“Parks and Recreation” star talks about taking risks

In 2003, Ben Schwartz, a recent graduate of  New York’s Union College, donned a suit and tie, printed 25 copies of his resume and strapped on his backpack in preparation for a long day in Manhattan.

Schwartz was on a mission to score a job with MTV, a television network owned by Viacom. However, there were a few challenges in his way. To start, Schwartz did not have an interview with MTV. Nor did he have permission to enter the building on Broadway.


That didn’t stop him.

Ben Schwartz, who discussed risk-taking in his set, took many chances early in his career. Joey Khan/Photography and Digital Editor

Schwartz, pretending to be a frantic interviewee in a rush for a meeting with Viacom, convinced a security guard to grant him access to the elevators. Landing on the wrong floor, he then – in Spanish – convinced a janitor to direct him to where MTV headquarters was located. After sneaking around the building, Schwartz finally located the MTV floor, only to be told by a worker that he was in the wrong place.

Schwartz was at the company president’s office.

“Well, surely he can get me a job,” he joked.

His sense of humor got him all the way to a hiring coordinator’s office, but Schwartz only met heartbreak there.

The hiring coordinator took Schwartz’s resume, opened a drawer and dropped it on top of a mound of other unread resumes. Schwartz never received a call from MTV, he told The Setonian in an exclusive interview. 

However, this wasn’t the end of Schwartz’s career in the entertainment business.

Almost 15 years later on April 18, the “Parks and Recreation” star ran onto the stage in the Main Lounge at Seton Hall University, cheered on by the applause of student fans.

Not shying away from any topic –  except for a request for him to sing like his character, Jean Ralphio Saperstein – Schwartz fueled the comedic vibe in the room by answering questions like what his favorite meme is.

However, underneath all of that hilarity and goofiness, Schwartz had a serious message for the crowd: take risks and be prepared to fail.

Schwartz is most well-known for his portrayals of Saperstein and Clyde Oberholt in Showtime’s “House of Lies.” He was a staff writer for the third season of Adult Swim’s “Robot Chicken” and a freelance monologue writer for Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s Weekend Update segment on Saturday Night Live and the Late Show with David Letterman. Schwartz has also appeared in CollegeHumor sketches and started his own website, RejectedJokes.com.

Wearing a t-shirt printed with a skateboarding Bart Simpson, Schwartz faced the crowd and immediately began answering questions asked by Morgan Tirpak and Emma Tobin, members of the Student Activities Board, which hosted the event.

“It was an unbelievable opportunity to interview Ben. He was so witty and kind and helped to keep both my co-host and I completely at ease,” Tobin, a freshman diplomacy and international relations major, said in an email. “I also had the ability to talk to him both on and off stage which was a great opportunity to connect and learn about the process of writing and being a professional comedian.”

Tobin called Schwartz “down to earth and friendly” and said that he made a “sincere effort” to get to know her and Tirpak before the interview.

The main points Schwartz made during the question and answer presentation focused on the risks that he had to take to become a successful comedian.

“I feel like when I was in college I was very hesitant to take risks,” Schwartz told The Setonian. “And just the idea of learning to take a risk and learning that it’s okay to fail, for me, was really important.”

Schwartz said he became seriously interested in comedy after he joined the Idol Minds improvisation group at his alma mater, where he studied anthropology and psychology. He was first hesitant to join Idol Minds, however, because he was afraid of failure – his ex-girlfriend pushed him to join the program.

“When I was a kid, I always wanted to do (comedy), but I never thought it was real,” Schwartz said. “It was like being an astronaut . . . we didn’t know anybody that was an astronaut. I couldn’t talk to an astronaut, so it was just impossible. Like, ‘Oh, how cool would it be?’ So for me it was the same as being in comedy.”

Before and after graduating college, Schwartz had no idea what he wanted to do with his career.

“For me it was scary because I wanted to know (what would come in the future), I really wanted to have something click in me, but I never thought that it was possible to do what I’m doing now,” Schwartz said. “That’s why I like doing these (events) because maybe someone that’s in my position can see that some people get to do this.”

Schwartz said that risk and failure are something that everyone has to face to achieve their goals.

“I would tell students to take their time. Nothing is ever as good or as bad as it seems. And then breathe,” he said. “I think the idea is to trust that things are going to happen.”

That was exactly the case for Schwartz after he left MTV studios years ago.

Schwartz was stopped as he walked up Broadway, beginning his journey back home. The Late Show with David Letterman was low on audience members and Schwartz was invited in to see the show. While standing in line, Schwartz saw people enrolled in CBS’ page program keeping crowd morale up and helping in any way that they could. He knew that was what he wanted to do, so he found a manager and spoke to him about the job.

“I’d love to help you out, but you’ve got to have a resume,” the manager said.

Schwartz whipped off his backpack and handed the manager 10 copies of his resume. He received a phone call from the manager the next day.

“One of the things I learned is the idea that you have to kind of take a risk,” Schwartz said. “So if you want to take a risk, be okay with failing and learning from it. It’s the idea of maybe going for it, following your gut, taking a risk, failing – because you’re going to fail – learn from that failure and then, you know, do it again and repeat.”

Ashley Turner can be reached at ashley.turner1@student.shu.edu.

Author: Ashley Turner

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