Finding the Right Headspace with Rory Scovel

Rory Scovel is a comic who, by all accounts, stands out. His talent for performing off-the-cuff spontaneous material is hard to match in the comedy scene, making each show a novel and rewarding experience. Scovel weaves skillfully in and out of his developed material and impromptu reactions to whatever seems to be happening in the room. So much so, in fact, that it’s hard to tell what’s been planned and what’s genuinely just a part of the moment.

This Friday and Saturday, Scovel will be returning to the Relapse Theater in Atlanta, Georgia where he first started to focus on and develop his penchant for the unrehearsed. This time, however, he will be coming with 45 minutes of material ready to tape for his next special, being produced by none other than Jack White’s record label, Third Man Records. This will be taking place at one of Atlanta’s Red Clay Comedy Festival, taking place from September 29th through October 1st and featuring performances from talented comedians such as Gilbert Lawand, Clayton English, Amber Nelson, Jared Logan, Jo Firestone, and Tim Dillon.

I recently chatted with Scovel over the phone about the importance of being in a good headspace, how he came to find his, and how he strives to return to it as often as possible.

Are you still in Pittsburgh?

No, we’re on the move. We were in Pittsburgh a couple nights, then last night we were in Columbus, then tonight we’re in Montgomery, just outside Cincinnati.

Are you working out the particulars of your special on the road?

Pretty much. Some of these jokes I’ve been working on for about two years on shows in LA and then going on the road for weekend work. Then I did a residency for a few weeks in LA to try and hone in on the material, but basically this whole tour, for this whole month, is to make sure I got the hour where I want it before we shoot next week.

Have you been working out parts of it individually or just as a whole?

Yeah, I’ve been doing it pretty much as a whole probably this whole tour and just tightening some stuff. It’s actually running a little too long right now, so the only thing I’m really doing is just kind of nitpicking jokes I may want to pull out of it, to maybe be the foundation of the hour after this. So that’s really all I’m working on right now, but pretty much the first thirty minutes is as-is and I then I have a back thirty, but, you know, I’m not trying to come in at sixty minutes just because we’re shooting it and stuff. I’m trying to chop a little bit out.

It’s interesting, so much of your performance is, or at least seems, entirely spontaneous. How do you account for that?

Kind of, yeah, I tried to. I kind of discovered in my first special, that I left in a lot of moments of spontaneity, which I really liked. In reality, I would say most of the set came from moments of spontaneity that I just kind of kept doing, you know, something that I enjoyed, and then just crafted into being part of the full show. Now that that’s getting hammered in place, I certainly want to leave room for anything spontaneous because it’s truly my favorite moments in any show. I think the difference between this hour and the previous special is that this time I’m not putting the hour together expecting this moment of spontaneity. This time, I’m kind of like, all right, let’s have a compact 45 to 50 minutes, and if there’s room for spontaneous stuff, we’ll definitely explore it, and then we’ll let the editing room floor decide what stays and what goes.

Sure, and the way you put it together sometimes it can be hard to tell what’s planned and what’s spontaneous. That is definitely one of the most entertaining features of your performance, you can see that you’re an authentically funny person as opposed to being exclusively rehearsed.

Thank you for saying that. I think that’s a fear of mine, that any of it ever comes across too rehearsed or too concrete. After doing the jokes over and over, they just become that naturally, because you’ve just said it so many times. I think what you just said there, that’s kind of the core of my wanting to keep anything spontaneous, because those are the moments where you can be like, well, here’s my true personality on the fly in that moment. This is my sense of humor when I haven’t had a chance to practice.

Exactly. I assume that’s sort of the sum of what you’ve been developing in yourself for most of your career, being true to yourself on stage. Was there any sort of distillable moment when you figured out how to feel more like yourself on stage?

I don’t know if there was a particular moment… I started taking improv classes when I started doing standup. I think right away there was this element of staying in the moment and really enjoying making it up as you go. Also, learning how not to panic when it wasn’t going well or if the crowd wasn’t connecting, staying loose so you can kind of work through it.

So I think maybe from the beginning there was a little bit of that mindset, but I did do a show in Seattle back in 2006, it was the first night of the Seattle Comedy Competition and I did my set in the competition. I left early to go to this show at the Capitol Hill Arts Center that this group, The People’s Republic of Komedy, put together. I got super high before the show and, for whatever reason, when I started my set and was just messing around, I wasn’t doing a joke yet and something just clicked in my head, where I was like “I’m going to try and not do any of my jokes. I’m just going to try and see what happens for 45 minutes, I’m just going to be up here and we’ll see where it goes.” It lead to doing some characters, it lead to doing some pretty crazy moments and finding some things that were really funny.

