There is nothing more excruciating than watching bad improv. But the joy of improv is that the same thing will never happen again—even if things go really haywire, it can be left behind in that blackbox theater with the possibility of greatness the next time around, wiping a bad set clean. Perhaps that’s why it’s an art that’s rarely committed to film in its most basic form, mostly existing in our public consciousness as something that sitcom actors and Christopher Guest characters are allowed to do on set. Even then, it might be rehearsed or tweaked or left on the cutting room floor altogether. Depending on the audience, the suggestions, and the way the performers vibe on any particular night, it could be a huge risk to say, sell a live improv special to Netflix. It’s a risk that Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz were willing to take, and thankfully their three-episode special is an example of improv at its absolute best.
Even the two comedians acknowledge how rare their undertaking is, opening up one of the episodes by saying, “What we usually say, and what I almost said was, this show exists in this moment for just us and nobody else, but that is very different today.” Middleditch & Schwartz is a perfect storm of eccentric audience members, well-timed improv, and charm that instantly draws viewers in and makes them really feel like they’re a part of something. It’s an impressive enough feat for two people on an empty stage to be able to successfully play to thousands of audience members, as the duo had been doing on their live tours. But to be able to maintain that energy and project it through a screen is magnificent to watch.
It’s possible in part because Middleditch and Schwartz are over-the-top performers, more often than not making the largest choices possible. Each episode tackles a different subject, following one story and multiple characters over the course of 45 minutes. The topics are simple enough—a wedding, law school, and a dream job—but the two manage to avoid clichés while drawing inspiration from these common improv suggestions. Things start out grounded in reality, often built on a somewhat emotional concept, but Middleditch and Schwartz aren’t afraid to completely let go and let things get as weird as possible. They use loud, wacky voices; they double-down on outlandish premises involving ghosts, incels, and aliens; and they race around the stage, hopping on top of chairs and each other, physically filling the space every step of the way.
But even at their silliest and loudest, the pair are committed to character building and storytelling. That’s immediately shown in the care they take interviewing audience members at the top of each episode. They know the key is in the details, whether that involves picking out the funniest but seemingly innocuous specifics from audience stories—like the fact that one person cannot stop mentioning that they’re from Maryland—or maintaining the subtle difference between the multiple characters they each play in every scene, often switching who plays whom.
There are a few moments when the pair stumbles, stuttering while trying to remember details from the scene before. But instead of being cringeworthy or taking the story down, those moments become some of the funniest—like when Middleditch catches himself miming both a bowtie and a long tie, taking a beat to make fun of himself with a laugh or when members of the audience are called upon to recall characters’ names said at the beginning of scene and forgotten by Middleditch and Schwartz onstage mere moments later. Those moments in some ways offer a masterclass in improv, highlighting the little things, like quick thinking and attention to detail, that define great examples of the genre.
At the core of the very premise of the special is the relationship between Middleditch and Schwartz, and it’s a combination of their ease with each other and their ability to challenge and push each other in a scene that makes their improv exceptionally exciting to watch. Just as often as they are perfectly aligned and anticipating each other’s next move, they’re surprising each other on stage, sometimes eliciting a laugh or gasp from the other performer, and always leading into the next elevated and hilarious bit. Above all, it’s clear these two trust each other to put on the best show they can, and are having the time of their lives being on stage together. The result is three episodes that are a shining example of the control and creativity that leads to improv so impressive, it feels as though it must have been written, but with enough spontaneity and stifled giggles to remind the audience that they’re witnessing something completely original. But unlike live improv, these are now moments that can be relived again and again.