The Fearless and Peerless Rory Scovel

Comedy Features Rory Scovel
The Fearless and Peerless Rory Scovel

The first time I saw Rory Scovel do stand-up was on Conan in 2012. He came out with a bowling jacket, tucked-in plaid shirt, a bottle of beer, and a thick Southern accent. His five minute set of jokes about it still being legal to hide in public was just absurd enough to intrigue me. So a few months later when I saw he was playing the events room of the Grand Stay Inn in Apple Valley, Minnesota—a way-outer exurb of Minneapolis—I went to go see him live. I bought a ticket to the 8pm Sunday night show, eager to see who I thought (based on the Conan set) might be a fresh new voice in the Southern comedy scene. Except he wasn’t a Southern guy. That night, for the nine of us who were there, he did his entire set with a German accent—delivering 60 minutes of his regular material that never really acknowledged or pointed to the accent. From that night on, I got it. I understood what it meant to be a Rory Scovel fan.

To attend one of his shows is to give up all preconceived notions of what you might be expecting from both him as a performer and stand-up comedy as an art form. You’re forced to go with it, because he is right there with you, also going with it. And because the man is an absolute tornado on stage. His energy is boundless and he’ll do anything it takes to bring his show, and comedy in general, to a new level.

At the Apollo Theater with Conan again in 2016, Scovel didn’t feel close enough to the audience, so he performed his entire set from the third row, standing on the armrests of an audience member’s seat while delivering poignant take after poignant take. A YouTube clip called “The Climb,” captures the moment at the Austin, Texas Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival when he decided to ascend 30 feet up a prop tower on the edge of the stage while doing crowd work (“There’s a lot of people here wanting this to not happen,” he says as he climbs further and further away from the safety of the ground). On Comedy Central’s The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail, walking out to the crowd’s applause, he made them continue their clapping and standing ovation through all seven minutes of his “set,” until he crowd surfed and promptly exited the stage. His Live At Third Man Records vinyl doesn’t have a side two, just a side one and three, on which he has the crowd bow their heads in prayer during a prolonged bit where he’s posing as a Christian comedian, complimenting Third Man for being brave enough to book a preacher as the main act.

Beneath these more experimental performances are endlessly silly and expansive sets. He has an innate ability to blend crowd work with written material so seamlessly that it’s sometimes difficult to tell if his written bits have begun or if Scovel is still just up there riffing off the top of his head.

I’ve spent the last 11 years seeing Scovel in small, 50-person theaters in LA to bigger, sold out rooms. Each experience watching him left me sore in the stomach, perplexed at what I’d just experienced, and eager to know what it takes for him to arrive on stage in the singular way he does.

So, in 2019, I reached out to Scovel’s people to see if I could possibly interview him while he was on a four day tour stop in Madison, Wisconsin. Despite me having zero profile-writing credentials and his team having no reason to take me seriously, I was told I could have 90 minutes to interview him. This 90-minute interview quickly turned into an entire day of conversations while driving in my 2006 Pontiac Vibe, eating dumplings, visiting a contemporary art museum, shopping for souvenirs for his daughter, hanging in the green room of the lovely Comedy On State in downtown Madison, and being a fly on the wall with Scovel seconds before he went on stage.

What’s more is that this “90-minute interview” turned into a three-year saga. Neither of us knew, meeting for the first time at the Johnson Street Public House and talking about his inspiration, what unfathomable societal, national, global, and personal events would transpire during the course of me simply trying to articulate what makes Scovel’s stand-up craft so unique. This piece attempts to unpack years of our conversations and get to the core of what makes a comedian as dynamic and experimental as Scovel tick.

“This year will be the biggest push I make in my career. I’m going to finally do the homework.”

I received this text from Scovel on January 23, 2020 which, looking back, is about the worst time in the history of humanity to start laying the groundwork for how to boost your career as a public speaker to crowded rooms of people. At the time, he was on a strong roll with his Comedians Following Tool on Tour: The Tour. If Tool was playing a city, Scovel and his friends, Nick Youssef and Freddy Scott, were doing comedy a few hours earlier just up the street at whatever venue would have them. Every show was an excuse for a trio of enormous Toolheads to see their favorite band on a nightly basis while also funding the endeavor. For Scovel, it was also an opportunity to sharpen his material at that time to an arrow-like point.