If anyone was at that show and they thought it was a good show, it’s because they had a great amount of patience. I think maybe they were intrigued by seeing something a little different and they were definitely willing to let me mill about, until I found the thing that could be funny in any given topic. There were definitely people at that show who were like, “What in the fuck, what are we watching and why did anyone give him the microphone?” I think that moment just came out of nowhere and a lot of it has to do with the fact that I was high. Also, I had been on the road away from home for over two months, going straight on the road into doing this competition, so my confidence with my jokes was high, which I think gave me the confidence to get away from them and see what else I could do. I did think that was a kind of defining moment for me, because I’ve tried to get back to that place a lot.

I really tried to, like… How can I go on stage and just make all of it up, but yet still have people leave thinking “It wasn’t an improv show or a standup show. It was just a guy on stage,” very like what Robin Williams might do, someone like him who just creates so quickly. When his back is against the wall he can just kind of fight through it. I think the same thing, it’s the only way to emulate someone like that. Not that I’m capable, but you do have to just try to do what they do, and see how you fend for yourself.

There’s one other show I did, and it’s actually why I’m shooting my special in Atlanta at the Relapse Theater, because the second time I ever had one of those shows, where I kind of just made it all up was my second time doing the 1am show at Relapse Theater. It was just 40 to 50 minutes of me really going off the cuff, and it was really much tighter and much better than the first time I did it. So, it was getting back to that place and I’ve been always trying to get there. All of those moments, that one in Seattle and the one at Relapse, it really, it did something in my mind where I’m trying to figure out, you know, where was my head? How was I able to relax into it?

Right. And I’m sure the crowd will be good for that in Atlanta. I feel like here in New York, it’s harder to find an audience that’s able to do that. Especially at the free bar shows and stuff, where there’s this feeling that everyone in the audience is paying you in time. The mentality is like, “I’m busy! I’m a New Yorker! I have places to be and I’m giving you my time!” so if you pause or wait a little while to work on a thought with an audience, a lot of times, it’s hard. It’s hard to find a crowd that will let a comic expand and…

Explore, yeah. In certain shows and even on this tour, we did a night in Portland at Mississippi Studios, not that the set was ready to go, but still, if the cameras filmed that night, we would have already had the special in the can. I wouldn’t even be looking to do other things. But the good feeling of doing a show there and then the shows in between is that this Relapse Theater in Atlanta is kind of, you know, that’s the audience they are. They’re patient, they know that you’re kind of working on something. I think maybe there’s an excitement knowing that I’m not even showing up to try to find that act, I’ve already got the hour I really liked.

Are you going to try to get it in one take or are you gonna run it a couple times?

With three shows, we’re doing a Friday show at 9pm and a Saturday show at 9pm, and then we’re gonna do a 1am show. The traditional 1am show they used to do there, we’re going to do that too. My hope is to really have the special shot in the two 9pm shows and go into that 1am show just as loose as I can possibly be and see what I can find.

Cool, that’s a good place to be, to have a surplus of material. You can sort of calmly go through this new special with the comfort of knowing where you’re headed after.

Yeah, it’s been a process I’ve had to learn. This tour is really taught me how to [do that], strangely enough. I’ve been doing standup for 12 years now and it’s only now with this tour that I realize how to really craft a tighter 45 than what I’ve been doing my whole career.

I think when you know that you have the artillery, you know that you’ve got something you can fall back on, sort of a Plan B, then you can really play in a spontaneous mode and improvise, because if at any point it’s slipping or not working, you do like the thing you can fall back on. I feel like it kind of helps you to play more confidently.

A lot of comics like to debate about whether or not “writing on stage” is valid. Do you ever weigh in on that?

Right. I don’t know, I think for me, because it’s art, whatever works for whoever. At the end of the day it’s either funny or it’s not funny. If people go on stage and they try to write on stage or try to work it out on stage, I think as a comic you have to pick your shows where you’re willing kind of be a little annoying. If I’m going to go to a coffee shop in LA, it’s okay attended, but maybe it’s not a great show, and I go on stage and I’m going to do some writing on stage, I don’t feel as bad because well, it’s not like I’m coming in and ruining this great show with a ton of momentum.

