I’m a stand-up comedian and an actor and, hopefully, one day, a writer. But, as it stands now, I travel the world telling my observations that range from very funny to things no one is interested in, including myself. And that’s about it. We’re done.
My very first experience on stage was great, probably because it was in my college town and I made about 40 friends show up, which was the entire audience. It was an open mic poetry night. They didn’t have open mic comedy nights, so they agreed to let me tell jokes. It’s not particularly hard to relieve the tension in a room if you’re going up after three poets. All 40 of my friends were probably being assholes, like, “What the hell? Someone just tell some jokes.” So the odds were pretty stacked in my favor to please the crowd that I brought.
But it went really well, and I was immediately just all in. My sister lived in D.C. and said I could crash on her couch, so as a matter of convenience I decided that I was going to move there to do stand-up. I definitely was not ready to move to a city on my own and figure it out. I mean, I could maybe do that now, but at that time I was too immature and had no concept of how to actually grow into an adult, let alone take care of myself. God, saying it out loud is so depressing now.
It took about a month after moving for me to get to go on stage in D.C. and I bombed probably six or seven time straight. I bombed enough times in a row where it made me really think, Oh, I got lucky doing this the first time. I made the wrong decision. I’m actually not good at this.
My sister’s advice to me was that you have to hang with anything for six months to see if it’s gonna hit or not. So I was like, all right, I’ve been going up and bombing and it’s been awful, so I’ll just wait six months. And in that timeframe, it just clicked. I started doing the homework and listening to a lot of albums. People started introducing me to other comics and it all just exploded, both in terms of my enjoyment doing it but also learning how to do it properly and get the reaction I wanted.
Comics always say you never want to blame the audience. This sounds arrogant, but when you are a naturally funny person and you are on stage in front of strangers and you cannot break them or get a reaction you want, it’s either because of you or it’s because of them. There are nights when you are doing what you do and performing the way you perform, and it just isn’t working. Even if some people in the audience like you, they might conceal their laughs because they feel too exposed to laugh at something the whole room isn’t laughing at. But when you’re bombing and you know that it’s your fault, it is one of the worst feelings ever, specifically because most of us comedians need that constant validation. We crave attention. A lot of comics will say that they don’t, but you have to be a certain type of person to want to get on stage in front of strangers to see if they agree with you about things that you think are funny. That’s a kind of psychotic that’s truly special.
But I’ve learned that discomfort can actually be the joke. There are jokes I have that don’t work and never will work, but the point of them not working is for me to be able to get to the next thing that does work. When you start to learn how to do that, how to improvise some way out of it, it’s really a lot of fun. It’s sad that I’m actually more excited by jokes that don’t work than ones I know will. There’s no excitement to that.
I find that if people think you’re on their team while saying things they don’t agree with, it confuses them enough to wonder, wait, what is this?
Doing political comedy in 2018 is kind of fun. You can feel a vibe in a room where people just don’t want to talk about it. They’re like, “I came to a comic show to laugh and not have to deal with it.”
I don’t see it that way. I think when things are difficult and tough to digest is when you should talk about them. And if you can talk about them with someone who knows how to maybe make you laugh about it, there’s a good chance that you can maybe mentally cope with it all a little bit more easily—as opposed to just burying things and thinking, I’m so tired of hearing Trump’s name. I’m also not necessarily that thrilled to constantly have to say his name to get into a joke, but if, in many ways, the goal of this job is to cope with stuff that’s bothering me, then I am going to bring it up and talk about it. But my opinion of why you talk about it and you don’t shut up about it is probably different than people who are tired of hearing about it. Everything I just said is definitely very confusing.
The game is figuring out what angle to take so that you say your opinion, get the joke out, and manage to not lose anybody on either side of the aisle, left or right. There’s something very fun and challenging about saying something that is difficult to digest—that someone is not going to agree with—while not losing their attention or their faith in the show. I kind of enjoy it, to be honest. It doesn’t work every time, as you can imagine, but it’s fun to attempt.
I find that if people think you’re on their team while saying things they don’t agree with, it confuses them enough to wonder, wait, what is this? Do I like this? I will constantly tell the crowd that I voted for Trump and absolutely adore him, and then I’ll say all the things that I really believe, but then just keep reiterating, like, “I’m with you guys. I also voted for him.” And they can’t get past the idea that they think I’m on their team. Like, “Why is he saying these other things?!”
I think an interesting question to ask stand-up comics is: do you still enjoy it? I mean the comics who are maybe 10-plus years into the business and are maybe virtually unknown, or they’re very famous, or they’re at the place where I’m personally at which is kind of in this weird bubble where there are definitely people who have heard of me but I’m in no way close to mainstream. Do they still enjoy it?
