With Funny or Die’s The Earliest Show, Parks and Recreation alum Ben Schwartz finds himself amongst a venerable group of comedians venturing out as creators in the short-form space, though for Schwartz in particular, this is nothing new.
A well-known presence at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and other venues around Los Angeles, who has sold a series of scripts in between notable turns in film and television, Schwartz started out by building his own online platform—Rejected Jokes—cutting his teeth by creating over 100 shorts for sites including Super Deluxe, College Humor, and—yes—Funny or Die.
Overwhelmed by the notion that a short-form comedic project made by a group of friends can now become a part of the awards conversation, Schwartz spoke with Deadline about finding his voice as a comedian and content creator, and the opportunities short-form content has afforded him.
How did The Earliest Show come about?
I was shooting something in London, and I got a call from Funny or Die—they said, “We have this idea where we want to do a late-night talk show type thing.” Cap’n Crunch was going to finance it. I was like, “What if it’s the earliest show, very early in the morning, and something happens to me in the first episode which messes up every episode after it?”
I was like, “What if I got broken up with, and then I go through all the stages of grief, and then beside me is Lauren Lapkus, a co-host who has to pretend that everything is fine at all times?” Because those cheery, early morning talk shows are like that.
Funny or Die was like, “Okay, fine. Let’s do that.” That’s literally how the whole thing started.
How did that partnership with Cap’n Crunch come about?
My assumption is the Captain got off his boat and was like, “I’m really into web content nowadays.” [laughs] I don’t know. That part was between them and Funny or Die, and they just decided, for the kind of stuff they were doing, that they thought I would be a good face for it.
I’ve always had that idea of something crazy happening at the beginning—seeing someone who is forced to be happy on TV, but them going through some real sh*t while it’s happening. That’s so funny—especially in the context of those shows, you have to pretend you’re happy, so what happens if one of the people is just not for the whole thing?
Was Lauren Lapkus someone you’d crossed paths with in your career, prior to The Earliest Show?
Yes. The other reason why this was a fun thing, and that short-form content is always exciting, is because they give you, truly, all the control. I directed this, I wrote it, I starred in it, and then I got to pick the people that I surround myself with.
I’ve known Lauren for years. We’ve done Asssscat together at Upright Citizens Brigade, and every time I’ve performed with her, regardless of gender, she’s just one of the funniest human beings. So in my head, I was like, Oh, my God. If we could get her, that would be amazing.
Then, we got my friend Joe Hartzler to play the straight man, and slowly you find all these amazing things.
Each episode is 11 to 13 minutes long, so we did over an hour and 20 minutes of content, and then we released an hour-and-ten-minute long blooper reel, because why not?
I was like, I want to outline each episode, and have beats I want to hit, but then I want to be able to improvise because I want it to feel like an early-morning talk show, like people are making it up as we go.
That was it—outlining that whole thing, and getting the funniest people I could think of to surround ourselves with. We lucked out because we got insanely awesome guests throughout the whole thing.
What was the process of getting legitimate guests onboard for a fake talk show?
It’s funny because we’re asking these people before it exists. Now, it would be so easy to send them clips of other people doing it, but what happened was for almost all of them, it was me texting my friends, like Thomas Middleditch, or Pedro Pascal.
I’d be like, “Hey, I’m doing this thing. It’s going to be me and Lauren Lapkus, and we’re going to interview you. You play it totally straight, and we’ll do crazy things, and just react the way you want to react.” I think Jane Levy and Reggie Miller were the two that we didn’t really know beforehand, and they were amazing.
Everybody was so funny, and we had so much content. We would do three 10-minute takes, so we have 30 minutes of stuff for each person, and then we had to find the best two minutes.
On the other end, it’d be getting Betsy Sodaro, like, “Hey, we want to do a segment where it’s a physical fitness person, but I want it to be weird. What if it’s that she lives in a tiny apartment, so all of her training has to take place in a little, tiny apartment?”
We try to find things and put a twist on it—Eugene Cordero playing the cook. There’s so much fun stuff, but it’s literally just getting my friends. Eugene has been in six of my shorts that I’ve directed and acted in, in the past, and Betsy has performed onstage with Lauren and I a bunch of times. Everybody had a blast.
