At this point, if we’ve seen one opening to a stand-up special, we’ve seen them all. Some be-suited dude in a dressing room walks through the back halls of a massive theatre, or sits with his head in his hands, or strolls through the streets of New York before walking directly on stage, as if that happens. As stand-up specials become more filmic, they begin to carry with them more filmic tropes, and it turns out the “self-important cold open” is just the first of a new set of stand-up clichés that Rory Scovel sets out to lampoon in his Netflix special Rory Scovel Tries Stand-Up For The First Time.
Not that he sees the opening sequence—a longer than average steadycam shot that follows a hard-partying, rock and roll comic (Scovel) as he blows rails and brags about having people killed—as any kind of attack on his contemporaries. “The themes of that [opening] grew out of social media comments and what people who don’t do stand-up maybe think stand-up is,” says Scovel. “Whether they think it’s a glorious occupation or they think comics are rock stars. But in reality… it’s a fun job but it’s not like comics are cool people.”
The result is hilarious—a sequence of such roaring, absurd excess and ‘70s renegade cinema flourishes (complete with cooing backup singers heralding this comedian like he’s Shaft) that of course it only exists in the mind of the naive “real-life” Scovel, who wakes from his dream to realize he has to go onstage to do stand-up, and he has no idea how.
“I kind of like that it started a little off-kilter,” says Scovel. “So that anybody who does watch it, they’re not going into it going ‘oh, I’m watching a special, and I’m hitting play, and there’s the comedian, and the jokes are starting…’ I kinda wanted something that would jar people out of their expectations twice.”
While the title of the special is of course facetious, as a framing device it does hit on an element of his stand-up that distinguishes Scovel from his peers—a freewheeling, fluid style that makes his relationship with his audience truly symbiotic. Under the right circumstances, you could be forgiven for thinking Scovel actually was making it all up as he went along, and succeeding. ”The foundation is built out of improv,” he says. “So even when the joke is completely cemented, a lot of the wording came out of me floundering around trying to find it.”
And Scovel, known best for his roles on sitcoms like Those Who Can’t, Undateable and Ground Floor, has managed to jar people out of their expectations more than twice over the course of his comedy career. His previous releases include Dilation, an album that showcases his improvisational knack for following the fun as well as any modern comedy release, a 2015 Seeso special and a vinyl-only recording for Jack White’s Third Man Records (a connection that plays into this special in a way that’s best left a surprise).
The Netflix release will no doubt bring Scovel to a wider audience, the same way it has boosted the profiles of Bo Burnham, Neal Brennan, Chelsea Peretti and others. But while Netflix has a great track record with its original specials so far, the Netflix audience hasn’t really been exposed to this level of experimentation in a comedy release. Scovel brings with him a gleeful disregard for the trappings of stand-up as we understand it, coupled with a deep love and understanding of the history of the form and how it can be melded together in new ways. “Anything that falls near the idea of ‘Steve Martin-esque:’ I love it,” notes Scovel. “I try to build my act to be some kind of medium between—and it isn’t that I am these two people—but I think as a comic and an artist there’s Steve Martin on this end of the spectrum and Bill Hicks on this end of the spectrum.”
That’s an approach being widely adopted in the alt scene as we speak—a return to Steve Martin’s self-aware playfulness mixed with Bill Hick’s political fury—but it hasn’t really been represented on a mainstream platform until now. Scovel’s material will flirt with and occasionally embrace something more like anti-stand-up, pushing a premise as far as he can through Letterman-like repetition before spiraling into a flurry of punchlines on the subject. The special begins with tactless question posed to the audience; have they ever had anal sex? But it isn’t rhetorical, and Scovel continues to ask the question so many times he can eventually suggest that this may be the only joke in his arsenal.
“That joke started by repetition,” says Scovel. “Saying something over and over again, seeing if the crowd would laugh at the shock of it, then lose them and then see if they’d come back around.” For him, it’s a page out of the Book of Glass (Todd), who would make sure the first joke of his set let the audience decide right away whether this was going to be for them. That way, says Scovel, “you’re not really begging anyone to watch your thing.”
Rory Scovel Tries Stand-up For The First Time is also more preoccupied with the idea of itself as a special than any special since the one-two-punch of Let’s Get Small and A Wild and Crazy Guy, only escalated and updated dramatically for modern sensibilities about what stand-up can do. The cameras are fake. The joke is his only one. When does the show start? What’s an official part of the show? That’s a perfectly natural approach, says Scovel. “It’s the only show you’re doing where ‘yes, we’re filming it, and yes, people on a larger scale will see it later…’” he says. “It’s such a rare opportunity to talk about it… I think it takes the seriousness out of it. It’s called a special… but it’s the most common thing you could do. I kind of want to eliminate the idea that this thing needs to be so formal and hopefully let people get into a sillier, loose mindframe.”
This approach can be summarized in one of Scovel’s most fervently held convictions about performing. “People say ‘never point out a joke when it bombs,’” says Scovel. “I one-hundred percent disagree. I have more fun doing a joke about a joke bombing than doing a joke that works every time.” It’s all in the name of getting the audience to chill out and take their presumed responsibilities as participants in the show less seriously. Plus, nothing makes an audience feel better than being on the same page with the comic. “The audience feels a great deal of relief when they know the performer’s not delusional,” says Scovel. Words to live by, indeed.
This consideration for where the audience is coming from goes beyond just saving them from a bomb. There is an argument to be made, and one that circulates regularly around the internet, that in these times it’s not enough for a joke to touch on political subjects if that joke is unwilling to engage with the implications and consequences of that perspective. “I was just joking” isn’t good enough anymore. In Rory Scovel Tries Stand-Up For The First Time, those two goals aren’t mutually exclusive. This special, recorded before the election but far more political than any of Scovel’s previous releases, especially when it comes to addressing the looming then-possibility of a Trump presidency, goes after the political convictions Scovel finds repugnant with Hicksian ruthlessness without sacrificing the idea that a comic can approach these topics with a certain level of irony.
“I kind of had a thought in my head that I was always doing politically charged stuff,” says Scovel. “But then I realized that during the Obama administration I just agreed with and enjoyed how things were going… Even with stuff I disagreed with, it probably didn’t get me so worked up that I felt the need to write material about it.” This is, obviously, not the case anymore.
But all of this is not to say that, in the current climate, any joke that takes aim at Trump and the GOP is a good or worthwhile one. “[It’s] such a circus right now,” says Scovel. “I think I’d be doing myself a mental disservice if I just buried it… But we’re all drowning in it every single day, so that joke about it needs to be very, very good or you need to have other stuff because you can’t just talk about things that people are getting pretty tired of.”
Ultimately, the fact that Rory Scovel Tries Stand-Up For The First Time is bound to alley-oop a career trajectory that sees him taking time away from stand-up to do more acting work (including a supporting role in Demetri Martin’s directorial debut Dean) will benefit his stand-up itself, even as it joins the vanguard of comedy specials pushing the community on to new and more interesting horizons. “Something that makes stand-up more fun for me is that I sometimes have to step away from it for a little bit of time as opposed to financially relying on it all of the time,” Scovel notes. “That’s been a benefit for me… I get very bored with myself.”
Rory Scovel Tries Stand-up For The First Time premieres on Netflix on June 20th.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and actor. Follow him at @grahamtechler.