Chances are I'm not introducing you to comedian Ben Schwartz. You might have seen his uproarious turn as professional douchebag Jean-Ralphio on NBC's Parks and Recreation, stumbled upon his quick on the trigger shorts or side-splitting ESPN interviews on the web, or maybe even heard one of his jokes back in the day on Letterman or SNL. And while I hate the term "multi-hyphenate" with every inch of my being, I simply have to use it when talking about my next interview subject: writer-actor-all-around-hilarious-person Ben Schwartz.
For as long as he can remember, Ben Schwartz has chased laughter. And it's a good thing, because the guy is flat out funny. But what impressed me most about this young talented comedian isn't his burgeoning IMBD profile, the laundry list of exciting projects he's working on around town, or the insanely talented people he collaborates with. It's Ben's relentless and unflinching pursuit of all things funny that's truly impressive. It's almost as if Ben was put on this planet to make you laugh. And he will.
After speaking to him for quite a while, I learned that, to Ben, comedy is far from a joke; it's his craft, his purpose, his calling, and his life. Ben set his sights on comedy in college and hasn't looked back once or since. And it's working out all right - he's a deserved hit on Parks and Rec, he's in JJ Abrams' latest and greatest show, he's writing and selling movies, all this on top of performing regularly at the UCB theater. Read the interview and you'll learn what I learned - Ben Schwartz doesn't just want to be funny, Ben Schwartz has to be funny.
NK: Start me from the beginning. At what point did you realize you were funny and going to really make a go at it?
BS: That's a terrifying question. When I was young I loved comedy more than anything. My family was so funny. I'd watch SNL, The Simpsons, Whose Line is it Anyway?, Kids in the Hall. Just like anybody, I started as a fan. I was addicted to it, I was a goofball when I was a young. I love watching people laugh. So far you're doing great with this interview by the way, I'll tell you when you screw the pooch.
NK: It will be blatantly obvious. Tell me when you started making video content.
BS: When I was in college, I had this girlfriend. (pauses) Is this boring?
NK: I'll edit the boring stuff out.
BS: Your article is gonna be two sentences. He was on Parks and Rec. He was alright.
NK: "Cool guy, I think I'm following him on Twitter."
BS: (laughs) Anyway, I started doing comedy in college, there was a short form group and I really wanted to try out for it but I was afraid I wasn't funny enough to be in the group. I was at a small college in upstate New York and I figured if I wasn't funny enough to get on this team? That would be a tough first step into comedy. I was scared of being told no. My girlfriend at the time pushed me to do it, I got in and it felt really good. Then right when I graduated college I told my parents I wanted to try to do comedy, and they were super supportive. So I started taking classes at UCB and the second I took a class at UCB I knew I wanted to do this the rest of my life - until I was very old and unable to be funny anymore. I just wanted to do that form of my improv forever.
NK: I interviewed Eric Appel at Funny or Die and started to realize the extent of the community of comedians that UCB creates.
BS: I do a show with Eric Sunday nights at 11pm (he leans in close to the mic, says it really loud). It's true about UCB, it's an incredible place. So that's where I went. But I knew nothing about comedy in New York. I knew that one of the founders of UCB, Amy Poehler did, Second City and IO and Amy got on SNL. I thought "I wonder if I can get on SNL the same way."
[Note: After meeting Ben I went to the show that he does with Eric called Shitty Jobs and had a total blast. You won't regret going to see this show; (check it out here). ]
NK: Was it a goal to get on SNL?
BS: It's more that I saw how Amy did it and wanted to emulate that. She is such a talented and wonderful human being. So, I went to a show at UCB and I thought, "what just happened?" It blew my mind. The people at UCB called me on my shit, they didn't let me force a joke. They really teach you how to find the funny in yourself. They take the skills you have and polish them, then teach you how to be the best you can be.
NK: They really let the comedy breathe there.
BS: You really feel like you're part of something special. In New York, you go under this Gristedes grocery store and you're in this magical place. Every Sunday I would go see these amazing performers and just watch in absolute wonder. I started totally immersing myself in the scene, I was always there, taking classes, interning, I spent a lot of time there. They were the funniest people in the world; It terrified me that none of them were in movies or TV because they were so talented. I thought if they can't do it, no way I could. Then sure enough, they all started to break through.
NK: Funny wins.
BS: I hope so man. Or else I'm kinda fucked. I don't even know what question we're on. I just want our interview to be longer than Eric Appel's.
NK: I'll get us back on track. Talk to me about when you first thought to put your content on the web.
