the future

What If Improv Were Good?

The Middleditch & Schwartz specials suggest a future where the form belongs to performers, not theaters.

Photo: Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz
Photo: Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz
Photo: Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz

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It was the 28th day of quarantine in New York City. Or was it the 16th? Or the 43rd? On my daily ration of one “going outside,” I saw a squat, grumpy dog — one of those dogs that look like a guy who played football in high school but wasn’t tall enough to play in college and is now a personal trainer at a Gold’s Gym in the town you grew up in — try to bite a couple on their daily walk. At the last second, the owner pulled her dog back. There was a pause. And then the owner looked at the couple … and screamed at them for not wearing masks. At this point, I decided I was done with the world for the day. Home, I turned on Netflix to watch the second of three Middleditch & Schwartz specials, and something funny happened. Not funny haha — though there is a ton of haha — but funny unusual. Or, to use a word that is déclassé, something nice happened.

Middleditch & Schwartz, named after its stars — Thomas Middleditch, who looks like Seth Meyers if he didn’t have to be presentable every night, and Ben Schwartz, who looks like Andrew Garfield if he were 100 percent Jewish — is a two-man longform improv show in which every part is improvised by the performers, including the structure of the show and the scenarios within it. At the start of the program, instead of just asking for suggestions from the audience, they interview one randomly selected member about “something coming up in the future that [they] are either excited for or dreading.” In this case, it was a story about a working mother going to law school in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a town in which some believe aliens exist (a detail that delights Schwartz, knowing he’ll get to bring it up in the set).

Bear with me, as explaining what happens on an improv set tends to make one sound like either a little kid retelling a story or a stoner remembering a dream: While the other Middleditch & Schwartz specials are made up of many interconnecting scenes, this particular show took place entirely in a law-school classroom filled with a hodgepodge of students of different genders and accents. In the big climax, Nigel (played by Middleditch) asks Emily (played by Schwartz) to give one of her kids to an alien who demands a friend. To which Schwartz responds, with a smirk, “You want me to … abandon my boy?” Middleditch doubles over laughing, seemingly to the point of tears.

I use their names and not the characters because, in this moment, the characters have dropped away and the two performers are themselves up there, as this is an inside joke. Schwartz knows that Middleditch used to do an impression of Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood, a character known for screaming, “I abandoned my boy.” Not only that, but back when they first started performing at the famed L.A. comedy and music theater Largo, they’d open shows by pretending to save a seat for Daniel Day-Lewis, who played Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film. Later, when I ask the guys about it over Zoom, Middleditch explains that while he lives off the audience’s laughter, “I consider it a little pip of achievement in any given show when I can make Ben laugh.”

Of course, this is also the shit that people hate about improv — the looseness, the buddy-buddy feeling that it’s more for the performers onstage than the audience. Previously, I’ve been frustrated by all of this too, to the point that I stopped going to see improv years before a pandemic made it impossible for me to do so. But that day of quarantine, whichever it was, it was nice. And there’s a lot riding on that niceness. Sporting a sizable investment from Netflix and surprisingly high production values, Middleditch & Schwartz is the most major effort to present a longform improv show to the masses. Nothing less than the future of improv depends on it.

Wait, some of you might be thinking. Who the hell are these people? Middleditch and Schwartz are famous in their niche (comedy nerds) but only vaguely recognizable to the population at large. Middleditch is probably best known for starring in HBO’s Silicon Valley. Some might also recognize him as the Verizon guy or as the awkward agent in the NBA 2K20 video game. Schwartz was a star on the Showtime consulting satire House of Lies, though most people probably know him from playing Jean-Ralphio on Parks and Recreation. But if I were to put my money on where most of their live-show fans came from, it’s their popular guest appearances on the podcast Comedy Bang! Bang! Seriously. Comedy fame is a weird thing.

I first met both of them separately around the end of the aughts. I was working in the New York mailroom of the William Morris talent agency (now WME), where one of our few responsibilities was taping auditions. I vividly remember one taping when Schwartz auditioned to play an assistant. He thought it would be funny to, over the course of the scene, wrap Scotch tape around his finger. By the end of an hour or so (these things were supposed to take 15 minutes), Schwartz had said “Yes, and” to this idea so much that he found himself with a giant ball of tape around his hand.

