Ben Schwartz Is Down for Your Weird Sonic Art and Jean-Ralphio Tattoos
I've been hanging out with Ben Schwartz for about half an hour when I start to make it weird. "Esther, is this going to make me uncomfortable?" he asks as I pull up some bizarre Sonic the Hedgehog fan art on my laptop. "Um, some of it might," I respond. Luckily, Schwartz is game.
Schwartz, I have quickly learned, is up for a lot. When he arrives at Thrillist HQ, he's down to take a detour if it means seeing some very small puppies. During our photo shoot, he suggests some prop work, which results in him being wrapped in cellophane in a hot studio.
The reason we're talking Sonic is because Schwartz is voicing the animated super-fast alien hedgehog in the new movie based on the video game character. Sonic the Hedgehog has endured an unusual amount of controversy for a movie of its ilk. When the initial trailer for the movie dropped, Sonic's toothy design became a meme. Instead of just plowing ahead, director Jeff Fowler announced that his team was going back to the drawing board and would be redesigning Sonic for the release. Schwartz is diplomatic about the situation when we talk. He's mostly just excited to be in a big blockbuster based on a property he loves.
My conversation with Schwartz isn't limited to going fast and gold rings. Schwartz is one of the most reliably funny members of the Hollywood comedy universe even beyond Parks and Recreation's Jean-Ralphio. He tours with Silicon Valley's Thomas Middleditch, doing an improv show called Middleditch & Schwartz. His voice peppers animated shows like BoJack Horseman and the DuckTales revival. He's even recently tried his hand at dramedy, appearing alongside Billy Crystal in the indie movie Standing Up, Falling Down. As we talk, we naturally get into the legacy of Jean-Ralphio as his best-loved character, and his upcoming Netflix show Space Force with Steve Carell. I also felt obligated to pepper him with questions about that time he and Sonic co-star Adam Pally took over The Late Late Show five years ago and made one of our favorite episodes of television of the past decade.
Thrillist: How does one get the call saying, "Would you like to be Sonic the Hedgehog?"
Ben Schwartz: So the way that started off was I had a meeting with Tim Miller, who directed Deadpool, about a different project. When I was there, Jeff Fowler had just started to get the offer to direct a possible Sonic movie. They were going to do a test animation of Sonic. So they said, "would you be interested in doing the temp thing? It doesn't mean you're going to get the role if we get it." And I said, "do you know what? Screw it. Let's do it." I'm just a fan of it. Even if it puts me in the running. We did a test, we sold it to Paramount, and they really liked my voice in it. I'm sure there was a moment when they probably went out to super famous people, but for some reason that test really stood out and they really loved the way that I played Sonic. They ended up being like, "let's just let Ben do it." I got very lucky.
One of my favorite clips of you is when you spoke to Larry King about playing Sonic.
Schwartz: Yes! That went viral!
Because it's amazing. And I don't mean to parrot Larry King…
Schwartz: Please do. Now's your time. It has to be a dream for you.
Larry King did go to my shul growing up.
Schwartz: Is that true? Where?
In LA. Anyway, he asked you what your Sonic sounds like. And I did want to ask: How does one play Sonic?
Schwartz: I wanted to play him like an energetic young kid who is just so excited to do things because, in my head and in the film, he has kind of been hiding in a cave and hasn't had the opportunity to interact with anybody. Then imagine if all of a sudden the world is open to you, your bucket list is open to you, anything you want to do. He's just so excited to do it all and so excited to share it with a friend because he had been all by himself. In my head I played it like a little kid that's really excited to do this. I think that lends itself to what his superpower type thing is where he's so fast anyway he'll be talking a mile a minute and he's so excited. They let me improvise. We got to play with the script a lot so I could have some freedom and it made it so much fun.
Did you have a prior relationship to Sonic?
Schwartz: I'm a very big video game nerd. I had a Nintendo and a Super Nintendo. [My friends from PS 24 in Riverdale] had a [Sega] Genesis so I would go over there and play QuackShot and we'd play Sonic and Sonic 2. It's always been something I've always loved. Video games, I've always loved and still do, so when this came up I was like, "Oh man, to make the movie version of this thing that was so popular and I liked so much is great."
Have you kept up with the Sonic fandom? I don't know if you know this, but the Sonic fandom has gotten very weird.
