As a master of hyper fixation, I recently fell down a rabbit hole of actor and comedian Ben Schwartz’s filmography. In May 2020, I started to watch hours of his best work ranging from “Parks and Recreation” to “Sonic the Hedgehog.” After learning more about his background in improvisational theater, I set my first post-vaccination goal: to watch him perform live.
On Sept. 4, my dream finally came true when I arrived at the Largo Theater in Los Angeles to view his new live show “Ben Schwartz. Friends. Improv.” Ultimately, the production exceeded my expectations and provided an abundance of hope for the return of live comedy after a 16 month-long intermission.
Upon arrival, my experience at the theater was immediately one of comfort and security, as audience members were required to provide proof of their completed vaccination against COVID-19 or a negative test for the virus within 48 hours, in addition, to properly wearing a mask.
After these conditions were met, patrons were allowed entry and I was able to admire the vacant stage from my vicinal seat. When Schwartz ran onstage a few minutes later, the energy increased exponentially, and the applause that followed seemed unending. He proceeded to introduce his surprise guests: Jessica McKenna, Drew Tarver and Ryan Gaul.
They took a moment to explain the logistics of the show. The group would have a conversation with an audience member, then completely improvise characters and storylines around their discussion for about an hour, allowing for an entirely unique show every night. At Saturday’s performance, the selected participant’s charming anecdotes revolved around her memories with her mother, her favorite kind of spaghetti and the time she held a million dollars. Once the short stories were completed, it was time for the show to officially begin.
Without even a second to think, McKenna kicked off the first scene, playing a child who felt she could no longer relate to her friends because she had recently held one million dollars, immediately referencing the previously shared story. The rest of the team jumped in quickly, developing a plotline in which her group of friends devised several hilarious plans to hold the money for themselves and return as a changed person.
I was instantly impressed by their ability to build such a captivating narrative on the spot, and soon realized that amazement would be the theme of the night. The improvisers were able to create unforgettable moments out of unconventional events, bouncing back quickly from blunders that would likely throw off other performers.
For instance, in the middle of a scene about a boy introducing his girlfriend to his discourteous mother, Gaul shouted into a microphone onstage and nearly damaged it with a piercing sound. Instead of panicking, the others quickly recovered by joking that the noise derived from a doorbell they had been dying to get fixed.
This small mishap ended up leading to an entirely new scene in which Schwartz went doorbell shopping, listening to a multitude of humorous jingles sung backstage by McKenna. Their adaptability was once again remarkable, and the audience’s rapturous laughter proved that their bold approach was the right move.
To conclude the night of entertainment, Schwartz initiated one final scene, astounding me with his witty humor for what felt like the thousandth time that evening. Creating the ultimate callback, he prepared his fellow performers for a game show called “America’s Next Top Ding-Dong” in which competitors had to present a fun and recognizable doorbell jingle with their voice, similar to what McKenna had done in the previously referenced scene.
To place the cherry on top, Schwartz announced the winner’s grand prize: the ability to hold one million dollars. The song-filled scene continued to captivate the audience, and I chuckled as I considered the true absurdity of the entire event. Regardless, by the time the competition had concluded and the group had wished us a good night, I realized that was easily one of the coolest experiences I had ever had in my lifetime.
The sheer talent and intelligence needed to present an outstanding performance of this level off of a brief conversation simply blew me away. Schwartz and his friends gave us a brilliantly wacky show that could quite literally never be replicated. There was truly never a dull moment as I spent the entirety of the evening either dying of laughter or greatly anticipating a performer’s next move.
It meant a lot to have experienced these memorable moments live and share my emotional responses with others after enduring a long year of isolated entertainment. This was an incredibly bright way to return to live comedy, and even the world, after an unprecedented time of darkness.
Schwartz announced that he plans on conducting these shows on the first Saturday of every month, so I highly recommend seizing the opportunity to catch this unique event if you are given the chance. I had hoped to achieve this goal for a while, and I was gifted with an unforgettably glorious, wildly entertaining night that transcended my original expectations.