Middleditch & Schwartz review: Utter madness and joy
Andrew Jones | On 22, Apr 2020
There is beauty in the chaos of improvisation, the nature of making things up as they go along, the teamwork as multiple humans form characters, worlds, stories together on a stage, looking for truth in the fiction, things to connect and create with. An impossibly open canvas with every colour imaginable, and many waiting to be imagined, makes improv, and improvised comedy especially, the purest of art forms. Over the many decades, figures have risen working out the rules to enhance the game, to devise how to form the formless, to take control of what is complete and utter shenanigans – but even still, at its core, there’s a devious, decidedly incomprehensible and kinetic energy that cannot be tamed.
One person walks into the spotlight, perhaps after hearing a few words, or a monologue, or discussing a subject with an audience member, and begins to speak or act, and the group around them decide to step in, build, shift or explain this moment, before continuing on with stories, characters, scenarios, jokes until… the show ends. The main rule is to agree on every idea thrown out. Saying no to something is a way to undercut the safety net of teamwork, and to deny the creation within every moment.
Ben Schwartz is a goofball comedy figure who worked the Upright Citizens Brigade theatres for years, forming a deep connection to long-form narrative improv. He has always been pushing bigger and bigger media outlets into bringing improv to the world beyond Whose Line Is It Anyway?’s short-form games. He had minor success when Showtime aired a half-hour long-form show with the cast of House of Lies, including a very game Don Cheadle and extremely funny Kristen Bell. Here, he’s tied with Silicon Valley’s Thomas Middleditch, a man who spent years on stage doing improvised Shakespeare, which is a real high bar of creativity. Together, they are Middleditch & Schwartz, and Netflix showcases three performances of the duo, after a successful run across America with their completely made-up show.
The series sees the two talented artists feeding off an audience member’s biggest upcoming fear – before the days when everyone’s answer was “someone coughing” – and delivers three 45-minute stories featuring the two playing many different characters, often switching roles between one another, and getting to the point where mid-scene they wonder where and who they actually are. It’s a lot of silliness, rooted in a heart that always beats. Two close friends who work on the same wavelength vie to create worlds together, make each other laugh, and make the audience feel good by the end of it. Each episode is utter madness and joy – it doesn’t always land, of course, but the highs are utterly hilarious.
While the world is closed, and seeing comedy as it was meant to be seen – live and in-person – has become impossible, the timing of these specials couldn’t be better. There is an infectious energy to the performers, the game laughter of the crowd, the willingness to reach into the silliest depths of the mind – without ever forgetting to be honest, human, and quite sweet. All this, while two men on all-fours discuss which gazelle is the top and which gazelle is the bottom, is the closest you can get to great live improv.
Middleditch & Schwartz is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.