Comedy in the Time of COVID

Review by guest student writer Trista Peterson

2020 has been a record-setting year for watching television. Confined to our sofas as COVID-19 ravages the world outside, we ask Netflix to keep us entertained, to offer us an escape. With its April 21st  release of Middleditch & Schwartz, Netflix delivered big-time.

Composed of three 50-minute episodes, the comedy duo Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz give the audience at New York University’s Skirball Centre for the Performing Arts (and all of us at home) an exciting take on long-form improv comedy. Their endeavour has been met with critical acclaim, earning a Rotten Tomatoes rating of ‘100% fresh.’ I agree with this judgement: Middleditch & Schwartz is just good, fun comedy.

Before watching Middleditch & Schwartz, my familiarity with improv only ran as deep as having been exposed to the well-worn comedy trope employed by countless sitcoms: young, WASP-ish urbanites attend improv classes where they learn the cardinal “yes, and…” Such is the case in The Office’s “Email Surveillance,” when the fictional paper company’s incompetent regional manager is shunned by his improv classmates for being overly trigger-happy with an imaginary gun. In reality, the basic tenets of improv comedy are as follows: all characters, scenes, and dialogues are made up on the spot, and other actors must respond with a “yes” to all statements made.

Thomas Middleditch hails originally from Nelson, British Columbia, and got his start in comedy at the Second City theatre in Chicago where he took improv classes and performed on the side. He later auditioned, albeit unsuccessfully, for Saturday Night Live in New York City. He went on to appear regularly in films and television shows, including the well-loved program Silicon Valley. Born and raised in New York City, Funny or Die alumnus Ben Shwartz has is perhaps best known for his role as the unpredictable and childish Jean-Ralphio Saperstein on NBC’s hit series Parks and Recreation.

The first installment of the special, entitled Parking Lot Wedding begins with the text: “Everything in this show is completely improvised and made up on the spot. Nothing is written or prepared beforehand.”

In place of a script, they reach out to the audience for inspiration. They ask for members to volunteer true information about upcoming personal events, either eagerly anticipated or feared, that will serve as prompts. They barely have time to ask this question when a man shouts, “getting married!” from seats several rows above the stage. The gentleman turns out to be a bridal party member for the upcoming nuptials of a friend. He is one of a “modge-podge” group of friends who allegedly met in a Walmart parking lot, all of whom will be in the wedding. The short interaction between the audience member and the comedy duo is hilarious in and of itself, and we soon see that it is more than enough fuel for the comedic inferno that ensues. The show begins.

The men each embody a fictional character inspired by the real-life wedding set inside an impressively expansive, imaginary, and totally improvised universe. Middleditch and Shwartz bring this zany world to life in a way that feels like it has to be scripted and rehearsed, though it is purely improvised. They create complicated scenes and populate them with a wide array of characters brought to life by the pair, including, briefly, a ghost-pastor who officiates the wedding. It’s hilarious and truly fun- I find myself laughing out loud regularly at lines that my partner and I still quote to one another.

It’s easy to forget that this is all the product of off-the-top-of-the-head improvisation, especially as the actors jump between characters and switch roles– often with each other– without skipping a beat.

The second episode, Law School Magic, finds the pair appropriating the anxiety of an audience who is about to write her first-year law school final exams. The scene spins off in many hilarious directions involving incompetent instructors, secret rooms, and aliens. It’s all utterly ridiculous yet somehow believable– I find myself totally buying into the worlds they create, an homage to the acting chops of the pair.

Dream Job, the third and final episode, introduces the audience to a couple of friends preparing for their respective high-stakes job interviews, prompted by a nervous audience member’s upcoming Saturday Night Live job interview. The twists and turns of the 50-minute series of events that follow are as hilarious as they are ridiculous.

What I find most impressive about Middleditch & Schwartz is that the comedians make it all look so easy. It feels like anyone could do it, though that is almost certainly not the case. The success of the show is likely a mixture of raw talent, careful training, and electric chemistry; the actors interact with intuitive knowledge of one-another’s off-beat visions for the special. They jump off one-another’s prompts and often force the other into uncomfortable situations, leading into such ridiculous situations as a job interview that requires Schwartz’s nervous character to give his best impression of a grazing gazelle. “You’re a hungry little gazelle!” Middleditch says to his partner, who crouches on all fours below and feigns eating grass. The audience roars with laughter.

The comedy duo’s chemistry is undoubtedly what makes their comedy so good, even when one of the pair blunders. On occasion, they forget their character’s name, what they’re doing, or break the fourth wall. Or, they veer too close into the realm of the real: “This character makes me nervous…” Middleditch says with a smile towards the end of the third episode as the scene begins to covertly poke fun at Saturday Night Live’s creator, Lorne Michaels, “I’m worried about it being too real.”

Middleditch & Schwartz is a demonstration of improv as a legitimate art form; as ostensible masters of their craft, Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz make long-form improv comedy accessible, digestible, and absolutely enjoyable for the masses. This is an especially worthy endeavour amid a global pandemic that has many of us confined to our homes and hungrier than ever for good, fun television.

Say “yes” to Middleditch & Schwartz; you’ll be happy you did.

Middleditch & Schwartz
three episodes
available to stream on Netflix