Around that time, he started working with Middleditch, who had moved to New York after years of training and performing in Chicago. Schwartz saw an opportunity to work with a really funny, talented improviser, and while Middleditch saw the same in Schwartz, he also saw a way to get to perform at the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) Theatre while circumventing the unwritten rule that house team members had to go through the theater’s training program. The two of them got pizza. When they first performed as a duo at UCB, it was for eight minutes at 11 p.m. on a Wednesday. “Really fast, insane stuff, and we both just had a ton of fun,” Middleditch recalls. They have performed dozens of much longer shows together since.

From left, Schwartz and Middleditch. Photo: Jeffery Neira/ NETFLIX

The path that led to their getting the first longform improv special on Netflix began in early 2016 when they started performing at Largo. Playing a space not traditionally used for improv put an idea in Middleditch’s head. “I don’t think this paints it in a weird light, but to quote Daniel Plainview, ‘I have a competition in me,’” he tells me. “The notion that wormed its way into my brain was: What’s it going to take to pull improv — an improv show, improv in general, whatever, my form of comedy — out of a 120-seat theater on a Sunday night at 11?” The goal was theaters with lots of seats and expectations from the people who fill them.

That seems simple enough, but why hadn’t it happened before? Because of one peculiar, and telling, truth about improv: By the time someone starts gaining fame as a comic, they pretty much stop performing improv. Slowly, what a person spent every second of their day thinking about and/or doing is reduced to a way to hang out with their old buddies once a week, then once a month, then once a year, then not at all. Schwartz and Middleditch, by contrast, had quixotically prioritized improv and, I’m sure, were made fun of behind their backs by their peers for it.

While there are thousands of examples of filmed stand-up, from five-­minute late-night sets to hour-long specials, longform improv has not really had any meaningful filmed representations. (Improvised comedy on television has either been shortform, game-based improv, like Whose Line Is It Anyway? and Wild ‘N Out, or in the form of semi-scripted sitcoms, like Curb Your Enthusiasm.) In retrospect, as beloved as it might have been for some up-and-coming improvisers, the UCB’s 2005 A.S.S.S.S.C.A.T.: Improv special — which featured Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, and Andy Richter as well as co-founders of the UCB Theatre Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh — was more of a curiosity on a pre–Top Chef, pre-Housewives Bravo, a network that hasn’t really featured any other comedy before or since. According to development executives who buy shows and specials for networks that feature comedy, enough longform improv has been pitched over the years by big names (particularly the New York– and Los Angeles–based UCB and Groundlings theaters) and turned down that agents and managers began to tell young generations that it’s not worth the time to pitch. The main reasoning is always the same: It would be impossible to re-create the audience experience. “Live improv works … in very large part, on the very idea that everything may go off the rails at any moment,” says development executive Evan Shapiro, who originally oversaw IFC’s move to being a home for comedy. Live improv is like watching a tightrope walker operate without a net; watching it after the fact would be like watching a person walk a tightrope that’s lying on the ground.

Both Schwartz and Middleditch have tried to put improv on TV before. Middleditch is part of the Improvised Shakespeare Company, which, true to its name, improvises a full Shakespeare play based on an audience suggestion. I have seen it. It is incredible to see live; however, despite some attempts, they have yet to be able to get it on TV. Schwartz, to his credit, was more successful, getting Showtime to air House of Lies Live, a special in which the cast of the show performed improv. But he doesn’t really count that, calling it “just a playtime thing,” as to him, the show was largely about seeing Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell do something they’ve never done before.

“It wasn’t an easy sell,” Schwartz tells me, talking about Middleditch & Schwartz. “When we tried to pitch this thing, we would go to places, and they’d be interested in working with the two of us in some way, but when a network or a studio can’t grab it, they’re like, ‘Great. What is the show going to be about, though?’ ” Schwartz says they’d respond, “We have no idea. It could be about anything.” Understandably, this was a hard thing to blindly agree to. A lot of networks wanted a framing device. Some executives pitched special guests as a possible solution. Netflix, however, had been looking to try improv for some time. “Apart from being true masters of the art form, they have this unique friendship—you might even say love—which I found such a joy to experience,” Netflix’s director of original comedy programming, Ben Cavey, tells me over email. “It’s like spending a night with the two best friends you ever had.”

