Talking to Rory Scovel About Standup, Characters, Alt Rooms vs. Clubs and All Sorts of Other Stuff
You’re forgiven if you don’t know who stand-up comic Rory Scovel is, because it’s pretty hard to keep track. Sometimes he’s a German dude, sometimes he’s a down-on-his-luck former high school coach with three DUIs, sometimes he’s a confused Southern guy. You just never know.
Take note, however, because you’ll probably be seeing a lot more of him. Named one of Variety’s 10 Comics to Watch 2012, the South Carolina native has been busy this year, appearing in a Nissan commercial, performing on Conan and other television programs, and headlining at some of the most prestigious comedy festivals, including last month’s Montreal Just for Laughs Festival.
Scovel’s appeal is his improv-heavy act and the characters he channels on stage, meaning you’re unlikely to see anything close to resembling the same set twice. He’s a comic who toys with conventions and audiences’ presumptions of what a comedy show should be – like the time he performed part of his set in a hotel lobby elevator (see video below). He’s also a thoughtful guy, and has a lot to say about comedy.
I had the chance to sit down with Scovel in Montreal last month to talk about his start in comedy, his acting aspirations, and the genuine, freewheeling style of stand-up he’s constantly striving toward.
I know you’re based in LA now, but before that you were in New York for a while, right?
Yeah, for three years, and before that I was in D.C. for three years. I feel like if you’re going to move, you should at least put three years into a scene, at least early on, when you don’t really know what you’re doing. I see a lot of people move very early, and everyone’s different, but I felt like three was the right call for me.
Yeah, you get your legs under you and figure stuff out.
Yeah, because New York is so intimidating. I’m glad that when I moved there I had done a Live at Gotham so I had a little bit of success to give me the confidence as a performer going into New York where no one knows you and no one gives a shit. You’re essentially starting over only now you have three years knowledge of what you’re doing. But yeah, New York’s amazing.
How did you wind up in D.C.? You’re from the South, right?
My sister lived there, and I wanted to get into stand-up. I tried it one night in my college town having been out of college for almost a year. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker. I still have that desire, but I couldn’t really see how to do it. I was like, “I don’t have equipment, and I don’t know what I’m doing.” [Laughs.] So stand-up seemed pretty cool because it felt very personality-driven. I’ve always made the effort to be, maybe not the class clown, but someone who would crack a joke when there’s a joke to be cracked. I think it’s just how I was raised. So I thought maybe I should try doing stand-up. And when I tried it, it was really fun. I went to visit my sister over New Year’s and looked in the City Paper and found all these open mics. I figured I could come up to where she is so it’s not too scary of a move and I can sleep on her couch. So I slept on her couch for three months, and the day I moved there I started doing improv classes. For a month, I went to every open mic to sign up and watch. I was addicted. It’s weird when you get into stand-up like that. For me, and I feel like for a lot of comics, you feel like you’ve discovered this underground thing that you never knew about. Because if you grabbed a random person on the street in your town and asked them if they knew how many open mics there are, they’d have no idea what you were talking about. I was just super excited. It felt like home. If it goes well enough times, you become obsessed.
And I’m sure you met a lot of like-minded people. You automatically have a built in social network.
You automatically have friends. My buddy Danny Rouhier, who works for 106.7 The Fan in D.C., he and I met at a competition and immediately exchanged phone numbers and emails afterwards, almost knowing we were going to be friends for a long time. We just knew it right away. I felt that way with so many comics.
Are you on the road a lot?
I try to be. The road is very exciting. But I’m trying to commit a little bit more to being in LA and available for auditions. Because filmmaking is something I’d love to be doing at some point. I feel like it’s going to naturally happen if it’s going to happen.
You know, both. Ever since I was a kid I was very interested in acting. I would love to be a good actor, and not just comedically. I mean right now that’s going to be the thing that gets me in the door if it’s going to happen because that’s my instinct. But I really would love to learn how to be a good actor in something very serious, and then translate how that works into major films and stuff.
You’re sort of acting on stage when you’re performing as one of your characters.
Looking back, I remember joking around with friends in high school and doing things like staging tennis matches when someone had a racket during our free period. [Laughs.] And doing characters and stuff. I think naturally I enjoy trying to create a scene that has no specific focus or length.
Just seeing where it goes?
Yeah, I think that’s why I like the improv element of it. But also, there’s something I like when an audience, not in a bad way, but in a good way, when I can sense them go, “What the fuck are we watching?” I feel very influenced by music. Like with Phish [Editor’s note: there was some discussion about Phish prior to the interview], they never repeat a setlist in the same order. It never looks the same. And maybe that’s not something I do specifically as a comedian, but it’s definitely an idea I like to work off of…There are moments at a Phish show where you’re deep into a jam, and even though you’re loving it you’re like, “How long is this fucking song?” I know a lot of people are like, “I don’t want to see a 20 minute song,” but I do want to see a 20 minute song. After 5 minutes, I want to forget what song we’re on because I’m so deep into it. And I try to figure out a way to do that with stand-up. And again, maybe I’m not talking about a specific idea, but you’re just kind of going, and maybe at the end the audience is like, “I don’t remember what I really saw. I don’t remember any of the jokes.” I’m totally OK with that. I just want you to enjoy what it is. Some people walk away thinking I’m a mental patient [Laughs.], and other people will get it.
