Comedian Rory Scovel on crowd tension, Bobcat Goldthwait and why Aurora didn't steal Batman from him
Baby-faced Rory Scovel has been lighting up the comedy world with his classic observational humor, mixed with context-free voices that he applies randomly to no particular jokes or bits (he's been known to drift into a German accent at random points in the show, and may or may not continue with it throughout an entire set). After making the rounds of festivals and late-night television and starring in his own Comedy Central special, Scovel recently ventured into the dangerous world of sitcoms, selling a pilot to ABC in which he stars. Scovel will be performing through Sunday, February 3 at Comedy Works, and he recently sat down with us to chat improv, comedy politics and why the Aurora theater shootings could not destroy his pervasive obsession with Batman.
Westword:When was the last time you were in Denver?
Rory Scovel: I was just in town before Christmas to host a One Republic charity show. I introduced a few bands and tried to tell jokes, but that's always the worst setting for comedy.
I hear a lot of comedians say that. Which is a shame, since there's so much overlap between fans of music and standup.
Yeah, it can work in smaller settings, but in a bigger theater it can be tough. They're listening to loud music, and they chat during it, and then a comedian comes out and you have to be quiet and listen to the details. It's too back and forth for people, going from shouting to dead quiet to dancing.
I once read about Andrew Dice Clay opening up for Guns N' Roses at the Rose Bowl stadium in '92. Can you imagine a comedy gig like that?
Oh, my god, yeah. In his heyday I'm sure he could crush, but if that was anything recent, it would be such a nightmare. The crowd would be like, "we're not into you anymore!"
Now that sounds like good comedy. And didn't Bobcat Goldthwait bomb really bad while opening for Nirvana on one of its tours?
Yeah, he's such a great guy, he was the first comic I ever officially worked with for a weekend of standup. The first time he told me about Nirvana, I pictured a nightmare, and then the more I got to know him, I thought, I bet he enjoyed having to fight the crowd to bring out Nirvana. He did the Sasquatch Festival, and when someone heckled him he replied, "I'm the only one in this whole festival who's ever opened for Nirvana!" He'll always have that in his backpocket.
Have you ever enjoyed having a bit of negative tension with a crowd?
Definitely. And there are two ways you can do it. If you're being a dick and the audience doesn't like you, then it's probably your fault. But then there's times when it's just not connecting, the crowd and the performer just aren't hitting it off. And in those moments I have reverted to just be annoying, saying punch lines over and over again. It can be fun, but it's nothing I ever look forward to.
I imagine in those instances there's at least a few people who see the comedy in that kind of awkward tension.
Oh, yeah. I did a show in Des Moines on a Wednesday, and I think half the crowd was there to see me and half the crowd were just there. And they were really split, with half the crowd loving that I was getting weird, and the other half hating that I was getting weird. So I kept getting weirder, because it made the one side hate me more, and the other side like me more for them hating me.
In those moments I'd assume many comics would panic and go blank -- has your experience in improv helped you deal with things like that?
For sure. It's like, I have jokes that get everybody, and others that get some people, but sometimes I'm working on a joke and it gets no one -- and in that moment there is a little bit of a panic that you've lost everyone, and your brain shuts down and you can't figure out how to get them back. It's so important to remain calm so you can figure out a way to get out of it. There are comics that will be like "fuck this crowd, they don't get it." But you may have been able to pull them back, you just need to switch topics, but because your brain shut down you couldn't figure out what that topic should be.
I suppose those comics are the type of people who see themselves as a victim of a bad crowd, instead of focusing on their shortcomings as a performer.
Yeah, but sometimes it is a shitty crowd. If you're doing a club I always refuse to believe that that many people aren't on board. It's usually a give and take, you probably said something offensive, the crowd didn't like it, and then you went all right, I'll show you how offensive I can be. As opposed to thinking, well, maybe I don't need to do all ten abortion jokes right now.
This is probably a fairly petty question to ask, but did the Aurora shootings ruin your experience of watching The Dark Knight Rises? You did a "Modern Comedian" episode surrounding your Batman obsession and experience going to see the film, and it seemed in the footage that you heard about the shooting right before going into the theater.