“The homework” in Scovel’s text was a callback to our initial conversation in Madison. We were talking about what would become his 2021 docu-special, Live Without Fear, where he performed and filmed an unprecedented six straight nights of fully improvised stand-up at Relapse Theater in Atlanta—no one word suggestion from the audience, no predetermined topics. He simply went on stage each night and found material in the moment. I asked if he ever listened back to those sets, or any of his sets, to find the dips in audience energy, punch up jokes, or expand upon little magic moments that he found with a certain crowd.

He replied, “If I was mature, I would do that. I would sit after each show for the next day and listen to that show and write some stuff down. I truly think that if I could get myself to do that as my process, I could really explode my career.”

Scovel admitted that laziness was to blame, but on the other hand he’s so attached to being able to retain the loose feel of his sets that perhaps listening back could chip away at the purity of the product he’s offering night in and night out.

It seemed though, at the beginning of 2020, that he was finally ready to dig in and try to reach that next level of his career. Unfortunately on March 10th, five weeks after that text, he’d perform his last stand-up set in Portland and enter the same space we all did—a prolonged dark period of quarantine, rising death tolls, economic instability, nationwide protests after the murder of George Floyd, and a world of uncertainty.

Speaking to me from the house of a family friend, who he and his wife were quarantining with for the sake of giving their kid a friend to interact with, he said through nervous laughter, “You found yourself in an interesting position where since you and I talked last, I could not have felt more ecstatic about my hour of stand-up. I could not feel more confident that I was pushing through into some new personal, mental space of how I saw performing and what to do and what it is. It’s almost fittingly beautiful to go from what I said [referring to the homework text] to there being a chance I don’t perform for maybe another year and a half.” And that was the truth. Comedy stopped, the world stopped, and he stopped thinking about it as a possibility. “Strangely calm about what stand-up will be or when it will be,” he said a few weeks later, at a time when he wasn’t really even thinking about what was once his livelihood.

Despite all things on pause, Scovel was able to make it look like he was remaining very busy. The Comedy Central series that he created and starred in, Robbie, was executive produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s now-defunct Gary Sanchez Productions and released during lockdown, despite shooting well before the pandemic. He landed a co-starring role opposite Rose Byrne in the phenomenal Apple TV+ series, Physical, whose third season is currently slated for a summer release. His aforementioned comedy special, Live Without Fear, was produced by Tim and Eric’s production company, Abso Lutely, and dropped in 2021. His weekly pseudo-advice podcast with Daniel Van Kirk, Pen Pals, was still kicking out episodes every Wednesday. Meanwhile, his longtime friend, director, and collaborator, Scott Moran, was staying equally busy cutting up all the different sets of Scovel’s that he had filmed over the years, releasing a torrent of hilarious clips over on the official Rory Scovel YouTube channel every couple of weeks.

Keeping his name out there and staying busy online was essential, because behind the scenes things were somewhat unraveling for him. Scovel was experiencing what he described to me as “a surreal hell of insanity.” This hell included the death of his landlord, who was like family to him, followed shortly thereafter by the passing of his father. On top of these significant losses in his own life, he was seeing the same horrifying COVID spikes we all were seeing every single day. Without having a stage and a microphone to grab for his usual release during this time, the weight of it all began to take a toll psychologically.

Just before wrapping production on Season 1 of Physical, he texted, “Coming up on one year off stage. Thank god I am acting now. I go to set and do bits on the cast and crew. That’s my small fix.”

Acting was never part of his grand plan, but things were falling into place for him when they needed to; he was able to provide for his family while his typical means of income was on pause. Cut to the present day and he is finally able to be back on the road with The Last Tour, almost exactly three years after his last tour was cut short. Except this time, he’s going for it like he never has before.

The Last Tour, which Scovel kicked off earlier this month and continues through July, feels like a culmination of all his comedy work up to this point.

