Ben Schwartz made a big splash on Parks And Recreation when he showed up as Jean-Ralphio, Tom Haverford’s friend and applicant for the job of Ron Swanson’s assistant. But lacking any real assistant skills, Jean-Ralphio promised simply to get Ron into the hottest clubs and pad out his entourage with another over-the-top wingman. That faux-swagger continued each time Schwartz returned to the show, notably in the current season, as Tom’s business partner and primary financier of the media company Entertainment 720. Meanwhile, on pay cable, Schwartz is co-starring in House Of Lies, Showtime’s irreverent take on the world of management consulting. (His character Clyde actually has the smoothness Jean-Ralphio dreams of having.) And as if starring alongside Don Cheadle wasn’t enough, Schwartz is also busy remaking the comedy Soapdish as a telenovela, and he recently released the third in a series of postcard books where baby animals deliver horrible news, called Maybe Your Leg Will Grow Back! The A.V. Club recently chatted with Schwartz about Clyde vs. Jean-Ralphio, his masochistic work ethic, and oh, that hair.
The A.V. Club: How did you end up in House Of Lies?
Ben Schwartz: I liked the idea of being on a paid network that allowed me to improvise and curse. I thought it’d be fun and freeing. When I went in to audition, they really let me have free rein. Then they told me that Don Cheadle was going to be in it, and for me, to be next to someone who’s that good, I figured I’d become a better actor.
AVC: What was your experience on Undercovers, which got canceled after one short season?
BS: It was weird. I’m kind of new to the game—I’ve done comedy at UCB for 10 years, but my first pilot with Mitch Hurwitz and Jason Biggs never made it to air. The pilot of Undercovers was—first of all, I auditioned five times for it, and I remember being so nervous, because J.J. Abrams was in the room, and he’s an idol of mine. Everything he is is what I aspire to be: He has a family, he loves his wife and kids, and he’s also the most prolific producer/director I’ve ever met. I just wanted to show him I was kind of funny and that I could act. To get that pilot was the best. So my expectations of the show were, “How is this gonna fail? It’s J.J. Abrams, two gorgeous actors in front of me, two black actors and a Jewish person—who wouldn’t love that?” I thought the pilot was really good, then it comes out and not a lot of people watch it. And me, because I’m neurotic, I’d check the ratings every week, and think, “Oh my God, this thing is going to get canceled. Am I ever going to get work again?” It was interesting in that while I was acting, I could check the ratings and see that if it kept up, I could be off the air. I’m sure it’s a rookie mistake.
AVC: You’re probably more plugged into the Internet than some of your costars.
BS: Yeah. House Of Lies leaked illegally on the Internet, and I’m the one who told the producer that they had to stop the people. Though yesterday, they launched it purposefully with all the curses taken out, on YouTube.
AVC: They’re going for the New Girl model.
BS: Yes, I think they’re hoping for that. But our show has a ton of nudity and a ton of cursing, because a) that’s the world of these management consultants, and b) it’s on Showtime.
AVC: What was the experience like getting into the management-consultant mindset, considering you’ve been a comic for 10 years without working in a corporate office?
BS: There’s a book that Martin Kihn wrote that our show is based off, and he came in and talked. I asked him questions that weren’t on the surface, like, “How often do you see your family? How do you feel about your family?” After a while, the whole idea with my character is that he looks at Don Cheadle’s character and is like, “I want to get that guy’s fuckin’ job, and I’m going to do anything I can.” It was cool, because Jean-Ralphio, which is my favorite thing in the universe to do, that guy is exactly what you see, is what he’s thinking. He’s so happy—even when he’s saying douchebag things, he’s just nailing it. There really isn’t another level to Jean-Ralphio. But this character, in his head, he’s scheming always. If you really want to be successful in this business, you have to make that your priority, above family and everything else. It takes up every minute of your life.
AVC: Especially coming from Parks And Rec, where every character is a pretty decent human being, how do you reconcile the fact that your character on House Of Lies isn’t overtly good or bad?
BS: We’re in a place where you have no idea if Don’s character is going to be redeemable. It makes it more exciting. You slowly learn about all of us. But the thing you bring up is important. You can tell we’re all flawed a little bit, because a lot of people in this business—you have to be a little narcissistic to believe you can do it. As we grow, you learn from our mistakes.
AVC: Does that ambiguity work as well in comedy?
BS: Absolutely. We can still find comedy in the situations. In the first episode, we go to a strip club to blow off steam, and we’re like completely different human beings… The fun of the show is that we all get to juggle the comedy with this dramatic aspect.
AVC: There’s a moment in the second episode where your character talks about putting the moves on a woman, and it’s a very Jean-Ralphio moment. How often do you find yourself in that character’s mindset?
