Comedian Ben Schwartz doesn't just look like he's having fun, he truly is having the time of his life. Maybe that's why his bombastically-coiffed alter-ego, Park and Recreation's Jean-Ralphio Saperstein has developed a rabid-fan base that has taken to turning his every eccentric move into a GIF, a montage, or some other viral-ready form, despite the fact that he has only been in nine episodes. Maybe it can be attributed to the finely-tuned circus act he and Aziz Ansari have cultivated, his unmatched ability to end his every turn of phrase in rhyme, or his wonderfully smarmy attempts to lure in the ladies.
But more than likely, it's Schwartz's infectious energy that makes his expressive mug memorable in a sea of sober-faced talent. We spoke to the actor-writer about his new dark comedy on Showtime, House of Lies (which premieres Sunday, January 8th at 10 p.m. ET), in which he stars alongside Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, and Josh Lawson as a contrived consultant who unhesitatingly uses humans as stepping stones in his climb to the top, and it only served to contrast just how different the comedian's own rise was. After speaking with Schwartz about his circuitous climb to the top, and how he managed to make his way up entertainment's rejection-mined ladder with enthusiasm and humility in tact, we were left humbled and enthused ourselves. Now if we could only duplicate that 'do...
Interview by Shanté Cosme (@ShanteCosme)
Most comedians are really narrow in their scope, but you're all over the place—in a good way.
What a terrible way to start an interview! Before you said in a good way. "You're kind of a fucking mess." [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] No, like a renaissance type of man! Which of your many roles is the most satisfying for you—writing, improv, or acting?
Oh, OK, I'm kind of excited now. I feel like you're not going to ask the same questions everyone else has. For me, my favorite thing in the world to do is improvising, doing stuff for UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade] on stage. I've been doing it for 10 years and it's the way I started. We don't get paid, but it's just amazing. But acting, like Parks And Recreation and House Of Lies and all the comedy stuff I've been doing, is really what I get the most joy out of.
Writing is fun as well, it's just intensely lonely when you're by yourself writing all day. The best feeling in the world is handing in a script that you wrote with your name on it. You feel good about it, but to write is such a process, and frustrating and all that stuff. I love performing with people. When I'm on Parks doing scenes with Aziz or Amy and acting with Don Cheadle it's really a joy. Improvising is something I've been doing my whole life. It's like play time.
As a comedian whose roots run really deep in UCB, what can you say about the worth of improv in general for would-be comics out there?
Improv is such a great tool for almost everything. It teaches you the basics, saying yes to something and adding to it. It teaches you what you're good at comedically, and teaches you how to get better at it and to find your voice and explore from there. It kind of helps everything. My writing is based on improv. I can do it with scenes when I'm kind of improving the whole scene dialogue-wise, and if you're allowed to improvise in audtions you can kind of add a little bit to the script and make the character more your own and impress people.
You're particularly adept at embodying Jean-Ralphio's schemin', womanizing shtick. Does that persona come naturally to you?
Schemin', you said? You didn't even put a a g on the end of it!
I don't think I'd want to go out with a girl who'd want to go out with Jean-Ralphio, who, when I go up to her and start dancing like a crazy person and licking her neck, would be like, 'Oh, this is the person I've been looking for!'
Yep. Schemin' and creepin' on the ladies. No g's.
[Laughs.] For me, my game is, I don't really have any game. My game in real life is being nice and getting shut down hard. For me, Jean-Ralphio is embodying a character, and me being like, "He's such a douche bag." But he's a sweetheart. He doesn't know he's being a douche. He just really wants to have sex with women. It's so fun for me to figure out, "OK, in this situation, what's the skeeziest way to try to pick up this girl? Oh, I'm going to go over and smell her hair before I even say a word to her." In my real life, I don't use it at all, but it's so fun to do it on camera.
You've never attempted to take any of those moves off-screen?
No! I think a human being would get slapped for that. I don't think I'd want to go out with a girl who'd want to go out with Jean-Ralphio. I don't think I'd want to date a woman who, when I go up to her and start dancing like a crazy person and licking her neck would be like, "Oh, this is the person I've been looking for!"
Is having Aziz as your skeezy partner in crime helpful in terms of your comedic timing?
So much. The whole idea behind how they built the character is that I'm his best friend, so I know everything about him and we kind of act the same. And it's kind of hilarious, because in any other situation he's the one who is kinda weird and eccentric and being like, "Uh oh, uh oh!" And when I come in, I'm an exaggerated version of that, so somehow he'll become the straight man because I'm being so crazy.
It's fun for both of us because it's the first time where someone is as like-minded as him in his endeavors, like trying to pick up women and starting Snake Juice and our own company. It's extremely helpful when someone comes out with an idea for you to be like-minded in that. So if someone loves puppies, it's really fun for me to come out on stage and really love puppies as well. So for both of us to enjoy being douches and picking up women, it becomes so much fun.
It's fun to watch you two in action together.
[Last season] was so good. I only get to read the scripts that I'm in and those are amazing. I think the last episode may be my favorite Jean-Ralphio episode so far.
Being that you don't get the scripts, do you watch the show so you can follow everything else that is going on?
Oh, I'm a huge fan of the show. Last year, I was in three episodes a year. I had a quick scene where I did a best man speech. So when I got that script, I didn't read any other part of the script because I didn't want to spoil it for myself, so I only read my little scene and learned my lines. I didn't even want to know who was getting married, because I'm so into the show. I think it's the best comedy on TV right now. It blows me away.
So on Parks, Jean-Ralphio and Tom (Aziz Ansari) created the elaborate, although fruitless, media company Entertainment 720. Have you ever had any business ventures as creative as Jean-Ralphio's?
I try to put my hand in as much as I can. At the beginning, when I was trying to get made, I had no money so I used to do everything I could. I used to freelance for anywhere—Letterman, [SNL's] "Weekend Update." I tried to sell a book, I tried to write a script for a TV show—I try to always keep myself busy. Like, "Oh, maybe I'll try to start a T-shirt company." Even if I have no fucking clue what I'm doing, I'll try to find someone else who knows what they're doing and try to work it out.
The way I started, I just really wanted to do entertainment and I wanted to write and act so badly that I tried every single avenue at the beginning to try to hit it. I knew that if I failed at the beginning I wouldn't be able to do it. I didn't let myself be lazy for a second. And I failed at a bunch of them, but the more you put out there and the harder you work, you hopefully get a little bit lucky and one of them will hit.