Vintage Saints and Sinners by Karen Wright Marsh, Free for CAPC Members
In Vintage Saints and Sinners, Karen Wright Marsh manages to emphasize the vast goodness of spiritual giants while also humanizing them.
John Lennon canonized the axiom “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”
At the risk of quibbling with the Walrus, this might be the one time a Lennon lyric is too conservative, too conventional. Under the weight of scrutiny and experience, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans” proves too passive a description of how the years actually unfold. While our predictions and plans often fall through, adulthood comprises our reactions to what happens while we’re busy plotting and preparing for the next big thing.
This dynamic is tested and verified in hilarious, living color by Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz. In their three-episode Netflix run, the duo makes the imperfectly perfect argument that life is neither something that happens to you nor something you control. Life is long-form improv.The life script we would produce with time and a writer’s room would leave out moments that produce hearty laughs, heaving sobs, and the sensations that lie between.
Comedy lovers will recognize the pair from their breakthrough roles. Schwartz delighted and infuriated fans of Parks and Recreation as would-be sidekick Jean-Ralphio Saperstein, the face that launched a thousand GIFs. Middleditch made the most of his turn as Richard on Silicon Valley, earning an Emmy nomination. Pooling their talents, they embark on improvised adventures, trying to keep their stories straight even as they contrive Shakespearean levels of detail.
Each episode begins with a conversation, a call-and-response with a random audience member. The exchange begins as they ask the audience to share something waiting around future’s corner, a prospect producing excitement or dread. These encounters, maybe five minutes in length, prime the comedians’ quick wits as they absorb plot details, character traits, and timelines.
Right away, the pair practices the art of reaction; the back-and-forth with audience ambassadors often ranks among an episode’s funniest moments. In the first installment, Schwartz’s real-time responses to an oddly constructed wedding party yield particular delights. Processing their story, his bewildered expressions underline the inherent absurdities in knowing anyone or doing anything.
Middleditch and Schwartz then catapult into longform variations on a theme. In the first episode—the strongest of the set—the pair stage a wedding, complete with call-backs and context, plot twists lifted from comic books, and supernatural interventions. The story expands and contracts, but the tiniest details produce the greatest laughs.
Miming the act of dressing up, Middleditch accidentally fixes himself both a bowtie and a necktie; fumbling for words, the pair reframes the old-fashioned “objection” portion of a wedding ceremony as the moment the congregation is free to say “something mean”; in the climactic coda, the duo multiplies itself to create a Greek chorus, chanting for the bride to “choose” between two suitors.
Endowing their characters with lovable, laughable idiosyncrasies, Middleditch and Schwartz fix unlikely moments and bizarre catchphrases in viewers’ minds. Middleditch slays as a pint-sized paramour who pines for the bride yet labors not to betray himself. Trying to make casual conversation, he asks the maid of honor if she ever wants to approach the bride, “nice and close,” and “suck out her breath.” Recreating the beginning of the end of their middle-school courtship, he made me laugh harder than I have in months.
In subsequent episodes, Middleditch and Schwartz turn a law school class into a creature feature, somehow binding together references to “There Will Be Blood,” a dizzying game of musical chairs, and a plot point that hinges on a character they clearly forgot about. Trying on tics, the pair turn a mansplaining student from Maryland into a fully formed figure and project a working mom’s experience of balancing classes and children.
The third episode begins with an absurd job interview, then crescendos into a body-swap comedy as two photographer friends interact with a Lorne Michaels–esque character, the editor of the New York Times (whose last name is “Times”) and intentionally broad New York stereotypes before learning a grass-isn’t-always-greener lesson.
Each episode is a marvel of brilliance and perseverance. And yet the errors emerging from the pressure to keep it together qualify as some of the series’ most endearing moments. The pair stops more than once to ensure they have their characters’ names right; they never hesitate to react naturally, honoring each other’s talents with laughter or applause. Facing the clear implications of a scenario of their own making, Middleditch admits, “This is gonna throw a real wrench in the spokes here… I almost don’t want to meet this guy.”
The unpredictability of Middleditch & Schwartz reinforces the truth that we are reactors, not actors. Each of us fancies ourselves the main character in a narrative we control; this brand of comedy chisels away at our myths, revealing our place within an extensive web of friends, strangers, and strange friends. The risks and rewards of Middleditch & Schwartz—and real life—reveal themselves as we abandon the illusion of control, instead embracing the information at hand and instincts within.
Middleditch and Schwartz could take the scenarios they’re given, retreat to a comfortable room and return with a scripted show in hand. With time to brainstorm and polish, perhaps the jokes would land harder and funnier. They would certainly slip up less. But the show would lack the exhilaration that attends thinking on your feet and living in real time.
So many of us would give so much to avoid surprises, to steer clear of the questions Middleditch and Schwartz begin each show with: What waits for you in the near future? What is producing excitement or dread? Already up to speed on the present and the future, we would glide smoothly through our days. Or so we imagine.
But the life script we would produce with time and a writer’s room would leave out moments that produce hearty laughs, heaving sobs, and the sensations that lie between. A life lived on paper leaves little room for learning, for trying, for refining the tendencies which move us along.
Those of us apprenticing in Christlikeness should acutely understand the importance of honing our instincts, of tuning our internal frequencies to holy sounds. Middleditch and Schwartz are mastering the art of reaction; we need to develop a theology of being on the spot.
I flash back a decade or so to scenes from my own life. A friend or fellow church member requests the chance to sit down, to sift through their questions and hurts. Nearly paralyzed by the fear of saying the wrong thing, I cram for each meeting, studying relevant passages of Scripture, rehearsing talking points, mouthing doctrinal nuances to the point of memorization. I ready myself for the weirdest possible questions and most heretical statements. Faithfulness demanded as much.
Sometimes those encounters brought flourishing; sometimes they felt stilted and, well, scripted. The moments in which I proved most helpful and gracious surprised even me. They came in off-the-cuff reactions, as something deep inside me welled up and spilled out without notice or forethought.
Preparation and discipline matter—but not the way we think. Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz have put themselves through the paces; thousands of minutes on sets, in sketches, volleying punchlines back and forth, have sharpened their instincts into fine points. They can live and create along a thin wire because they invest time, thought, and energy well before a situation ever presents itself. The mistakes they make only heighten the comedy, never detracting from the final product.
The not-so-hidden secret every good comedian—or disciple—knows: if you prepare, prepare, prepare, the good stuff bubbles up to the surface naturally, not under compulsion. Our trips and falls will, at best, leave us with unexpected joys; at worst, they train our hearts and minds for what happens next.
Glorious as they might be, other comedy forms cannot represent the contours of our lives. Life is not a sketch, read from cue cards, with a prescribed beginning, middle, and end. If you find your life resembling standup—delivering long, personal monologues to rapt audiences—you’ve either done something very right or very wrong. Traditional sitcoms, with their tidy resolutions, leave us wanting. The improv of Middleditch and Schwartz ends up making a knot, but neither they nor the audience could have seen the end from the beginning.
Growing comfortable within a long-form improv exercise—whether it lasts 45 minutes or 70 to 80 years—means surrounding ourselves with laughter and love, truth and beauty, then allowing those God-given gifts to work their way out from inside. The richest laughs and sweetest moments follow.
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