The first time Ben Schwartz made money being creative, it came from scamming the Internet. Back in college, he and a friend found a website where members review items like sneakers and cars–and receive ten cents whenever anyone else “checks” them. The two created 15 names apiece, and started checking each other’s entries for little more than pocket change. Schwartz also branched out, though, and wrote some wildly eccentric reviews that earned lots of actual checks, racking up a couple hundred bucks before the site caught on. What he couldn’t have known then was that soon enough he’d make a career out of writing funny stuff, building an audience, and pretending to be other people.
In the past decade, Schwartz has gone from being a page at Late Show With David Letterman to starring in the Showtime series House of Lies and writing screenplays for Seth Rogen and Anchorman director Adam McKay. His pathway to show business was paved with the kind of hard work that’s frowned upon by his breakout character, the lovably incompetent Jean-Ralphio from Parks and Recreation. With acting in mind from the start, the Upright Citizens Brigade-groomed improviser had to navigate through the world of commercials, novelty books, and failed pilots in order to get here.
Although he’s had roles in many films before, Schwartz has never been in as pedigreed cinematic company as he is in This Is Where I Leave You, which opens September 19. The ensemble dramedy stars Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, and Connie Britton, who all know a thing or two about gaining traction on TV. (As do Jane Fonda, Rose Byrne, and Timothy Olyphant, who round out the cast.) As the movie hits theaters, and House of Lies gears up for a fourth season, Schwartz talked to Co.Create about balancing writing and acting jobs, and the respective merits of the wrong hair and the right letterhead.
After college, Schwartz surrounded himself with entertainment and comedy. He took improv classes and became a page at David Letterman, hoping to become funny enough to be discoverable.
“One day I learned this other page was gonna freelance jokes for Letterman,” he says. “The way that works is you write a bunch of jokes and you only get paid if one gets on. I asked for the same opportunity, they said no a couple times in row and then finally they’re like ‘Send in some jokes.’ So I did, and they thought they were funny. Eventually I got one on, and soon after that I got a bunch on. It ended up being like 20 jokes.
Dave has a specific rhythm and learning how to write jokes for it was such a training ground. Every morning I wrote 15 jokes, no matter what. Even if I couldn’t think of anything, I made sure I had 15 jokes–I had to fill up the page or else I wouldn’t be happy. And that was back in the day when jokes had to be faxed in. I had to buy a fax machine and a landline just to send in the jokes. Any time I got paid, it was just to pay off things I had to buy just to be able to do it.”
Schwartz began getting jokes on Letterman regularly, and through his UCB association with then-SNL cast member, Horatio Sanz, he started getting jokes on SNL’s Weekend Update segment too. The only problem was all the jokes that didn’t get on.
“I wished there was a way for people outside of the 30 to 100 people that watched us perform at UCB to see what I was capable of,” Schwartz says. “So I thought about using the jokes that didn’t make it. I was going to write them out as blog entries–this was before Twitter–but then I thought nobody would care. So I started filming myself doing them in front of no audience, and bombing, and that became RejectedJokes.com. It was a good way to get comfortable on camera, and a perfect bridge to making short films. The first one I made was called ‘Cheating.’ Somebody stole that one, took my name off it, posted it on her website, and it got 10 million views. My name wasn’t even on it, but everybody saw my face, and I kept doing videos and getting more and more attention for them.”
Schwartz had been writing a lot of sketches at UCB with Adam Pally and Gil Ozeri (the three formed one of the only sketch groups ever asked to perform at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal), and making short films for websites Super Deluxe and CollegeHumor. Eventually, he heard about an opportunity that would put his sketch writing skills to use.
“Nobody wanted to represent me for writing yet,” Schwartz says. “I had a commercial agent, though, so I went to a writing agent at my agency, and I said “I think there’s a job opening at [animated sketch show] Robot Chicken and all I need is your letterhead so I can send some stuff over to them. If I get the job I’ll give you 10%.” So the woman was very nice and she said okay, but she also made it clear that this didn’t mean they were representing me. We sent out some short films and jokes and sketches, and she goes ‘Holy shit, the Robot Chicken guys loved it.’ They wanted me to come to L.A. and meet Seth [Green, co-creator of Robot Chicken]. He really liked me, and so I booked the job. When I got back to the agency, that agent said, ‘Okay, you of course have to sign the paperwork with our company.’ I was like ‘No, no, no. You said that you wouldn’t represent me.’ And she was like, ‘Oh, I don’t remember saying that.’ I did sign with them and gave them the percentage for Robot Chicken, but I ended up switching agencies not too long after.”