But how would you film the show to capture at least some of the live energy? Mike Birbiglia, stand-up comedian and writer-director of Don’t Think Twice, a 2016 film about the interpersonal struggle of an improv team, tells me that “there’s something boring about shooting improv straight on without movement. It doesn’t do justice to what it feels like to be in a room watching an improv show.” Middleditch and Schwartz, who move a lot during their performance, decided to shoot the hell out of it with nine cameras, then to edit very carefully and deliberately, essentially trading the feeling of risk for something richer, more cinematic. “The goal for us was to try and remove the fact that you have to take a class to really appreciate this show and just make it a thing and just say it’s made up,” Middleditch says.

They think it worked — but more than anything, they hope it did. “I hope that the improv community likes it and knows the potential of what it could be for other shows,” Middleditch tells me, “because if it’s shittily received, we’ll shut the door on improv being on specials.” Success for them is symbolic: Sure, they’d like to make more, but they’re more interested in opening doors for other improvisers to get paid to do improv. That could have significant ramifications on improv’s position in our culture.

All of what is good and annoying about American improv was there at the very beginning. It started not at a theater but at a community center, and it was created not by a comedian but by a social worker. In the 1920s, Viola Spolin, an acolyte of play theorist Neva Boyd, planted the seeds of improv as a way of helping immigrant children of different backgrounds learn to get out of their heads and communicate with each other. To this day, improvisers don’t call it performing; they call it “playing.” In turn, her son, Paul Sills, became improv’s first true believer. This story is captured in Sam Wasson’s definitive 2017 book about the history of the art form, Improv Nation: “Growing up watching his mother transform mere humans into founts of inspiration, Sills had seen goodness burst forth from so many kinds of people so many times that — without devolving into a cheerful individual — he had started to cultivate something like faith. Not in God — though, unlike his mother, Sills hadn’t ruled out the possibility — but in something godlike that manifested from the communal experience.”

Sills co-founded the Compass, the country’s first improv theater company, and eventually the Second City, one of the world’s most famous. The Compass Players had a number of noteworthy members, none more so than Mike Nichols and Elaine May, who in the 1950s and ’60s popularized improv on a national stage. They also pioneered the complex, symbiotic relationship improv has with its famous alumni: Up-and-coming comic actors use it to find their voice and gain attention in the industry, only to dismiss it once they get a break, while the theaters trade off the names of their past students. Another noteworthy Compass Player was future guru–slash–all-around maniac Del Close, who in the early 1980s, after a decades-long on-and-off love affair with the Second City, opened the ImprovOlympic (now iO) with Charna Halpern and helped create the cult of longform improv, defining many of the early rules. Considering whom they taught, their influence on modern comedy is undeniable and tremendous. ImprovOlympic was the breeding ground for the UCB, which in the late ’90s moved to New York and created an improv theater of its own.

Then improv exploded. In 2003, the New York Times reported the UCB taught “some 500 students.” By the time I was reporting on it, in 2015, that number had grown to nearly 12,000 students between both coasts. In the past 20 years, the country went from a handful of improv theaters to nearly 200. Reno has two, Sacramento has three, and the state of Florida has 16. You would be hard-pressed to find a college that doesn’t have one, if not more than that. Add some touring groups, cruise ships, and corporate training wings, and national exposure to improv is at a maximum. People love improv!

But you’d never know by the way they talk about it. “People make fun of improv for the same reason they make fun of people who are in organized church groups, or cults, or Amway, or any kind of a group that is trying really hard to do something that sometimes seems counterintuitive,” Birbiglia explains. “You can easily pull [what they do] out of context, and say, ‘Well, that’s stupid. Those people are idiots.’” Improv is an incredibly earnest practice, in which many people take it very seriously as a path to make meaningful personal connections. My cousin, a med student in Philadelphia, for example, first took improv classes to become a better public speaker, but continued because she “got close to my classmates and wanted to continue the curriculum with them.” But what was a “supportive, judgment-free environment, [where] everyone is rooting for one another” to her is “half-asses winging it” to stand-up comedian Peter-John Byrnes, who wrote a piece for the Chicago Reader titled, “Why Improv Is Neither Funny Nor Entertaining.” “Improv’s greatest sin is encouraging the mediocre,” he writes. “It values the indulgence of the performer over the satisfaction of the audience.”

