Ben Schwartz on Sonic the Hedgehog 3: ‘I haven’t seen a shred of darkness in Jim Carrey’

The comedian and ‘Parks and Recreation’ star talks to Louis Chilton about the Keanu Reeves casting rumours, his new improv show at the Royal Albert Hall, and the time he forced John Malkovich to rewatch ‘Con Air’

Sunday 05 May 2024 06:00 BST
Ben Schwartz: ‘We forced John Malkovich to watch Con Air with us’
Ben Schwartz: ‘We forced John Malkovich to watch Con Air with us’ (Sela Shiloni)

“I’m not allowed to say anything,” insists Ben Schwartz. To emphasise his point, or perhaps swept along by sheer verbal inertia, the comedian and Parks and Recreation star says it three more times. “I was told not to say anything. I don’t know anything. I’m not allowed to say anything.” It seems he really isn’t allowed to say anything. I’ve just asked Schwartz about Sonic the Hedgehog 3, the forthcoming capper to a trilogy of popular video game movies, in which he voices the lead character. Specifically, I’ve asked about last month’s widespread reports that Keanu Reeves had been cast as Shadow, a sort of moody, goth-black invert of Schwartz’s famous blue hedgehog. Schwartz shutters his face with poker-tournament blankness. “I saw those reports too!” he says. That’s as much as I’m going to get.

I am receiving this good-natured stonewalling over video chat, while the 42-year-old stares at me from his office seat. For many actors, the chance of maybe-possibly-potentially working with Reeves would be a dizzying proposition – a brush with the upper echelons of superstardom. For Schwartz, it’s almost routine at this point. Over the past decade, he could be seen fanging out with a Draculaic Nic Cage in Renfield, cracking wise with Billy Crystal in the two-hander Standing Up, Falling Down, and John McClaneing with Kevin Hart in the Netflix thriller Die Hart. The list goes on: John Malkovich; Jeremy Irons; Don Cheadle; Eminem. Schwartz never seems like a name-dropper, but chat to him for even a few minutes and the names start to silently pile around our feet.

“I remember I did a scene with Robert De Niro,” he recalls, referring to the 2009 film Everybody’s Fine. “For weeks before, I was like, ‘I can’t watch a Robert De Niro movie. I can’t. I can’t. It would be too intimidating.’ But these people, they’re just human beings. Like with Jim Carrey!” he adds. (Carrey plays Schwartz’s nemesis, the buffoonish Dr Eggman, in the Sonic films.) “When I see Jim Carrey’s face the first time, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, it’s him. Oh God… He exists in the real world!’ And then all of a sudden you’re having real conversations, and you’re talking to a friend and an ally, as opposed to a mythical comedic being.”

It’s easy to see why Schwartz has made such a success of voicing Sega’s relentlessly upbeat, turbo-charged mascot – he seems to talk at the clip of an auctioneer. It’s also, I reckon, what makes him such a good fit for improv comedy, an artform that seems often to live or die on vim and quickness. Improv is, in fact, the reason Schwartz is speaking today: this month, he’s heading to London’s Royal Albert Hall on tour with Ben Schwartz & Friends, a wholly improvised long-form show starring himself and a few fellow comics.

It works like this: Schwartz asks the audience for a prompt, usually soliciting a “story about the most exciting time of your life”. They perform a routine based on the response. After the interval, they do it again. “It’s not Whose Line is it Anyway?” Schwartz says. “We’re creating a play for you, a comedic play of sorts. It’s two long scenes – totally improvised – that connect at the end. And if we do it right, it feels like magic, and people are going to be like, ‘Oh, they wrote that.’”

Schwartz previously toured as a double act with Silicon Valley’s Thomas Middleditch, releasing a filmed improv special on Netflix in 2020. A year later, Middleditch faced allegations of sexual misconduct; the pair have not performed together since. Today, he sidesteps the subject.

Improv comedy, says Schwartz, gets “a bad name” and “a bad rap sometimes” – mostly because the public just lacks the right frame of reference. “Do you know what I think it is? In stand-up, there’s so many specials you can look to. A thousand Kevin Hart specials, or Chris Rock, or John Mulaney, and you can see the people who’ve been doing it for 20 years and are at the top of the field, really killing it. For improv, there’s very few of those.”

