Stage shows and mistakes aren’t meant to go together. Especially when those shows live on in the library of a streaming service, the usual goal is to offer something polished and let a little spontaneity shine through. But, as the new “Middleditch & Schwartz” trio of recorded specials shows, improv doesn’t really work that way. Still, with Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz as a two-man guide through some absurd waters, those rough edges don’t have to be a bad thing.
Filmed at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, these three 50-minute performances come from an audience suggestion. A few moments of back-and-forth Q&A with a single member of the crowd — in these cases, conversations about an upcoming wedding, law school, and a job interview — give Middleditch and Schwartz the tiny story milestones they’re free to disperse however they choose.
In each installment, what follows is a slowly evolving casserole of compromising situations, mostly rooted in callbacks to the offhand comments, misunderstandings, and mistakes that came before. There aren’t any other cast members or special guests to help build out each story. It’s just the two comedians threading their way through playing multiple characters each, sometimes swapping out for the same part.
For a show that only involves two people, this is also an impressive showcase for director Ryan Polito. Middleditch and Schwartz make full use of the stage, using the physical space between them as jokes almost as much as the words they’re saying. It’s not that they’re running around the auditorium at all times, but the fact that the camera catches them in the sporadic moments when they do start to move helps mark the switches between characters. And like a standup special, there are certain jokes that hit harder with a specific reaction that a wide shot of the stage wouldn’t pick up. This all goes far beyond setting up a few stationary cameras and cutting between them.
Some viewers might not have patience for the times when the two lose track of a growing roster of fictional people within a single room, but the idea of suddenly remembering a character they’d established a half hour ago or mixing up a name or two is sometimes part of the appeal. Mixing the kind of specificity that makes for good improv with Middleditch and Schwartz’s carefree spirit will lead to some points where the pair overshoot their marks. What makes these two so compelling to watch is how they adjust on the fly and make those slip-ups feel baked into the process.
As for the performances, there’s a running vein of friendly gamesmanship that makes this more than two guys throwing out crazy hypotheticals for an hour at a time. There’s a push and pull that lets them connect a new story idea while effectively setting a playful trap for the other. That prankster vibe not only gives the audience something to latch onto outside of these convoluted stories, it underlines Middleditch and Schwartz’s natural chemistry.
These recordings are just a tiny sliver of what these two have performed together in this format in venues nationwide. There are enough moments to show how these two are attuned to each other’s instincts and habits that they can cue one another to help connect two or three or six disparate dots. They also know when to parachute out of any particular interaction when it either isn’t working or when there’s something worth opening up and playing directly to the audience.
Aside from just having the normal trappings of occasional slip-ups, this being a Netflix production adds another knowing layer. Whether it’s in Schwartz warning an audience member that their thinly veiled secret might soon be an internationally known thing or Middleditch suddenly getting conscious of how close one of his fictional characters skews to a known, iconic figure in the comedy world, that extra element helps make this set of specials its own operation. (There’s also one potential minor tech glitch that the two manage to work into their respective characters.)
That hyper-awareness of the Netflix of it all is a prime example of how they’re able to juggle all the demands of a show like this. In some episodes, Polito manages to catch one of the two in a moment of thought as the story wheels start humming. In the heat of the unfolding scene, the fact that either of them can convey a character (or in one case, a well-stocked wet bar) in a few simple movements becomes a wildly entertaining complement to what they’re able to drop into their conversations.
While each of these three specials openly embraces its weirder side, it’s the middle episode, “Law School Magic,” that’s the show in its purest form. Especially when viewed through the expectations the first episode sets up, the split-second impulsive choices to stretch things out even wider than before are the most rewarding of the collection. These two realize that constantly upending things can get repetitive — once they’ve held back for long enough, they sure do pick their spots well.
Most of all, “Middleditch & Schwartz” will probably make you laugh a lot. When they’re giggling at themselves or unable to think of any names that don’t rhyme or pull out an unexpected speaking voice, it’s hard not to follow suit. These two also happen to be wizards at weaving everything together, bringing back a key detail right after the point you forgot about it. Most comedy specials arrive fully formed. “Middleditch & Schwartz” gives you the joy of working things out together.
“Middleditch & Schwartz” is now available to stream on Netflix.