There’s no shortage of comedy specials available on Netflix. However, the streaming service ventured into new territory with the release of their first “long-form improv” special, “Middleditch & Schwartz,” on April 21. The special contains three episodes, recorded on different nights of the “Middleditch & Schwartz” tour, during which Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz improvised all their performances on the spot.
Middleditch and Schwartz, the sole performers of the show, are quite a dynamic duo. They both have reputable backgrounds in comedy; Middleditch is best known for playing Richard Hendricks in the HBO series “Silicon Valley,” and Schwartz is known as Jean-Ralphio Saperstein in “Parks and Recreation.”
Each “Middleditch & Schwartz” show consists of the incredibly skilled and undeniably hilarious pair of comedians improvising for about 50 minutes. As they explain to the audience at the start of the show, everything they do and say will be made up then and there. To get the story started, they ask the audience for a suggestion of an upcoming event that they’re either looking forward to or dreading, and then question the responder to get some more noteworthy details about the situation. The answers for each episode seem simple enough — a wedding, final exams and a job interview — but Middleditch and Schwartz are easily able to spin them into wildly entertaining and chaotic plotlines on the spot.
One of the best aspects of improv comedy is how it truly brings the audience into the story. Every time the performers reference a funny detail that was brought up in the original suggestion, it feels like an inside joke to the crowd. As the improvised plot thickens and it becomes clear how the story is going to proceed, the audience literally gets to see the light bulbs over the comedians’ heads when they get an idea for the perfect character or climax. There’s something really special and engaging about watching this duo come up with a plot and being able to predict where they’re going next; it makes the audience feel as though they’re also a part of the story-making.
In this type of show, most of the comedy comes from a hilarious sense of self-awareness. When Middleditch and Schwartz jump from plot point to plot point, their transitions are either beautifully seamless or involve great struggle, and both possibilities are equally entertaining. In all instances, however, it’s clear that they’re aware of their own absurdity. They’ll make fun of each other’s improvised dialogue, break the fourth wall, openly joke about how they’ve mixed up the names and identities of their many characters, or even stop in a moment of utter confusion and seemingly get lost in their own conversation about the predicament they’ve gotten into.
All of this is hysterical, because the comedic appeal of improv is getting to see the instincts people act on when they’re forced to speak off the top of their heads. Even more important than the hilarity, however, is the absolute delight of getting to be in on Middleditch and Schwartz’s creative process. Watching them on stage together sparks pure joy because they interact like best friends — they mess with each other, they make each other laugh and they always seem to know exactly what the other one is going to say.
The only part better than watching their comedic chemistry play out on stage is feeling like you’re included in it. When the audience can actually see every joke being made up and every plot point being decided in the moment, it creates a special bond that’s particularly unique to improv performers and their crowds. The one-of-a-kind nature of an improv show makes you feel like you’re sharing an intimate, irreplicable experience with the actors. That energy is often lost when cameras and recordings are brought into the picture, but somehow “Middleditch & Schwartz” didn’t seem to lose any of its charm and spontaneity in the process of becoming a Netflix special.
In these times, when the energy of a live show in a crowded theater seems so out of reach, it’s remarkably refreshing to see some of the most brilliant aspects of live performance be translated so perfectly onto the screen.
Rachel Golkin is an Entertainment intern. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.