As he established himself as a writer, Schwartz focused less on acting–something he’d been passionate about since the beginning. He was booking commercials, but not auditioning for much more otherwise. If he didn’t start acting soon, he never would.
“I got an offer to write for The Sarah Silverman Program at the same exact time as pilot season was beginning that year,” Schwartz says. “That was the moment I had to figure out, ‘What do I really want to do?’ Because if I try acting, there’s going to be some failure, but right now I have maybe a job on my hands. I had no money back then, so it was really hard to say no to a job. It was a big conversation I had with my parents and my manager and we ultimately decided that if I really want to act, I gotta really go after it. So I moved to LA and went after acting instead of writing, and that first year I lucked out and got an independent movie, a TV show that never made it to air, and I got hired to write for the Oscars. I landed in this place where I was able to juggle both acting and writing because I didn’t take a staff writing job on a TV show that would occupy all my time.”
Although the pilot he worked on with Mitch Hurwitz didn’t get picked up, Ben’s appearance as an offbeat interviewer one year during ESPN’s ESPY Awards inspired Parks and Recreation creator Mike Schur to have him read for a part on the show. It would end up being his breakout role, and perhaps the character he is most known for.
“I got an email about Parks and Rec, and I went to meet with [writer] Katie Dippold and Mike Schur,” Schwartz says. “The audition was for the character Louis CK ended up playing, a love interest for Amy [Poehler]. I was too young for the role, but Mike said if they find something here or there, they’d like to put me in the world of Pawnee somewhere. Then I got a call that there’s a role that may come back: Tom’s friend Jean-Ralphio. The second they said the name, I’m like, ‘I’ll do anything, of course.’
Prior to that, my hair was crazy. I’d been working with Mitch Hurwitz on a pilot, and I mentioned needing to get a haircut. But he’s like, ‘No, no, no, you will not touch that hair.’ So because that went well and I thought it made me stand out more, I was like, ‘Fuck it, I’m gonna keep it for auditions.’ So I go to Parks and we’re about to film my one-and-a-half pages of trying to be Ron [Swanson]’s assistant. Mike Schur comes down, wanting to see how I’m gonna play it, and he just fell in love with my hair. I did Jean-Ralphio once and Mike goes, ‘We’re gonna be bringing you back, that was amazing.’ And it was the best I’d ever felt in my entire life.”
As of now, Schwartz has written and sold three screenplays to studios, including a Soapdish remake at Paramount, which landed him on the coveted Black List. His screenwriting career began in earnest, though, after his Emmy Award-winning work writing for the Oscars earned him a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“I had a meeting with Brian Grazer and he threw out literally just a sentence of an idea,” Schwartz says. “I knew I’d never have another meeting with him again, so I go, ‘Oh this is what I would do with that.’ And I pitched him an entire movie on the spot. I improvised the entire story off of his one sentence. He loved it and then I fleshed it out more with his company. We went out and pitched it to Universal and they bought it and that was the first pitch I ever sold.
I get passionate about the things I’m working on. I’m still excited about all this shit. So when I’m pitching, I go for it. If you’re a performer, those pitches come easier because you’re comfortable on stage, you’re comfortable explaining things and you’re a storyteller. You try to do bits and show people the comedy in the script as well as the character dynamics, and make those as funny as you can. I think also one of the biggest things is that if you’re trying to sell your project to someone and they have an idea for it–include that in your pitch. You want to show that you can work with anybody. Think about it for a second and see how you can make that work.”
At a certain point, Schwartz began having fewer troubles finding work than he did simply staying healthy. He worked so much for a while that he ended up coming down with strep-pneumonia. Recently, though, his career has been a study in balances.
“Any time I’m not acting, I’m writing–always, always,” Schwartz says. “Because everybody else in the fucking world works every day, why shouldn’t we? I was doing a movie in Montreal recently, but I knew I’d only be working a certain amount of dates and I’d have to be on hold other days with nothing to do in Montreal. So I wrote the bulk of an outline up there on those days off.
Most of the time, though, I no longer allow myself to work on the weekends–depending on if there’s a deadline. You’ve gotta leave yourself time to try new things or go to the zoo or date ladies or whatever it is. If all you do is work, you have no time to live your life. You’ve gotta take a breather to let your body heal. Like when Wolverine gets stabbed and he has to heal himself. (Sorry. I’m so sorry I said that.)”