Although I had seen the occasional long-form improv show before (mostly graduation shows featuring friends of mine), I didn’t really discover it until 2010, which is when I took my first class at the now-shuttered iO West in Los Angeles, with the expectation that the class would strengthen my ability to write and think on my feet.
What I didn’t expect was to fall in love.
I fell in love with the art form, which, for a long time, brought me such joy. I fell in love with the people, making lifelong friends, and finding a community I would never have otherwise. I fell in love with that performance high, the rush of endorphins that comes from making a room full of people laugh, and the second, even higher rush that comes from making your scene partner laugh. I have never been an adrenaline junkie, or particularly interested in drugs, but that on-stage thrill that mixed discovery and trust and friendship and comedy was immediate and addictive and became something I craved and chased.
But that feeling was always brief, because improv is inherently meant to be consumed and enjoyed in the moment - like a dream, the moment it’s over, the details begin to fade, and the specific combination of performance and the shared experience of everyone present morphs into something that we only think we remember. Even great improv fades when flattened by a camera - removed from the energy of the room (which is almost always too small, or too dark, or too warm), the excitement of being right there next to the performers, mere feet away (again, due to the size of the dark, warm room), and the laughs of strangers next to you, what felt so magical in the moment suddenly feels, on screen, like a sort of comedic uncanny valley - too close to reality to be enjoyed like a performance, but too far from the reality of the live experience to feel accurate.
Which makes, in some ways, the success of Netflix’s Middleditch & Schwartz specials (which star Thomas Middleditch, who has been in a million things, but you probably know from Silicon Valley, and Ben Schwartz, who has been in a million things, but you probably know from Parks & Recreation) something of a minor miracle.
It is somewhat impossible to describe an improv show without ruining jokes or, more often, sounding like a crazy person (as each show invariably devolves into various types of chaos as new characters are introduced, callbacks are discovered, and things somehow manage to make sense again), but each episode goes roughly like this: The two performers ask the audience for a suggestion of an event (specifically, an event that people are either looking forward to or dreading). Upon hearing and selecting the suggestion, Middleditch and Schwartz then identify the audience member and pepper them with questions, asking for specifics about the event, the people involved, and often following up with more questions or good-natured barbs when they hear something that they think is weird or funny.
As the actual show begins, they throw in as many of the specifics from the interview as they dare, generating laughs and, more crucially, informing the audience that they were listening.
Then, they go delightfully off the rails, as the duo’s demented interpretation of the event pivots on twisted characters they bring to life, jokes and details discovered in the moment, and the occasional breaking of the fourth wall, when the characters drop away and the conversation becomes solely, wonderfully between the two performers, whether they’re pimping each other into making specific choices, or discussing whether or not they should change some details about a character that they fear might be too close to a very real-life, very recognizable person.
As the show continues, something magical happens, as it does in all great improv - at a certain point, you forget that you’re watching two people alone on a stage, and before you realize it, you’re along for the ride, emotionally invested in the lives of these absurd characters you’ve just met. The proximity of (most of) the cameras and the well-paced editing help build the frenetic energy that a Middleditch & Schwartz show has in person, and in doing so, the specials are able to translate the feeling of being in the audience to the home experience.
Perhaps even more impressive, the specials also manage to evoke the feel of being IN a great improv show - the infectious joy the two feel as they race around the stage (and occasionally, in the audience) is evident throughout, and sent me on a sudden, shocking trip down memory lane, reminding me of the years of pure joy that improv brought me, a feeling that had long waned well before I eventually stopped performing regularly.
Are there things that I dislike? To be sure, there are moments where the camera (by necessity) is too far away, and the energy (briefly, but suddenly) slacks. In other times, there are moments where I’d like to see a reaction shot but (again, by necessity) we’re denied it by the camera at that moment. But these are tiny nitpicks in what are otherwise excellent performances by two of the great improvisers of their generation.
Improv (and particularly long-form improv) has primarily existed as a live form of entertainment. Improv theaters have also served as the training ground for multiple generations of comedians and actors and writers and directors - to the point that improv, as an industry, grew to a peak somewhere in the early to mid-2010s. While the improv bubble almost certainly burst before the global pandemic we now find ourselves in, the contraction of the large improv institutions, particularly the Upright Citizens Brigade (who announced that they were closing their New York City theater and training center on the same day Middleditch & Schwartz was released) and the uncertainty of the future of live performance in general, means that whatever fuels the next comedy boom will be very different, and makes me wonder if these Middleditch & Schwartz shows may end up representing a last monument to a kind of comedic wizardry that we won’t see again - or at least, that won’t have had the opportunity (or, to be more optimistic, won’t be required to) come up in those dingy theaters and comedy basements, where the price of entry into the club was several hundred dollars per class or, for the lucky ones, an opportunity to sweep the floors and tear tickets for credit and the occasional stage time.
Even though I stopped performing regularly a few years ago, even before I lost my improv home, even before most of the friends I made had moved on or moved out of town, I always had that thought in the back of my mind that I’d go back, if I ever missed it. And truthfully, I never have - it was fun, and I loved it, but life and circumstances and priorities changed, and one day I realized the things I loved about improv were no longer there.
Middleditch & Schwartz made me miss it.
Not the long hours, or the money I spent, or the amount of emotional energy that I put into the vague, absurd goal of making a house team (at which point all my comedy dreams were supposed to have come true, only to discover that, in fact, they did not). But I miss my friends, and being able to be silly with them. And while Middleditch & Schwartz doesn’t replace the hazy memories that I have of those times, it’s the closest, best reproduction I’ve seen outside of a theater that was too small, too dark, and too warm.
Header Image Source: Netflix