This article first appeared as part of Jenelle Riley’s Acting Up newsletter – to subscribe for early content and weekly updates on all things acting, visit the Acting Up signup page.
When someone talks about improvisation, odds are your mind goes to what is known as short-form; theater games or quick scenes, the sort of performances popularized by “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and seen in small theaters. Most people have seen – or been in – groups like this.
Long-form improv, as the name implies, offers a different challenge. Rather than taking suggestions throughout a show for different scenes, performers only take a few suggestions at the top of a show and proceed to perform the rest of the show based on those. While there may be several scenes within a show, the idea is that they are all related to those initial prompts.
While it may be high-risk, it’s also high-reward for both audience and performers – a good long-form show is a rush like no other. And the good news is that long-form seems to be growing in popularity as people become more familiar with it. One of the biggest ambassadors for long-form improv is Ben Schwartz, an actor known for his scene-stealing work on such shows as “Parks and Recreation” and “The Afterparty” and recent films like “Renfield.” As a performer, Schwartz has a talent for making every line sound organic and true – leading one to wonder just how much of it is scripted and how much his improv background has helped him live in the moment as an actor.
Outside of his acting and writing careers, Schwartz regularly performs long-form improv with his live show “Ben Schwartz and Friends,” which tours all over the U.S. in addition to an informal residency at the Largo at the Coronet in L.A. In upcoming months, Schwartz will even be taking the show international, with dates in London and Canada. And this Fall, he’ll make history by playing New York City’s legendary Radio City Music Hall, a 6,000-seat venue, on Sept. 23.
The setup of the show is fairly simple; the stage is simply Schwartz and a small group of three or four friends, and some folding chairs. Some improv parameters are well-known, i.e. the “Yes, and” rule where you don’t negate anything a scene partner has stated (“yes”) and then you expand on their idea (“and.”) What ensues, if you’re lucky, is a whirlwind 45 to 60 minutes that will have you laughing throughout while marveling at the dexterity of the performers. I wanted to speak to Schwartz both as an improviser – getting as specific into the skillset as possible – but also an actor, to know how much improv can benefit an actor.
And if you can’t get to a theater, you can check out “Middleditch and Schwartz” on Netflix, in which Schwartz and “Silicon Valley” star Thomas Middleditch present three live tapings of their improv shows, or Showtime’s “House of Lives Live!” in which Schwartz performs with a group that includes his “House of Lies” co-stars Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell.
When did you first become aware of improvisation and how did you get involved?
Like a lot of people, it was those reruns on Comedy Central of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” Then in college, there was a group called Idle Minds at Union College. It was also short-form, and I was terrified to audition for it. Because in my group of friends, I thought I was funny. But I didn’t want to try out for the funny people and find out I wasn’t. Finally, my girlfriend at the time forced me to audition. And I don’t think it was a good audition, but they let me in.
It wasn’t until I graduated college and went to the Upright Citizens Brigade that I learned about long-form. It came about because I loved Amy Poehler and wanted to know where she came from. I learned about UCB and that’s where I first discovered long-form improv. And I connected with it instantly. I loved the idea of creating a whole world with nothing but a stage and chairs.
What were some of the growing pains or things you learned in those early years?
You have to take risks. You’re going to fail, you just are. You have to learn from that failure, get up, and take another risk. And if you keep doing that, you will slowly find your voice. And with that comes more confidence on stage. So much of improv is feeling good in your skin. And then you learn to be comfortable if you take a big swing and there’s no laugh. Take your time, you’re going to find something. But it takes time. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and literally thousands of shows.
That’s something every performer has experienced – like it or not – bombing onstage. How do you handle those moments when things are going awry?
In the beginning it happened all the time and people get nervous and you start making silly jokes or cursing or doing something juvenile which isn’t great. It’s like you revert back to: “When I was a kid, this made people laugh!” And that’s when you can see people working so hard to get a laugh, as opposed to just being in the moment. That happens a lot when you’re younger and you haven’t had a laugh in a little bit and you don’t trust the idea that you’ll find it. You start pushing too hard. Or you break the guidelines of improv—you stop the scene or you say no to something.
I guess the key is to trust in the scene, to be okay with the moments where there aren’t big laughs, knowing they’re building to something. To remember that you’re in this together, that you’re working with people who are going to make something good and make you look good while doing it.
Watching the people you’ve worked with onstage, it almost feels like you’re communicating telepathically. How do you get on the same wavelength? Or are there ways you can communicate to each other via some kind of signal? Or is it all instinct?
