Talking to Ben Schwartz About Jean-Ralphio, Soapdish, and Driving a Rented Car to the Oscars
Imagine it’s 1991 all over again, and you’ve just been cast as the voice of the soon-to-be-fan-favorite Hans Moleman on The Simpsons, your all-time favorite show. Every episode seems to top the one from the week before, and you’re ecstatic to be playing a beloved, recurring character on something so great. Welcome to Ben Schwartz’s life, minus the Hans Moleman thing.
Schwartz plays scene-stealing Jean-Ralphio on Parks and Recreation, possibly TV’s funniest show. But before he was cast, he was a fan of the show, so every episode is like a dream come to true for him. The last few years have probably felt like a dream, in fact: he’s won an Emmy; been cast on Showtime’s upcoming House of Lies with co-stars Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell; and he’s currently writing not one, but two, scripts for feature-length films. He’s also been in JJ Abrams’ Undercovers and some CollegeHumor videos, written for Robot Chicken, and performs improv weekly.
I recently had a chance to speak to Schwartz, right before Parks and Recreation’s third season finale, in which Jean-Ralphio plays a big role.
Do you know where the name “Jean-Ralphio” came from?
I don’t know. It was Michael Schur, Harris Wittles, or Katie Dippold, one of them thought of “Jean-Ralphio.” But I do remember that when I got offered the role and read the name, I immediately wanted to say yes. I think Parks and Rec is the funniest show on TV, so I would have said yes to anything.
When did you first get in touch with Michael Schur?
I’m friends with a few people on the show, like Aubrey [Plaza] and other people from UCB in New York, so I had a meeting with them during the second season. Mike Schur called me and it was right around the time that…do you remember when Louis CK was on the show, as Leslie’s love interest? I had a meeting about maybe playing the love interest, but I was obviously too young. Mike and I hit it off, though, and Katie, who’s another UCB person, was in the room, too. I remember leaving and them saying, “We’re going to find a way to get you into this world.” Jean-Ralphio just started off as one scene, when I interviewed to be Ron Swanson’s assistant [“The Set Up”]— — it was literally just one scene; I don’t know if it was more than a page. I remember right after, Mike Schur came down from the writer’s room and said, “We’re going to be bringing you back,” and then he went back to the room. It was an awesome moment.
Pawnee has become an amazing world, with a great array of recurring characters, like Jean-Ralphio, but also Perd and Tammy and Joan. What do you think it is about Parks and Rec that allows so much room for all these great minor characters?
I think that a good show does that, it establishes a town. The Simpsons is obviously the best in the universe at it, because they’ve had 20 seasons to do it, and there are so many minor characters on the show, like Lenny and Carl and Comic Book Guy, I could watch full episodes on all of them. I think a really good show gets you involved with the feelings of the characters and you want to learn more about them, and luckily, for Parks and Rec, I get to be one of the people outside of the core group, that influences Tom Haverford and the rest of the main characters. It’s a testament to the writing also, that they can introduce a character and people can care about them and want to see them more and more, and keep expanding the world.
How much of the show is scripted? How much room is there for improv?
For what I do, it’s about 75% scripted. All the work they put out there is hilarious, and sometimes that’s all that they’ll want you to do. But luckily, since the first appearance went so well, they let me go a little bit nuts, which is great. When Aziz and I have a scene together, we’ll talk it out a little bit beforehand and see if we can add anything, like the “Fred Claus” line we added recently. We’ll improvise a little bit and see what’s funny, but honestly, the structure is mostly there every time. The best part of the show is that you’re working with people who I think are the funniest at what they do. There’s Amy and Aziz and Aubrey and Offerman and Pratt and Retta and Jim, all of those people are just hilarious. Oh! And I did a scene with Rob Lowe. I mostly know him from his dramatic stuff, but he was fucking hilarious. We got to improvise a little bit and he was totally game. Every time I do that show, you feel like you’re in a family. It’s literally one of my favorite things to do in the world.
You have such great chemistry with Aziz. Did you two know each other beforehand?
We knew each other from UCB in New York, so we were friendly with one another. We hadn’t done any short films or anything like that — well, he had a show called “Crash Test,” and I may have done a sketch on that, or something — but we totally knew about each other.
Are you completely based in California now, or do you ever come back to New York?
