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Ben Schwartz on Parks and Rec, House of Lies, and Cute Animals on the Internet

Ben Schwartz is quickly making a career out of being the cutest Jewish boy from the North Bronx in the history of cute. He has a cute new book out, Maybe Your Leg Will Grow Back!: Looking on the Bright Side With Baby Animals, and he portrays Tom Haverford’s adorably douchey business partner Jean-Ralphio on Parks and Recreation. Even the cold-blooded corporate money manager he plays on Showtime’s new series House of Lies is kind of cute. We talked to Schwartz about Jean-Ralphio’s singing, the adaptation of Soapdish he's working on, and the beauty of Internet memes.

Jean-Ralphio has become kind of like a big deal. Is he based on a real-life tool?
No, the role was originated by the writers. They wrote this role called Jean-Ralphio and then asked me if I would do it. I, of course, said yes. In my head, I think of the douchiest thing somebody can do in a moment. But I think he thinks that he’s always nailing it. Like, he thinks he’s saying the right thing at the right time, that he’s just crushing life. So I just play him like that, like an ignorant narcissist, kind of.

At one point, you sing one of your punch lines: “I’m flu-hush with cah-hash.” It’s become an Internet catch phrase.
It’s crazy! The Internet has been so nice and polite to me. There’s another one I sing [breaks into sing-song-y voice], “I got run over by a Lexus.” That one’s a ring tone now. It’s insane.

I fell into the wormhole of your Internet singing and not only did I find the Academy Awards show opener you wrote for Hugh Jackman — for which you won an Emmy — but I found you covering the Jerk duet with Zooey Deschanel. So were you a theater kid, or what?
You got deep into that wormhole! When I was coming up in high school, if you wanted to be in the musical it was during the winter, so I had to choose between playing basketball or being in the musical. And I ended up playing basketball. But all my friends were in band and I loved chorus. My mom was a music teacher, so I was in chorus every year. In sixth grade, I was in All County Chorus, which was a big deal. You had to audition to get in. And I was a soprano — like, my voice was really high. But the next year my voice dropped and everything went wrong.

You’re writing jokes for the Oscars again this year, right?
No, I’m not writing this season. It’s a different Ben Schwartz writing for this one.

No way.
Yeah. It’s hilarious because one of the head writers over there e-mailed me saying, “Hey, man, we were expecting you over here and another Ben Schwartz showed up.”

Well, you are the Ben Schwartz who is rewriting Soapdish, right?
Yes, but the Ben Schwartz that got hired is also on the Blacklist with me this year. So Soapdish, or El Fuego Caliente, which is my version, made the list this year. He wrote a script called Home by Christmas, which also made this list. We’re friends on Twitter. I’m @rejectedjokes and he’s actually @benschwartzy.

So did you write a cameo for James Franco into your Soapdish remake?
He wasn’t in the first one!

Yeah, but he’s the big soap opera guy.
Ohhhhh. Okay, I can’t really talk about it a lot, but I’ll tell you my script revolves around the star of a telenovela that becomes crazier than the insane telenovela that she’s starring in. She always wanted to be a Hollywood actress — she doesn’t want to be a telenovela actress anymore — so while she’s trying to break into Hollywood, her life explodes. It’s a reimagining. 

Are you fluent in Spanish? You’re a Jewish kid from the Bronx, how did you immerse yourself in the telenovela world?
I must have watched 45 different episodes of telenovela. I watched an insane amount. And I did research on all of them. I found out the ratings for telenovelas beat out the ratings for actual network TV shows. Half the people I know don’t even know that they exist, but they beat them in the ratings. It’s a huge part of our society that a lot of us don’t even know about. 

What about your Baby Animals book. How long did it take to write that? Like an entire afternoon?
It takes way longer because you have to find the photos and pay for the rights for the photos. And then me and Amanda McCall, who wrote it with me, will write hundreds of these sentences and then knock 'em down. But obviously it’s not nearly as difficult as writing a novel. My friend will say, “That’s amazing! You’re writing a book?” And they’ll be like, “How many pages is it?” And I’ll be like, “80 pages.” And they’ll be like, “How many words?” And I’ll be like, “Uh, there’s probably not more than 100 words on this page.”

Your friends must hate hearing you complain about finding cute baby animal pictures on the Internet.
That’s right. After a while, Amanda and I just hate puppies and kittens. We look at thousands and thousands of pictures — it’s so stupid — to find the perfect baby animal for “Maybe your missing leg will grow back.” We’ll visit sites like cuteoverload.com and there will be thousands of comments and millions of views. It’s funny: I put money into short films, and I put really good actors in it, and I write some stuff that’s really funny, and I’ll get like a million views. But to the right of me, there will be a video of a kitten that falls into a toilet bowl, and it’s three seconds long, and it will get 25 million views.

Why do you think that is? Are people that lonely?
I don’t think it’s because they’re lonely. I just think it’s because they’re so adorable. By the way, I watched that kitten toilet bowl video three times. I totally get it. I thought it was so cute. It’s just something to take your mind off of whatever. Anytime you want to be happy, you can click on a video of a puppy farting in another puppy’s face.

You have a new show on Showtime, House of Lies.
Yeah, it’s kind of awesome. The cool thing about the Showtime show is that I get to improvise, I get to curse, and I get to act with like Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, and this new guy Josh Lawton. The four of us play management consultants and we get to show you behind the scenes of big business. And there’s all this occupy stuff going on right now, so it’s a way to pull back the curtain on the dirty side of business.

All your characters are so cute, whether Jean Ralphio or your Internet characters. How are you going to play a cold-blooded suit?
This character is more of an arrogant asshole. He’s just thinking about money. Don Cheadle thinks I’m his best friend, but he is not my best friend. You see me looking at him wanting to be where he is, wanting to take his job and fuck him over. My character is likable in that he’s funny and he messes with people, but this is one of the first characters I’ve had where there are layers to him. The biggest layer is that he just wants money and he wants to take over for the highest person. And for these management consultants, they work so hard during the day, his personal life is pretty sad. But with Jean Ralphio, what you see is what you get: He doesn’t go home and cry. When he’s home, he’s still dancing to whatever Sisqo song is playing.

Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images