Photos by Megan Koester
Rory Scovel is one of the most dynamic stand-up comedians performing today. He's gone on Conan multiple times with fellow comic Jon Dore to do a complex, yet flawless two-person stand-up routine. He employed a thick Southern accent for an entire bit while continually taking swigs from an empty beer bottle. And we can't forget the time he dressed up in a tuxedo in front of a guy playing a Liberace-style piano throughout his routine, which was all about marijuana.
This unique presence and willingness to play with the form got him noticed by none other than Jack White, whose Third Man Records released Scovel's latest album. Currently, he's editing his live special which he recorded last February. I sat down with Rory—a couple days before he headlines a show I run with other VICE LA writers—to discuss the process of making a special from start to finish, his TBS sitcom Ground Floor, and comedy in general.
VICE: So what's going on with the album. What stage are you at with it right now?
Rory Scovel: Well, the thing that I just did is a special.
Oh, OK. Sorry, sorry, sorry.
No it's totally fine. What if I got super angry?
No, I'm sorry for you.
Jesus Christ, you know what? Go get the car. Uh, we just started editing it. So we shot it in late February in Charleston, South Carolina. Scott Moran directed it.
And he put a team of guys together to help shoot it and I got some friends to kind of help out doing different things. I was gone for a while, and I also wanted to not look at the footage, but as of just yesterday I kind of started putting the introduction of it together, which is cool. I can't say as of now if i'll love it or I'll hate it. I think that's kind of hard. I think with any art form, someone could see it and say, “Oh wow, that was great” and you can be like “C+” you know what I mean?
Has it always been hard for you to watch yourself?
When I first started ten years ago, I was doing the tape recorder and mini-tapes which I still have. I would go back and listen to it, but I didn't really like listening to it. Also I didn't like that I couldn't see it. Then when I started videotaping myself, I was too lazy, because at that time that was like a mini-DV camcorder where you would hope your friend would press record at the right time and not leave. I only did that a couple times because I felt like, ugh I gotta carry all this. It ruined the simplicity of just going to a show where all you need is your notebook.
So I only did that so many times, and I was able to watch those sets OK, and then I just didn't really record at all for a while. Then I'd say probably like three, four years ago I started recording a lot with a flipcam, and I was able to watch it but not only watch it but like, enjoy it and laugh. I was so happy—as weird as that sounds—I was so happy that I could watch a set and laugh at it like I was in the audience. I felt that it was really important to be able to do that.
I think that's huge.
To be able to laugh at yourself. It's like, well now you have full confidence that you really do believe in the comedy that you're doing. I'm laughing it at, I'm genuinely laughing at it even though I'd feel like a psycho if you catch me and say, “are you laughing at your own self?” Like how ego driven could you possibly be? But now I don't record myself as much because I'm not using a flipcam anymore. I don't want to leave my phone or ask a friend. I feel horrible like, “Hey Allen could you hold this phone for 10 minutes while I…” When someone asks me to do it, I'm like, “ugh, God."
I voice record all the time, every show; just in case I improvise a line, or a joke finally comes together, then I know I can go back and see exactly how I got it right. So strangely enough to make this answer even longer, I don't really do it now. The old me would have dove right in to watch that special. I am curious to see what it looks like and excited to chop it together and make it look better than it even was before, through the power of editing. It doesn't excite me as much now, and I think I'm at a point where I'm a little bit over the material. So I'm like, well I don't want to go back and I haven't written anything super new.
Right. I remember doing Hot Tub [with Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunholer] with you, and it was like a while after you had taped it so you were saying, “I feel like I just now cracked the code on some of these jokes.” It's like, “can I do it again?”
I know! That is so the disease—disease? Why would I use that?
Cause we're dying.
Yeah, that's the horrific disease we have. A lot of those jokes I actually do really like now and I'm like, “Oh that joke is really where it should be now.” But I recorded…
How long is the master footage from the special and how long are you trying to make it?
It was two shows, but I'll probably cut it to try and make it 40 or 50 minutes. I did a lot. Over the course of ten years I've set up cameras and told people “I'm recording.” But I was too stupid to know I didn't even have a product to record. But doing this one on my own, I was like “Alright, we're going to really pay people. We're going to really do a budget. I'm going to really do it on my own.”
However this thing turns out, I could end up loving the product or I might end up just liking it. I don't think I'll hate it, but the thing I am going to walk away with is I feel like I definitely learned a lot about what I want to do for the next thing. To me, that's what we do; even when you get on stage the first time. People are like, “I want it to go really well." Well, it's probably going to go okay, but it might show you enough information or teach you enough so that the next one is even better. Yeah it's weird. I don't know, I think I'm going to be really proud of it in the end.
It sounds like the shows were different. One show was 80 minutes. Does that mean, you have your tight jokes you want to talk about but does that mean if anything happens in the crowd you were just going to go for it?
