How Scott Rogowsky Carved Out His Own Corner in Late Night Comedy
Scott Rogowsky longs for a bygone era of comedy, when scouts for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show (or Carson himself) would turn up at comedy clubs in search of the next great comedian, launching the careers of comics that included Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, and David Letterman.
Rogowsky has been hustling for over a decade in the New York comedy scene, performing standup, launching various live talk shows, and achieving viral fame with videos like “Taking Fake Book Covers on the Subway” and “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Jew.” Now the the 32-year-old has a new pop-up talk show called Start Talkin’, which aims to help guests find new roommates, dates, jobs, and more. The show combines Rogowsky’s hosting abilities seen in his Running Late show with his remote, man-on-the-street segments. The show, which is now streaming on go90.com, surprises unsuspecting New Yorkers who planned on a small meeting and instead find themselves in front of an entire crowd. Celebrity guests include Awkwafina, Jim Norton, and Sal Vulcano.
I spoke with Rogowsky about finding luck in the comedy world, setting age-specific deadlines, and how Jewish geography helped launch his new show.
How did this show come about?
It was definitely a matter of luck, which a lot of people in show business always speak to — how important luck and timing can be. A guy named Brian Silbert, who at the time was a development executive at truTV, ran into my mom at my family’s synagogue. There’s a bit of Jewish geography at play here, because Brian was dating a woman who belonged to the congregation and happened to be at temple that week. Earlier that day or the day before, he had seen a video I did called “Tindering With Parents.” Then he sees my mom and recognizes her from the video and says “I saw you in this video, what are the odds?” And my mother, of course being the quintessential Jewish mother that she is, was kvelling and saying, “Oh yeah that’s my son! He’s a comedian, he does these videos.” My parents are always trying to help me out, God bless ’em. They don’t have any connections to the industry, but my mom carries a stack of business cards in her pocketbook in case she bumps into Barbara Walters at Curves.
She gave Brian my card and that led to Brian emailing me, asking if I had any ideas for shows. We met for coffee and I told him about this thing I shot in my apartment with Gilbert Gottfried and Andrew W.K., what I was calling “Rooming Late” at the time for lack of a better title. Brian asked to see the video. I sent him the link, he loved it and thought there was a show there.
How does the pitching process normally work?
Usually if you have an idea, you have to first pitch it to a production company, get them on board, then go around and pitch to networks. In this case, the network sort of came to me, which isn’t typical. The disappointing chapter in the story is that truTV ultimately passed on the pilot, which is typical. But six months later, my co-EP Mark Efman called me out of the blue saying, “Hey, we sold the show!” Turned out, Silbert had left truTV and joined Seriously.TV [now called Complex Networks], where he convinced his colleagues to pick up the show. He didn’t want to let this thing die. He believed in it that much. I really have to give all the credit in the world to Brian Silbert.
The production level on this is a step up from your previous gigs.
It was produced by the biggest production company in New York, and to their credit, they gave us a good chunk of change to make this thing. We’ve had eight episodes. I didn’t have to call my friends to hold the camera, to hold the boom. We had about 30-40 people working on this thing.
You’ve had interesting guests on the show. How did you cast them?
We had two casting people that were full-time casting, Wesley and Quinn, who were fantastic. It was a two-part process – finding the people who needed help with something, “the clients,” and then finding the people to fill the need, “the candidates.” For each client we presented two candidates. We took pains to use real people. These aren’t actors, and we specifically didn’t want to use people who were like, “Oh yeah I’m looking for a date, but I’m also an actor on the side” or “Yeah I’m a bouncer, but I’m also a rapper.” We wanted people who would be uncomfortable in front of the camera. We wanted it to be awkward. We wanted there to be some tension. We wanted genuine surprises.
Did anyone freak out and not want to be on the show?