It all started in his native South Carolina in ninth grade, in the commons of the private Episcopalian high school he’d just transferred to. He was miming an overly difficult tennis match to no one at all and caught a “cool guy sophomore” looking at his clownish behavior with what Scovel described as “disgust.” In that moment, though, Scovel felt no shame at all and that was a realization for him—he knew he was meant to be funny for people: “Whatever I could do to create laughs, whatever they were laughing at, I would keep drilling it.”

He continued to drill it, officially quitting his job after college in 2006 to do comedy full time in Washington, D.C. It was there that Scovel became enamored with comics like the late Erik Myers, who would come on as a closer and light the room on fire. “He, like myself, was a fucking clown. In the best way ever. In the way that I love it. You’d watch him and be like, I wanna be like that dude,” Scovel recalled fondly.

After D.C., he moved to New York City, where he really began honing his voice and bringing in new elements to his comedy to make it more dynamic. For example, Scovel’s go-to “Southern guy” character first made an appearance at the UCB Franklin Theater because Scovel was bored with his material at that time. He realized that if he did his same set, but in a voice that mimics his family members cut with a little bit of legendary college football coach Steve Spurrier, it could change everything and open entirely new angles for him. “It was a wildly different show and that got me excited,” he explained. “I can keep doing these jokes because now I’m filtering through this voice which changes how I feel about the jokes and how to say the jokes.”

Even in Scovel’s sets today, the Southern guy is still a powerful weapon that consistently kills. Sometimes he’ll come out for one joke, for one reaction, or depending on how Scovel’s feeling, the entire night. In the elevator from the Comedy On State green room to the stage, Scovel looked at me and said, “Might be a nice night for the Southern dude, we’ll see.” Although the character didn’t come out that night, it was clear that he was right there inside of him, ready if summoned.

After New York City, Scovel moved to LA and deepened his ability to embrace the unknown in his shows; he had enough confidence in his material to know that after any amount of unexpected detours and side tangents he could always come back to his written bits if the laughs started to slip. He also began to embed his true self further into his comedy. This is why his shows can so easily toggle between feeling freewheeling and feeling written, between questioning what the hell concrete is and questioning religion as an institution. It works because it’s Scovel—the silly class clown who grew up into an adult class clown with serious concerns about where we’re headed as a society. It also works because, in his years of experience, he’s realized that it’s not about the jokes being funny, it’s about him being fun. If he’s having fun, he knows the audience will go there with him.

Scovel is going big for The Last Tour. For one, the tour is months long, with new dates being added seemingly every week. It also has Scovel headlining the largest venues of his career. When I talked to him last month, he was on his way to get fitted for suits that he might wear on stage at bigger venues like the 1,200-capacity Wilbur Theatre in Boston, which is quite the deviation from his usual stage attire of tan pants and New Balance shoes.

Scovel’s also changing things up because The Last Tour is a little bit of a goodbye to some material that he’s extremely proud of; it’s material that didn’t fully get to the place he wanted it to before the world shut down. In that span, he applied himself to this current hour in ways he hadn’t before, listening back to sets, sitting down and writing, refining bits that came from his fully improvised sets. The result is an hour that, yes, started to take shape three years ago, but is too good for him to move on from until it’s officially out in the world.

“I have an act that doesn’t fully reflect where I might be right now. This hour has become so thematic and more personal. It’s more about me, my relationship with my wife and family, because those are the themes I had before COVID,” Scovel explained. “I’d like to see really if I can step it up a level, do this tour, shoot a special, and put this material out there that I think is really good … so if people are new to me, they can really get on board. And then I can go, ‘If you like that, I promise you I’m not gonna give you that again, because I’m in a much different space now. That thing [my current hour] is now this new thing, because what I’m really excited about is what’s next.’”

Regardless of what his current hour is or what his next hour will be, Scovel’s had years of introspection to bring it all together to be the purest expression of what he wants to communicate to the world through comedy. It’s clear that one of the most exciting comedians working today has finally done his homework, he’s making the biggest push of his stand-up career. What a wonderful time to go out and laugh.

The Last Tour is currently taking place across the U.S. through October 2023.

Mike Behrends is an alternative secular Christmas musician and writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He’s all over the internet @banjoteeth.

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