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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Hannah J Davies and Rich Pelley

The Guide #91: Ben Schwartz is bringing his improv show to the UK – and he wants your stories

Ben Schwartz, in Los Angeles, 2020.
Ben Schwartz, in Los Angeles, 2020. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Something a little different this week – a Q&A between frequent Guardian culture contributor Rich Pelley and Ben Schwartz of Parks and Recreation fame, who is currently on tour and touches down in the UK in July. Read on for the secrets to quick-witted comedy success, as well as our usual cultural recommendations below. – Hannah

You’ll know Ben Schwartz as Jean-Ralphio Saperstein from Parks and Recreation, Space Force, and as the voice of Sonic in the two Sonic the Hedgehog movies. But you should like him best for his true passion – longform improv, where he invents hour-long stories based entirely on the suggestions of his audiences. His latest improv show, Ben Schwartz & Friends, is coming to London this July, where he will be joined on stage by friends, to improvise an entire evening of entertainment. We caught up with him to find out just how it all works.

Hi, Ben! Could you make the show all about me if I tell you a story in advance …?

No. That’s not how it works. The show is made up on the spot, so even the idea of us conversing beforehand wouldn’t make any sense. We interview audience members, listen to their story, and then make up an entire show off of that. What I’ve learned the most is that the best stories are from the people that aren’t trying to be funny. They’re just telling us real things from their lives, and we get to connect with them.

How are you anticipating British audiences might differ from US ones?

I guess I just won’t be doing 1,000 weirdly specific Los Angeles references. I’m very excited to find out because this is the first time I’ve taken my improv out of the US or Canada. My “world” tour is in fact one city – London. I filmed a movie with Sam Rockwell called Blue Iguana in the UK, but I haven’t done a ton of stuff there. Anytime I get to go for work, it’s heaven.

What happens if you’re doing an improv scene but can’t think of anything?

If we were doing improv, I would save you. Whenever I see someone may be a bit lost, I’ll jump in and push the scene along. If I said: “Remember that awful thing you did?” and they go: “Uhh …” I’ll try to make one up. I’ll say: “Remember when you stole candy from a baby? It was literally yesterday!” and then the scene can move on from there.

Isn’t part of the fun – like in Middleditch and Schwartz [his Netflix series with Thomas Middleditch, pictured below] – trying to stitch the other person up?

When you’ve played with someone for a long time, I love pushing that just to mess with people – but only if it furthers the show. There’s a guy I do improv with a lot called Drew Tarver. There was a show that involved us all singing the theme tune to Friends – I’ll Be There For You by The Rembrandts – but it was clear that he didn’t know the words. The shows are an hour long. We were wrapping it up, and it turned into this big thing where the only way someone’s life could be saved was if Drew Tarver could sing a word-perfect version of the theme to Friends, and he was pushed to the middle of the stage. It was such a funny moment because he was really trying to remember the words.

Middleditch And Schwartz Comedy Special.
Middleditch And Schwartz Comedy Special. Photograph: Jeffery Neira/NETFLIX © 2020

Talking of Friends, can you tell us the friends who will be featuring in Ben Schwartz and Friends in London?

I’m only bringing two because it’s quite expensive to fly. So it will be two people who I regularly do improve with in the States, and hopefully another American improv comic who happens to be over in the UK when we’re there.

If you could pick any British actor to be one of your friends, who would you choose?

I love Stath Lets Flats, so Jamie Demetriou.

You did the voice of Sonic. Has this lead to any weird fanboy stuff?

I’ve been invited to conventions, but I haven’t done one yet. Every so often, people will come up and want an autograph. I used to get recognised as Jean-Ralphio from Parks and Rec the most: people would come up, quote lines, and ask me do to sign stuff. When Sonic came out, all of a sudden that was the thing people wanted me to sign the most. So the thing that you can’t see my face in, is now the thing I’m most famous for.

They changed the appearance of Sonic at the last minute. If you could change anything about yourself, what would you change?

I get injured easier and I gain weight easier now than I have in my entire life. I would love if I still had the metabolism of when I was younger and didn’t get tired so quickly. Just give me an injury-free, young body – which is not saying much because I was a bag of bones back then as well.

What would have happened if they had cast you as Paddington?

Oh my God, it would be a dream. But I don’t think my voice is calm enough for Paddington. My voice would be a Paddington who had drunk too much coffee, was in a bad mood, and was also Jewish.

Ben Schwartz and Friends is at the Eventim Apollo, London, on 27 July. See

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