Schwartz: It's amazing. It's incredible. They've been very supportive of me. I know there are like different facets. There's a comic book and a video game and there are different iterations of the cartoon show and there are different people voicing all those iterations. There's Team Sonic Racing and, like, 25 different games and the [Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games], all of that stuff. I haven't watched everything but that is why I was a little bit nervous being like, "I hope they like what I do with the character." But they were so psyched about it, which made me so happy they're being so supportive. It just makes me feel like I'm being embraced by a cool group of people.
Have you dug into the world of Sonic fan art though?
Schwartz: Is it weird?
Yeah. I can pull it up for you.
Schwartz: You came prepared.
There is an internet thing where you can google "'your name' and 'the hedgehog'" and there is probably some sort of Sonic fan art.
Schwartz: My name?
Anyone's name. So I can Google "Esther the Hedgehog."
Schwartz: Do it.
[I Google "Esther the Hedgehog.']
What? So do "Ben the Hedgehog." This is amazing.
So if you want to get weird, there's this.
Schwartz: "Ben the Seesurfint Angel Hedgehog." [Silence as we ogle more hedgehogs.] Sonic has become a huge thing. I mean, it was always a big thing. There's a book called Console Wars. It talks about the birth of Sonic and how much it meant, and Sonic 2 and how much that meant. I'm reading that and I loved that. It was such a big way for Genesis to establish who they are.
An outgrowth of this fan art is…
Schwartz: The "gotta go fast"? The Sanic. I love that.
There's a "Bad Sonic Art" Twitter account.
Schwartz: It's just weird shit? I didn't know about any of that. I knew about Sanic, of course. But I didn't know about a... pregnant...
I don't mean to make you uncomfortable.
Schwartz: No, it's the perfect way to start off an interview.
Just show you weird pictures of Sonic. Speaking of weird pictures…
Schwartz: Speaking of weird pictures and you just hand out weird pictures of yourself. What are you doing? What a weird interview...
Speaking of Sonic's design, let's talk about teethgate. What was your emotional journey with the release of the trailer, people freaking out over the teeth?
Schwartz: I was very excited for the first trailer to come out because no one had seen anything from the movie. The first trailer was such a good way to establish this is not an animated movie, this is a live action movie. So that part was great. And then I think the second trailer -- I actually love the way Sonic looks now. I think Sonic looks great. Not to say anything bad about the first one. But when I saw the second trailer and I was doing ADR for the trailers and stuff I thought, wow, this fits really well with the performance I gave and in my head how this guy acts. But the movie itself isn't changed. They took Sonic and they updated him, but the movie is still the movie. I think this version of Sonic really highlights the movie well. I really dig what they did with it.
Had you seen the first trailer before it went live?
Schwartz: I saw the trailer when I did ADR for it because I have to do the voice for Sonic. There's some stuff that's not in the movie that's in the trailer or vice versa.
It was almost an unprecedented thing. How did you feel about that?
Schwartz: Well, I selfishly am really pleased because the end result was what I saw in my head from the beginning. I don't get to be a part of those conversations. Those are big boy and big girl stuff to talk about, but in my head the fans spoke and whoever makes those decisions, whether it's Paramount, Sega, or whatever, saw it and listened to it. It's still up to them to see how they want to play it. And the fact that they were like, "we actually agree with this, we think that it would help the movie"... how cool. And by the way, that gives those animators another couple of months of work for a job that they were almost done with. I don't know who the people that make those big decisions are, I'm just really am happy with the way it turned out. I saw the movie now that it's finalized and it's just beautiful, it's gorgeous. Now, the people who may have just been concentrating on that, may be able to concentrate on the comedy and the other stuff. And maybe it makes the fans feel like they did truly have an impact on the movie. It's not them and a decision happens, but it's them, Paramount listening and thinking about what to do. I really like what the movie is now, and I like the way it looks a lot.
You've done a lot of voice work, but this is a case where you are playing a cartoon character opposite humans. Were you on set at all?
Schwartz: I was on set for one or two days but I didn't really film anything. I did the script a couple times there and worked on the script a little bit with Jeff [Fowler] and some people. In terms of acting, all my stuff was done in a room by myself and I had one of those cameras on my face and I had the dots on my face, the black dots, so they could capture my emotions. I was tethered to something like The Matrix. Then after that, we did it normally. My interaction was with the actual film. I would see scenes and go back and forth. Or if it wasn't done editing, I got to play and do whatever I want so they could see how they could edit it in.
I'm sure you're almost tired of being asked about Jean-Ralphio. But he's wrapped up in so many people's ideas of you--
Schwartz: It has become a meme.
