In April, Netflix posted a series of three comedy specials from Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz. These names may be familiar to you. Middleditch is best known for his starring role in the recently-concluded HBO series, Silicon Valley, as well as a slew of other, smaller parts. Schwartz, meanwhile, is known for roles in Parks and Recreation (I maintain that his Jean-Ralphio is the highlight of every episode he appears in), the Sonic the Hedgehog movie, and lots more. I was aware that both men had a background in improvisational comedy, but was not aware that they’d been doing a stage show together for some time. Three of these shows were filmed for Netflix and comprise the series, Middleditch and Schwartz. Here’s a trailer for the show:
But why, you ask, would I be talking about this on a blog that is generally about games? Well, we’ve previously had a guest article written about the GM-less roleplaying game, Fiasco:
Fiasco is a simples game that focuses heavily on story over rules. This is how RPGs should be – heavy on narrative, light on crunch – as far as I’m concerned. Fiasco is broken up into a number (number of players multiplied by four, split into two halves) of scenes, each of which will go particularly well or especially badly for one or more players. As the game progresses, as story develops, hopefully in the vein of a Cohen Brothers movie. It should feature a caper, which could be elaborate or mundane, which will inevitably either fail or take some interesting and probably unfortunate turns.
We’ve actually played a fair bit of this game on Lockdown, at least at the start of it, and with the help of a friend who understands Roll20 far better than I, I was able to put together a Fiasco board that can be used to facilitate a game:
Using this board, I’ve not played way more Fiasco online that I ever did in person. I’ve had amazing games, I’ve had strange games, and I’ve had games that have taken some very unexpected turns. What I have not had is a boring one.
At its core, Fiasco is a vehicle for improv. You are taking on a character as your core identity in the game, but you will also likely play a number of smaller, bit-parts in other people’s scenes. This brings us back to Middleditch and Schwartz.
At the start of each show, Middleditch and Schwartz talk to the audience. They ask about an event coming up that they are particularly looking forward to or dreading. They probe with further questions, teasing out details. As an example, the second episode (Lawschool Magic) sees them speak to a law student nearing the end of her first semester. They establish that she attends Widener at Harrisburg. She describes a couple of her professors and classmates. She also describes her family situation, juggling law school, work, and two sons. She talks about their love of Magic: the Gathering and also slips in the fact that there may be aliens in Harrisburg. This takes up the first seven minutes of a 50 minute show and sets everything up. All of these elements are woven into the story that Middleditch and Schwarts make up on the spot. I’ll return to this episode a little later when I look at another aspect of Fiasco and how it reflected in the show.
In Fiasco, the group has a similar conversation. Instead of looking to a live audience for a scenario, the players choose a playset. There are a ton of these available. Some are published in printed anthologies and many, many, many more are available on a dedicated website.
Once a playset is chosen, it’s time to talk, roll some dice, and consult some tables. The tables contain a number of different options for relationships between characters, possible locations, important items, and the like. These are all important points that players should use to guide their game and can provide reassuring prompts to fall back on so that not every single thing is created from scratch by the players. This is the equivalent of the discussion with the audience that Middleditch and Schwartz use at the start of each of their shows.
Now, it’s not just at the start of the game that Fiasco players consult tables. Halfway through, there’s also the Tilt. The Tilt is that part in the story where things get shaken up. The heist goes wrong, someone is betrayed, a grave error is made, or the like. In many cases, it’s where the shit hits the fan.
Sorry, I just love that GIF.
Obviously there’s no table, nor a set event that changes the course in a Middleditch and Schwartz show, but in that second episode, Lawschool Magic, there is a single point that fundamentally takes the story off in a very different direction. I don’t want to go into detail on this event as it is very funny in the context of the show, but suffice to say it is a reference to the mention of aliens from the original audience discussion and really comes out of nowhere, giving the story a darker, stranger feel. This is the same effect that Fiasco’s Tile looks to create.
So far my focus has been on the mechanisms of Fiasco – the rules of the game itself and how they are reflected in the processes carried out by Middleditch and Schwartz. The most important thinges to take away from this show, however, is that it funadementally a masterclass in Improv. This has been something that has been discussed a lot in the RPG community in recent years with the popularity of more freeform games like Fiasco and the release of books like Evil Hat’s Improv for Gamers:
Most improv that we see on TV tends to be sketch-length stuff, but I love that these shows are long-form. Each story has, in the same way as a game of Fiasco, a definite beginning, middle and end. There’s very little downtime and the two performers are clearly comfortable in working with one another.
The most important thing to me is not their proficiency and talent, however. I love their mistakes. There are moments when they break character, either because they find themselves laughing at the situation being presented, or because they’ve lost track of the story or characters – easily done when you’re each plying several characters and overlapping each other. The reason I love these mistakes is that they are just so natural and they are handled so well. There’s a brief acknowledgement or clarifcation and then the performers move on. It was a funny moment, which was taken well and then the story continues.
This comes back to the fact that new players and potential players are so afraid of making mistakes in Fiasco. The thing is, I’ve never played a game of Fiasco, whether with new or experienced players, where there have been no mistakes, or no need for a quick clarification, or just someone tripping over their words. This is fine. I’d hope that anyone watching Middleditch and Schwartz, two performers that have truly mastered their craft, would see these mistakes, and see how they can not only be moved on from, but be embraced and enjoyed.
In the future, I think that I would direct anyone who is considering joining us for a game of Fiasco to watch an episode of Middleditch and Schwartz. The tone is right for Fiasco, the humour is fantastic, the errors and humanising, relatable and reassuring, and it’s just a damn good show. These are also the best comedy specials that Netflix has put out, and they’ve put out a few good ones before. They’ve put out a lot of bad ones, too. If you’re interested in Fiasco and are keen to learn about long-form improv, pop over to Netflix and watch the three shows. If you just like comedy, it’s also very worthwhile.