In Middleditch & Schwartz, now on Netflix, the two comedians craft three hilarious episodes of long-form improv.
Middleditch & Schwartz (Netflix) debuted on April 21.
Generally speaking, there are three main forms of live comedy: sketch, stand-up, and improv. The former, in my own opinion, is the easiest to translate off-stage; sketch comedy shows are their own wonderful genre. The second makes frequent appearances on both cable and streaming TV, more or less by filming a live performance.
And then there is the unloved, frequently derided other child that is improv. While the others require finely tuned writing and rehearsal, improv is made up on the spot (hopefully with much training and practice). The spontaneity creates an immediacy that is best received in person (and sloshed). There’s an element of risk in going to an improv show. Bad improv can be excruciating (I’ve been to my fair share of college improv shows).
Of course, having a pre-recorded improv show somewhat nullifies that risk, but it still makes perfect sense why televised improv comedy has not been nearly as prevalent as stand-up.
Here to rectify that is Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley) and Ben Schwartz (Sonic the Hedgehog), with three fifty-minute Netflix specials. It’s fitting they chose to release these specials now; not only during a period where live shows are unable to proceed but the day New York’s long-running improv theater, Upright Citizens Brigade (of which Schwartz is an alumnus), announced its closing.
Given the stigma around improv, I empathize with the hesitance you might have towards Middleditch & Schwartz. Having watched all three episodes, I can’t say for sure that anyone extremely improv-averse will be swayed. For those willing to go along with these thirty-eight-year-old men, there is much to enjoy.
Each episode involves the two engaging in “long-form improv.” They begin with some audience participation, asking a member of the crowd questions about a stressful experience they had. (Often these openings were so delightful and funny I wished the whole hour had been crowd-work.) The rest of the episode involves the two creating characters and scenarios based on that experience.
The first episode, entitled “Parking Lot Wedding,” is the weakest on the bunch. Focusing on a crazy wedding party, Middleditch and Schwartz are too beholden to the characters and the story they are jumping off of.
The second “Law School Magic,” is much lighter, and the two delight in playing numerous characters in a law class, culminating in a stern warning about “digital contracts.”
Finally, “Dream Job” (which begins with an introduction of Improv that feels like it should be sequenced first) concerns two friends who are also photographers, or news-writers?
It’s hard to describe the content of each episode, as the two jump off each other and back into the characters the other has previously embodied. It’s fun to watch them figure out what the other is doing, and funnier still to watch them attempt to keep track of all the characters and plot-lines (if you can call them that) established so far. (And the funniest of all is Ben Schwartz’s alien voice.)
Each episode is around ten minutes longer than my patience for their extended improvised scenes, yet replete with enough laughs to get me through. Their skill is impressive, although I’m sure I’d enjoy watching the two having a conversation just as much. Both are very funny and talented performers. Given the current sparsity of live performances, its a pleasure to watch a normally intimate comedy form being broadcast into our homes.
Watching a live special now, I found myself growing envious of those in the audience. I miss being able to laugh with others; to clap, and shout en masse. But for now, I’ll be content to appreciate Ben Schwartz pretend to be an alien child through a screen.
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Cole Sansom is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based out of Philadelphia