What do you think of when you think of improv? Having grown up in an environment where improv improv was not a thing and then, intrigued, having attended a couple of amateur amateur performances, my first reaction is being floored by second-hand embarrassment. Also, images of Michael Scott pointing an imaginary gun every which way. In short: cringe-induced spontaneous combustion. But after a recent and very cautious dip into the impromptu waters I emerged... a convert?
What made me (and scores of others – the reviews are glowing) a born-again improv enthusiast is the latest collaboration between improv comedy regulars Thomas Middleditch (best known for his role as algorithm wizkid Richard Hendricks in Silicon Valley) and Ben Schwartz (the one and only Jean-Ralphio on the one and only Parks and Recreation). The duo’s brand-new Netflix comedy specials – Middleditch & Schwartz, though the option of Schwartz & Middleditch was also discussed – come in the form of three hour-long improv sessions recorded during their recent tour.
Like many improv shows, this one starts with a zappy back-and-forth with the audience; in this case, the goal is to fish for a near-future something that the spectators are either excited for or dreading, to then play it out in the hour that follows. The answers are commonplace – finals! job interview! wedding! Thanksgiving! – but the spectacles these serve as a basis for aren’t commonplace in the slightest.
In one episode, the two manage to put together a surprisingly coherent, but still completely bonkers, storyline of a wedding that, apart from the main couple, features a sulking cast-off lover, well liquored up parents, a rowdy sibling, and even a ghost. Another one starts as a law school exam prep and then royally spirals out of control, picking up elements of sci-fi along the way. The third installment is a tale of two job interviews that unfurl into a full-blown drama with coupla existential crises, thick New York accents and a pair of gazelles (who totally steal the show).
All three scenarios bubble up to almost-theatrical culminations that somehow, mind-bogglingly, thoroughly succeed in tying all the ad-lib bits and pieces together. But there are moments when things go off the rails, too, forcing the duo to find ways to wriggle out of their convoluted imaginings – and these make the show even better. Middleditch & Schwartz knows no half measures: it’s flamboyantly funny, outrageously hilarious, and unbridledly inventive. Three hours of side-splitting improv – yeah, you’ll emerge a convert, too.