As the coronavirus shutdown orders started to come down last month, Thomas Middleditch escaped Los Angeles for his vacation home at Big Bear Lake a couple of hours east of the city, where he has mostly been avoiding the news and playing video games. “It felt like a good place to be,” he tells me on this week’s episode The Last Laugh podcast.
After six seasons embodying an iconically awkward tech nerd on HBO’s Silicon Valley, the Emmy-nominated actor is ready to pull off another escape—and prove to the world he’s more than Richard Hendricks.
Middleditch had just finished shooting the CBS pilot B Positive—created by Chuck Lorre of Two and Half Men and The Big Bang Theory fame—and was about to head out onto the road with his longtime comedy partner Ben Schwartz for a series of live two-man improv shows when the coronavirus crisis forced them to cancel all of their upcoming dates. Fortunately, as of last week, fans can stream three new fully-improvised Middleditch & Schwartz specials on Netflix.
The pair first met over a decade ago in New York where they were both trying to make it in the improv comedy scene.
“Ben and I thought each other were pretty funny and just ended up hanging out,” Middleditch says. They performed together for the first time at an Upright Citizens Brigade show called “School Night” that started around 11 p.m. on Wednesdays. “We’d just get up and do crazy, fast-paced nonsense improv for like eight minutes,” he recalls. Last year, they played Carnegie Hall.
Middleditch describes the specials as 90 percent improv, 10 percent vaudeville act, where they frequently “break the fourth wall and just fuck with each other.”
“We basically improvise for an hour straight,” Schwartz told me when he appeared on the podcast earlier this year. “We tell a full story and play every single character. You never know what it’s going to be and that’s why selling it was so difficult.”
They pitched the idea “everywhere,” but Netflix was the most receptive. “And by the way, they’re not perfect shows,” Schwartz added. “There are some that work really well and some that are fucking bananas crazy and some that are slower. So we just put them up there and let people see what improv is.”
“There’s only one other brain that has to latch on to what you’re thinking,” Middleditch says of their unique two-man operation. And unlike with larger improv groups, there’s no waiting around to jump into a scene. “I like that,” he adds. “It doesn’t allow me the chance to rest.”
Speaking via Zoom from that house in Big Bear, Middleditch reflects on his early days of improv comedy, examines the “defining” role of his career and looks ahead to what’s next. He also expresses regret over an interview with Playboy last fall in which he may have revealed a bit too much about his personal life.
Highlights from our conversation are below and you can listen to the whole thing right now by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.
On the challenges of capturing live improv on screen
“At this point, I don’t want to say mission accomplished, like we did it! I certainly had some analysis going into it, I think we both did, of like, these are some things to avoid, these are some things to make sure we have. We wanted to make sure we had a ton of cameras so everything would be captured. We wanted to make sure it felt big, like it wasn’t just done in a hundred-seat theater. This is a comedy special. There’s a big crowd out there. We will find out if the way we’ve done it is easier to digest for people who don’t know improv or someone who is just waiting for an improv comedy special to suck.”
On proving he can do more than play Richard Hendricks on ‘Silicon Valley’
“There are lots of people not realizing that I’m playing a character. I’m excited that anyone could be like, ‘Whoa, Richard Hendricks does all these weird characters.’ That’s exciting to me. As an actor if you get one of those roles that feel defining in some way—or pigeonholing or boxing—you’re always eager to show the other aspects of yourself. I feel like these [Middleditch & Schwartz] specials are a more true version of my comedic self than anything else.”
On the reaction to his ‘Playboy’ interview about how swinging ‘saved his marriage’
“To be honest, it’s a thing I wish I could take back. It was poor execution. But I’ve learned to keep things a little more close to the chest. It was a painful [learning experience], to be honest. So I think the best thing I can do is just move on. I wasn’t expecting it. It’s disheartening. It’s embarrassing. And it’s changed my relationship with the media and what I think about it.”
On his day shooting guns with Alex Jones
“It was weird in the sense that that day he was an incredibly generous person. He had the amount of energy that I thought only coke heads had. It was so intense. But he was super nice. We shot this massive gun where each round is like $200 or something. It was so bizarre. But I actually thought he was a really nice guy, which makes me wonder what his whole InfoWars thing is, if he believes it or not. It’s a shame either way. It’s a shame if he believes Sandy Hook was an inside job and it’s tremendously off-putting if he doesn’t and he’s just saying it to sell protein powder.”
On playing Dwight Schrute’s brother on a potential spinoff of ‘The Office’ called ‘The Farm’
“I don’t think I was placing too much faith in it. Because it sort of felt like they themselves were like, ‘Well, we’ll try it.’ And then I saw the episode and saw how little of the potential new show they used. And just how much they made it look like a normal episode, I was like, yeah… It also felt so weird because, how many seasons was that show? And the very last one they’re finally learning about Dwight’s brother? It felt weird.”