Like so many improvisational comedy shows, Middleditch & Schwartz begins with a simple question to the audience to help establish a scene. But after a few minutes, when Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz get rolling, it’s apparent that this is not your standard display of improv.
The Netflix series is a rare televised look at live improv comedy, featuring two of the best improv comedians working right now. The three hour-long episodes, filmed at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, go in strange directions that surprise even their two guides, while still being some of the most hilarious comedy you can get your hands on right now.
Using nothing but their own bodies, voices, and a couple of chairs, Middleditch and Schwartz sweep up the audience in an entrancing, electric kind of energy. The chemistry that sizzles between them and the way they build off of each other is a rare thing to see.
These are two incredible improv comedians at what may be the peak of their talents, and it’s a pleasure to watch them work.
Both of these guys have made names for themselves with iconic comedy roles on TV — Schwartz is mostly recognized for playing Jean-Ralphio on Parks and Recreation and Middleditch for his role as Richard Hendricks on HBO’s Silicon Valley. But their chops go much deeper, with roles in tons of projects, from multiple appearances of both on Comedy Bang! Bang! to Middleditch’s role as Tony Babcock, a character he invented and used to literally cast an LA Kings hockey game.
The two have cut their teeth in improv over the years in some truly incredible fashions. Schwartz’s role in Funny or Die’s improvised morning news show called The Earliest Show is an underrated gem, while Middleditch has been doing incomprehensibly impressive Shakespearean improv with a company since 2005.
They’ve been doing improv together on tours billed as Middleditch and Schwartz over the past couple of years, performing all around the country in venues as illustrious Carnegie Hall, which is not somewhere you expect to see improv comedy. But when you witness these two in their three Netflix specials, it’s clear how they managed to see this meteoric rise as perhaps the strongest comedy duo of the new decade.
In one episode, the two play multiple roles in a wedding beset with drunk parents, tales of long-ago loves, and a ghost. In another, they envision a law school classroom that begins pretty normally but devolves into a bizarre scene of child abandonment. And the strangest episode of all starts with the idea of a guy who is waiting to hear back about a job interview and turns into a hilariously confusing melding of minds and bodies in a public bathroom.
At the end of each special, there’s a feeling that it’s not really about the scenes these two set. While it’s impressive that they manage to make coherent storylines on the fly, it’s more about watching these two feed off each other and dig into the strange recesses of each other’s brains.
Some of the best moments are the fourth-wall-breaking acknowledgements of what exactly they’re doing, whether it’s a laugh or a gaffe or just someone forgetting which character is which for a second. It’s a reminder that, wow, they are actually somehow keeping all of this insanity straight for 99% of the show and they’re so talented that even their fumbles are comedic gold.
The Middleditch & Schwartz specials have come at a wonderful time. The two comedians are so warm and wholesome, they pull the audience right in with them as they take everyone on fresh, weird journeys into comedy. It’s a delight, to say the least.
Middleditch & Schwartz is streaming on Netflix now.