A lot of it is just about finding the right people. I like to keep the group onstage small to keep us all sort of on the same page. And we can’t really talk privately to each other during a show, so it’s almost all instinct. But we do have certain gestures that have a function in a scene. For example, if Drew Tarver is playing the President in a scene with someone else and I want to do a scene with Drew’s President, I’ll tap the other performer on the shoulder, which means that performer leaves the scene and Drew stays in the same character. And I’ll start the new scene playing a new character, like his son, and put Drew’s President in a different situation, saying something like, “Dad… sorry, Mr. President, the nukes can wait, you promised we would go fishing…”
And there are ways to sort of end scenes. In long form improv, we do something called a sweep edit, where you run across the front of the stage, and it means the scene is done. Those performers go to the back line and someone else will start a new scene.
Even though it’s improv, do you have any way to “rehearse” for a show? Do you practice with the others before?
Not anymore. When I started we would have rehearsals during the week to keep sharp, learn and get experience working together. But that hasn’t happened in a long time. The people who do my show have been performing improv for fifteen to twenty five years, so everyone is ready to go. And because there’s nothing to set up or do beforehand, everyone gets to the theater 20 minutes before the show starts. When it was Middleditch and Schwartz, we would get there five minutes before the show. But in that short time before the show, we don’t rehearse, we usually just talk about our lives and catch up as friends.
What about when you have guests who haven’t done improv before? What do you say to them?
I used to do a show called Snowpants where the idea was we would do improv with someone who was new to it. I’ve had guests like Jane Fonda, J.J. Abrams, Henry Winkler. And beforehand I just tell them: You can take any risks you want. We’re here to support you – we’ll take care of you and make it work. Just be in the moment and react honestly. And you know, nothing is recorded. There’s no video so we can have fun and just go for it.
You taped three lives shows of “Middleditch and Schwartz” for Netflix. Did they come to you or is it something you had to pitch?
It’s a funny process because we set up pitch meetings everywhere. And people would say, “Well, what’s the special?” And we’d go, “We don’t know yet. We make it up.” And they’d say, “We understand, but what’s it going to be about?” One of the places asked if they could plant someone in the audience, maybe a celebrity, for us to pull up on stage. They didn’t quite get it. And every single place we pitched to passed.
Then we sold out Carnegie Hall and people were a little more interested. So, our touring agents invited Netflix execs to come to a show in front of 1,800 people in L.A. Afterwards, we spoke to them and to their credit, they gave us a shot. I’m still so appreciative. One of the parts of the pitch to all of these places was basically: Stand-ups can only deliver one special in around 6 months or more. When it’s time to record, they’ll do the same show two to three times. Then they edit the best takes to make the special. Every show we do is its own special because every show is totally different. So give us two nights, we can tape four and deliver you three specials. We wanted to be able to cut one show just in case we didn’t like the show. But the scary part is whatever happens in those shows is what will be in the special. You can’t erase big parts of an improv show because then the through line might not make sense.
Also, our budget is very low for four hour long specials, which didn’t hurt.
Often, improv doesn’t translate to the small screen but these really worked. How did you make it work in a different medium?
We discussed that a lot. How do we make this unique? How can we make it different than coming to our live shows? So we took the budget and instead of paying us, we used almost all of it on filming. We used nine cameras. We put someone in the audience with a boom microphone at the beginning of the show to get good quality audio from the random audience member we interview. And we got so much coverage, just so much. And Thomas and I were in the editing room with our incredible editor Elise Golgowski and picked every angle we wanted to best sell the moment. We utilized close-ups and had so many choices thanks to all those cameras.
Have you found that doing improv has helped you as an actor?
One-hundred percent. It’s a little easier to be in the moment in a scene because improv is all about listening and reacting. So as an actor, I’m not just memorizing my lines and repeating them, I’m watching the person and reacting. I did a movie with Jeremy Irons and he had a great line. He said, “There are two different types of actors. One who is in armor, they’re protected. They know their lines and they know how to hit their mark. They know exactly what they’re doing. And they can be great. But there is not as much fluidity or movement with the armor. And then there are the archers. They wear leather and can bend and move wherever the scene takes them and use different quills and arrows.”
That’s how I think of improvising; you can move with the scene. If someone is giving you more or less, you can adjust your own performance. If anything happens, you can feel it out. And it’s fun, finding different ideas in those moments.
So, if somebody wants to get into improvisation, where do you recommend they start?
For me, it was Upright Citizens Brigade. But if you don’t have something like that in your area, it’s about finding your group. Finding people who want to do sketch and improv and playing with them and getting creative. Sometimes you join up in a large group and you find the people within that group who you really connect to and want to do things with.
And it has to be fun. There’s so little money in it, it’s so hard to break through, you just have to love it so much. Like with anything – acting, writing, directing – there is so much failure and so much rejection, you’re going to find out pretty quickly whether you love it or not.
For more information and to see the touring schedule, visit www.rejectedjokes.com