Jean-Ralphio (Schwartz), in between Nick Offerman and Rob Lowe in ‘Parks and Recreation'
Jean-Ralphio (Schwartz), in between Nick Offerman and Rob Lowe in ‘Parks and Recreation' (Tyler Golden/NBC)

Born to Jewish parents – a music teacher mother and real estate agent father – in New York’s Bronx, Schwartz has a distinctly 21st-century Hollywood origin story. As a young adult, he was freelancing as a writer for David Letterman and Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update.

“Nobody was seeing my jokes,” he recalls. “I was performing in a small theatre at the time, to 90 people. In LA, nobody knew who I was.” So he took matters into his own hands – on the internet. Schwartz became a prolific star of online comedy sketches, such as the cult College Humour show Jake and Amir. He started filming material that had been rejected by the more traditional platforms. Hence the sobriquet “RejectedJokes” on X/Twitter, where he now posts to more than a million followers, and nearly as many on Instagram.

“Now, if I was coming up, I would be using TikTok, and Instagram,” he says. “But back then, it was YouTube, and College Humour, and Funny or Die.” Viral videos begot more content, until eventually he was scouted for the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation. In the series, Schwartz played the recurring character of Jean-Ralphio Sapperstein, a preposterous playboy who could reasonably be described as the most annoying person alive. “[Parks] changed my whole life and the trajectory of my career,” he says. “It’s pretty remarkable what that show pulled off.”

The lifespans of sitcoms just aren’t what they were. Things don’t go for 10 seasons or seven seasons anymore

Ben Schwartz

Schwartz has felt the more brutal side of the industry, too. In 2020, he was cast in the astronautical Netflix sitcom Space Force, opposite Steve Carrell, John Malkovich, and Lisa Kudrow. In 2022, Space Force was cancelled – having lasted just 17 episodes. “I do think we got cut off too short,” he says. “If you think about how TV used to be… at the beginning you’d have a pilot, and then you would do 12 to 24 episodes of the first season. And in that first season, you kind of figure stuff out.” He cites Seinfeld, Parks and Rec and the US Office as examples of shows that needed a season to find their footing.

“But with streaming,” he continues, “you create all of it beforehand. Before you hear how people are reacting, you put it all out. I think in the second season of Space Force, we really started to figure it out. It’s like, ‘Oh, we’re starting to get it’ – and then the time was up. You gotta figure it out quick.

“The lifespans of these things just aren’t what they were. Things don’t go for 10 seasons or seven seasons anymore.”

The experience did bring Schwartz into the orbit of Malkovich, now a firm friend and devotee of his comedy shows. “We forced him to watch Con Air with us once, which was like one of the best nights of my life,” Schwartz laughs.

Ben Schwartz as F Tony Scarapiducci in ‘Space Force'
Ben Schwartz as F Tony Scarapiducci in ‘Space Force' (Diyah Pera/Netflix)

I have to know more. Malkovich, at the time, hadn’t seen the beloved Nicolas Cage action thriller since its initial premiere. “So he sat next to me. We’d pause and be like, ‘What about this scene?’ And he’d respond –” Schwartz drops into a pretty passable Malkovich impression – “You know, a lot of testosterone in this scene.”

Leaning forward into his camera, Schwartz gives the impression of a man who is genuinely buzzing to his marrow – about Con Air; about improv; about Sonic 3. “It’s really a step up from 2,” he says. “If you’re a fan of Sonic the Hedgehog, like I am, it’s heaven. You’re getting so many things you want in a Sonic movie that you haven’t got yet.”

In February, it was announced that Carrey would be returning for Sonic 3, despite his recent claims that he was considering retiring from acting. I ask about Carrey, a performer whose manic onscreen dynamism has always contained just a hint of darkness: the 2017 documentary Jim & Andy, about the making of the Carrey-starring biopic Man on the Moon, paints the actor as an intense, sometimes challenging person on set. Schwartz, though, is having none of it.

“I haven’t seen a shred of darkness in Jim Carrey,” he says. “If you talk to him, he really works on understanding the universe. Tries to really connect with the big picture of everything. I think his purpose in life is to bring joy and enlightenment to people.”

As Schwartz prepares to step onto the London stage, to ask his fans about their lives and spin their stories into performance, I wonder if that isn’t his purpose too.

‘Ben Schwartz & Friends’ is live at London’s Royal Albert Hall on 19 May. Tickets are available here

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