BS: One day I passed by Letterman's Ed Sullivan Theater and saw these people cheering up the crowd while they're waiting in line. And I thought, "I would love to do that." I had resumes on me from a different failed adventure, so I gave this guy one, and next thing I knew I was a page at Letterman. I was so happy, I got to watch this guy who I idolized and try to learn just by watching. I was a page for 9 months, I met everybody, and people started to know that I was doing stuff at UCB. So I asked the monologue writer for the show if I could freelance some jokes. He told me very politely that they were all filled up and I should ask again later. After another few months, I politely asked again he said "OK man, hand in five jokes." I wrote my first batch of jokes, he gave me notes, I quickly learned how to write a monologue joke. And then I started to get a couple jokes on, and couldn't believe it. But for every joke that got on, there were hundreds of rejected jokes.
NK: And that's when you created your website, www.rejectedjokes.com.
BS: Yea. So I knew the hilarious Horatio Sanz at SNL and I told him what I started doing for Letterman and he told me I should start doing it for SNL, for weekend update. And I'm erect when he says this. So I got a couple jokes on there and a couple jokes on Letterman. Every day I'd fax jokes in to SNL and Letterman, and they'd mostly get rejected. I remember when my first one got on, I was there as a page and I saw him say it and totally flipped out.
NK: Do you remember the first joke you got on the air?
BS: Not for Letterman but for SNL; it was "The mint just released a new nickel featuring Thomas Jefferson with a hint of a smile. A smile that says, 'you see that slave over there? Yea, I tapped that ass.'" I couldn't believe he was saying my joke on TV. I have the first couple saved on my laptop. When I saw it, I totally lost it. Okay, I got us back off track.
NK: It's fine. We're trying to talk about how you put yourself on the web.
BS: Right. So I had this binder of rejected jokes. The only person seeing them was the person rejecting them and my Father. And I thought, "some of these are funny," I felt like I was wasting all this content, so that's when I started a website called www.rejectedjokes.com, and I figured I would put all my rejected jokes on there. But instead of writing them I was gonna make videos of them, that way they're gonna get passed around a lot easier. And that's when I started putting content on the Internet.
NK: At this point were people doing this kind of stuff on the web? Lord knows there is a surplus of it now.
BS: There were some short films on the web but it wasn't huge like it is now. I figured if I could make videos for the web not only would people pass them around more but I could use them to get better at writing and acting. Then I thought I gotta find a way to get people to my website. So I wrote a short film called "Cheating" and put it on my website and it blew up like crazy, it got like 10 million hits. So that's the first content I created. I wanted to get these jokes out there and I wanted to be doing video, and I wanted to have this website. I was performing a lot at UCB but that's a small audience. Agents and stuff weren't coming so I thought if I had a place to send people to, that would help.
NK: So you made a destination for all things Ben Schwartz.
BS: That's a perfect way of saying it. I wanted to create the opportunity for myself that if people liked what I did they could go somewhere to see more. I wanted to be in this business so badly, I worked so hard, I tried every avenue. I tried my hardest not to fail at this. I really tried to sell myself and went after people I wanted to work with. Like Rob Corddry, for example, was a UCB guy I didn't know, but I emailed him to be in my web video, and he said, "of course, man." He's an amazing guy, Rob Riggle did one for me, people started doing it and my website got more popular. But I didn't get an agent until I took a commercial class. Then I'd audition for a commercial and my agent would send that person my short films, etc.
NK: I'm starting to get it.
BS: Yea, the web videos were an enormous part of how I sold myself. But still nobody would sign me as a writer. I heard Robot Chicken was looking for somebody and I sent over my packet. I ended up getting called to LA to meet with the creators and I got that job. So my first writing gig was five episodes on Robot Chicken three years ago. I slept on a friend's floor in a tent for a month and a half. Instead of rent, I bought him an XBOX360. Then all the sudden there's this manager in LA that wanted to work with me. I met with them at Tom Sawyer entertainment (Jesse Hara and Rachel Miller) and they sent me out on a million meetings and I'm still with them today, they're completely amazing. Then I met with William Morris and Brian Depersia and started going out on TV and movie auditions. Before that I was going out for things like the Hasidic Jew on Law and Order.
NK: Which you'd be great at.
BS: (laughs) I actually got called back but didn't get it, because I wasn't playing it racist enough. After Robot Chicken, I did a series of short films for Turner's website- SuperDeluxe.com. And to this day, those are the shorts I send out instead of sending out a reel because I wrote, directed and acted in them.
NK: So you didn't really have the "I'm in LA waiting tables hoping to be an actor" phase.
