From Greenville High to Netflix, the absurdist journey of Rory Scovel

Rory Scovel. Photo by Brian Kelly

The opening scenes of Rory Scovel’s new Netflix stand-up special depict him backstage at a comedy club, surrounded by booze, drugs, women, and the requisite entourage. The leather-clad Scovel, a Greenville native, yells at, drinks, snorts, or makes out with everything in his path while swaggering his way to the stage, fully resplendent in mascara and hair spiked to the rafters.

And then he’s startled awake in his dressing room and walks onstage in real life, a bit less angry but no less resplendent — that is if your idea of resplendent is a vintage maroon Members Only jacket.

That bizarre opening is just one of many indications that the program, “Rory Scovel Tries Stand-Up for The First Time: A Netflix Special,” is going to embrace absurdist humor. In addition to that, there’s the title – Scovel’s been doing stand-up since 2003. And the weird segment about halfway through his routine features a talk-show style interview with Scovel and former White Stripe Jack White as guests. Neither the host nor White seems interested in Scovel, and the segment ends with the two of them urging Scovel offscreen while he timidly attempts to deliver some jokes.

Photo by Brian Kelly

The cinematic turns in the special, largely conceived by Scovel and director Scott Moran, are courtesy of a comedian who graduated from USC Upstate in 2003 with a communications degree but always felt a pull toward making movies.

“I kind of always wanted to be a filmmaker, and then I realized I hadn’t really done much towards actually doing that,” Scovel says. He comes from a funny family, and he loved being the class clown at Christ Church Episcopal School and Greenville High, but stand-up comedy wasn’t on his radar.

On August 3, 2017, Rory appeared on popular podcast, ‘WTF with Marc Maron.’ Listen to him and Marc talk about about doing the job of comedy, from the grind of working on the road, to the art of being a warm-up comic, to the craft of making an hour-long stand-up special.

Scovel was working as a cameraman for WSPA in 2003. At the time, he was trying to figure out his life. Enter David Cross’ epic double-CD “Shut Up You F*cking Baby.” “That album hit me hard,” he says. “And I wanted to see if I was capable of doing that. It’s weird that something small like that has led to this.”

Now the only thing that Scovel had to do was take that back-of-the-classroom smartass personality and make it work onstage. “I had to learn how to hone it,” he says. “Not just to make an ass of myself to make people laugh, but to be funny creatively and sustain an audience’s attention.”

And so in December 2003, Scovel hit the stage for the first time with a few jokes and some friends in the audience at an open-mic night. He was hooked.

“I was immediately bitten by the bug,” he says. “I loved what it was.”

Scovel’s comedic voice is a unique one because of the styles it mixes together. He has created a persona that can be steely-faced arrogant one second and surrealistically absurd the next.

It’s a combination of confrontational and silly that Scovel spent years refining as he moved from the Upstate to Washington, D.C., New York City, and ultimately to Los Angeles.

“My sister lived in D.C.,” Scovel says. “And I looked in the weekly paper up there and noticed that they had a lot of open mics. So I could dive into it but not in a terrifying way where I was all alone, because already I had family that was willing to help me out and let me sleep on her couch.”

Scovel spent three years in D.C. before moving to New York. “It was time to make the jump and play in tougher waters,” he says. “It was the city for stand-up comedy, so I wanted to challenge myself.”

That’s when Scovel stared getting noticed. It’s also where he learned how difficult it was to do stand-up well.

“I think what’s so interesting about stand-up comedy is that you learn how to do it while you’re doing it,” he says. “You can’t really learn how to get up in front of an audience and make them laugh without getting up and doing it.”

And sometimes, that means falling flat on his face. Hard.

“It’s actually good that it happens,” he says. “When people think about stand-up comedy, they think either you’re great or you bomb. And they don’t realize that all the greatest stand-up comics in the world have bombed, and continue to bomb today. You’re writing down ideas that you’re trying to make funny, and the only way to find out if it works or not is to test it. Sometimes it’s the audience’s, but nine times out of 10, it’s yours.”

It was toward the end of that four-year period that the bombs started coming less and less often for Scovel. He got an agent and a manager who began landing him television auditions. When that started happening, it was time for Scovel to move to Los Angeles.

In the early 2010s, he appeared on “Conan,” “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson,” and Comedy Central’s “@midnight.” He was also named a “comic to watch” by Variety, and his 2011 debut album, “Dilation,” was included in the Huffington Post’s list of best new comedy albums of the year.

But Scovel’s real breakthrough came when he was noticed by Bill Lawrence, the executive producer of NBC’s “Scrubs,” who was launching a new sitcom on TBS called “Ground Floor.”

“I’d started figuring out how to audition,” Scovel says, “and Bill Lawrence gave me the opportunity to be on his show. The show got canceled after less than two seasons, but getting to be on that, I learned how those shows work, and that was a big door opening for other opportunities and go after them confidently. I’ve been able to get some guest roles in other shows since then.”

That’s a bit of an understatement. Since “Ground Floor” was canceled in 2015, Scovel has appeared in eight different TV shows and two movies, steadily increasing his profile on TV shows like “Undateable” and “Those Who Can’t” and in films like “Dean” (with Dimitri Martin and Kevin Kline) and “The House” (with Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell).

Not surprisingly, this higher public profile has boosted the attendance at his stand-up shows, improving his confidence onstage.

“Acting is a different discipline, but it has helped people who like me as an actor discover my stand-up,” he says. “And over time, as you notice that people who are there already like what you do, that gives you a lot of confidence as a stand-up. You know that people are there to see you and you’re not having to prove yourself.”

That higher profile led to Scovel’s Netflix special. For the comedian, the special, which received positive reviews from The A.V. Club and Paste magazine, among others, is a chance for this relatively soft-spoken man to truly express what’s going on in his mind.

“When I’m onstage, that’s how my brain is always going,” he says. “It’s so freeing. I’m fortunate enough to have a job where I can talk about what I want to talk about, and it’s been very rewarding. I take a lot of pride in knowing that that person up there is my true self and those are my true opinions on things, and people seem to be attracted to it even if they disagree with me.”

Currently, Scovel is working on new material. And this go around, his point of view might be more forceful than ever, especially when it comes to post-election politics.

“Every single day I’m terrified of the direction that we’re going,” Scovel says. “The current state of things seems to be something of a circus, and the Republicans’ attitude seems to be, ‘I don’t care that our team is horrible; we still won the championship.’

“I think you have to care that the team is horrible, and I think what terrifies me is that I thought there were more Republicans either in office or in general who would hold themselves to a higher standard.” he adds. “We’re way off the map now. The team is crazy.”

And that kind of fear is exactly what fuels Scovel’s material. He says, “Anything that gives me stress or anxiety is what I’m going to write about, because I need to deal with it. And the hope is that you’re helping other people deal with it as well.”



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