Literally right before. Scott was filming and just happened to get that moment, and then we realized what the episode was going to be about.
In that episode you'd built up your anticipation for the movie so much, I couldn't help but wonder what a let-down that was.
Yeah, I totally wasn't able to enjoy it. There are so many things going through your brain, we were all on guard, wondering if something was going to happen here, even though that was unrealistic. First, your heart is broken thinking about the tragedy, and then here you are in a similar setting where it occurred. So I was picturing details in my head, as everyone else probably was.
And with that in the back of my head the whole time, I feel like I didn't even watch the movie. I feel like I just sat through it.
But while I was watching the Modern Comedian episode, I kept thinking, "The movie was stolen from him!" I know you don't want to take pity on yourself after something so awful happened, there was obviously a bigger tragedy occurring, but if the release of a new Belle & Sebastian album was eclipsed and defined by a mass shooting, I'd feel real cheated.
Strangely enough, that even occurred to me when thinking of those people in the theater. They were just there to see that movie. I know what you mean: Sure, the movie was taken away from me, and while that thought doesn't overpower the tragedy, I will acknowledge that I was so excited for so long to see the movie, and now that experience was taken away. But then the next thought is: I can't believe I'm complaining about not seeing this movie.
Immediately after that you have to go on stage, and the original plan for the episode was for you to dig out all the Batman jokes that you'd written up over the years, but you were conflicted, for obvious reasons. In the end, you decided to go ahead with the Batman jokes -- I'm curious about what lead you to that decision.
After the shooting occurred, I didn't want to go on stage talking about Batman to be like, "Hey, looks who's not afraid to touch on this topic!" But I ultimately decided to do it because I felt like, for me, and for some people in the crowd, those two things aren't necessarily related. It could've been any movie. The guy chose a blockbuster; so it could've been Mission Impossible or Transformers. But it was Batman. So I wanted to go up there and not talk about the theater, just do the Batman jokes the way I'd always done them, and not even bring up that it had even happened. No pandering. No asking for a moment of silence. And I don't say that in a disrespectful way. I just wanted to have jokes about Batman and see if we can disconnect this tragedy from that.
This may sound bombastic, but it sounds like you were trying to reclaim Batman from James Holmes.
Yeah, I kind of wanted that to be the case. I don't want every time we think of Batman we think of [the Aurora shooting].
While driving home from the movie, you sarcastically said something to the affect of "I'm sure glad I live in a country where pot's illegal and guns like this are accessible." Yet since that time there's been significant legislative changes on both of those issues. Does it feel like we're making progress? I don't know. Things are progressing legally, on paper. I'm not one of these people that are full-on "get rid of all guns." I think, like most people, it should be monitored. I'm more for changing public perception -- like, pot has a horrible reputation, but really for no reason. There are rumors out there about it, and people would rather buy into those rumors rather than know the truth about pot. So while I think it's good that Colorado and Washington has legalized pot, I'm more interested to see people noticing that crime doesn't change, or it goes down.
To me it's the same with people's perception of guns. Like, we should be looking at what kinds of guns are accessible to what kinds of people. Instead of the way it's been, where someone just says "guns!" and everyone sticks to their side of the argument.
I can totally see why someone would want a gun to protect their home or hunt, but anyone who says they need a gun to protect themselves from the government is insane. The government has invisible soldiers that we don't even know about. We read about these drones, and it's like, what militia is going to overpower that!
Do you think that comedy is becoming oversaturated with marijuana jokes? It seems like an easy way to win over an audience without any authenticity
I'm one of those people who thinks that every topic is fine, but you gotta have something on it. I think about that with my pot material. I used to talk about my experience with pot, and still do, but now I add people's opinions on it, and why they don't like it. I do smoke a lot of pot and a lot of my ideas come from that, but I have to talk about what people are saying about it.
It's like those cooking shows where people are doing stuff that's been done before, but what matters is who is doing it and how they're doing it. I see jokes that way, too. Is this chef going to make something that people have already made, or do you have something to add to it, a different approach to it?
