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.”
He Was Never A Starving Comic
The lifestyle of couch surfing and getting by on ramen (the grocery store kind) is a popular trope among comedian origin stories. Scovel, however, found solid footing early on by working as a government contractor who “answered phone calls, made sure the printer had paper, [and] got supplies” while chasing a comedy career in Washington DC in the early 2000s. He did this for almost three years.
When Scovel left the DC comedy scene and headed for New York to prove himself all over again — a seemingly frustrating experience that he views as formative — he took on office temp work where he continued “sitting at a desk and answering phones, writing jokes in the joke book.” Scovel also moved furniture with other stand-ups and painted apartments with his friend and fellow comic Scott Moran, who directed his new Netflix special.
Working Straight Jobs Was Good For His Comedy
Being able to dedicate time and attention to the creation of an act or to writing is considered, by many, to be a luxury, but it’s easy to forget the influence the daily grind can have on material. “I think it’s easier to craft an act when your back is against the wall to survive,” says Scovel, who feels that he’s become “lazier” when it comes to trying to craft fresh material now that he doesn’t have to work a straight job to support his comedy career, pay his rent, or cover his groceries. “When I’m agitated about stuff is when I feel like I’ve come up with the most material,” says Scovel, who adds that material about “trying to get by” stands out as the most versatile type to write.
Road Work Has Been Good For His Marriage
Comics and relationships aren’t known to mix despite many success stories to the contrary. Anecdotally, you can blame that idea on the loneliness and isolation couples must feel when separated because of work. Scovel acknowledges that the road warrior life can “take its toll” on his relationship with his wife, actress Jordan Scovel, but he believes there are benefits too, saying it “adds an element of excitement when you see each other.” Scovel acknowledges, however, that he’s lucky that he and Jordan both see that side of it. He’s also “on the back end of having to be separated so much now” thanks to his ability to more pick and choose when he’s on the road thanks to the trajectory of his career.
Good Jokes Trump Timeliness
Stand-up specials are snapshots of a comedian’s act in the moment that they’re recorded, but they often spend months waiting for release. For non-topical comics, that isn’t really a concern, but when you tell a political joke in a special, essentially, you’re starting a clock on the relevancy of that joke.
In Scovel’s new special, there’s a portion dedicated to material that predates the 2016 election. Is it funny? Yes, and still relevant considering how fresh the election is in most people’s minds. But despite that, Scovel debated including that material, eventually opting to keep it in because of how much he loved the jokes.
The situation served as a learning experience for Scovel, who may change how he constructs future specials. “Anything I come up with politically, I realize there’s a shelf life,” he says, indicating that he might have to “let it go” when it comes to political material when he’s not working on a special with a faster turnaround or a late night appearance.
But that doesn’t mean that, if given the choice again, he wouldn’t make the same call now.
“I’m being honest about where I was the day that I performed that special, that’s where I was with my act.”
He’s Conflicted About Doing Stand-Up Forever
The allure of stand-up and the power of being on that stage and having the chance to speak on polarizing issues in a way that makes people laugh despite their seriousness is a thing that, as an observer, is easy to crave. And so, to us on the outside, the life cycle of a comedian seems like a gift the longer it goes. But that’s maybe not the most informed view.
In the thick of it, the job reveals difficulties that can push someone to look around for other things that will give them the high of performing and expressing themselves. Scovel’s already head long into an acting career and he’s done some writing for The Eric Andre Show. But while he’s nowhere near ready to walk away from stand-up, he lets on that he has “a curiosity” about how this is all going to play out for him in the near term.
“What will my act look like in a year? Two years? Five years? Ten years?”
Stand-up isn’t easy, of course, but there’s a perception issue with some people. Scovel knows he’s not snaking drains or hauling concrete for a living, but do others understand that he’s not undertaking something absent hard work and big emotional asks?
“Some people I know think you just go on stage and you talk, but there is also a mental exhaustion to this game, knowing that every time you speak, you’re giving a presentation that a room of strangers could decide they hate. That also affects you emotionally.”
