Ben Schwartz has only been in show business for about 20 years now (not including his high school years as a chorus boy) but he has had a pretty impressive career starting out as a humble improv comedian before ending up playing the most popular blue hedgehog in the world, in addition to other beloved characters.
Schwartz was born in 1981 in the Bronx, New York City in the neighborhood of Riverdale. He first began improvising in 2001 when he attended the private liberal arts college Union College in Schenectady, and in 2003 he became an intern and a bartender at Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York.
The Upright Citizens Brigade is the improv and sketch comedy troupe that was founded in Chicago in 1990 (by a group which included such future comedy stars as Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh and Adam McKay) before they relocated to New York in 1996. When Schwartz interned at the UCB Theater, he absorbed as many of the shows as he could and fell in love with improv, eventually meeting fellow improvisers Gil Ozeri (Happy Endings, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Big Mouth) and Adam Pally (Happy Endings, The Mindy Project) who, together with Schwartz, formed their own improv and sketch group called “Hot Sauce,” frequently performing silly, broad and highly energetic comedy together to successful results, eventually earning an invite to the Montreal Comedy Festival.
Schwartz later improvised a two-man show with Second City alum Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley, B Positive) in 2008 before moving to L.A. the following year, performing at UCBLA for nine years. But after Middleditch moved to L.A., Schwartz and Middleditch continued working together and toured together to bigger crowds and longer shows, eventually selling out Carnegie Hall in 2019 and leading to Netflix buying three specials for a series called Middleditch and Schwartz (2020). The brilliant (and yes, completely improvised) Netflix series was performed by the comedy duo on the stage of New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts and was loved by many viewers and critics, becoming possibly the most universally acclaimed of all of Schwartz’s creations.
This Netflix series was my personal introduction to Schwartz and it was the first time I saw how great he is, but before this the hard-working comedian had grinded in show business for years. In the span of this period he became a page for David Letterman, was a freelance writer for Letterman and the Weekend Update segments of Saturday Night Live, was a writer on Robot Chicken and was even a co-writer for Hugh Jackman’s opening number for the 81st Academy Awards, winning an Emmy in the process for helping make that number.
It would be a while before Schwartz would get firm footing as an actor in the film and television industry after his improv career began, but like many creative people in the YouTube era, he would take advantage of the independence that comes from making a web series and he would star in a few obscure but very funny stuff, such as Bronx World Travelers (which he created, proving Schwartz can not only be funny but he can also write funny), Mayne Street, Jake and Amir (which would become CollegeHumor’s longest-running series) and The Earliest Show (2016), Funny or Die’s series starring Schwartz and Lauren Lapkus as morning show co-hosts. This show was largely improvised and it earned both Schwartz and Lapkus Emmy Award nominations for Short Form Comedy or Drama Series.
Schwartz had his first regular television role on the J.J. Abrams action spy series Undercovers which aired on NBC for a single season in 2010. But he became known by many more viewers as the cocky pickup artist Jean-Ralphio in the NBC mockumentary Parks and Recreation and management consultant Clyde Oberholt in the Showtime series House of Lies. Other major roles would include F. Tony in Steve Carell and Greg Daniels’ sci-fi comedy Space Force on Netflix and the music-loving Yasper in Christopher Miller’s Apple TV+ mystery comedy The Afterparty.
Schwartz would also guest star in popular shows like The Sarah Silverman Program, Arrested Development, Comedy Bang! Bang!, Drunk History, Modern Family and the HBO sketch comedy series Funny or Die Presents featuring the segment “Terrible Decisions” which Schwartz produced.
The first television series featuring Schwartz in a leading role was actually the Disney XD animated series Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja. The highly animated voice of Schwartz would also bring Dewey to life in Disney’s 2017 DuckTales reboot in addition to Leo in Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Lou Tarleton in Marvel’s M.O.D.O.K. and Cody in Fairfax on Prime Video. Animated series which would also feature Schwartz in guest voice roles include Mad, Tron: Uprising, Bob’s Burgers, Robot Chicken, BoJack Horseman, The Simpsons, Animals., Pinky Malinky, Crossing Swords, American Dad!, HouseBroken and Rugrats.
His most famous animated role however is by far Sonic in Jeff Fowler’s 2020 film Sonic the Hedgehog based on the popular video game from Sega. That movie was the most popular Hollywood adaptation of a video game in history and Schwartz’s lead role in the movie now adds video games to the list of mediums where he has earned respect. Schwartz reprised his role as Sonic in the 2022 sequel Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and will hopefully continue to play the role for years to come. I mean Schwartz pretty much makes a perfect Sonic given his energy, speed (you should see him improvise) and experience bringing likable animated characters to life. But I will always be happy to see (or hear) Schwartz wherever he ends up.