Rory Scovel on improv, alt comedy, and (considering) doing standup on 'shrooms
Rory Scovel constantly defies the conventions of modern standup, but he also flatly rejects the "alt comic" tag. A South Carolina native, Scovel's act is a potent mixture of zany digressions, non-stop ad-libbing, and absurdist one-liners that makes him one of the most unique comedy acts of his generation. Despite his Dixieland roots, Scovel -- much like his Southern cohorts Sean Patton (Louisiana) and Nate Bargatze (Tennessee) -- isn't some blue-collar yahoo. And while some performers might dread crowd work, and wouldn't dare stray too far from their material, Scovel relishes the opportunity of rarely -- if ever -- doing the same show twice.
You've spoken openly about doing a lot of your sets high. Have you ever considered doing one on mushrooms?
I think there will be a day when I try it. But for me, it's such a meditative spiritual experience that I don't know if the output would be interesting or be controllable. When I'm sitting in the woods by myself in the sunshine and completely out there on mushrooms, I don't talk really at all. I just completely shut down and internalize everything.
There has been times when I've gone onstage hours after doing mushrooms while I was coming down, and that was a lot of fun and a unique, different experience. I'm sure there will be a day, but I don't want to do it and have a complete meltdown. I feel like I come close to that on pot sometimes, and I probably sound like a psychopath.
You just finished up a month of shows in Canada. Does the whacky Southerner character perform as well in other countries?
I think so. I just do it anyways, but I don't do it the whole show. I can't really tell if they just don't find it funny or it just doesn't translate as well, but it varies from show to show. Sometimes it's very well received, and other times its not and I'm not sure why that might be.
When you started out, were you ever just doing jokes? Or have you always made an effort to incorporate improv?
I started taking improv lessons right around the time I started doing standup. So I don't necessarily make a conscious effort to do one or the other. I just kind of go with it, and try to make the show more 'in the moment.' When I started out early on, I would just go up there and make sure I didn't do horrible. I guess now the way I approach it is to try to do both and just see what happens. But even early on I never passed up a moment to have a tangent or some kind of spontaneous something.
When you started doing that, did you ever feel like you were breaking rules? Did older comics ever advise against it?
No, not really. I don't think anyone really had an opinion on it. I'm sure there are some people who think it's weird, or they don't think it's traditional. When people have that opinion on how someone does something, it kind of weirds me out because I don't understand what the problem would be. 'Well you're getting laughs, but you're not doing it the right way!'
I don't think there is a right way or a wrong way or any set way. I think it's just a show that you do, and the element of the show is you are onstage by yourself in front of a microphone. And that's the only thing to keep constant.
Some people have told me they think I'm an alt comic. But I don't think that's valid, either. I get that description mostly from people who just don't like alt comedy, and think I'm an alt comic just because I'm not just going up there and talking about my wife or something.
It seems like the only people ever talking about alt comedy are the people who don't like alt comedy.
And I get where that came from, and people like having a traditional idea of standup. But to me, you're just doing what you are good at. And some people are great writers who have great delivery -- someone like Jerry Seinfeld. But then you have people who have great delivery and horrible writing. And they can sometimes be just as successful. I'm sure guys who go up with a guitar and tell jokes get criticized just as heavily by the same people who criticize alt comedy. To me, it's just people who don't enjoy the flavor of it. I like it because they do whatever they want to do. And it's either funny or it's not.
You're a guy who never does the same show twice. What's the biggest challenge that comes with trying to make it consistently interesting?
If anything, I do it to keep myself from getting bored. There's no real trick to it or anything. I just never want to define how the joke goes. I think it's just a matter of staying relaxed, and generally being conversational in your act, as opposed to being robotic. Though I genuinely have nothing against the robotic style either, because some guys and women go up and crush doing that.
To me, I think it's very important to sell your personality and that's a starting point to what makes each show different. The lighting, the chemistry, the sound, how drunk the audience is, how the comedy treats the audience, the ambience of the room -- all those things are super fickle and heavily influence your attitude and your energy towards the crowd and the crowd's energy towards you.
So nowadays do you ever just sit down and write jokes?
Yeah, I walk around and try to think of stuff. If something is funny or an idea hits me that's funny, I write it down. I wish I was better at sitting and writing out jokes. But it just hasn't been like that. Even in school, I never really sat down to focus on the homework or the lesson or whatever I was having to do. I'm just too antsy and ADD and need to be physical to find that thing that people who sit down and write find.
You've said that you're making more of an effort to have more polished material. Do you find that hinders your performance at all?
I think it makes it that much better. I'm always going to get into my act and get into jokes for every show, and when I do find myself talking about a certain topic and it pops in my head, it's great to know that joke is really going to work out and is going to make the show that much better.
What was the biggest challenged you faced when you first started out?
I feel like I could name so many things. The whole 'learning the process' is such a weird struggle for everybody. I guess the struggle early on was figuring out what that next step was supposed to be. I spent three years in D.C., and I didn't really understand what you do. People were like, 'Oh, you move to another city.'
But what does that mean? When do you start working? When do you make this your job? And how do you do that? So, I think my struggle early on was trying to figure what moving even meant. Like, what is the goal of it? Turns out it's just one of those things you don't really find out until you just do it.
What's the biggest challenge you face today?
Trying to figure out what to talk about onstage. I think when you're evolving onstage as an artist, you're also trying to figure out how to evolve in your process and your art. Right now, I'm struggling to figure out what my process is in generating new material and how to find it. And how hard I should be working now that I'm a full-time comedian doing these things.
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