The Most Adorable Jerk in Pawnee, Indiana

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 16 2012 1:23 PM

Character Studies: Jean-Ralphio Saperstein

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Actor Ben Schwartz of Parks and Recreation.

Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

About halfway through Season 2 of Parks and Recreation, no-nonsense parks department director Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) puts would-be playboy Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) in charge of finding him an assistant. Tom manages to find the only person in town more delusional about his suaveness than Tom is: the lanky, Jewfro-sporting, supremely confident Jean-Ralphio Saperstein. “Two things,” Jean-Ralphio tells Ron after slapping his hand, “One: It is an absolute honor to meet you. Two: Who is that hot intern chick out there? Because honestly, DAAAAAAMN.”

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

Despite promising Ron “access to the illest clubs” and inviting him to “hit me up on Facebook any time, day or night,” Jean-Ralphio does not get the job assisting Ron. But thankfully Parks and Rec gave Ben Schwartz, the actor who plays Jean-Ralphio, a recurring role that’s the most hilarious and adorable of the many hilarious and adorable characters populating Pawnee, Indiana.

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I usually have little patience for über-privileged dudes who talk down to women in an effort to get laid, either in real life or onscreen. But I find Jean-Ralphio’s swagger endlessly lovable and entertaining, because Schwartz—like most of his castmates—knows how to imbue a type with heart. Like a puppy that expects a belly rub after dropping a dead rabbit at your feet, Jean-Ralphio is endlessly pleased with his own attempts at picking up women, and his enthusiasm is infectious. (Schwartz’s good looks don’t hurt, either.) Never aggressive or hostile, Jean-Ralphio tends to cap off his offensive pronouncements with an impish lip-biting grin that Jean-Ralphio thinks is a knowing smile but that in fact underscores the vast gap between his perceptions and reality.

Consider the best Parks and Rec episode of all time, Season 3’s “The Fight,” in which everyone goes to the Snakehole Lounge and gets hammered on Snake Juice, a highly alcoholic concoction invented by Tom. Throughout the evening, Jean-Ralphio tries to freestyle rap lyrics to impress the parks department staff. Despite his best efforts, however, he can’t get his lines to rhyme.

Which is a decent metaphor for all his attempts to relate to other human beings—particularly female human beings: In spite of his superhuman efforts and outsized confidence, Jean-Ralphio just can’t make the connection. And yet he never gets discouraged; when Leslie (Amy Poehler), sloshed and trying to make Ben (Adam Scott) jealous at the end of her evening at the Snakehole Lounge, barks, “Jean-Ralphio, dance up on me,” Jean-Ralphio isn’t surprised in the least that his flirting efforts have paid off.

One might argue that Jean-Ralphio is merely a more cartoonish version of Aziz Ansari’s Tom. But while Ansari always seems to be observing his act from a safe distance, Schwartz really commits to Jean-Ralphio. Under no circumstances do we see Schwartz acknowledge the absurdity of the words coming out of Jean-Ralphio’s mouth—and Schwartz’s sympathy for Jean-Ralphio’s cause makes the performance that much more enjoyable.

I’m not the first to fall for Tom’s friend (and co-proprietor of the ill-fated Entertainment 720). Jean-Ralphio has given advice in GQ, here is a Tumblr called “Fuck Yes, Jean-Ralphio!”, and Schwartz has turned his well-deserved media momentum into a regular role on the new Showtime series House of Lies. Meanwhile, we haven’t seen Jean-Ralphio on Parks and Rec since December (when he bumped into Ben on his way to get a Brazilian wax). But I’m hoping he’ll show up at City Hall again soon. Pawnee is less colorful without an unwitting jerk always waiting for permission to dance up on any woman, any time, day or night.

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