that's time. And we know when an hour is up, kind of.
Schwartz: I keep my eye on the clock and see how long we've been going, and then I'm like, "All right, we've done 45 to 50 minutes," and in my head I'll start being like, "All right, let's see what we can start to try to wrap things up or put things into place so we can wrap up." I will say when we get off stage, the shows that I'm like, "Ah, I wish we..." are usually the shows that we went on a little bit too long as opposed to too short. Like "Oh man, we had it, we had this great out and then we went on for five more minutes of nonsense." So the big one for me is I look at the clock to see when we should wrap stuff up, and then we start almost like putting stuff back on stage and just hoping that somehow the two of us can make it end in a way that makes people go, "Yeah!"
This is the first long-form improv special on Netflix. What does that mean to you to bring this kind of comedy to an audience who may not have seen it before?
Schwartz: For me, it's huge. I remember when I saw improv for the first time, I saw a show at the Upright Citizens Brigade and Amy Poehler was in it, and Matt Besser. It was like 2003; I remember it blowing my mind. I'd never seen anything like that before, and I couldn't believe that all the funniest people I'd ever seen in my life were underneath a grocery store doing this for $5 on Sunday. Just the idea that we may be able to show people long-form improv in cities that have never seen it before, and maybe they'll be like, "Oh, what is this? I would love to do this," because the second I saw it on stage, I was like, "Oh my God, I want to do this so bad." It felt so cool to me. My hope is that, you know, maybe it inspires some people to do it, or they dig it, or maybe they're coming just because they see Thomas and I being goofy and are like, "Whoa." There's kind of an art form behind it, a great legacy behind it. To me, it's incredibly exciting.
Middleditch: I think on one hand, improv in some way is discouraged from that, discouraged from being a special or being done in theaters, because I think the whole premise to improv for years and years was that anyone can do it, and the business model is charge $5 and make up the rest on your classes and stuff. I think what I wanted to do is crack the door open to a slightly more performance-based, professional way of doing it — and Ben and I, all we had to do is get moderately famous on television but performing bigger theaters like Carnegie Hall and the Chicago Theatre and then eventually sort of saying, "OK, well look, this shit could be a comedy special, why not? Let's try it." And hopefully it's good enough that people go, "Yeah, agreed, I see it now." Because I think in so many different ways, improv lives in this sort of experimental thing, a bunch of random people doing this kind of strange show where we just want to make it accessible, just like how stand-up is accessible — you know where the funny is.
Schwartz: It is very exciting that it's so different, also, the idea that it's like different than a stand-up special. It's very exciting to be like, "Hey, we know you love stand-up specials, or maybe you've seen a sketch show; well, this is something totally different, what do you think of it?" We hope people are open to it and excited by it.
Middleditch & Schwartz is now streaming on Netflix. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.