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‘Ben Schwartz & Friends’ Is Everything I Wanted It to Be
It’s the perfect night out.
The fall of 2019 was the height of my theatregoing. Ironic, isn’t it? I was wrapping up my degrees in Theatre and Arts Administration, eager to enter that field in just a few months. I was working two jobs and finally had a little extra money to throw toward tickets, and my boyfriend had his first-ever salary and was doing the same. We were at the theatre all the time and honestly, I was becoming a little pompous about it.
Theatre can be exhausting. I know what you’re thinking — “It’s exhausting sitting in your seat and watching something?” — but hear me out. At the height of my theatre exploration, I was taking every chance I could to see truly gripping art. Because of the pompousness I was developing, I didn’t just want to go see comedies or musicals and laugh and sing. I wanted to cry. I longed for prolonged thought.
God, I sound terrible.
When you know you are going to go to the theatre and know that you are about to see something that could provoke intense emotion, it can be really anxiety-inducing. I am a firm believer in that art and think it’s something people should experience, but at the same time, sometimes you wake up and simply don’t want to do anything but relax and the idea of sobbing in a room full of strangers in a few hours can be anxiety-provoking. I was doing that constantly, using these intense experiences as my way to relax.
When the pandemic forced my theatregoing to a grinding halt, I took a good look inside and re-evaluated the things I truly enjoy doing. While there will always be a part of me that wants to support thought-provoking art, I decided I needed to make time for things that brought me simple joy, too.
That’s where “Ben Schwartz & Friends” comes in.
I am, to put it very plainly, obsessed with Ben Schwartz. Jean-Ralphio on Parks and Recreation. The Sonic Movies. The Earliest Show. Space Force. If he’s in it, chances are I’ll love it.
In the very early phase of quarantine when everyone was scouring Netflix for something new to watch, I found Middleditch and Schwartz — a three-part series of improv shows that Ben did with his longtime friend and fellow improver, Thomas Middleditch.
If you’re familiar with the improv world at all (my own knowledge is pretty rudimentary), then you might know Thomas as a founding member of The Improvised Shakespeare Company, which is exactly like it sounds: a group of guys who masterfully improvise a show based on an audience-suggested title, and style the show around the rules of Shakespeare. Five acts. Elaborate schemes. Lots of hijinks and physical humor. And the best Old English they can attempt.
While Middleditch has since left the group, I have started making yearly trips to see them in D.C and it is always a treat. These guys are truly masters at the art of improv, and I tell just about everyone they have to go see them when they come into town. If you ever see them come around in your city, I implore you not to let the word “Shakespeare” deter you — it is sure to be an incredible comedic experience.
Because I was so blown away by Middleditch and Schwartz, I started waiting around for the pandemic to end to see if they would tour together. Well, that never happened. What did happen, however, was the creation of “Ben Schwartz & Friends”, which finally made its east-coast debut this summer.
In this roughly hour-long show, Ben brings three surprise guests with him to various cities to do some long-form improv, their goal is to hear an audience story and create their own dramatized version of it on the spot.
I bought tickets to this several months ago, basically as soon as they went on sale at D.C.’s Warner Theatre. I bought them in the middle of a particularly difficult time in my life, but knew that by the time these tickets paid off, that time would be over and it would be summer. I waited and waited and waited.
The day finally came.
The show started with Ben coming on stage solo, and to no one’s surprise — he’s so funny! After dropping the f-bomb about ten times in a single minute, he quickly realized that there was a five-year-old dead center in the front row. He became fixated on this idea and we basically got a bonus stand-up performance as he grappled with it in real-time. It was such a treat.
Then, he invited his guests on stage.
The first guest he brought out that evening was Ryan Gaul, a comedic actor who I had expected to be there after a quick Insta-stalk the morning of the show when Ben tagged him in some D.C. hijinx.
Next was Katie Dippold, who was a writer on Parks and Rec. I knew she would be great based on that line of her resume alone.
Finally, Ben introduced the third and final guest, Drew Tarver, another sharp comedic actor and improviser.
After all the guests were introduced, Ben introduced the guest of the hour to the fellow improvers — the five-year-old in the front row. His storytelling counterparts were horrified, and we got more free comedy surrounding this child. This may have been the most fun part of the evening because it was truly so unexpected (clearly it was for them, as well!)
Then, of course, we had to get a story from the audience. Ben asked, “It’s summer — does anyone have an exciting vacation planned?”, and a man near the front began sharing that he would soon be going on his honeymoon with his new wife, who was with him.
Once again, I think a highlight of this entire night was Ben just talking and being generally hysterical when interacting with the audience. Still, he had a show to do.
Before the show began, Ben did a great bit about how improv is something immediate, meaning you will probably never be able to explain the show again. He gave an example that my boyfriend is still quoting to this day, “And then you’ll have to explain to your friends when you leave, ‘Then, his pet giraffe took a shit on Marlon Brando,’ you can’t explain that. It only exists now.”
I won’t try to explain the show we saw either, but I can say that I had a great time.
I am not a person who laughs easily, but it got many deep belly laughs out of me. I love humor that catches you off-guard because of how ridiculous it is, and that is exactly what this group did — over and over and over again.
While their story did lack some overall direction and arc, I didn’t go for that. I went to see “Ben Schwartz & Friends” to forget about life and work for a little bit, and it did just that.
While his tour dates are extremely limited right now, I can’t recommend the experience enough. If you’ve never been to an improv show, I encourage you to explore it just once to see if you like it. If nothing is coming to your area and you want to give the art form a go, you can watch Middleditch and Schwartz on Netflix or binge Whose Line is it Anyway? on HBO Max, something I’m currently working my way through.
There will always be a place in the world for high art, but there is not always enough room for things like improv. Instead of watching a movie, try to take in a night at the theatre. If you choose wisely, it’s not as daunting as people may think it is.