I like improv comedy. I love doing it, because when you are in it it’s a ton of fun. In fact, just recently my improv group did a “virtual” show since we can’t do our normal regular monthly show in person. I also enjoy watching it when it’s done well. I enjoy short-form improv, which is what you see on, say, Who’s Line is it Anyway?. It’s very game focused and is kind of perfect for the TV format. However, when it’s done well, long-form improv is also fantastic. The key in that sentence is “when it’s done well.” Obviously, anything poorly done isn’t good, that’s not a bold statement, but long-form can feel like a particular slog when it isn’t going well. In fact, even when it’s pretty good it can be a little awkward.
They’ve tried long-form improv on TV before, and it’s always fallen flat. I remember watching an Upright Citizens Brigade A.S.S.C.A.T. special and turning it off after like 10 minutes because it was dragging. Sometimes long form takes some time to get going, and TV doesn’t work for that. Also, TV usually has commercials, and that breaks up the flow. Now, though, long-form improv has finally been done well in a way that translates great to the screen. You need to check out Middleditch and Schwartz on Netflix.
The titular men in question are Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz. You know Middleditch from Silicon Valley. Schwartz played Jean-Ralphio on Parks and Recreation and just voiced Sonic (the Hedgehog). They’ve been doing improv together for a while and have been touring their two-man long-form show. During the tour, they decided to tape three shows, which are now on Netflix. Each episode begins with them getting one single suggestion, and then they do an improv show based on that suggestion. It’s basically one 45-minute scene all improvised.
Part of the enjoyment of watching improv is seeing the performers thinking on their feet. It’s seeing them create a world, characters, and a story from whole cloth. When it’s done well, it’s impressive. Sometimes, though, that’s the extent of the enjoyment. You’re impressed that they manage, but the show isn’t exactly a laugh riot. That’s not the case with Middleditch and Schwartz. If this show was written it would be really funny. The fact it’s improvised just makes it even funnier. Their skill is impeccable. I don’t want to get too in the weeds about improv, so I’m not going to start digging into Middleditch’s object work and stuff like that.
Even if you don’t like improv and just want to watch something funny, check out the three episodes of Middleditch and Schwartz this weekend. It’s a quick binge, but a truly enjoyable one.