Just look at how it’s portrayed in media. In the first season of The Good Place, improv is listed as something you are forced to watch in hell. In a scene on Schitt’s Creek, a show whose whole thing is that it’s open-hearted and kind, Patrick suggests to David they have an open-mic night at the store, saying, “Worst-case scenario, we get some people in the store.” To which David responds, “Okay, no, worst-case scenario, I watch improv.” BoJack Horseman had a multiple-episode takedown in which it compared improv culture unfavorably to Scientology. Improv has reflected failings in personality, taste, or lives on TV series like The Office, Broad City, Happy Endings, The Comeback, and You’re the Worst and the film Daddy’s Home 2. In nice-guy comedian John Mulaney’s 2018 special Kid Gorgeous, he reads an email he wrote in college offering to murder someone bothering a friend, then says, “Of all the sentences in that email I’d be ashamed to have read out loud in a court of law, I think the top one is, ‘See you at improv practice.’” Many of these jokes were written in rooms with improvisers in them, giving this backlash the lilt of self-hatred.

At the core of this shame is the cynicism adults feel toward the naïveté of youth. Improv joins hobbies like a cappella, slam poetry, magic, and ultimate Frisbee as the indulgence of a person not in the real world. Or, to put it another way: Improv doesn’t make money, and this is America, where if it doesn’t make dollars it doesn’t make sense, or cents for that matter. It’s not just the theaters that don’t pay the performers; it’s that historically there have been no real ways to make a living from improv. Without any way to get paid to do it, a room of improvisers turns into, as described on a season-two episode of You, a “self-fellating ouroboros of desperation.” With stand-up, you can start getting paid pretty quickly into your career, even if it’s comically small at first; then, with each new level you reach, the more the opportunities for making money present themselves, be they for opening, middling, or headlining on the road, or performing a late-night set, a 30-minute special, or an hour on TV.

But with each new stage of an improviser’s journey, it’s the improviser who pays more money. While the lives of struggling stand-ups have gotten mythologized over and over and over and over and over and over and over with all the extreme reverence of a war movie, improvisers (save in Don’t Think Twice) are generally portrayed either as brainwashed cult members or out-of-work losers dreaming of getting their shot. The result of all this: If you can’t make a career doing it, then the only people doing it are ultimately amateurs. Bad improv becomes the norm; great improv the exception.

Since the individual can’t make money off it, the final piece of this negative perception of improv stems from the people who are—the big theaters, with their expensive classes and lucrative corporate training sessions, their unwillingness to pay performers, their disconnection from the people who allow them to exist, and their history of racial, gender, and socioeconomic discrimination. There are plenty of examples of this, but none more yucky than a recent viral Twitter thread of people telling stories about missing UCB classes because of their family members dying and having the theater demand to see the obituaries before giving a full refund. Of course, people will feel cynical when it seems like those at the top subvert improv’s meaning and put the theater above the community it creates. There is no better example of this than Matt Besser’s response in the New York Times when asked about paying performers: “I don’t see what they do as labor. I see guys onstage having fun.”

For a lot of people, myself included, the camel’s back broke right after the pandemic hit, when the UCB laid off the entire theater staff—roughly 40 to 60 people—without any notice. On April 21, it announced it would close its last New York theater, like an ex finally taking a last box from the apartment. The message to the community had been clear for some time: There shouldn’t have been a community at all, as improv is just something you do for a time before moving on. And it’s not just the UCB. Other recent improv-theater scandals include iO closing its L.A. location after poor financial management and terrible handling of sexual-misconduct issues at the New Orleans and Austin New Movement theaters. However, the UCB is unique, because a lot of people went into it thinking the program promised big-time showbiz success, like so many of the alumni it touts, so when the theater’s cultural cachet and track record of producing stars diminished, so did its perception.

This is what’s at stake with Middleditch and Schwartz’s success. The duo offer a glimpse of what it might mean to divorce improv from its institutions. For years, the biggest names in improv were the theaters, which lorded their power (stage time) over people, demanding broke aspiring comedians essentially pay to perform. But Middleditch and Schwartz suggest a future where the means of performance belongs to the improvisers.

So how is the show? Good! Very silly, but good, if you like silly things. Watching Middleditch & Schwartz, I was reminded of that M&M’s commercial in which the anthropomorphic M&M’s see Santa and are like, “He does exist,” and Santa is like, “They do exist?” That was kind of like me watching the special: It (improv) can exist (as a special).