When we did the bouncer episode, we had these two guys show up and the first guy was cool. The second guy walks in, kind of looks around. He’s a little uneasy. He sits down. I got two questions in and he freezes. He starts to answer and then he goes, “You know, I’m not feeling this.” I said, “Okay, we can switch up the questions,” and he was like, “No I don’t want to be here. I don’t like this.” And he got up and walked out. We had to stop production for about an hour to figure out what to do. Thankfully we were able to call around and we [got another bouncer] to show up who was more amenable to being ambushed by a talk show.
You’re sort of known for your remotes on YouTube and you incorporate them into the show.
My favorite elements of Start Talkin’ were those man-on-the-street pieces. I love shooting those. I was born in Manhattan, have lived in or around New York my entire life, and I feel like I’m in my element when doing those pieces. Incorporating them into the 24-minute show as act breaks was a great idea. I think every episode has one or two of those pieces.
When you’re doing those do you ever feel embarrassed beforehand?
There can be uncertainty before you try one of these videos, wondering if it will work. You can prepare some lines but you can’t fully script them, and you never know how they’re going to turn out. Once you get out there talking to people, the adrenaline kicks in, and if you hook somebody, you can really have some fun with it. There are plenty of people who reject you and don’t want to interact, and then you have the other extreme where you have somebody buying your story completely to the point that they’re empathizing with you or getting too emotionally involved, then you have to let them down and say, “This is just a silly video, there’s a camera over there,” and you feel bad for wasting their time. But for the most part everyone agrees it’s all in good fun.
You’ve put out a lot of content, some videos have gone viral. What’s your mindset in putting it all of that out there?
[The day] Brian met with me in February 2015, if I didn’t have a body of work, had I not put in years of throwing shit against the wall or more accurately throwing shit up on YouTube, then nothing would have come of it. But because I had done the work, when the opportunity came knocking I was ready for it. That’s the lesson. I kind of have an old-school mentality about it, thinking that Lorne Michaels is still combing the comedy clubs for talent the way [former Tonight Show producer] Jim McCawley used to go out to the clubs and scout comedians. I feel like I have been putting out a consistent body of work, just waiting for that agent, that executive, that assistant to the bigwig to stumble across it.
You’ve been working in the New York comedy scene for a while.
Running Late started in 2011. Before that I was doing a show called 12 Angry Mascots since 2008. I’ve been in New York doing comedy since 2007.
Did you have a timeframe to break in?
If I don’t make it by 25 then I’ll quit. [laughs] Oh no, I should have quit seven years ago! Actually, I did give myself these silly deadlines when I first started doing standup. I was 20 years old and I said, “Okay, if I can’t get on TV by 25 then I’ll consider another career.” You have to give yourself these arbitrary deadlines just to keep yourself focused and on track. Now, did I get a spot on Letterman or Comedy Central? No. But when I was hosting 12 Angry Mascots, Showtime’s Inside the NFL came to cover [former New York Jets cornerback] Darrelle Revis making his comedy debut on our show, and I ended up getting interviewed as part of the segment which made it to air, and I counted that. I was six weeks away from my 26th birthday — got it in just under the gun! That kept me going another five years.
Has being more connected in the industry helped?
Peep my LinkedIn, son! Shit’s poppin! My mom’s been handing out a lotta cards! Recently I’ve become friends with Joel Mandelkorn from Cleft Clips who has been very helpful for my LA shows. I went out there for the first time in February for five shows and I’m going back out for five more in May. Joel is really tapped into the LA scene, which is a bit foreign to me. I have a producer here in New York, Alex Brizel, who has been helping me with my shows for the last couple of years. He’s a great resource, very similar to me. We both have this love of old showbiz, and we’re in this boat together called the SS Existential Crisis, constantly wondering, “Where does this end up? Where is this leading to?” I’m fairly certain it’s all a colossal waste of time, but as long as I get a few breadcrumbs thrown my way here and there I guess I’ll keep following the trail.
All eight episodes of Start Talkin’ with Scott Rogowsky are now available on go90, and Rogowsky will be hosting the next Running Late show on Monday, May 1st at The Slipper Room with guests Dick Cavett, Tom Scharpling and Sal Vulcano.