Until recently, I didn’t know Rory Scovel by name but the face rang a bell. I traced a line from my vague recollection to his role on TBS’ Ground Floor, a workplace sitcom from Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence that lasted 20 episodes and never won me over. For some reason, Scovel’s role as the office weirdo took some enthusiasm out of me as I pressed play on the video of him doing stand-up on Conan. It wasn’t fair. It just was.
By now, you’ve seen the clip because that’s the purpose of putting the video above these words. Scovel defies my preconceived notions about what kind of comic he is as he ventures into the Apollo Theater audience for a commanding performance filled with semi-silly, semi-biting social commentary. It stands out among the sea of sameness that represents those kinds of take-it-or-leave-it five-minute introductions to comedians that exist on late night shows. In his new stand-up special
The lesson: I shouldn’t assume that a comic’s style can be foreshadowed by the kind of work they do in a different medium. Call it the Bob Saget rule after the dark blue stand-up’s confusing ascent as America’s dad on Full House. That’s an obvious truth but also something we all do from time to time as a way of sifting through the ever-growing collection of comics that find their way onto our radar. It’s unfair to them and unfair to us.
After watching the Conan appearance and reading a couple of buzzy articles about Scovel, I pursued a lengthy conversation with him. I’m drawn to absurdist comics that like to play with convention in the way that he did on Conan and which he doubles down on in a new Netflix special that jumps between politics, sex, and aging. But really, I wanted to find out what he’s been through to get where he is, where he thinks he’s heading, and what it feels like to wait for the “next big thing” label to come true.
In talking to Scovel, it became clear that the composite of what a stand-up comedian is supposed to be doesn’t always have basis in truth. Here’s a look at some ways Scovel’s climb and his attitudes about comedy differ from what we might perceive as the norm thanks to years of pop culture shaping.
He Wasn’t Always Focused On Being A Stand-Up
Scovel is 36, so to hear him cite the Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello as early influences seems somewhat surprising. But it’s also a reminder that some things never stop being funny. Yet despite that early exposure to those masters and the first inkling of, “Hey, maybe I can do that,” Scovel alternated between being a class clown and being a jock while growing up in Greenville, South Carolina.
“I played soccer from age five all the way through college. I kind of didn’t really know what to do after college. I thought, in my head, that I would try to play some kind of soccer on a lower level, like semi-professional, or try to, I mean. Somewhere, somehow,” Scovel tells me.
The odds of feeding yourself playing soccer are probably lower than the odds of feeding yourself while doing stand-up, but it doesn’t sound like economics played into the decision. “There was just some kind of natural thing in my brain and the desire to try to do that [play soccer] was gone and then quickly replaced by comedy after I tried an open mic and realized that I really enjoy getting on stage.”
His First Show Didn’t Suck
Horror stories about painful on-stage failure can be enough to make a person shake when they’re thinking about going up to tell a few jokes, but Scovel’s first show went well, though, his act wasn’t the driving force behind that.
“I kind of stacked the cards,” he says, recounting how he filled the entire audience with college friends whom he “roasted” from the stage to a positive response. “It went great because everyone there was super amped to see a friend up there trying to tell jokes.”
Scovel says that real audiences, after that soft launch, weren’t as accepting of him. “It was real people, real strangers who didn’t really care about knowing you personally, they just wanted you to be funny.” While Scovel didn’t get a lot of support from the crowd in his formative months, he did get some good advice from his sister who told him to give it six months, telling us that it “kind of alleviated the pressure.”