Rory Scovel’s newest hour, entitled Rory Scovel Tries Stand-Up for the First Time, dropped today on Netflix. If you haven’t watched it yet, please bookmark this article and come back after you’ve seen it because this is the kind of special that is best viewed with little to no advance information. Conceptually the special encapsulates the vibe that Scovel has been honing for most of his career, that of jangly in-the-moment absurdism combined with a shell game of expectation. Though not a household name, he’s earned enough notoriety to manipulate the standard comedy special blueprint into something that is both a uniquely personal piece of art and a seemingly unintentional proclamation on the state of standup comedy today. “I think what I like about this special is that it’s pretty reflective of where I feel that I’m personally at in my career. I feel like I’m on the back end of paying my dues in the world of exposure.” I had an in-depth chat with Scovel about the special, Jack White, and delusion.
Ok, this special is fucking cool, man.
Thanks, dude. I appreciate that. We kind of didn’t know what to expect. I feel like it was a huge learning experience.
Right in the opening credits I saw Jack White’s name. I know you have a connection with Third Man Records from doing an album with them in 2013. Third Man is so selective about who records there and the list of comedians is very small. Do you feel honored to be in that club?
For sure. I absolutely love it. They’ve been phenomenal to work with. To even get the call to come and do that vinyl back then was one of those…I feel like in the world of standup comedy there’s not a ton of opportunity to feel like you’re cool. After I got to know Jack and Ben Swank at Third Man a little bit, when we were getting ready to shoot this special I thought, “I wonder if they’re willing to expand and do something more?” They couldn’t have been cooler and more gung-ho to try it.
From everything I’ve heard about Third Man they seem to be very hands-on in working with the artists. Can you take me through the process and describe how much creative control and involvement you had?
It wasn’t so much new territory for me because it’s my second special, but I would say it’s new territory just because this is the first time I went with more of a traditional route in getting someone else to produce it. When I reached out to them and kind of mentioned that I was going to shoot this special I felt like I was in a sort of good position with my exposure and limited popularity in the world of standup that it would be pretty successful. I don’t even know if they took too much time to think about it. They were like, “Yeah, let’s try it out.” Not long after, myself and the director Scott Moran and his crew started piecing together what we wanted to do. Literally the entire time everyone at Third Man, when we would tell them what we wanted to shoot and were getting a budget together, couldn’t have been more “letting me artist do what the artist does.” There really wasn’t any pushback on what we were doing in terms of the ideas, where we would shoot it, and how we would shoot it. Ben got back to us every time and was very “yes, and” about everything, even tossing out his own ideas that played off of ours.
It was cool to see the segment in the middle of the special when Ben and Jack pop in. People have their conceptions about Jack White, but he seems like a good sport and is actually pretty funny.
I think he’s hilarious. He’s come to see some shows in Nashville and I’ve gotten to know him a little bit and honestly, I found him and Ben both to be really funny every time we’ve hung out. I also love how the entire Third Man thing, like you were just saying, is a lot of his friends and family who help run it. It’s very self-contained with them doing their own thing. You can tell that both of them have that magnetic personality. When we came up with the sketch to do in the middle, we pitched it to them and they were like, “Great, will come to Nashville, set up the Blue Room, and make it look legit.”
The title is hilarious. Can you explain the thinking behind naming it Rory Scovel Tries Stand-Up for the First Time?
We were trying to think of something that made us laugh, but wasn’t a play on words or a pun. I also feel with a lot of my stuff I’m trying to find a title that is probably more relevant to a band than it is to a comedian. That makes me feel a little desperate, like I’m trying to find a cool-sounding title. Scott and I were sitting in my living room and I said, “What if it’s more of a full sentence instead of a title and it’s an absolute lie?” The thing I liked about it was that if we were fortunate enough to sell it at a place like Netflix that’s going to get a lot of eyeballs, whether people like it or hate it, it’s funny to think that there will be people who could legit click to watch it because they truly think it’s someone trying to do standup for the first time. Just the idea of that made me laugh so much.
You’ve made a career out of playing with people’s expectations and perceptions of what your comedy is. The first time I ever saw your standup was a clip where you were doing this Southern office worker kind of character. The whole clip was just that. I thought, “It’s kind of cool that this good ol’ boy is just doing comedy about his boring office job.” Then I saw another clip of yours and was like, “Aw, shit.” I felt duped in a good way. I’m not the only person who has had that experience.
When I first started doing that Southern character, and even this German character, there was something I liked about getting introduced as myself and kind of leaving a big question mark as to why I was doing these characters. When I first started doing them I didn’t really have a reason, other than it made me laugh and I thought it was funny. I think I’ve looked at all of my comedy as if it makes me laugh, that’s the thing I should try performance-wise. Then I truly became addicted to doing those characters. I’ve read comments on videos where people were debating whether it’s my real voice or not. I love the idea of someone watching something for the first time and thinking, “Oh, he’s this Southern comic,” and then hopefully when they realize it’s not true maybe there’s some kind of fun joy in being like, “Maybe I get a few different flavors with this guy.”
We don’t really live in an age of mystery anymore, so the idea of creating something that somebody would see and genuinely question whether it’s real or not is pretty exciting. It reminds me of the first time I saw a VHS copy of a copy of the Jesco White Dancing Outlaw movie. I remember watching it with my friends and wondering how real it was and having no way to really verify any of it.
Yeah, the internet took that away from everybody, the mystery of those kind of things.
The intro to the special plays with the concept of you being a self-absorbed, rude, rockstar type of performer. Did that character come from something you’ve witnessed personally or your own personal battle with becoming more recognizable and having to fight your own ego?
I think initially it was trying to build up this dream sequence where for five minutes people would be like, “What the fuck are we watching? Is he about to tell jokes?” And then I love pulling the rug really quickly with the punchline of Ben Kronberg smacking me in the face and it being the thing that truly fits the format of trying standup for the first time. It wasn’t anything that we we’re trying to make a deeper point about, but I do think that, from comments I’ve seen online, some people have a perception that comedy is such a rockstar thing. I think they think that either comics make a lot of money and have a lot of popularity or they like to tell comics that they’re not funny and not popular. All of those things that I’ve seen on social media kind of lead to creating a guy who thinks that in his first standup set he’ll be worshipped like a god and then immediately is put back in his place when the guy who introduces him doesn’t even say his name correctly. I think I wanted to play on the theme of delusion.