BS: I did it in New York. For seven years I was learning and absorbing, I was a page at Letterman and an intern at UCB doing the garbage/taking tickets, and commercials and V.O. were the only way I got paid. At the beginning, I lived in Westchester with my family and I commuted into the city every day for the first six months. I'd wake up at 6 in the morning and write jokes for three hours because I wanted to make them perfect. Then after a month and a half of that, I started getting better. I learned how to do it in thirty minutes. I'd write in the morning, go be a page, sleep during lunch, go to UCB, take a class, watch the very last show, take the Metro North home and do it all over again four hours later. Later on, I finally got an apartment in the city and I would go to every show. I'd watch ASSSSCAT or Cage Match. I was a sponge, constantly absorbing.
NK: And it started to turn because you very effectively used the web platform to put yourself in a position to succeed.
BS: Without it, I couldn't pitch myself nearly as efficiently.
NK: What happened after Robot Chicken and Super Deluxe? When did you start going out on bigger stuff?
BS: Shortly thereafter. And then I got to do a fucking scene with Robert De Niro in Everybody's Fine. I was flying high but I was nervous. I thought that there was no way I was gonna be able to do this my whole life. There were so many people trying to do the very same thing.
NK: Does that fear ever go away?
BS: I don't think so. That fear and anxiety are part of what make me work so hard. I worked so hard to get here, I'm so afraid of losing it.
NK: What happened next?
BS: Then I had this absolutely crazy dream like month. I got hired to write for the Oscars, and I won an Emmy for co-writing Hugh Jackman's recession musical opening, so I have an Emmy in my kitchen cabinet, which I will never get used to. Then right after, I did this amazing pilot called Happiness Isn't Everything. Allison Jones cast it, she's one of the best casting directors in the world and has been a big supporter of mine. Mitch Hurwitz wrote it, he thought I was funny and that was just the fucking absolute best. It was wild, I was the unknown, it was gonna change my life, I was gonna finally have money! Then it didn't get picked up. Which felt so confusing to me. Then I landed my first lead in a movie called Peep World with another amazing cast. They were so nice and warm, they also kinda validated me and gave me confidence, making me feel like I was good at what I was doing. So that all happened within a month. Things have been really exciting since, I've been extremely fortunate. There's a quote, "the harder you work, the luckier you get," and I was just not taking breaks ever, working all day, everyday. I also love that I get to go on this journey with both my agent and my managers, incredible people who I've come up with. It feels like every time I get something, they get something, and it couldn't make me happier.
NK: How did you get to Parks and Rec? I love the show.
BS: I went to meet with one of the creators of the show, Michael Schur, who is an absolute genius, and it was around the time they were casting Louis CK's role, which I was not right for. Months later, Katie Dippold, a great writer from UCB, Harris Wittels, another great UCB guy, and Mike worked out this douchie character Jean-Ralphio and Mike thought I would be a great fit for it. I got the call and was beyond excited. I read it and I knew it was gonna be so incredibly fun. I improvise a little in the show but it's so well written that I didn't even have to. I think Parks and Rec is so funny, all the writers and actors should be nominated for Emmys. It was so fun. And I was surrounded by friends, which made it so easy. I hope that Jean-Ralphio keeps popping up throughout the series.
NK: So next up is the JJ Abrams pilot.
BS: I had a general meeting with some people from Bad Robot about writing and met the wonderful Athena Wickham who is a producer on the show. She told me about the script and thought I should come audition for the role of Hoyt. My first audition was the next day. Then I came back for a callback with JJ Abrams. So at that time, it felt that even if I didn't get the role, I got to meet JJ Abrams which was pretty amazing. Luckily he and co-creator/showrunner Josh "Reims of Gold" Reims, who is as talented of a writer as they come, liked what I did with the character and two tests later, JJ called me up personally to tell me I got the role. It was amazing. I am so intensely excited to be a part of this show. I can't wait for people to see it. It premieres in the fall, we start filming in July.
NK: And that brings us to today, I told you I'd keep us on track.
BS: Great job. Yea, so I'm writing a movie for Imagine/Universal, working on my third book with Harper Collins and getting together some new pitches and writing projects to stay busy on my off days from the show. I still update my website, I try to do short films as much as I can, I still work with Funny or Die, have some shorts coming out on their HBO show and still work with College Humor, crashing random videos and making cameos in their Jake and Amir series.
NK: The web is bringing us all these great comedians, including you. What's your eventual goal? Do you want to direct?
BS: I want to act more than anything, I love it. Before I'm writing, I'm acting. I've been really fortunate, I just hope to keep making things that make people laugh.
Ben also signed me up for Tumblr, so follow me there. My first post is a "rejected blog post" in Ben's honor - http://nickkreiss.tumblr.com/