I think it’s a matter of picking and choosing when you’re going to step it up. If the audience is paying any money to get in, that obviously factors in heavily to how much writing on stage I try to do, so maybe, I try to do less or I do it in the middle, or if the joke isn’t working, I don’t push it on the crowd as much. I’ll abandon it and go on to something else, just because they paid to get in. They want to see a show and it’s kind of our obligation to deliver something.

I think in the debate on how to come up with the material, I don’t think you can define what works or what doesn’t work; we’re all just coming from a different place where you just have to go with what works for you. If you try to fit into some kind of mold, you’re probably going to miss out on some kind of personal epiphany you could discover about yourself and your craft.

I assume, also, when you get so used to just sort of spinning of onto whatever creative pathway you find ahead of you, that you would become more adept at just immediately finding the humorous element of whatever thoughts come your way. Do you feel like, when you’re performing night after night after night on the road, you can just switch into spontaneous humor more quickly?

Yeah, I think I can definitely start to ramble about something, a topic, where I can extend a joke or segue into something and have a little more confidence to talk about it just because I’ve been talking about the jokes for that topic probably; I’m going on the 25th night in a row now. There’s also the chance I don’t at all, but if I do I might stumble into it faster just because you kind of clear the pipes a little bit, getting to the point a little quicker and getting to what you think is funny about it quicker.

I definitely admire people that can do that, like Reggie Watts has made a whole career out of being able to do that. It’s astounding, I couldn’t be more jealous of that ability to go up with that kind of confidence to just know I’m going to find it, I’m going to start a thing and figure out the thing that’s funny. Either it’ll come right away or take two minutes, but I will get there. I love it.

Kate Berlant is another example. Kind of free thought, kind of stream of consciousness and kind of “just go.” She mixes it in with some bits, but that’s what’s so brilliant about it.  Her delivery is the same, so as the audience, we don’t really get to know unless you see her multiple times if what she’s doing is happening right in this moment or if she’s done this joke dozens of times. To me, that is the best art, the best salesmanship.

How did you get Jack White involved in your special?

Well, I did a vinyl record with them back in 2013; we did a vinyl at The Blue Room in Nashville, and I’ve just kind of kept in touch with him and his whole crew and anytime I’m in Nashville, I let them know that I’m doing a show and they come out in a big group. They’ve always just been really supportive and their record label hasn’t, to my knowledge, done anything like this before. I thought shooting specials isn’t the cheapest thing, but I do have the money to do it, so what can we do differently this time that we didn’t do last time? I think it would be cool to just add them to it and just say that Third Man produced this. I don’t know what caused me to go to them. I think there was also a big element of knowing that they’re artists and they take a lot of pride in letting artists be artists and make decisions about their own product. I think, as a producing company for this particular special, they would let me do it the way I want to do it and see what happens.

Definitely. I think the music industry right now is doing really great in a lot of ways that the comedy industry isn’t; they have a lot free reign, creatively.

Yeah, absolutely. Scott Moran directed the first one, and he and I have come up with some pretty fun ideas to do as an intro and outro, and kind of some stuff to shoot in the middle of the set that I’m really happy about. He was thrilled and he was pitching his own ideas. I think a lot of comedy, unfortunately, has fallen into some sort of a cookie cutter presentation. They’re more into the idea of, like, the comic is funny and then you just put them on the same stage with the same lighting and the audience just listens to the comedy. I’m not a filmmaker who gets to make his movies or make my own products really outside of my standup, so I took greater pride in knowing that however this special is purchased and however it gets seen by anyone at all, I like knowing that it’s not cookie cutter from top to bottom, it’ll be the vision I have for it. The cookie cutter business of comedy is super sad because I think the look of something is just as important as the content itself.

Sure, of course. It’s like the same thing with architecture, where it’s a lot of people go into architecture thinking “I’m going to design beautiful unique buildings!” and end up just being contracted to build a Starbucks and chain stuff like that.

Exactly. The same thing that has already been made. And you put a lot of effort in to coming up with the material. For me personally, some of these jokes are old but I would say for about two years I’ve been working on them and I think if I just threw them out there without caring how they were seen, it would just kind of feel like I wasted two years of work. This is the only time we comics get to be cool. Let’s take advantage of it.

Photo by Mindy Tucker.

Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes. If you’ve read this far you are legally required to follow him on Twitter.

Finding the Right Headspace with Rory Scovel