Ben Schwartz interview with Complex
Complex January 4, 2012
Interview: Ben Schwartz Talks "House of Lies," Jean-Ralphio's Ever-Elevating Hair & His Rejection-Filled Climb in Comedy
by Shante Cosme
photo by Ken Regan/Showtime
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...
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 auditions 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!
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.
On your new show, House Of Lies, you showcase a more darkly comedic side of yourself.
The show in general is darker. It follows four management consultants who are deeply flawed. The whole idea of the show is to go to the business and do whatever it takes to get that person's work. We literally have sex with people, screw people over -- we don't care about anybody else in the world except for ourselves. All we are doing is protecting ourselves. I think that's a very specific type of human being that's able to do that, to not give a fuck about anybody in the world but themselves and truly not care.
The most fun in the show is when the four of us are together and we're just fucking with each other. It's so funny and it's great. But when it's time to do work, we'll screw over anybody. We'll do anything that we can do to get the job. All we care about is getting that money and keeping our jobs, and then we go to the next place. We go from one job to another job to another job. We're on planes all the time, so you have to be someone who doesn't care about their personal life.
How does playing a heavier role like that compare to playing a character like Jean-Ralphio?
On House Of Lies I play an arrogant, smooth-talking guy. It's a character that would exist in real life. There are things that Jean-Ralphio does that nobody does. There is not a real human being that would ever do those things. And I love doing that because it's almost a caricature of one of the guys you've seen around. And [Clyde on] House Of Lies is a character that has flaws and real things happen. When he gets upset or nervous you can see it in his face, and when he goes through shit, and he thinks he's going to be in jeopardy, either in his personal life or his professional life, his whole attitude changes. He'll do anything to makes sure he is working and he'll fuck over anybody.
Marty, Don Cheadle's character on the show, seems like the most cutthroat of the bunch. Is Clyde's approach as cutthroat as Marty's is, or are your more of the antithesis of him?
There's so much stuff in my head when I do the character, the things that I want that aren't even written in the episode yet, but in my head I'm like, "Oh, my character is going to end up doing this." Because it's the first season, so we really learn about Marty and the reason why Marty is more cutthroat. He's like the Michael Jordan of the group. If we go places and a different management consultant sees us, they look at him and they're like, "Oh shit, that's Marty. He's the big guy. He's the number one guy." Even though we work for the number two firm, he's the dude. He's notorious. We all look up to him and we all kind of learn. But at the same time, him and Clyde are very good friends, but in the back of his head I'm sure he's like, "I'd fuck him over in a second." Because that's what these people are bred to think. That's what Cheadle's character thinks, so why wouldn't mine?
Is there anything in that mentality that you that can relate to?
I think it's more of a pathetic aspect [that I can relate to]. In this field, right now I'm doing Parks, House Of Lies, I'm writing some movies and another book, but in my head, the second House Of Lies wraps, I'll be totally nervous thinking, "I need to get my next job." I'm always scared it's just going to end. I've been so fortunate in the stuff that I've gotten. I'll always drive myself to think about the next thing and think, "Am I going to work again? When am I going to work again?" I think that's something that translates to this character. That every job -- they need to get it. If they lose a job, there's a chance they lose their job at the company and they lose everything.
Do you have that fear because your J.J. Abrams project Undercovers got canceled?
It's been since the beginning. I know this is pathetic, but when I graduated college, my ex-girl at the time forced me to do long-form improv because I was too nervous to audition and too nervous to be rejected by the college troupe, and be told "You're not funny enough to be on this"â€”we're getting very real by the way -- but, I luckily got on. I came home and I told my parents I really want to do comedy. I know there's not a lot of money in it, but I want to try it for a year and see if it sticks. And they were really supportive. In my head it just clicked that it was what I want to do.
I just want it to keep going. I don't want it to stop. In my head, when Undercovers got canceled I was like, "Fuck, I gotta get another TV show," and I was fortunate that I was able to be picky this year. At Showtime, when we were auditioning, they pitched it to me that I can improvise, I can curse, and I can really explore stuff. And, I was like, you know what, I really like Showtime and HBO shows and I love the freedom that they have, but I really still want to do Parks And Rec. So it was something that I worked out that I can fit in Parks And Rec while I was doing that.
There are going to be a slew of new shows hitting the scene in 2012. I mean, even Charlie Sheen has a sitcom lined up. What do you think House Of Lies greatest draw will be, in terms of the competition?
I'm very particular about the things that I watch and I mostly only watch comedies because I like to learn. For me personally, the second I heard Don Cheadle was doing a television show, I would watch it because I think he's one of the best actors right now.
It's a very slick and differently shot show. It's totally different than any Showtime show. You get to see comedy mixed with real stuff happening, mixed with people really learning about themselves. I think when you watch a Showtime show, you get to really delve into that stuff a lot more and get to see the underbelly of business. If you watch a network show about the underbelly of business, it's going to be really different than a Showtime show. We get to show you the disgusting stuff that truly happens.
