“I want this conversation to be about how we both have a free 30 minutes,” jokes Ben Schwartz, when thanked for taking time out of his busy schedule. It’s a strange premise for an interview, but he’s used to strange premises: He and fellow comedic actor Thomas Middleditch make up the improv duo Middleditch & Schwartz, and they take audience suggestions to spontaneously create full scenes with fully developed characters, in scenarios ranging from the mundane to the fantastical.
The duo stops at Medford’s Chevalier Theatre on Sunday.
Both actors are probably best known in scripted form; Schwartz regularly appeared on NBC’s late, great “Parks and Recreation” as the smarmy Jean-Ralphio, and Middleditch plays the shy, clumsy protagonist Richard Hendricks on HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” They have also both played smaller parts in many shows and movies along the way (Middleditch, for example, was Harold in “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie,” and Schwartz has been playing Dewey in the well-received “DuckTales” reboot on Disney Channel since 2017).
Most comedy duos have defined characteristics — like the buttoned-up Bud Abbott and the unkempt blowhard Lou Costello, or the sweetly naive Stan Laurel and the bullying Oliver Hardy. Middleditch & Schwartz, however, are a different breed entirely: depending on the role or situation, either one can be the id or superego. Middleditch says this versatility is what makes their partnership so effective.
“I think we have more similarities than differences,” he says. “We both enjoy playing either the straight man or the crazy character. We both revel in a kind of controlled absurdity. I really appreciate his sense of pace, and how we both can feel when the show might need a jolt of energy or just relax and let things play out.”
“We’re very different on paper,” says Schwartz. “I grew up in New York, I listened to hip-hop and R&B,” while Middleditch grew up in British Columbia. However, he adds, “we click so hard onstage. We really complement each other. When he does a character, he can be a straight man, but also when he envelops a character, every movement is precise.”
A typical Middleditch & Schwartz show starts with an audience suggestion, which sometimes evolves into a brief conversation. The pair then builds an extended long-form improv story consisting of several scenes, which typically runs for an hour or more. (Short-form improv, which both Middleditch and Schwartz grew up watching on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?,” typically features game-like scenes with quick character sketches.)
Schwartz says his work onstage has an instant-gratification element that his film and screenwriting work just doesn’t provide.
“It’s such a thrill,” he says. “Getting people to laugh is such a fun feeling, for everybody to be understanding that it’s just a show for these human beings at this time.” However, he adds, improv builds skills that help his other work.
Both Middleditch and Schwartz cut their improv teeth in well-respected comedy establishments — Middleditch at Chicago’s Second City and iO theaters, Schwartz at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. Middleditch, however, also has a unique entry on his résumé: the Improvised Shakespeare Company, a six-man Chicago group that improvises full stories using the linguistic style and themes of the Bard.
Improvised Shakespeare Company member Joey Bland says Middleditch is a perfect fit for the troupe, echoing Schwartz’s comments about his acting flexibility.
“One thing about Thomas is he just makes surprising choices . . . weird ones and shocking ones,” he says. “We’ve all been running this show together for a long time. There’s definitely an element of mind-reading. We can predict each other’s moves. Thomas, more than anyone else maybe, still surprises me. And when he makes an alarming and unforeseen move, it always helps the show.”
“What I’ve loved about doing that show is their scholarly approach to it,” says Middleditch. “Every time I perform with that group I feel as if I’ve just been bathed in jaw-dropping wit and intelligence. They all know so much. They spur me to keep learning, to keep acquiring the world around me, so that it may influence whatever I put back out.”
That output seems to be working: Middleditch & Schwartz played Carnegie Hall earlier this year, and their dates at smaller theaters routinely sell out. In addition to their Medford date, the current tour brings them to New York, Portland, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.
“We can keep doing these shows in different cities, which is exciting,” says Schwartz. “We’re doing so many of them, and every show is totally different.”
He then adds, with a clear sense of gratitude, “Getting people to laugh is just so lovely.”
David Brusie can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MIDDLEDITCH & SCHWARTZ
At the Chevalier Theatre, Medford, Nov. 3, at 7 p.m. Tickets $29.50-$49.50, www.chevaliertheatre.com