Sometimes you'll do an entire set in a Southern accent, without it being a character or related to any kind of bit. What is it that you feel this accent exudes, or what kind of emotion are you trying to portray with that accent that you don't get with your everyday speaking voice?
It comes out at a point where the vibe feels right to just be silly and change things up. It's not matched with any specific joke. When I started doing it, it was matched with specific material; I built a character who had three DUIs and was a drug addict and used to coach little league and his wife was divorcing him. And that backstory definitely steered how the jokes went. But then I realized that I just enjoyed going in and out of voices for whatever reason, not as a character.
That comes from the music that I really love. If you're seeing a band like Phish, live, there are moments where you're like, "I don't know what song we're on? This guitar solo is ten minutes long and I don't remember how the song started." And so I apply that to what I do, so I have to change things as I'm performing, making people wonder "Why has he been talking in a German accent for the last five minutes?"
So why not let people know I'm from South Carolina, and do the jokes the way I've written them, but do it all in a German accent? I think some people love that I do that, but I definitely lose some people, too.
That's really fascinating, because it sounds like you're talking about a kind of context-free comedy. You can get away with abstract art in music or paintings and sometimes in film, but rarely in standup, because it's essentially storytelling, which is all about context. And it's more about the context of the storyteller than the story.
Yeah, I love that you can just change the context. I'll keep the jokes the same, but someone else is saying it. So if someone likes the joke, and they like that I'm doing it in an accent, they get double the joy out of the joke. Sometimes I'll do a joke in an accent, and just keep that accent on for fifty minutes, just because I got into a groove with it.
This is somewhat of a dated question, but when your friend Todd Glass came out as gay on Marc Maron's podcast last year, it was a big deal. Yet if he were a musician or a musical theater performer, his career definitely wouldn't have kept him in the closet. Why is the comedy world so many years behind politically?
I thought that particular moment was so beautiful, because it gave us the opportunity to listen to him say so many things about growing up gay and why he never came out before. I grew up in South Carolina, and the person I am now at 32 is so different than the person I was at 23 when I left. And it's because of moments like that podcast that opened my eyes to how I should treat people, and how I'd been treating people. I would like to think that it had the same affect on a lot of comics and how they approach standup.
I'd like to think that because people are pointing these things out, that other comedians are going to want to shed that aspect of comedy, and stop saying things like "women aren't funny," or something homophobic.
You recently sold a sitcom pilot to ABC that would star you as the lead. Do you worry that, even if you are successful at this, you're entering into a legacy of standups-into-TV nightmares like Tim Allen and Ray Romano, people who would never get respect in any worthwhile comedy scene?
It is in the back of my mind. I could hang up this phone and find out in a minute that ABC isn't going to do the show. It's a strange business, because if you're doing standup but you want to get into acting or writing, then you kind of have to take what comes. But you don't want to take a job just to take it, just for the money or exposure. Because it could certainly lead to what you just said.
I think someone like Louis C.K. just really likes to create content, and that's what I'd like to do, in addition to acting. I think that's the best way to get yourself out there. I think with Tim Allen and Ray Romano, when their shows end they're not like, "Oh I've got this movie I really want to make, or I like what's happening with Adult Swim, maybe I'll make a weird Ray Romano show for them."
I think with those guys somebody took what they were doing on stage and made it family-friendly. Whereas with someone like Seinfeld or Louis C.K., they created a show that just complemented what they were doing on stage.
But both Seinfeld and Louis had a lot of creative control -- I can't imagine that ABC at the pilot stage would just hand over the reins to you like that.
That's the thing. I pitched it as being like Married With Children kind of comedy, something edgier. I know you can only be so edgy with a network TV show, but when I was a kid I wasn't allowed to watch Married With Children. And when we pitched it, we said we wanted to make a show that parents wouldn't allow their kids to watch, because it's too much for them.
But that could change at the drop of a hat. Some producer will be like, "We'll make it, if you change everything."
Rory Scovel will perform at the downtown Comedy Works at 8 p.m. Thursday, January 31, and again at 10 p.m. on Friday, February 1, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, February 2, and 9:45 p.m. on Sunday. Rickets are $14 to $22; for more information,visit www.comedyworks.com.
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