The term crossroads doesn’t come up, but when I read over the transcript of our conversation, it sort of stands out. Scovel has been doing stand-up for nearly 15 years. That’s a long time to do anything in life and he’s a bigger success story than most people even come close to. But at the same time, even with a Netflix special and a lot of positive buzz, thoughts about “what’s next?” don’t seem foreign to him.
“I’m curious, in general, how far I can take stand-up. How many people want to see my stand-up? In ten years, will I play bigger places? Will I like playing bigger places? Where would I go?” he wonders before turning to that other side of his working life. “As an actor, I think I’d just like to have power over my career. I’m at a point now where I don’t necessarily have that.”
Scovel is hopeful that there will some forward progression there. He’s positive about the jobs he’s had, but he also wants to feel like he isn’t just taking every acting job that he can get. Additionally, he wants to see what he can do on the creative side on TV or in film. He floats the idea that one day, maybe he’ll write movies. “Then maybe I’ll start to put all my energy towards that,” he says, but for right now, the allure of stand-up is still strong.
“That thrill or that high of doing a live show, it’s so good, and so fun, that today I can’t see the end of it.”
Good Buzz Has Its Positives And Negatives
While preparing for the conversation with Scovel, I found mention of a Variety article listing him among the “10 Comics To Watch in 2012” and a New York Times piece from Jason Zinoman that sings his praises and declares that Scovel is “on the verge.” Scovel stresses that that kind of thing “feels so good” and that it can populate the idea that those things will lead to positives in a career, but there’s a down side, too.
“There is an element after you read one of those articles where you definitely do feel a little bit like, ‘I have this, so that must mean in a couple of months or whatever, this other thing will happen,’ and you don’t really know what that other thing is,” he says. Scovel believes that when that “thing” doesn’t happen, it can create “this illusion in your mind that the train has left the station, even though that’s not logical in many ways.”
Though Scovel feels as though he has gotten past that mindset now, he doesn’t like that he has viewed his placement in these kinds of articles in that way in the past and he doesn’t like the jealousy that 10 best lists and the like can inspire when one comic judges their accomplishments against the accomplishments of others. At separate points in the interview, he makes clear that he doesn’t like to view his peers as competition. It’s an impediment to the establishment of a bond with others in the community which can inspire and bring support. It’s also toxic. “There are comics and actors who never break out of that, and it’s hard to watch, because it’s just so crippling.”
As he matures, Scovel is happy with where he is in his career, determining success based on forward progression. “I always just want to make sure that I’m doing a little bit more each year, and I personally feel like I’m doing it a little bit better.”
Patience and confidence in one’s own abilities is the key to that switch, he says before citing the birth of his daughter two years ago as a major event in his evolution. “It definitely changed me completely, to not care so much about these bigger things,” he says, adding that his current outlook is focused on doing all he can do to accomplish his goals. “If those things do happen, then great. And if they don’t, I can’t look at it like it’s a lack of trying.”
Being Good At Comedy Is Serious Business
This may not be a big revelation for you if you’re the kind of person who is currently 2000 words into an article about a stand-up comic’s process, but the idea that he can now be largely focused on turning his art into his product without losing something in the process represents a slight change in philosophy for Scovel.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of not thinking about a product all of the time. I truly love that. Just going on the stage, and going, ‘Tonight is that night, and who really gives a shit about anything else?’ But it has changed me. Especially having my daughter, it does change me to go, well I can’t just do that all the time.”
Scovel uses the phrase, “a means to an end” when talking about building up his material to where the strongest jokes survive and morph into a collection that can be turned into a special. It’s a grown-up approach to comedy that understands all the demands that get put on a comedian besides simply being funny, demands that are maybe not clear at the start of a career. Scovel can’t control what lists he winds up on and when (or if) his mainstream breakout will happen. All he can do is what he’s been doing: try to get better.
Rory Scovel Tries Stand-Up For The First Time is available to stream now on Netflix.