Ben Schwartz might be having the biggest month of his career.
This past weekend, the mega-budget Sonic the Hedgehog movie opened in theaters with the 38-year-old comedian as the voice of the titular character. Starting Friday, you can see him starring opposite his childhood hero Billy Crystal in a small indie film called Standing Up, Falling Down.
Crystal, who delivers some of the best acting of his long career as an alcoholic dermatologist in the dramedy, had his pick of young actors to play Scott, a struggling stand-up comedian who moves back home after a failed stint in Los Angeles. “They gave him a couple of names and he just really connected with my stuff,” Schwartz says, still marveling at his good fortune.
“It was ludicrous, because I’m a huge Billy Crystal fan,” Schwartz tells me on this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast. He grew up watching Crystal host the Oscars and star in movies like City Slickers and Forget Paris, which he loved for its scenes of the actor bantering with real NBA players. “I think When Harry Met Sally is a perfect movie,” he adds.
When Ben met Billy for the first time before shooting the new film, all Schwartz could think at first was, “Oh my god, that’s Billy Crystal.” But as they started talking, the comedy legend became a “human being” and since then they’ve actually become close friends, going to basketball games together and celebrating each other’s birthdays.
To this point, Schwartz, who came up as an improviser at Upright Citizens’ Brigade in New York, is still probably best known for playing Jean-Ralphio on Parks and Recreation—a part he nearly missed out on due to some confusion at his talent agency. But things are only looking up from here, with two projects expected later this year on Netflix and a unique role in the Star Wars universe.
How he chose improv over stand-up comedy
“I went up for the first time at the Boston Comedy Club in New York. I had my jokes. I had just gotten out of college. Because after college, I told my parents, I’m going to try to do this, comedy, and they were very supportive. So I kind of thought, if I can’t pull this off in two years then that’s it. So I pushed hard in every area. I never slept, I did anything I could. And stand-up was the thing that so many of my heroes did. I came in with a bunch of jokes and did very well that first time. But it’s because you have to bring six people. So people were very supportive. After I did that twice, they told me you can come back and you don’t have to bring anybody. And so I waited, I was by myself, I just got out of work, and then I got on stage and I bombed. Like a hard bombed. Like my soul hurt bombed. I apologized to the crowd. And I was doing improv at the same time. And when you fail at improv you fail together. But in stand-up when you fail, you are all alone.”
How he almost missed out on playing Jean-Ralphio on ‘Parks and Rec’
“The story of me getting Jean-Ralphio is actually weird. Someone from Parks had emailed my agent’s assistant at the time. And my agent’s assistant passed without telling me about it. I have no idea what happened. All I know is that [writer] Katie Dippold then emailed me and was like, ‘We’re bummed that you’re not going to do it.’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about?!’ I was like, ‘Whatever it is, I’ll do it, I don’t even care what it is. I love the show, I’ll do whatever you want.’ She said, ‘Oh, we heard you were passing.’ So they sent it to me and it was just a paragraph, but they said there was a chance that it could be more. That’s how it started, but I kept coming back. And I became more and more of a cartoon.”
On writing jokes for C-3PO in ‘The Rise of Skywalker’
“The movie was done but there were segments where J.J. [Abrams] was like, ‘Can we punch up C-3PO a little bit?’ So I got like four or five jokes in that. I would be in the edit room and first I’d watch pieces of the movie. I’d write down my jokes and then I’d record them as voice notes so the editor could plug them in and J.J. could see where they were. And then if J.J. liked it, he would get Anthony Daniels to do it. My favorite one was when they fall down the sand pits, Oscar Isaac’s character is saying, “Finn, are you OK? Rey, are you OK?” And in the shot, C-3PO isn’t saying anything. And he’s the easiest to make voiceover for because his mouth doesn’t move. So I had C-3PO come up and say, ‘You didn’t say my name, but I’m OK.’ It was just perfect.”
On playing an Anthony Scaramucci-inspired character on ‘Space Force’
“It’s inspired by the idea that there’s an actual Space Force that exists. The craziest thing about this show is that we finished filming already and now the actual Space Force will release a picture of their camos and [creator] Greg Daniels is like, why don’t we release our camos? And I realized we’re doing this while it’s happening in real time. We filmed it before they started announcing anything. Steve Carell plays a guy named General Naird, John Malkovich plays a scientist. I play the head of media relations. My name in the show is ‘Fuck Tony Scarapiducci.’ I didn’t really do much research on Anthony Scaramucci because I didn’t want to do an impression. But I did it as if it was one of these guys who always wanted to be the head of a social media thing or the guy who pushed a brand out. And maybe has failed in the past and this is his big chance. But Carell is so funny and it’s a totally different character than he played on The Office. It’s so fucking funny. The show is written so well. And John Malkovich crushes it.”
Next week on The Last Laugh podcast: Creator and star of Better Things, Pamela Adlon.