'Parks and Recreation': Ben Schwartz's memories of Jean-Ralphio
With “Parks and Recreation” only a few days away from ending, we’ve been running a lot of stories about the show’s history, including Jim O’Heir recalling the strange life of Garry Gergich, and Mike Schur explaining the show’s weird recurring characters and running gags . One of those weirdoes was Jean-Ralphio Saperstein, Tom Haverford’s best friend and a monstrous human being. Earlier this week, I emailed actor Ben Schwartz a few questions about how he got the part, the origin of Jean-Ralphio’s hair, love of singing, and more.
The “Parks” series finale airs Tuesday night at 10 on NBC. Before then, I have one more big interview to publish, plus a look back at what made this one of TV’s best comedies.
Mike said that Jean-Ralphio was born out of you spending an hour in his office and making him realize you were funny enough to come up with a character for. What do you remember about that meeting? What role were you originally there to talk about?
Ben Schwartz: I remember hearing that they were looking for a love interest for Leslie (which I think eventually became Louis CK) and realizing I was too young for it. But they wanted to meet me anyway. I think Mike had seen some short films I did for ESPN and liked them. In the shorts I interviewed professional athletes in a character I came up with who basically was filled with confidence but knew nothing about sports and was stuck with these athletes and had to deal with it. He he probably saw the first few with Nastia Liukin and Tony Gonzalez. It meant a lot to me that Mike liked anything I did because I had been such a huge fan of the shows he had worked on in the past. In the meeting it was just me, Mike Schur and Katie Dippold, who I came up with at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in NY and has gone on to write “The Heat” and the new “Ghostbusters.” I don't remember what we talked about but I remember it being unique and fun for me because it was the first time I was in the room for something and there were no sides, nothing to memorize. We were just talking. The show had just started it's second season. I don't know if this timeline is right, but I think that's when Mike talked to me about how they wanted to populate the town with fun side characters, like “The Simpsons,” and would keep me in mind if anything came up. But we never talked about an actual role. It was just to meet me and chat. Later on, my very first episode was written by Katie. Mike came down to watch the rehearsal and the second I was done he came up to me and told me I'd be coming back. Insane.
Once they came up with the character, what were you told about him, and how did you decide to play him? Did you model him on anyone you know?
Ben Schwartz: I don't remember exactly what I was told. I think maybe that he was Tom's best friend. I didn't model him after anyone I knew but the second I read the sides, I knew how I wanted to play him. There is actual a crazy story at how it began. I of course wanted to do anything in “Parks.” I loved the show, the creators and all of the actors in it, many of which came through the UCB Theatre in NY. I was an intern for the UCB on Sundays to get free classes, so I had the insane privilege of watching Amy Poehler perform in Asssscat every week and it blew my mind. She is so incredibly talented and wonderful, so the fact that I was going to be on the same show as her made it feel like a wonderful full circle. I had no idea at the time but someone at “Parks” contacted my agent to offer me the role of Jean-Ralphio but I guess my agent wasn't in and an assistant answered the phone and then for some insane reason the assistant turned down the role without even contacting me. I knew nothing about this until a writer from the show contacted me personally and said, we're super bummed you are passing on the role. I quickly told them I had no idea what they were talking about and whatever the role was I'm in and can't wait. I said yes without even reading it and I was horrified that anyone at that show would think I would pass on any role. It was quickly cleared up, probably a miscommunication and they sent me the sides for Jean-Ralphio which was just one scene where Ron interviews JR to be his new assistant. It was a part of a larger montage and that was it. I was so excited that I got to be in an episode of the show.
Was your hair naturally that big at the time, or did you work with the “Parks” hair people to make it that particularly Jean-Ralphio coiff?
Ben Schwartz: I never grew out my hair when I lived in NY but when I moved to LA, I let it grow out because I was doing a lot of writing, didn't have a ton of auditions yet and I didn't know where I should get it cut. The first time I realized I should keep it big was when I auditioned for a Mitch Hurwitz pilot which I eventually got the role in. I got into the audition for Mitch and Allison Jones (who cast everything including “The Office” and the pilot of “Parks”) and my hair was huge, just a mess and I apologized for it and told him I'd get it cut and Mitch said don't you dare cut that thing. It made me realize that maybe I should keep growing it out, it might help me stand out a little. When I came to “Parks,” it was a still huge and I went to hair and make up excited to get a free haircut and I heard that Mike didn't want me cutting it at all. He loved how insane it looked, so I just did the scene with what looks like a small Jewish dog on my head. After that, anytime I did an episode of “Parks” the hair team and I would have the best time thinking of new, insane ways to make my hair look crazy. There was one episode where every single scene I had a completely different hair style. It got a little hard when I was shooting the TV show “Undercovers” at the same time because my hair was short in that show.