I do a show at UCB called Snowpants, where all the money goes to charity. All the improvisers have been doing it for 10 years, and I get one person who’s never done improv before. It’s one of my favorite things to do. Jane Fonda, or J.J. Abrams, or Blake Griffin, all these people come on and they have so much fun, and they’re so good. It’s fun to see them push, and try things, and be dangerous and out there.
Has the short-form arena always been on your radar, for the opportunities it presents?
For me, the short-form content thing is actually how I started. I started with a website called RejectedJokes.com, and I’ve done over 100 shorts for the internet for College Humor, Funny or Die.
There was an old website called Super Deluxe that was Bob Odenkirk, and Eugene Mirman, and I was one of the creators they asked to do that. I had a series called Bronx World Travelers like 10 years ago, so I’ve always loved the space because, for me, it’s like instant gratification.
In writing, I’ve sold a lot of movies, and they haven’t been made yet—you can wait years before any of those get made, but with this, you have an idea, you get people together, you shoot it, and it can be edited literally days after you’ve shot it, which is so incredible.
For this series, the editors are huge. We were doing so much improv that you could shape the show any way you wanted because we have so many tangents and so many crazy things.
Do you feel that short-form works best for comedic material?
I think it works great in comedy, but I think it can work great in drama, as well. I just think that what we’ve seen, or what I’m accustomed to, is more comedic shorts, because you can hit that joke, get in and get out, or create a character and follow it.
The real freedom and joy is that I can kind of go bananas—the thing exactly in my head, without getting a billion notes from people, I can put in front of people and be like, “Do you think this is funny?”
Was it a challenge to execute a multi-cam production involving a lot of improvisation, from a behind-the-scenes perspective?
I had a great DP named Andy, and I had this person that built our set, Lauren—two incredible people that I’ve used on other shorts. I went to Andy and said, “This is going to be boring for you, but I need the cameramen to be bored like they do this show every single day.”
We watched every morning show together—we would see clips from Live! with Kelly, or whatever. We wanted to be like, These people have done it every day, so that when something weird happens, the cameramen are like, “What? What’s going on?”
We do the same exact camera moves. We do the jib-in like every single show does at the very beginning. We try to make it so all the movements feel exactly the way you expect, and then the content starts to go a little bit awry.
It [was] harder to do comedy in that, just because there’s no laugh track, but it made it so fun because the more cameras I have rolling, the easier it is for me to cut to and use any of those improvised moments.
Watching this series, along with your other film and television work, there’s a particular sensibility that comes through. Can you explain how you found your comedic voice?
I don’t know if there’s a moment that I had a light bulb and was like, Oh, I’m this version of a Jewish comedian, but I think improv was a very big part of my learning. I would try stuff, I would fail, and the more you fail, you get a little bit better, and then slowly you get the confidence to take bigger risks on stage and feel like yourself.
I was very fortunate in that I did a lot of short films for College Humor, so I got to fail and do stuff like that until you find your voice, but I was always writing. I was a freelance writer for Letterman’s monologue, and a freelance writer for “Weekend Update,” so I was writing a lot there, and then I wrote for Robot Chicken for five episodes.
Then, I started writing my own stuff. You start leaning into things that feel good or feel like you’re in your little pocket of learning and growing, and then you start wanting to break from that and go over here.
This thing, the first episode has a real dramatic moment between me and my girl breaking up with me. It’s like, comedy, comedy, comedy, and then there’s a real moment that brings you back down so it could set up the realness, so you believe I’m upset for the rest.
I love the idea of playing with those two things, now—doing comedy, then having real dramatic moments within the comedy to be like, Whoa. I often think that laughs come even harder after stuff like that.
What are your plans and goals, looking ahead?
I just wrapped like four movies, so my hope is that they’ll start coming up soon. I sold the book called Things You Should Already Know About Dating, You Fucking Idiot. That comes out in October, and then I finished up some scripts, and I’m having fun doing a week on a show here, or something like that, while I start to figure out what I want to do for my next TV show.
It’s been really fun to have the time to do these independent movies. To play in all these different forms is great.