BS: Jean-Ralphio is never—I sound so pretentious—the situation where my character [in House Of Lies] is trying to pick up a woman is very dissimilar to how Jean-Ralphio would do it. If you ask Jean-Ralphio to pick up a girl, he just goes in there and says the silliest thing he can, that he thinks is the most confident thing. This other guy, all his decisions are made based on previous things he’s done. He’s like, “Okay, I’m going to pick up this woman, and I’m going to use these three lines, and if they don’t work, fuck it, I’m gonna go to someone else.” Jean-Ralphio would go, “Oh my God, I fuckin’ nailed it.” “What did she say?” “She said no, but she’s gonna come back.” Even when he loses all of his business [Entertainment 720] except for $5,000, he’s like “Can you believe we have $5,000 left?!” Jean-Ralphio is an exaggeration of that optimistic douchebaggy friend you have. I think he’s kind of loveable; I try to make him loveable so you root for him. Literally, my goal is that when he does something stupid, you go [sweetly], “Oh, Jean-Ralphio!” Like a little kid who made a mistake. “You got your head stuck in the honey jar again, Jean-Ralphio!”
AVC: When you improvise onstage, what kinds of characters do you end up playing over and over?
BS: I play the surgeon a lot. I like coming in as waiters. You know, when the scene’s happening, I like walking on and adding. It’s like playing on a basketball team: I like being the guy who passes the ball. Though I feel like I play the ignorant narcissist quite a bit.
AVC: What role has the UCB theater played in your comedy career?
BS: It’s been huge. When I first [graduated college], I told my parents I’d try to pursue comedy for the first year or two, and if it didn’t work out, I’d put my nose to the grindstone and try to find a job somehow. I went to UCB, and it clicked with me. You’re surrounded by like-minded people. In level one, when I didn’t know anybody, people would call me out on my shit, like trying too hard to be funny onstage… Also, I interned on Sunday nights, so I got to watch Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, Seth Morris—I got to watch these people whom I thought were the funniest people in the universe for free. I remember this one moment when I was interning, I would watch Jack McBrayer, Brian Huskey, Paul Scheer, Rob Huebel, and Rob Riggle, and none of them had jobs. I remember thinking, “If these guys could not make it, there is no way in hell I can.” I got kind of depressed about it. Then when they finally got jobs, I was like, “Thank God!” Just exhaling deeply.
AVC: Did that attitude bleed into your work ethic? You seem to have a lot of things going on at once, and your résumé includes writing, acting, video work, all sorts of stuff.
BS: At the very beginning, I was a page at Letterman, and I freelanced for any place that would let me write any word. I wanted to do this so badly. Then when I got a tiny bit of success, I was petrified that I was going to lose it. I still feel it. House Of Lies finished filming, and I don’t know when I’m doing Parks again. The second that happened, I thought, “Fuck, I have to start writing. I have to keep myself working, because why else did I move to Los Angeles? If everyone else is working 9 to 5 every day, why shouldn’t I?” I wrote those postcard books, I’ll do short films for free, I like to keep myself creative. But there is an essence of “When does it end?” That drives me, and also gives me terrible stomach problems. The anxiety of not knowing what my next gig is keeps me hungry. I’m doing exactly what I’m doing, and I don’t want to fuck this up. There will be days where I’m not writing, but I’ll think back to when I was a page. I’d wake up at 6 in the morning, write monologue jokes as a freelance writer, go work the first page shift, sleep in the security office, work the second page shift so I could get some money, then I’d go take classes from 7 to 10 at UCB, then watch every show I could and take the last train home. I’d get four hours of sleep, and I did that for about two years. That guy would hate me if I took the day off today.
AVC: Do you think there’s going to be a point where you can relax a little?
BS: I don’t know. I hope so. I hope I don’t get driven to the point where, to be honest, I’m never satisfied. I hope there’s some part of me that can be content. The perfect thing for me is to be on something I love, where I’m doing it and have enough money not to be poor, and I’m allowed to go on vacation. How cool would vacation be?!
AVC: So what’s up with your hair?
BS: [Laughs.] Let’s shift to the story of the hair. When I moved to L.A., I didn’t have a haircut guy. I got my pilot, that Mitch Hurwitz thing, and they were like, “Don’t cut it. We want it to look that insane.” Then, the first episode of Parks And Rec, Mike Schur looked at my hair and said, “That is what the character’s hair is going to look like now.” Now, purposefully, I grow out my hair in the same way. I’ll go to the hair person and be like, “Here’s what I want you to do: I want you to pop out this ’fro as hard as you can, but in the weirdest way.” She’ll be like “Okay, I’m gonna take a hot iron to your sides,” and I’ll say, “I don’t know what that means, but that’s exactly what I want.” In my last episode, this is a very nerdy reference, but there’s a bird in Star Fox, and my hair looks very similar to it.
BS: Yes! Oh, thank God. So now they go nuts. I’ll get comments on Twitter the next day being like, “So do you just wear a wig now, or do you just not care about your hair at all?”