When you tell a joke for the first time, it has that inexplicable factor that audiences respond to. It’s new, it’s organic, it has a punch. The second time you tell it, it loses some of its mojo for whatever reason. With your style, does it feel like jokes are always new since they’re coming through the voices of various characters?
Yeah. I kind of see that in the way that I’m always changing the order. Cause to me, there is no order. There are no rules to anything, at least with stand-up. So it’s kind of fun to put things out of order, and even take jokes that you’ve done over and over again, and you know the A, and you know the B that you’re getting to, but the space in-between can be shorter, it can be longer. Instead of just a straight line it can be a curvy line, and through improvisation, you can figure out how to split other jokes and find a home for a joke that’s just on its own. To me that’s very exciting because I find out how all these key words and key ideas fit together. My style of writing is finding it that way.
Do you go up with a set list?
Yeah. I have a list, but it’s never anything in a constructed order, unless I’m prepping for something on TV or an audition, and then I’ll have more a beginning, middle, and end.
Because watching you, it sometimes feels like you’re pulling stuff out of thin air, which is a good thing. It doesn’t have a structured look to it.
Yeah, I think a lot of the times I just want to see where the conversation goes. It’s interesting to see what you will talk about when there’s pressure to be funny. Sometimes you’ll just say something stupid, like when you see a comic do a hacky joke, and I’m definitely guilty of this myself. It’s like your back’s against the wall and maybe you had a punchline that didn’t get a laugh, so you just add in something like, “And that guy was my dad.”
And some people will laugh and you’re like, “Alright, now we’re out of it.” Someone watching might be thinking that was kind of hacky, and you’re like, “I know, I just got stuck.” But I think a lot of times it’s interesting to put yourself in that position and not use the hacky thing and see what you do. That is, for me, when you really start to evolve. I always say “for me” because I never want to sound like what I’m saying is right.
No, everyone has their own perspective. But you’re doing something right, obviously.
And in that way it’s been working. There’s a way that you evolve your material and you evolve your stage presence. I’m trying to be more disciplined and mature to figure out how to evolve my writing process, as opposed to just relying on improv, which I’ll forever do, but man when you got some stuff in your back pocket you can go to if the improv isn’t working, that’s what makes people really enjoy the experience.
When it comes to how you write and perform on stage, how much of it is you wanting to try something different vs. doing whatever comes naturally to you? Are there certain formulas you’re trying to stay away from?
No. I think it’s just trying to get closer and closer to being your natural self. I think when I first started out, I was very much into David Cross and his album Shut Up You Fucking Baby. I had seen Seinfeld, and I felt like that wasn’t me. I thought it was incredibly daunting and I thought that’s what stand-up comedy was. So I had no inspiration to try it, because it didn’t relate to me. But then when I heard David Cross’s album, I felt like I related to it more. The ideas weren’t so pinpointed to using the right word economy. They weren’t concise one-liners or observational jokes, they were just experiences. After hearing that, I decided I wanted to try it. I was going on stage doing my own jokes, but delivering them in his style, which I think is common for a lot of young comics.
Were you as angry as Cross?
No, I was going up and being very sarcastic, and I was also doing his mannerisms, and his pacing and his pauses. I went on stage looking like I was doing an impression of David Cross doing my jokes.
When I look at the tape, it kind of makes me cringe. The day that I stopped sounding like him was almost like tearing away that first layer of comedy. So I think it’s never this idea of I want to make sure I’m original or different from what other people are doing, I think you’re just naturally becoming more genuine with what you think is funny. I will go up and gladly do the dumbest joke that everyone thinks is stupid, because a part of me says that genuinely, this is what I think is funny. To me the whole thing is, you’re already the comic you’re going to be, you just have to be willing to shed all those layers to find it and say, “Alright, I’m fully exposed up here now.”
It is something to see how great Bill Burr is, and that’s years of him tearing away these layers of figuring out what he wants to talk about and now he’s a Jedi. I’m a very big fan of his, and find that to be very inspirational. I feel like Patrice O’Neal was that way. He was willing to talk about anything no matter how it made him look because he was being genuinely honest about what his opinion was. We all think different things. As much as we all are like, “Well, I’m not racist,” well, I bet you’ve thought racist things. That doesn’t mean that you’re racist. And he was a guy going, “I’m willing to admit that I do this openly to all of you,” and that to me is just beautiful. And on the other side of that, someone like Reggie Watts who’s willing to fully expose his child-like clownish behavior physically, while then also exposing this incredibly intellectual, free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness comedy. Seeing guys like that, to me it’s layers. There’s no way you start out that way. You just have to be willing to fail and dig deeper and deeper, and let people think that you’re crazy, or let people think that you’re wrong. Sorry if I’m rambling here.
No, it’s interesting.
