Interview: Rory Scovel on “the courage to fail” in comedy

In a digital age, what are the odds that a stand-up comedian would release a new album and keep it that way? Rory Scovel‘s new Live at Third Man Records came out over the holidays in vinyl. And only vinyl. It’s an old-school 12-inch LP record, and several times over the course of the recording, Scovel will remind the listening audience that it’s on vinyl, which is nevertheless jarring to hear when you’re driving in your car or riding on the subway, right?

But Scovel is a stand-up comedian who likes to take chances. So who knows what he’ll do for his upcoming one-hour special, “RELIGION. POLITICS. DRUGS.” Scovel is recording that on video Feb. 21-22 in Charleston, S.C., but he’s here this weekend for three nights (Saturday-Monday) at SubCulture in New York City.

The Comic’s Comic chatted with Scovel yesterday online.

One of the things I’ve loved about your stand-up is how you approach a performance as an improviser who skips right past asking an audience for the suggestion, and instead springs forth into a character and a situation and lets the audience catch up. I know you were involved in the improv/sketch scene in D.C. first — but were you involved in improv and sketch before doing stand-up?

I started to take improv classes with Washington Improv Theater at the exact same time I started going around to open mics in DC to watch and if lucky perform. Took about a month of watching before I really got to get on the microphone at any of the shows. So that month of foundations of improv learning with the great Dave Johnson really influenced my approach to standup. Not that I wanted to get up and improvise but the moments of not being funny on stage was easier to cope with after having learned to relax and build from nothing in class.

What was your first comedy experience like?

My first standup set was really fun. I tried it randomly in Spartanburg, SC at a rock bar called Guitar Bar. It was an open mic poetry night and they said it was ok to tell jokes instead of poems. I invited a bunch of friends and acted like an idiot for 20 minutes, not knowing what I should do anyways. It was fun enough to make me really want to commit to trying it. So I moved to DC and that was that.

Did you decide to pursue it full-time immediately thereafter, or if not, when/what happened to convince you?

I think I was interested in comedy enough to want to try it and perform as much as I could. To me it sort of just becomes a full time thing if you find yourself in the right places and the right times. I was lucky. I met great supportive people that showed me how to make a career of it. Finding one nighters, other shows, inspiring me to go on the road or move to NYC to really commit. My 3 years in DC convinced me that I wanted to make a life of this if I could. There was no guarantee but I decided it was worth it to try it 100%. I live in fear that it could all go away at any moment.

You say you live in fear, but your comedy is so fearless! Is that your way of embracing it? Some of the greatest comedy happens live because the audience gets to experience a performer living in the moment (on the flip it/reverse it/worst/con side, that’s probably what fuels a great many hecklers). Are you trying to harness that raw energy and sweet spot when you improvise a character-based performance? What’s the longest you’ve started a show in character before letting everyone in the audience in on the joke?

I think so, a little bit. I appreciate the fearless compliment. I wouldn’t say its entirely true but some of it comes from those improv classes I think. I think failing is important. You have to have the courage to fail at this job I think. For me it’s been the only way to figure out how to say a joke the right way or present a character or an idea. A lot of things won’t be funny but the failing sometimes guides it there I think. It at least shows you where not to take it. The nervous energy for me is the entire show. That comes from a place of “will this show be fun, will it work, will it fall on its face?” I try not to do too much with any of my characters other than just say the same material as this person. It all came out of boredom really. I didn’t have any new ideas or jokes to work on, which scared the shit out of me, so I decided to do what I had as different people. It became so much fun to do that I decided to just keep it as a thing and work on it. That sort of led to writing a few bits that were specific to the characters. I’m sure it will fade eventually. My german character makes fewer appearances. I’m sort of addicted to the southern preacher guy at the moment. The longest I’ve ever done any of the characters was at UCB in November of 2013. I did the german guy for 50 minutes. The audience supporting the idea of “how long can this go” made it easier to just stay in character. To me, regarding the characters, the audience is already in on the joke. I know sometimes they aren’t but I’m not at all convinced that I’m ever selling it very well and just assume they know. In a strange way I think that might make the character stronger. I don’t know why.

Ha. I think one of your early Conan appearances you held character the entire time, so I bet there were enough casual viewers tuning in that night on TBS who might have entirely the wrong idea — or perhaps the most right idea — about you based on their initial presumptions.

Then again, you may have some people turn up at a live show now who only you from an entirely different TBS role, thanks to playing Harvard on Ground Floor.

You’ve done some instant-classic bits with Jon Dore on Conan, too. Were the two of you instantly drawn to one another in terms of being two peas in a comedy pod? Please excuse my mixed metaphor there. How do performers like Dore and Reggie Watts or — PLEASE INSERT OTHER KINDRED SPIRITS HERE — elevate or inspire your continued comedy game?

I think Jon and I clicked pretty well from second one. We met in Canada on a tour and hung out for weeks. We have a similar sensibility I think and that def. puts us in the same “pod.” All of my friends in comedy have inspired me in many ways. Working with a guy like Reggie Watts or Jon Dore or Kate Berlant immediately fires you up to do something different or try something new that might not work or might be ¬†amazingly fun. I feel like I could name a ton of people here.

I see you plan on recording a new hour special later this month, too, which is hot off the heels of your new album. Comedians tell me that when they record their material — whether it’s audio or video — there’s often some jokes they’re just so tired of telling that they want to make sure it’s recorded for posterity, while there’ll be other bits that are captured before they’re in full bloom, as it were. They think of additional tags and places to take a joke after the version that’s on a CD or DVD. Does your onstage style inherently make these problems insignificant or moot? Can we make more things moot?

I think any joke can grow for a long time if you continually try it out in different ways. Also an audience can take a joke in a direction that you just can’t plan for or write for offstage just by their response to something. I think I’m at a point where I get too bored with my stuff too quickly. It’s not good because I think most of my stuff could probably grow a lot more. I think it has to do with maturity. So far I think I’m pretty immature about organizing myself as a comic. I’m learning how to for sure but its def. a slow process for me. I think if you’re able to make a cd or a dvd or whatever in a way that you the artist enjoys and it convinces people to come out and see a live show, then thats the best you can do. The live show without cameras or audio recording devices, in my opinion, is the absolute best the show can be.

Rory Scovel plays SubCulture NYC this weekend (Saturday-Monday), and records his one-hour special later in February in Charleston, S.C.

Here’s a clip of Scovel in “Cool Preacher” Southern Christian character mode from his vinyl album, Live At Third Man Records, talking about how maybe it should be “Adam and Steve.”

You can purchase it on vinyl via Third Man Records, or try Amazon:

Photo Credit: Rory Scovel by Mandee Johnson.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

View all posts by Sean L. McCarthy →

One thought on “Interview: Rory Scovel on “the courage to fail” in comedy

Comments are closed.