No. I moved out here two-and-a-half years ago, on January 11.
That’s very specific.
I took literally everything I owned on the plane, so I had two duffel bags. I didn’t even have a place to stay; I was crashing on my friend’s couch for a while. I had written for the Oscars [Schwartz, along with Rob Schrab and Dan Harmon helped write the opening to the 2009 Oscars, sung by Hugh Jackman, which netted them an Emmy] when I first got here. I went from the Oscars in my tuxedo, and I guarantee I’m the only person in the world who did this, I came home, took it off, and drove my rented car to my friend’s house, and slept at his place.
What is the main reason you moved out to the West Coast? Is the comedy scene that much better?
Honestly, I think there’s nothing better than the live comedy scene in New York. I was having a blast, performing three or four times a week. But for me, I want to act more than I want to write, and while living in New York I was getting a lot of callbacks for movies and TV shows, but I couldn’t afford to fly to LA and fly back. I wrote for Robot Chicken about a year before moving here, so I was in California for a couple of months and then I left, and then I came back when I got a development deal for a TV channel that never came to fruition. But it was around pilot season then, and I was just looking for an excuse to stay.
How far along are you with House of Lies?
We filmed the pilot, and it stars Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell and me and Josh Lawson, as a group of four people who work at a consultant firm. So, yeah, we filmed the pilot, Showtime edited it, they loved it, and they picked it up. We have a full season — we start filming in a month, which is kind of amazing.
Do you know when it’s going to air?
I don’t, but I know they’re writing it now. I was lucky enough to enter the writer’s room and talk to those guys, and they’re fucking awesome. It’s exciting, man — it’s a totally different thing, because I did Undercovers and did this pilot with Mitch Hurwitz when I first got here, but it’s totally different because it’s on Showtime. When you get picked up for a first season on a network, you usually get the first 13 episodes and then a back nine, but for Showtime, there’s 12 episodes, that’s your full season, and you can curse and you can have storylines where people are fucking other people. For me, what’s funny is that when I was still talking about taking the gig, I was talking to some people from Showtime and they were totally into improvising, and were like, “You can curse and you can literally improvise anything you want.” It’s very liberating to end up on that network.
I must admit: I’m a huge Six Feet Under fan, so I have to ask what it was like working with Michael C. Hall in Peep World?
Well, then, I’ll give your article a nice little spoiler. I [wrote] a short film for CollegeHumor with him that’s coming out in about a week or two. He’s an unbelievable, wonderful person and very funny, on top of being one of the best actors in the universe. I think the film’s going to be pretty funny, and to get someone like him to do short films is such a fucking fun thing.
You’re also working on feature-length films, too, with Soapdish.
I’m writing two movies right now. I got hired by Universal to write a movie called Would You Rather? I sold it as a pitch to Brian Grazer, who’s a legend, and I’m working on that. And Paramount hired me to remake the movie Soapdish, through producers Alan Greisman and Rob Reiner, who’s another one of my heroes. It’s been crazy. It’s been awesome. I’ve been very fortunate to work with people who get my comedy, with my improv-background, and they’re totally onboard.
How much do you use the original as a template?
I can’t talk about it [laughs]. Paramount’s pretty secret about their stuff, but I will say that it’s my own take on that movie.
One more question: how did you learn to rap so well, minus not ending on the rhyme?
Amy Poehler wrote that episode! Amy Poehler wrote those beats! Only one of those was improvised; all the others were totally on paper, and they’re fucking hilarious. One of the best things about that show is, you’ll do a line and in the background, you’ll hear Amy laughing, and that’s the ultimate validation that you’re doing something well. As for my rapping style, that comes from years of listening to hip hop and R&B. I’m still one of those losers who listens to ‘80s and ‘90s R&B, like cheesy R&B. I’m constantly listening to that kind of music, so just to be able live that dream…I mean, give me a break, Jean-Ralphio should release a record.
I can’t wait for the Boyz II Men episode of Parks and Recreation.
Oh God, it’s just going to be me and then Nick Offerman with a cane. It’s going to be a special episode of the show.
Josh Kurp would also like to add that Ben Schwartz recently was present for The Simpsons’ 500th episode table read, but he hates him too much for being able to do that to include it in the actual interview. It has nothing to do with jealously…