I think it's really going to be fun. I think it's going to be a hit new...who knows. I thought Undercovers was going to be the biggest thing in the world. But I truly do love our pilot. If you give it a couple episodes, you learn so much in those four episodes. I feel like people will get hooked and keep coming back for more. You'll care about the comedic ideas and the story ideas as well. I really believe in it and I think it will be really fun.
As a writer, are you always fighting the urge to add and improvise on the material given to you?
Luckily, for Parks and House Of Lies, I'm encouraged to improvise. It's one of those things, at the beginning the four of us [on House Of Lies] will sit down with the script and play with it a little bit. The writers are awesome. But on Parks And Rec, it's just crazy. They'll do something on Parks And Rec called "fun run," which doesn't happen in a lot of places, where you get to just play around. Sometimes Jean-Ralphio's fun run stuff will end up in the episode and I won't even remember saying it and I'll see it on TV and be like, "That's amazing that they put that in there."
I love the Jean-Ralphio highlight reel on your site, Rejected Jokes.
It's crazy! NBC made that! I was like, "Oh god, I can't believe people care about this character enough." The funniest thing was one of the comments that someone said: "The Best of Jean-Ralphio is just every scene Jean-Ralphio is in."
That's a compliment, right?
Yeah, I think so, but also in my head, being down on myself, I was like, "Oh yeah. They just took all of my scenes and put them together."
Well, if every scene was funny...
I hope that's the case. I loved watching that. Also, the people on the Internet have been so cool, making GIFs of him and stuff.
I hope they loved this season. My hair was huge this year! Since they'd started a company and were trying to be ballers, my one thing coming in was like, "I think he would blow out his hair and make it fucking enormous"...to match the amount of success of Entertainment 720.
You've got quite a mop.
It's pretty hilarious. I think that's the most talked about thing. It's bad when everyone's like, "Yeah, Jean-Ralphio's got weird hair, man," and I'm like, "OK, cool."
Speaking of your website, you have to improve on your Wikipedia page. It's looking pretty vacant considering how much you've done lately. What's up with that? Do I need to go in there and make some additions?
[Laughs.] I didn't make it! Every now and then I'll check up on it. I'll be like, "Where did they get that picture from?" It's a little all over the place. I kind of love that it keeps changing with false information. Maybe this interview will help fill in all the right information.
One of the few things that it does say is that you got started faxing your jokes to Saturday Night Live. Is that true?
I started by doing UCB, and then I was a page for David Letterman, which means you show people to their seats, show them where their bathroom is, and give them tickets. And I worked that into being a freelance writer for the monologue, which means I would fax in jokes. So I'd fax in 15 jokes every day to Letterman. Then Horatio Sanz over at SNL helped me out, because he was a UCB guy and he said, "Hey, you should do it for SNL." So I did it for SNL, so again I'd wake up really in the morning and fax in jokes. I didn't put it on my resumÃ© until I got a cerain amount of jokes on.
What was the magic number?
On Letterman it was three. I ended up getting 15 or more, but I only got like two jokes on SNL. It was in the same show. It was when Horatio had subbed in for Tina Fey on "Weekend Update." I thought he was so funny in it. And he used two of my jokes, and the jokes were so racy I could not believe he used them. They were so fucked up, and it got great reactions. I was so proud of myself that day.
I remember the first time Letterman said one of my jokes. I was a page so I was inside watching the show, and my heart was beating out of my chest. I was like, "Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god." It was a really fun moment. It was that dream like, "Maybe there's a chance I won't be showing people to the bathroom when he says it."
I think writing is terrifying in some aspects because you're saying, "This is what I think is funny, this is what I'm capable of. Tell me what you think." People can judge your words. Writing is a fucking scary thing.
I was wondering if you had a favorite joke that got shot down?
My website Rejected Jokes, the way that it started is that I would take all of those jokes that were rejected from both of those show and I would perform them in front of an audience of zero and they would bomb. I've almost hidden all of these from the site because I'm really embarassed, because, you know, I didn't know how to perform in front of a camera. But guests would come -- Seth Green, Rob Whaley, Rob Riggle -- and the website got a little bit popular.
How often do you get rejected now?
Oh, constantly. If you think about auditioning, you have to have such thick skin. You know you're going to fail in this business. You can do your best job and come in and audition for something and really kill it and knock it out of the park and then they just look at me and be like, "Yeah, but you're not right for the role"
Do they give you specific feedback on why you're "not right"?
Sometimes they'll want like a super hot dude or someone who's not Jewish. Or again, there are some times I go in and I'm not good or they don't think I'm funny. But the whole idea in improv is not being afraid to fail and saying yes to everything. But with writing, when you really put your heart into something and hand it to somebody, like a script: When you sell it, it's amazing and when it doesn't go, it sucks.
Just as an aside, is Kristin Bell as hot in person?
She's fucking gorgeous. She's 5'1 and she's so funny, so sweet and so nice. She's just a beautiful little woman.