Is that bizarre to you? People have gotten tattoos of him.
Schwartz: Tattoos were crazy. I feel fortunate that I have a lot of different fans. So there's fans that only know me from the improv world that don't watch the TV stuff. There's fans that are in animation that haven't really watched any of my live action stuff. There's House of Lies people. And then there's Parks and Rec people. I love that I get to intersect with all that, but when I go out, a lot of the times when people want pictures, it's because of Jean-Ralphio. It is crazy to think about that out of the whole series, I'm only in 21 episodes. And I mean, I can't even imagine how much actual time I'm in it. I'm assuming it's under 20 minutes total. I don't know how long I'm in the thing. But I'm so excited that people can have that character so much and they find it funny enough that they dress as him for Halloween. It still blows my mind. I feel so lucky to be a part of that show.
Did you and creator Mike Schur have any conversations about spinning off Jean-Ralphio?
Schwartz: No, I think the one time he talked about it with me he said he was getting a lot of questions during the later seasons, is there anyway you can do a Sapersteins TV show? And he said, "there's a reason why Jean-Ralphio is just in this show a little bit." Too much Jean-Ralphio would be too much for an episode. He kept telling me the little things we would do. Like, I think it would be funny if you just appeared. So there are scenes where I just pop up out of nowhere. He's like, "I think it's so funny that you're just there. You appear like a magic trick almost." Then we started doing such crazy stuff. If you watch the first couple of episodes versus the end of it, my character slowly becomes like a cartoon.
My boss actually was pitching an Ed Grimley-style cartoon for Jean-Ralphio.
Schwartz: Oh my god... there was an Ed Grimley cartoon. Your boss is amazing. I can't believe I remember that cartoon. By the way, that might be the only way to pull off Jean-Ralphio for 22 would be a cartoon.
Or the Beetlejuice cartoon.
Schwartz: Oh my god! "Shop till you freak at the spooky boutique." That's a real quote from the Beetlejuice cartoon.
Your hair got bigger over the years you played Jean-Ralphio. What was the process of teasing it?
Schwartz: I was doing House of Lies at the same time, so I couldn't grow out my hair too big. But then, when I found out I had a Parks episode coming on, I would just not cut my hair for a while. Then I made a decision with the hair people anytime I went in, we would figure out a new hairstyle. I thought that would be so silly if each time my hair was insane. And it started because the first time they called me in my hair was huge, and they were like "just don't cut it." So my hair was insane the first time because that's just what my hair was. It wasn't planned. And they loved it.
This is the fifth anniversary of you and Adam Pally taking over The Late Late Show.
Schwartz: Explain to people what this is, because nobody is going to know what you're talking about.
I've written about it. How did you get the call to do it?
Schwartz: So Pally had gotten offered to guest host The Late Late Show. It was between [Craig] Ferguson, who I love, and [James] Corden, who I love. I've done Corden seven times. I think I'm one of the people who has done that show the most. But they were looking for guest hosts. They were going to film in New York in the [CBS This Morning] Charlie Rose studio, which meant there was no audience. So Pally goes, "Would you come and be like the co-host with me? Would you be my Andy Richter? Because I need someone to play off of, and you and I play off each other so well." I was like, "All right." We didn't even discuss what was going to happen because he and I had done [the UCB show] Hot Sauce for years.
So you didn't prep anything?
Schwartz: No. Literally zero. We get there. And I'm there because I'm a guest on the Late Show with David Letterman. So I'm doing like a bucket list item in my life one day and then the next day was to do this fucking thing. We get there and there's a huge snowstorm so it was hard for them to get guests and all the crew there was ready to leave.
Pally says in the show that the crew was mad.
Schwartz: They weren't mad, but they were not having a ball. We get there, and because there's no audience, nothing lands. We don't get any laughs. It literally felt like we were doing a show for just us. Nobody knew it was on. My friend described it once as: back in the day people would pass around a VHS that had weird shit on it, and this was one of the weird fucking things that was on. It was a weird vibe. Nobody knew what the fuck was going on, and it happened to be a real slot on television. Nobody watched it when it came out. But there was this trickling of, "Did you see what happened? It was this weird great trainwreck of improv and it felt like nothing I've ever seen before." Then slowly the link went around and the link went a little bit viral and people started hearing about it. Then the link got deleted.
CBS doesn't not want people to see this, I guess?