I would be curious to hear other comics’ answers because my answer would be, “It comes and goes.” There are times that you really enjoy what you’re doing and you feel like you’re just unstoppable and absolutely hilarious and just great. And, literally, the next week you feel absolutely the opposite, where you cannot muster the confidence or the interest to go on stage and talk about anything yet you still do it and fumble getting the microphone out of the mic stand.
I’m constantly wondering what it actually is that I actually do when I’m on stage.
What keeps me interested in stand-up comedy is that I consistently fall in and out of love with it. It’s a relationship like any other in that you have to work on it because it’s not going to be the honeymoon phase forever like it was those first few years. You have to figure out what your artistic process is, and you have to embrace what you think it is that you do.
For someone like me, it’s difficult because I’m constantly wondering what it actually is that I actually do when I’m on stage. I’ve had people tell me what they think I’m doing, and I’ve always been like, “Oh, I don’t know that I do that, but if that’s what you think I’m doing, then maybe that’s what I do.”
It was doing standup that really got me into smoking weed. I decided one time I would try getting high before going on stage at an open mic, and it was fun. I liked that I lost track of time and all concern for how I was doing, which I think is a good and bad thing at the exact same time.
The more accessible weed has become, the less I’ve consumed it, which is so bizarre.
It became my method for writing. I would get high and put on some music and walk around my neighborhood and talk to myself. Jot down ideas, look for jokes. A lot of times, I would go on stage high—and still do every now and then—just to loosen up and to get rid of my inhibitions and see where a joke goes, or where I go, or what jokes come to mind. But as I’ve aged, I’ve learned that I’m a much better performer if I’m 100% sober. I’m sharper. But it’s also two different rides that I get to go on. I try to predict the vibe and chemistry of the room to determine how I approach it, which is probably the most mature thing I’ve ever done.
The more accessible weed has become, the less I’ve consumed it, which is so bizarre. It’s like most things that you enjoy or become obsessed with: there are certain windows for things that become such a part of your life you actually can’t imagine not doing them. That was weed for me for 12 years. I was like, This is my style. This is what I do. And then I went through a phase where I was going up sober, and I was like, Oh, I like this and I like where this is getting me. So I cut back, and that’s really all it is, because I can’t imagine I’ll ever be 100% completely not smoking. Outside of my creative output, it’s just a great stress reliever and fun to do.
Recently, getting to do some bigger roles in movies and more stuff on TV has taken me out of my comfort zone as an actor and challenged me in a way that is probably the smallest degree compared to a lot of crazy good actors, but is huge for me. It’s piqued my interest in the same way stand-up does, where I’m like, “What is the most serious thing I could ever act in? How far could I take acting?” Now I’ve become obsessed with it.
The unfortunate thing is that, with stand-up, if I have an itch to do something, I can just email somebody and get on a show that night. But with acting, you have to wait for someone to let you be able to do this thing you want to do. Which also brings me to wanting to be more of a writer, because that’s my best bet at creating my own opportunities for acting.
I would say I’m probably a good writer, I just don’t have the work ethic. I don’t know that I’ve totally learned how to actually do it. But I just wrote a pilot with Anthony King that we shot for Comedy Central. Anthony is an incredible writer, and I learned a lot from being around him and his process and how he works. Like that I need to keep educating myself to gain the confidence to do it on my own, to write these ideas that I have in my head, and not rely on someone else to do it for me.
I just went to see First Man. I don’t want to spoil anything, but there is tragedy throughout the movie. It’s about the space program and nobody really knowing what they’re doing. Neil Armstrong, who I didn’t really know much about, has his own personal tragedy related to his family that he’s working through. I think about that stuff all the time. My mother passed away when I was very young, so I think about the short amount of time that we have here. Now I try to soak up every moment I can with my child, who’s already three. It truly feels like just yesterday she was an infant. All that time starts to fly by. That’s my true anxiety.
There’s a part of me that wants to work through how I feel about these things, perhaps from the perspective of a fictional place. Now, instead of making a joke that makes people laugh about the fact that we will all lose family members in a tragic way and that there’s no avoiding it, there’s a part of me that wants to make people feel something very serious or dramatic about it. Not that I want to make people feel worse about their lives, but I think that that might be my own personal medicine for now, as opposed to coming up with a joke. I always feel like I’m so reactionary that I never know what to talk about until it’s put out there.
Rory Scovel photographed by Brian Guido at his home in Los Angeles. This Conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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