Ben Schwartz is everywhere right now—which is hard to pull off since, as he pointed out when we recently talked, no one is supposed to go anywhere at the moment. Schwartz was the titular voice for Sonic the Hedgehog, released in February just before the movie industry and everything else really went sideways. A few weeks back, he reprised his role as Jean-Ralphio for the delightful Parks and Recreation quarantine reunion. And this spring, he has two new endeavors out on Netflix: Middleditch & Schwartz, a long-form improv show with Thomas Middleditch, and Space Force, which comes out May 29, which is … exactly what you think it is, starring just about everyone you can think of, including Schwartz.
As you might expect, we spent a fair amount of time chatting about his career—about his new shows and old shows, the great actors he’s been fortunate enough to work with, and the current state of the industry. As you might not expect, that led us into surprisingly detailed conversations about, among other things, word/symbol choices, distinct types of chairs, our shared hatred of Michael Jordan (the player) during our respective childhoods, and our mutual admiration of Jordans (the shoes) during adulthood.
Your PR team is amazing, man. I got a text saying you guys were running three minutes late, and then you called me exactly three minutes later.
They are so fucking good. Everybody is kind and normal human beings. I texted them and said, “Hi, I’m gonna be three minutes late.” Because I didn’t want them to have to wait. I think only one time in my life have I had a PR team, and it was for like three months back in the day when I did a movie called This Is Where I Leave You. But because Sonic [the Hedgehog] and Middleditch & Schwartz were coming out, I was like, I’m gonna spend some money and get a publicist.
It is a very busy time for you. And I appreciate the military precision of the call—this is a transition.
Holy shit if you go into Space Force. Holy shit if you do this.
You saw it coming.
Can you imagine if you pull this off?
It’s gonna be hard to stick this landing, but you’re on a show—let’s see if we can do this together—called …
Middleditch & Schwartz. Ah fuck.
… Space Force. Love the idea. Somehow you guys managed to mine mockable material provided by the current administration.
The show is great. Super funny. Stars Steve Carell, John Malkovich, and I am somehow in there. Me, Tawny Newsome, Jimmy O. Yang, Don Lake, Diana Silvers. The most insane part is I’m doing a television show where, if [it] had just Steve Carell, I would be over the moon. Or if [it] had just John Malkovich, I would be over the moon. But both of them are in this television show.
It follows another branch of the military called the Space Force. We filmed it months and months ago. And then slowly, as all this news of the real Space Force is coming out—they’ll show their camo, and then we’ll be like, “Oh, these are our camos.” You never see an instance of where the thing we’re filming is happening at the exact same time as the real-life thing. It’s surreal.
You play F. Tony—I’m probably gonna fuck this up—Scarapiducci. How’d I do?
That’s great. That’s perfect.
On a scale of zero to Jean-Ralphio, what are we looking at here?
Well, his name is “Fuck Tony,” which is even more insane. When I auditioned for this, one of the things we talked about was making sure it’s nothing like Jean-Ralphio. Which is great. In my head, Jean-Ralphio slowly becomes more of like a muppet in a cartoon. [F. Tony] can have moments where he’s excited or whatever, but he comes from a character who’s always trying to get respect from people, and when he’s by himself he’s probably a pretty sad guy. That was so fun to play.
One of the things that made me so excited to do [Space Force], it’s such a comedy, man. It’s a 30-minute funny show. I get to be funny all the time. After I did Parks, I tried to find roles that were not like that a little bit. House of Lies is like half-dramatic and half-comedic. And this one is like, all right, we’re making a fucking funny show. And you have Greg Daniels writing the words.
As you said, you shot the show months and months ago. I talked to Jeff Schaffer about this recently: How do you think the process of making shows will change now?
I’m not quite certain. I think these next six months to eight months to a year are gonna be very interesting. Parks and Rec did it by literally just sending us a cellphone each, and then we recorded it, and I left the cellphone in a box outside and they took the cellphone and edited the footage together.
With Space Force, you wanted to make sure it was grounded in reality, it was a different character from Parks and Rec. Are you tired of Jean-Ralphio?
No. I’m not tired of him at all. Doing that character was super fun. Beyond that, watching the reaction of people when they saw Jean-Ralphio, how excited they were, that makes me so happy. I was in like 21 episodes. I’m sure if you put all my scenes together it’s like one minute of material. Even now, after I’ve done quite a few things, that’s still the thing that I’m most recognized for on the streets. I’m not going up singing in people’s ears or anything like that, but I’m very, very thankful.
I did a Q&A with Nick Offerman a couple of months ago and he said people would talk to him on the street, back when we could do that, and they’d think he is Ron Swanson. When you say you’re not singing in people’s ears, are other people scream-singing at you?
Yeah I’ll get that same thing also. Sometimes I’ll meet people and they’ll say, “Oh, you’re not an asshole. You’re a nice guy.” Thank you. When I used to perform a lot at UCB in L.A., and there’s a bar next door, that’s when you would get it. People would be a little bit tipsy and come up and sing in your ear. But not as much anymore. Usually after Middleditch & Schwartz, if we’re touring, someone will say, “Can you take a picture of me? I’ll be singing in your ear.” Sure. You got it.