Yeah, I was super loose about it. I was super loose because there were a lot of things that I…this is why I did it on my own, because I wanted to make sure that if those moments happen I didn't want someone else telling me what my set had to look like. In my times performing on television, I don't like someone trying to fit what we do into like, “Well you're a comedian so when you come on the show, this is what comedians do.” It's like, well what? Do you tell every band to play the same song when they come in? No, it just so happens they're all different. People don't see stand-up as, “oh all of these people coming in are completely different.” Just because they have a microphone and a stool doesn't mean they're doing the exact same thing.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but it just seems like you've got a lot going on right now. Right? You got the show on TBS, that got picked up again right?
Season two starts taping I think in August.
How grueling is it?
Zero of it is grueling. It's fantastic. I mean for someone whose main income—only income—for however long has been doing stand-up and going on the road. The fact that I get to be in town and sleep on my own bed for 3 straight months or four months. That alone gives me no room to complain, but also the hours are great, the whole cast is great, the staff is great. Everyone is fun. I really have no complaints.
Does that mean you really scale back on the road?
During that time, I try to. I mean I love stand-up, but I go in and out of it. My love for stand-up goes up and down. If I have something new and exciting that I really like, then it's really fun or if I'm playing really fun clubs. I also want to be able to learn how to be an actor, and be a good actor. The only way to really do it is to take myself out of stand-up, even locally I wouldn't get up as much as I usually would, just to be like, “my job right now is this show and I really want to be good at this show."
Coming from stand-up being my only income, when I see an empty weekend, I panic. Oh my god, I've got to fill it. I need the paycheck, I need the work. If I stop performing, I'm going to lose whatever it is that we do. My sense of humor will be gone. I won't remember how to perform. Stand-up gets inside you like that—when you're not doing it, you have that fear that you're never going to be able to do it again.
Which is weird. I heard on that Seinfeld documentary, Comedian from like ten years, fifteen years ago…
That was a while ago. It was like 40 years ago.
It was 300 years ago. Right after the Roman empire had just collapsed. Watching that right before I did stand-up, I heard someone say, “If you stop, you feel like you're going lose your ability to do it." I thought that sounded so stupid, and after doing it, I see what he means. I don't think you'll forget how to do it but you'll have to legitimately start all over and remember your pace again and get your confidence.
On the other hand, when you're doing it every night—even if it's just a little set—every night blends together that kind of messes with your head a little bit.
It's weird for 10 straight years I feel like I've just been on this train. You just get on it you start performing and you forget who you used to be. Your normal rhythm of life is completely gone, because you're doing shows. You even surprise yourself with your willingness to work for so cheap, or even free. You would have never thought you were like that but you end up loving it so much that even early on when someone's like, “You need to drive out here for two hours and I can give you $40,” and you're like, “Okay, I'll be there.” It's weird, but it's also great to know that's how fun the job is, and that's how much you love it.
Even all those painful times of starting over; those times you have to find new material and go on stage, and work for it—to know how painful it is to know that you're good at this, but you have to go up five straight times in a row and bomb. That's how much you love it, you're willing to feel absolutely miserable for it.
It is true, that's the "job" part of it. I even think about that with driving around open mics and shows. That's part of the job. Hanging out with people, that's part of the job. Being nice.
That's also why it's hard to complain about it because my job is hanging out with my friends. That's why when there's a show that I'm on, and I don't really know anybody on it, no matter how the set goes I don't really enjoy it. What I enjoy, and where I think more material comes from, is hanging out with friends before and during the show. That's when you start riffing things, and you're like, “That's a good idea,” and your friends are right there with you to help you write it.
I've never understood comics who have a competitive attitude or don't socialize. The people who are actively like, “No, no, no I'm trying to make it. Just trying to make it. There's one job available.”
Yeah, you've got to be a good person on some level.
I don't know how people aren't. It's like, even in a manner of competition, how are you not wired to just not want to have friends? Why would you be wired to look at someone and just status judge them?
Yeah well some of it is like—I'm not saying every comic had a bad high school experience, but I would say 90 percent of them at least profess to, “I didn't have any friends growing up and no one got me." Well it's like, now you have been given a gift. You have family. You can have the biggest family in the fucking world if you want it. All you have to do is be funny and nice. Do you have anything else beside the special and the show, going on? On the horizon, or just things you're thinking about trying to do?
You know, I want to write a short film. I've always wanted to since high school to make movies. My aunt had a camcorder. It never occurred to me what you could do with a camcorder. There was one vacation my aunt had just gotten a super 8 and she said we should make a movie with it, and it was like all of a sudden my brain exploded. Oh yeah, we could make a thing with this—it's not just for family events. On vacation I made a movie with all my siblings.