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Jewcy Interviews: Ben Schwartz (Parks And Recreation/House Of Lies)

Ben Schwartz is excited. Whether it is playing the scene stealing Jean-Ralphio on Parks & Recreation, writing the remake of Soapdish, shooting his new Showtime series House of Lies, or simply talking about comedy, Ben Schwartz is excited.

When asked about his 10-year involvement with the UCB Theatre, he spoke like it was the only thing ever worth talking about. At one point, beaming, he just started naming people he felt lucky to watch there, “Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, Rachel Dratch, Paul Scheer, Rob Huebel…” naming 12 performers before remembering he was being interviewed. In conversation, he’ll dart back and forth between topics, overwhelmed by his enthusiasm over working with this “genius” or that person he’s “idolized.” He’s excited.

I first met Ben two years ago when I was working in the mailroom at his talent agency. I’d tape his auditions for projects varying from Up in the Air to Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. Each time, even for serious roles, he came in with a singular purpose of making whomever he could laugh. I remember ruining a take for The Squeakquel by laughing sharply when he tagged a line about Alvin with, they “just Top Chef it up every Wednesday.” He wanted to use that one specifically because of how I ruined it. He recently explained to me, “If you don’t have fun with it, the camera and people watching know you’re not having fun. They want to hire people that are comfortable and confident and can’t wait to do it.” He didn’t get that part – sometimes he’s told he’s “too ethnic” (read: Jewish) looking – but in the two years since, this philosophy has shown to be working out for him.

I recently got to talk to Ben about his success, embracing his inner douchebag, and being excited.

This seems to be a big year for you so far; do you feel like you’ve turned a corner?

I think for writing it really has. You can’t really see it when it’s happening. I’m not very good at enjoying the moment; I’m just worried about the next one. Like, I’m writing Soapdish and this movie for Universal, and while finishing them, I’m like “Fuck, I need to think of my next movie idea.”

Last year when Undercovers came out, before it aired, people were like “This show is going to be the biggest show on television.” I was like, “Oh my god, I got my show. It’s on TV. I can’t wait. I play with guns. I get to be funny.” Then it got canceled. This Showtime show will be great because it will be my first time doing a full season of something. I get to work with Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell who are geniuses.

So I had a little bit experience on TV, but this year the writing stuff is starting to come.

Every interview I’ve seen you give you seem super enthusiastic. Is this just your natural state or are you amazed about where you are?

I’m still very excited. I’m excited I get to even do interviews. I’m excited I get to work with people like JJ [Abrams] or Rob Reiner, who is producing Soapdish. I’m still very excited by all this.

I’ve realized how fortunate it is to be doing what I’m doing, to write and work with people I’ve idolized from afar for quite some time. I think that’s the enthusiasm.

When these things come up, I get to take a second because you ask questions that I don’t think about ever. It gives you a second to really think about it and get you excited about where you are.

Have you had any “oh shit, I can’t believe this is my life” moments?

When I sat down with Rob Reiner and we started talking about movie ideas together. To riff off of Rob Reiner is a special thing.

When we shot the pilot for Undercovers, JJ Abrams directed it and there was a scene where I improvised something at the end. He didn’t call cut so I kept on going. I look up and see it was because he was crying from laughing so hard. It was an unbelievable moment for me because I idolize his work ethic and how good he is at what he does. He literally couldn’t say the word “cut” because he was crying. It was one of those holy shit moments.

I won an Emmy two years ago and when I went on stage I remember just being like “What the hell is going on?” When something big happens, it never feels real. I was holding the Emmy on stage, looking out into the crowd, there’s Steve Carell and I’m like “What!?” It didn’t make sense; it felt like watching a television show.

I remember watching that Emmy’s. I was like, “Holy shit, Ben Schwartz just won an Emmy.”

It made no sense, right? You were like, “Two minutes ago we were auditioning for The Squeakquel.”

It seems like a lot of the early stages of comedian is figuring out what’s their thing that people find funny.

You’re correct. You start to learn what you do well. I think the version of myself that I like to do is that guy from the short films I write for myself.

Do you have a sense why you’re particularly adept at this?

It’s funny, some of them are douches but in Undercovers I played the exact opposite, I was a big nerd, For House of Lies I play an arrogant guy but its more real than being a douche. I’m not Daniel Day Lewis by any means; you see me on stage or on TV, it’s never me but it’s always a caricature of a version of me. That is the way I can play it most truthfully.

I don’t think I’m an asshole or a douchebag but Jean-Ralphio is a FUCKING DOUCHEBAG so in my head I’m like, “What is douchiest way to do this?” Every time I play that character I’m like “What is the douchiest way to get my point across in this sentence?” And it’s fucking fun.

Then the Jean-Ralphio character is similar to this I thing I did on ESPN. The douchey guy, I am getting pretty good at doing that.

ESPN’s Conversations with Ben Schwartz- Jordan Farmar and Matt Kemp from Ben Schwartz on Vimeo.

It seems like you’re having a lot of fun, especially when it’s you and Aziz.

When it’s just me and anyone of those characters, it’s the best. But with Aziz it’s so easy because those characters are so like-minded. We can go on for fucking hours talking about Paul Walker and Vin Diesel, literally, and really care about those movies.

If you were allowed to write any feature for you to star in, I don’t need a logline but do you have a sense of what that would be?

Well, right now there are some companies that are optioning some old scripts for me to star in that I wrote. So it’s kind of happening a little bit.

But if tomorrow you were like “Sony wants a totally new pitch and it’s for you to write and star in, what do you want to do?” It would definitely be a comedy but it’ll be a dark comedy. I think that’s what I want to write right now. All my ideas are skewing towards darker but really comedic, with real characters in absurd scenarios.

Do you have anything else to say to the Jewish public?

I want to make sure that everyone’s eating their Hamantaschen.

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