So you mentioned Middleditch & Schwartz. That’s a great transition by you.
Holy shit. Are you about to pull this off?
We did it again. Also on Netflix. Improv with Tom Middleditch. Really good and funny. But I have a super important question: The “and” that’s in the middle of Middleditch & Schwartz—is it the word “and” or an ampersand? I’ve seen it both ways. These are the things that consume me.
You’re the first to bring this up.
I need to know which one it is.
I cannot believe—it’s supposed to be ampersand. You have my level of going too far into things.
I prefer an ampersand.
I think that’s literally what it is. What is it on the Netflix show? I’m gonna look right now.
You know the way to check? By the way, you’re a brilliant person. The way to check is when we come running out on stage because I remember we were all talking about it. Yeah, it’s an ampersand.
Fantastic. This is what people want to read about. I have another question: How close were you to being Schwartz & Middleditch instead of Middleditch & Schwartz? How did that conversation go?
It’s so funny, I recommended [Middleditch & Schwartz]. I didn’t care. I don’t think Thomas—we didn’t even talk about it. I was in an old group, one of my first sketch groups was called Gibbons and Schwartz. We only did one show. So I had already been in a group called “blank” and Schwartz. So I was like, that’s fine. But also when you make these names you don’t think for a million years that there’s going to be a fucking Netflix special called the thing.
I banged it out last night—that’s probably the wrong way to say it. I was about to say I banged it out with my wife last night. Maybe the editors will take that out. The improv was very funny. But I also had a question about the chairs. That’s your only prop. It looks like all improv shows have that exact chair.
Yeah. There’s different versions of them.
You’re being serious?
Yeah. I’m not even doing a bit. One of the reasons I wanted to use those chairs, coming up at UCB, those are the chairs that were used. They’re called bentwood chairs. We use bentwood chairs for a couple reasons. One, because of that. Two, because they’re very lightweight and kinda durable. We can throw them around. We can fling them and all that stuff.
Amazing. These are the things that I think about. In my mind, I was like, is there an improv chair manufacturer with a warehouse full of these somewhere?
You could not be more right. I’m sure those are the ones they use in Second City. It makes me feel like I’m doing improv when I’m sitting on those.
You cracked the case for me. I really appreciate that. Something else I wanted to mention about your show that isn’t technically about the show: You wore a really sweet pair of Jordans in the first episode.
Thank you for this. I’m happy we’re doing this.
We just did a whole series on the AJ1s. And then the second show, you wore a pair of 3s with, I think it was the Knicks colorway.
That’s exactly correct. And what’d I wear for the third one?
You didn’t watch the third one. You piece of shit.
It was so late! I had to go to bed to talk to you this morning.
The first one was Jordan 1 high, pine green. Second one was Jordan 3, Knicks colorway—which, by the way, I bought because I’m such a huge Knicks fan. But if you look inside the sneaker, it commemorates the time Jordan destroyed the Knicks. It was such a hard thing for me to realize. I cannot wait to talk to you about this. I have not talked about this in an interview before.
When you were on with Sway—where you did Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” as Sonic—you mentioned your daily uniform is the Jordan 3 black cement. I’m a huge 3 man. My favorites are the wolf grey 3s. I break those out on very rare occasions.
What’s your Jordan spectrum? I’m pretty loyal to 1, 3, 4.
1 and 3 for me, although I like the Spizike. And also, didn’t the 5 Fire Reds come out? When The Last Dance came out, I randomly got that alert and I clicked on it. I wear a size 13. I didn’t buy it [right away] for some reason. Cause we’re in quarantine and I was like, “Why don’t I be safe with my money instead of throwing $200 away on another pair of sneakers?” And then I was like, “Fuck it, I’m gonna get it.” And literally in the two minutes it took me to make that decision, they were gone.
Growing up, I’m a Knicks fan. I never bought Jordans because I hated Jordan. I respected him, but he was always the person who took us down. I loved us and the Eastern Conference, and then Jordan would just destroy us. I would never wear something with Jordan on it because I was such a loyal Knicks fan. And then slowly you grow up a little and you’re like, “What am I doing?”
Then you’re like, these are amazing. We’re roughly the same age and I’m from Philly, as all people from Philly are contractually obligated to tell you, and I had the same experience. I was a big Barkley fan and then a big AI fan, and Jordan would stomp on them.
That means you’re a big Clarence Weatherspoon fan. You had a beautiful run. My father and I went to a Philly game just to see Iverson play and we had cheesesteaks. It was the dream of all dreams. I loved watching [Iverson] play. That crossover he did on Jordan—one of the coolest moves ever.
With Jordan, are you watching the doc?
I am in love with it. I am so sad to see it end. On Sunday, I grab a really beautiful Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and get ice cream and sit down and it’s like re-living all the things I loved about basketball in the ’90s. Even just watching clips of the Sonics again or clips of the Knicks again, it just brings out feelings in me. I love the NBA, but when you’re a kid in the ’90s from New York, it’s more than love. It’s like you’re obsessed with the NBA. I’ve been loving it so much. I never get to talk sports, so this was exciting.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.