Schwartz: Maybe. It got like erased from existence, like Back to the Future. And then another link got passed down and people were like "what was this?" It's like this weird thing that keeps finding life. I've seen it maybe twice and then I haven't seen it since.
Do you remember your emotion upon finishing it?
Schwartz: Yeah, I was like, "This is a trainwreck. I don't think this will work."
Did anyone from CBS reach out to you afterward?
Schwartz: Nobody. Oh, Nick Bernstein. He was the one who trusted Adam and I to do it. Nick Bernstein's kind of a hero of late night. He's got it and he loved it. Because he was doing something different. This is nothing like anything we've done. And to his credit, he has tried to do like a Hanukkah special with us, a late night thing, or to do it one more time and I don't know if there's been a lot of traction on it. How do you remake something that was such a weird thing?
Pivoting again: What is it like getting to pop up in things that have defined your childhood?
Schwartz: It's very surreal. When I saw Sonic for the first time, it was very emotional. I've been in big movies before but only in very small roles. And this one is me and my voice throughout the whole film. There's that moment you feel emotional because you're playing a character you played as a kid, and also it's like a big old studio movie that my parents, anybody can go see in the theater. It's not like, go see that movie on VOD. I haven't had a ton of opportunities in the past, although recently things have been pretty cool. And to see the first DuckTales episode and to see me talk. To watch the show and see my character talk to Donald Duck and then talk to Scrooge and then sing a Powerline song. Goofy is in this season. All this shit to me, I find it so cool. There's an episode where I talk to Darkwing Duck! That stuff is bananas to me.
Did you get to interact with Jim Carrey, who plays Dr. Robotnik, at all during Sonic?
Schwartz: I met him twice. Once for a press thing and once on set. And I asked him about Ace Ventura.
What was your burning Ace Ventura question?
Schwartz: I just told him how much those movies meant to me. I didn't want to be too sycophantic. We just talked about what the mechanics of that comedy is. You'll see from this movie, man, he is just a force. He can move his face and make you laugh. He doesn't even need to say words. It's unbelievable.
And you've also been sitting courtside at Clippers games with Billy Crystal...
Schwartz: Billy brought me and it happened to be next to Adam Sandler and Kevin Garnett, who are two heroes. It's also crazy that me and Billy are actually good friends and we talk about real life stuff. When he has an extra seat and he's like, "Hey do you want to come?" Like, are you kidding me? My dream of all dreams was to ever sit courtside in my life.
On that subject, I need to ask you about your Patrick Ewing socks.
Schwartz: I'm wearing Patrick Ewing socks. Huge Knicks fan. And this is the era: I'm talking about Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason, Charles Smith, Patrick Ewing, John Starks. I can keep going. You're going to have to transcribe all of this. I am still a huge fan, but now that I live in LA, you have to get the league package to watch the Knicks game, and it just takes so many hours of my life.
You're in Space Force, which is Greg Daniels' Netflix sitcom. How much of it is a response to the Trumpian idea of a Space Force?
Schwartz: It doesn't take place all in space. It's a sixth branch of the military and it's treated as such. You're kind of seeing what it's like to be thrown into this new facet of whatever. How are they going to run it? What are they going to do?
Is it in The Office milieu?
Schwartz: I don't think I'm allowed to talk about what the content is. I think all I can say is that, and that I play a character called "FuckTony" which is like FuckJerry and my last name is Scarapiducci, so kind of like the Mooch. I'm the media advisor. I deal with all of the media that goes on with that facet of the military. With my character, it's like, this is his chance to prove himself so he wants to do something good.
FuckJerry has a controversial reputation in the comedy space.
Schwartz: FuckJerry does? Oh, wow. I thought the Fat Jewish does. They both do? Oh, shit. I don't know much about FuckJerry. But I do know they had something to do with the Fyre Festival promotion, and I think that type of media advising is kind of what they [were going for].
Did you watch the Fyre Festival documentaries to prepare?
Schwartz: I watched the Netflix one, but someone told me Jean-Ralphio is in the Hulu one or something like that. My character is in one of them. But I tried to make [my Space Force character] new and not base it off anybody. The character is nothing like Jean-Ralphio or anything like that. I tried to build this new type thing that's grounded in reality and a guy trying to keep something afloat and trying to keep his image up. So I think it should be fun. But fucking Steve Carell, man. He's so funny. And John Malkovich is so funny in this. I don't know what it's going to look like because I'm not a producer on it. I cannot wait to see it.
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