First, a useful point of contrast. TJ & Dave, so named after Chicago’s T.J. Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi, are generally considered the best, most artful two-man team alive. They are masters of what’s called “slow improv,” which means the scene and characters and comedy unveil themselves slowly, deliberately, gracefully. Live — which they used to perform regularly in New York, when performing regularly was possible — it is an arresting, second-to-none experience. Watching the filmed version, as it was in 2009 for the documentary Trust Us, This Is All Made Up, however, as interesting as might be to see, it is honestly hard to maintain the focus needed to appreciate it. Their act is small and grounded, and frankly it comes off a bit flat. The exception comes about an hour into the set, when T.J. drunkenly tries to tape Dave’s character to a chair poorly and Dave laughs. It only happens once, and it is the most compelling second of the entire documentary.

The performers in Middleditch & Schwartz are the exact opposites. In their act, which Middleditch has called part improv and part vaudeville, the duo break fourth walls with the frequency and glee of two Kool-Aid Men. Multiple times, they pause the action to try to remember all the characters’ names and story lines. At one point, they play best friends who want each other’s lives and are told they can swap bodies if they pretend to be gazelles (a callback to earlier events) and have sex with each other (though, eventually, it is revealed that it actually wasn’t about sex at all and these friends were worried about nothing). Quickly, it goes from the characters saying they should play rock-paper-scissors to decide who plays the giving and receiving gazelle to Middleditch and Schwartz as themselves, with Schwartz very confidently telling Middleditch he’s going to win the game. “I’m 100 percent certain I’m going to beat you,” Schwartz says. “In real life.” Middleditch, visibly nervous, concurs he thinks he’ll lose as well, adding, “I don’t know why I’m scared. It doesn’t matter.” “This has no consequence,” Schwartz says, laughing, before adding, “It will be recorded forever, so if you lose, everyone will know.” In improv, you are supposed to react as you would in real life and to acknowledge the unusual thing, and in this moment, the most unusual thing is that their improv, which was always meant just for the people in front of them, will now be saved forever.

“It’s a comedian’s job to call out bullshit,” Will Hines, improv teacher, performer, and author of the book How to Be the Greatest Improviser on Earth, tells me over email. “And the show itself is technically bullshit, and so a judicious moment of addressing that something is horseshit is a relief.” That said, he adds, it can “[sell] out the integrity of the show, [because] it’s hard to do anything subtle or surprising if someone is constantly reminding the audience that it’s all bullshit.” But watching the special, it had a second effect—which is, not unlike what happens with stand-up, it felt like you were watching Middleditch and Schwartz perform improv, as opposed to just watching what they improvised.

Two-person improv, more than other formats, is really rooted in the friendship of the performers. “The relationship between the performers is obviously extremely close,” explains Peter Grosz, who does an improv show with 30 Rock’s John Lutz. “You have to kind of know where the other person is going, and that only comes from years and years of knowing someone well, on- and offstage.” Where teams are built by considering roles and styles, two-man partners are picked according to who people want to be around. In Middleditch and Schwartz’s case, at this point in their busy careers, essentially the only time they get to hang out for any extended period of time is onstage. But to watch these two skinny nerds hug and kiss and sit on each other’s laps and try to make the other person laugh and play freaking rock-paper-scissors feels like an escape.

It’s a feeling I didn’t know I missed, and, in the days since first watching the special, I found myself looking for all the improv I could find online. Talking to people through Twitter, I learned a lot of them are performing over Zoom. I watched one show on Instagram Live by the Brooklyn comedy group Ladies Who Ranch. By the end, when I was one of maybe 11 people left watching, I wasn’t sure if I was watching it as I would a comedy show so much as vicariously getting to live through a group of friends playing.

The most clichéd observation about this century is that we’ve never been so connected and so disconnected at the same time. This was true before we were all forced to stay at least six feet from each other, and it will be true after, too. Improv, rooted in such old-fashioned virtues as friendship, trust, and community, feels like something we can all use. We’ve all heard “Yes, and” before, but it’s not just a trick to keep a scene going. It’s about acknowledging a shared reality.

*A version of this article appears in the April 27, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

What If Improv Were Good?