How Ben Schwartz became the singing and dancing life of 'The Afterparty'
When actor Ben Schwartz got an email from “The Afterparty” creator Chris Miller asking him to star in his genre-bending murder mystery set at a high school reunion, he was more than ready to jump on the thrill ride.
“I have been wanting to work with [Phil] Lord and Miller for my entire career,” he says. "Then, I find out that it’s going to be a murder mystery, and that each episode is going to be told through the eyes of one of the characters. Plus, each one is a different genre, and mine is going to be a musical! So I was both excited and terrified."
Schwartz, who is best known for playing Jean-Ralphio Saperstein on “Parks and Recreation,” as well as voicing a colorful list of animated characters, spoke to us on a video call from New Orleans where he’s shooting the Dracula movie “Renfield” with Nicolas Cage and Nicholas Hoult.
So how did you get a handle on Yasper, the fame-hungry musician and audio-visual installation guy?
I saw him as someone who had this dream of being a big musician when he was younger and so he started a band with Xavier [the famous musician and murder victim played by Dave Franco]. He was probably a little bit more talented than Xavier. Then life gets in the way, or he doesn't get his lucky break. But the second he goes to his reunion, he sees Xavier, who has achieved his dream, and he thinks maybe he can help him out.
In a way, it was easy for me to understand him. Growing up, I never thought I was going to be able to act or even know anyone who acted. But when I started doing comedy in 2003, I had this dream of being on a TV show. So it's easy to understand how distorted that vision can get once you start hitting failure over and over again.
You have a strong background in improv. How much were you all allowed to riff?
Chris mapped out the entire limited series. It's kind of remarkable because he had to be aware of everybody's storyline from everyone’s perspective. So when we improvised, he had to make sure it was within the realm of what's supposed to be revealed in that episode. He would let us all go off, and he was particularly kind to me: He would let me go crazy, and I always felt safe because I knew that he would pick the best take. So, yes, there was a lot of improv, but it was always based on the scripts, which were amazing.
Yasper’s episode is a beautifully mounted musical, with catchy songs and backup dancers. How did you manage that?
It was the hardest thing because it didn’t just involve the actors and the 50 dancers — we were all breathing heavily too. But Sony and Apple TV+ did an incredible job. We were tested [for COVID-19] twice a day. Everything that you see us doing, we've already done it three times wearing masks in rehearsal. Then, when they say, "Action," that's when you take off your mask. Our incredible crew and the camera operators were wearing masks and face shields, and they had to be looking through a lens and following me while I ran and danced around. So it was really an incredible ensemble performance by everybody — crew, cast and director.
You’ve mentioned before that “Columbo” was one of your favorite mystery shows. Any other big genre favorites?
I loved “Clue” as a kid because who doesn’t love a murder mystery that is also funny and every character has their own specific funny piece in it? I also think “Knives Out” did an incredible job. One of the cool things that Chris did was he included a puzzle in the background of each episode that had nothing to do with the actual show itself. But you can look for puzzles and figure out who the murderer is by solving those puzzles.
As busy as you are, you're still doing live shows?
[Starting out,] I was performing and nobody was coming! Now, I get to do a show at Carnegie Hall, and it’s bananas! I love the instant gratification of getting a response. I love making people laugh. I love the idea that people are coming in and we’re giving them a show that only exists in that moment.
You’ve had quite a colorful career — doing improv, writing for David Letterman. You even won an Emmy for the song you co-wrote for Hugh Jackman when he hosted the Oscars in 2009! If you could go back in time, what would you tell the teenage Ben?
I would tell my younger version, “Wow, time travel exists!” The thought of making people laugh for a living was such a wild dream. It was almost embarrassing to tell anyone. I didn’t know anyone in the Bronx or Westchester who did this. So I don’t think I’d say anything because that’s part of the reason I worked so hard. Waking up at 5 a.m., writing jokes, working as a page on “Letterman,” taking classes at Upright Citizens Brigade, getting very little sleep.
I worked so hard because I was going to give myself two or three years to figure it out and support myself. So, anxiety-wise, I'd probably tell myself, “Hey, you can chill out, you don't have to worry about everything. Just take a breath every now and then. It’s going to be all right!”
For the record :
1:02 p.m. May 17, 2022 : An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Schwartz wrote for Conan O’Brien.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times .