You see someone like Reggie in that Steve Martin way of being very clownish. The whole, “I’m showing you fully my sense of humor, and I’m not holding back because I think you’ll think it’s stupid. I’m doing it no matter what.” And I think Steve Martin being so much of a legend in comedy is because he did it when there wasn’t a club to go do it in…I think your focus is to be funny all the time. “I gotta be hilarious. I gotta be cutting-edge. I gotta say something that will make everyone laugh.” Then you miss the fact that the real you sometimes has an opinion that’s wrong, and you should just still say it and let yourself be wrong. Now I am rambling. Bill Hicks even, not being a clown. He was still incredibly willing to shed everything and completely expose himself. He was like, “I’m going to be incredibly honest with you, and I’m going to say shit I’m passionate about and I’m going to scream it in a way where you think I’m fucking crazy and I don’t care.” There are people that say, “Well, Bill Hicks wasn’t that funny.” Well, that’s subjective in general, but he was honest, he was engaging and he was interesting. And people will almost watch those three things over funny, and saying nothing and in a dishonest way.
Just to trick the audience.
Yeah, I think that’s the difference when you see a good comedian who’s a little more seasoned. Whenever you see someone starting out and everyone thinks they’re a prodigy, it’s because they already seem to understand that genuine honesty very quickly. Whereas I had to really learn it. I’m around nine years into comedy, and it’s almost like it’s this new thing I’m really excited about trying to figure out. But when you’re watching someone who’s two years in, you’ll see older comics tell them, “Holy fuck, dude. If you keep this up, you’re going to be doing something really special.” Maybe they’re not crushing it from minute one to minute seven, but you can just see that they’re saying what they think. And that’s exciting to be around.
You’ve mentioned Bill Burr a lot. What was your take on that whole discussion of his rant on alt comedy vs. club comedy?
If you aren’t trying to work both rooms, then to me you’re not being very smart about what you’re doing. Even Bill Burr works every club in the country. He works every club in New York, and he works every alt show, maybe that’s not true, but certainly he pops into UCB in LA when he’s there and does 5 and crushes. You see alternative comics say, “Well I’m not a club comic,” because they can’t do what the club comics are doing, and the club comics can’t do what the alt guys are doing. It’s almost the same way where you have Republicans and Democrats. There are people saying, “Jesus Christ, Republicans you guys are fucking crazy.” And there are people going, “Jesus Christ, Democrats, you guys are fucking crazy.” And then there are all these people in the middle, and that’s where all these comics are thinking, “Well I really don’t want to be labeled by either of you. I think I can play both rooms.” You should almost be grateful that there is an alt room, because it forces you to work a different muscle, and all the alt comics who think it’s hacky to do a club show have a misperception of what happens at the club, because a club really makes you fucking work.
They’re tougher laughs.
An alt scene might let you be a little more artistic and different, but that’s not going to pay your fucking groceries. You need to learn how to play a club.
[Editor’s note: At this point of the interview, a small group led by comedian Todd Glass begins shouting “Ro-ry Sco-vel,” confounding most of the bar patrons at the Hyatt Regency Montreal where we are seated.]
That was hilarious. How did you begin doing characters on stage? Is that just what came naturally to you?
The spontaneity and improv in my set is certainly inspired by really loving long-form improv and doing it, not on the greatest level, but doing it in general. Figuring out how to have the two worlds collide. I’ll just go into voices during my set, and I think at one point I thought why don’t I just go up as a character, not act like I’m a character, and it just became something I got addicted to. I really enjoyed going up as a southern guy, as a German guy, as a coach, whatever. I liked just messing around with it to see what it did to the material, but also just to see how much fun it could be knowing that I’m not very popular so the audience would think this is who I really am. I liked seeing if they’d fall for it.
Now I see why you want to get into acting.
I think there’s something I love about committing to a thing whether it’s going to work or not because even if it fails, getting good at dealing with the fact that you’re tanking is a big part of getting good at stand-up. Being confident to fail is a critical thing for me as a performer…To me that’s the greatest exercise in a live performance, figuring out how to maintain your cool when you are NOT good, and no one likes it. Because that confidence can sometimes win people over more than the material.
Got any new projects you’re working on?
I’m trying to audition more. That’s the great benefit of having representation. You get sent out for meetings and auditions. You really get thrown into this world of television development.
Is it strange?
It’s super strange, and it can also be very aggravating, but learning it is something I’m so interested in. Even though it’s frustrating, because you see your peers getting stuff, it’s also a lesson in learning how to cope with handling your career. Because the jealousy factor in this business is insane. I certainly get it, we all get it, every comic definitely gets it. There’s such a great lesson in learning how to control it. I think most comics don’t want to take anything away from people that get a role or whatever, and we’re glad that they got it, but we want to figure out we need to do. And that can become a question of artistic integrity. Do you have to change what you’re doing to get it? Is that what has to happen to get things? Are you willing to change who you are? Maybe the thing that’s for you, you just have to have faith and patience that it’s coming, and not be so bent out of shape just because your friends now have health insurance and you don’t. [Laughs.]
Phil Davidson writes about, performs and produces comedy.