Come and Take It Headliner Rory Scovel Enjoys The Comradery of a Comedy Festival

Rory Scovel hates to keep saying the word 'pandemic', but it may be relevant to the story
Rory Scovel hates to keep saying the word 'pandemic', but it may be relevant to the story Photo by Mandee Johnson

Comedian Rory Scovel has a lot to be thankful for recently, and perhaps unfortunately, he owes much of it to the pandemic.

The long time alt comedy favorite known for small roles on cult hits like The Eric Andre Show and Those Who Can’t has recently found himself in a number of high profile prestige projects like the new film from La La Land helmer Damien Chazelle called Babylon, and acting as romantic lead across from Rose Bryne in the successful Apple TV+ series Physical.

“Yeah, stand up was my way in,” the 38-year-old explains. “When I started, I was doing open mikes for stand up and taking improv classes and I was doing that for a while. Then naturally I think if you stick with it, right place – right time kind of situation, you get in front of some casting people shooting commercials or maybe want you to come and read for a pilot. Stuff like that.

"But it’s been a slow trickle with the acting, and then strangely enough when things started to shut down I started to get some bigger stuff. I had stuff before that, but it was like I suddenly didn’t have this other job I had been doing for 15 years, so now I really have to hunker down and figure out how to be an actor. So yeah, it kind of got thrown at me and I’ve come realize I really, really love it.”

But with COVID on the run, Scovel has started to get back to his roots with telling jokes and is excited to be one of the headliners for Secret Group’s annual Come and Take It Comedy Festival, running November 17 through 20. “To me, the main appeal of doing the festivals is you get to hang out with some friends you haven’t seen in a while, especially coming out of this pandemic,” he admits. “I think it’s an entirely different energy, as opposed to having your own show at an isolated date and time in a city, which is fine. But the festival just makes it so much more of a bigger energy. It’s kind of weird to say, but you feel like you are more of a team. Like it’s the difference between ‘my show’ and this bigger thing.”

Scovel will be sharing the stage with some very funny peers, including Mark Normand, Jackie Kashian, Doug Benson and River Butcher. But with a lineup of over 70 funny folk on the bill, it’s some of the new names that are most interesting to Scovel. “There’s a lot of people I’ll be meeting for the first time. And it’s always sort of an ever-changing cast of characters. You will run in to some people that maybe you started around the same time or have gone on the road together, but it’s always changing! Especially after the last two years of being off the road. It does feel like there’s also a bunch of new faces out there. But that’s what makes it interesting – I will see more friends from Los Angeles when I’m out on the road than I will ever see them in LA. It’s that sort of vibe.”

It’s ironic to think, but it fair to reason some attendees might know Rory better these days for his on-camera role like the love interest in Amy Schumer’s I Feel Pretty or his recent guest spots on Harley Quinn or Grace and Frankie. Scovel argues that his building acting career has only strengthened his stand-up performances (and vice versa). “In the world of acting, there is so much to figuring out your emotional vulnerability and figuring out how to compliment lines that you didn’t come up with or write. In stand up, it’s a process of coming up with these jokes but its about adding the emotional vulnerability to the delivery of these jokes, or even just the set ups or the context you are saying that can give it a connection to the audience.  For me, it has really been eye-opening both ways. There’s a lot of acting where I have had to rely on the confidence of stand-up, like you just go out there. You just see what happens. You need that sometimes when you step on set.”

Diving deeper, it becomes clear – not every comic is thinking about his act in the same way as Scovel is. To a question about the imaginary lines audiences sometimes seem unwilling to cross with comedy, he takes a philosophical approach to why he likes to unpack complex issues like politics and religion. “Even if audience said they’re weren’t interested, I don’t know if that’s enough for me to not talk about it. I am so interested in it and people’s investment in what it is. And a lot of that comes from my own being raised Catholic. But for me, perhaps similar to you, I find those topics so refreshing and interesting and necessary because they are specifically topics that can create perspective for what their reality is.  To me, that’s the kind of stuff I would want to talk about even in a non-joking way!”

“I just find it wildly interesting and in depth, and that’s why I’ve always been drawn to write jokes where that is applied. It’s never to offend anyone, or to make it seem as if I’m the enemy. It’s more to ask if maybe this whole experience might even be bigger than imagine, maybe there’s an infinite amount of ideas for what our world or reality is or how we got here or where we are going.”

Surprisingly, Scovel seems to find there is more acceptable from an audience after taking on heady subjects than when he plays it safe. “I think comedy makes it a little easier to digest,” he says. “You can tell me the doomsday thing and if there’s a joke, you can just go: that’s life. Nowadays, you might get on stage and say something political, but have people ask you to keep politics out of it. But those people are few and far between, because I think the vast majority of the audience understand that politics and religion and thing that influence our society and lives are the exact things that comic should be talking about! It’s more interesting and more fun to hear those perspectives from a comic than political pundits or broadcasters or Tucker Carlson. I would rather hear it from a Republican comedian, I would rather hear their take on what they think than someone who is not able to make it funny or interesting.”

“I know there is always a conversation about reeling it in or people get offended, but I never really get that. I think it’s about the faith you have in your joke, or where you are coming from and how well of a job you’ve done communicating to an audience who you are at your core. If you’ve really conveyed you are a compassionate person, you can kind of step out the lines of a joke because they will know that you are clearly telling a joke. But some people who like to step outside the lines and be a little offensive, the audience may respond ‘Well, you seem like you might be an asshole anyway – maybe this is a really perspective!’”

It might be surprising to some that that it appears the comic is still wrestling with the issues of his adolescence – but it seems those oppressive specters still offer plenty of quality joke-writing fodder even 15 plus years into his career. “I think I’ll always be looking for stuff in there,” he agrees. “I think we all have varying levels of trauma from difference experiences, whether it’s a small thing that happened at a party in high school or something major like a family traumatic thing. When you can find those little things and can talk about them, you realize that we have those things. It’s wildly relatable material. I think anything we think is a big secret about our lives, I find if you go on stage and say it, 95% of the people will laugh and go: ‘me too.’ And then you are like: ‘Oh, I guess I’m not a freak.’”

As Scovel describes it, it appears that at least in the case of comedy, some of that ‘group think’ can be a little less unnerving and a bit more affirming. “I think that’s just human nature,” he posits. “It just feels good to realize a lot people agree with me. Honestly, I think that’s why a lot of people go down certain political roads and groups on either side of aisle. It just feels good to have community, I think that’s part of our species to go ‘I think if I keep agreeing with these people, they’ll let me keep hanging out and then I’ll have friends’

“Who knows where that comes from in most comedians? There will be plenty that tell you they don’t need the validation. And maybe there are some who get to that zen place where they don’t need it, and then you can really step into being an artist with your material. But I think for sure, there is something so reaffirming when you say something big onstage and people are on your side about it.”

Speaking of affirming, Scovel gives a shout out someone he’s admired from the sidelines for years: Bo Burnham. Almost a decade after working with the Grammy-winning musical comic on his one-season MTV series Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous, Scovel reflects on getting to see someone he describes as a “genius” grow into his own. “Watching him run that show when we were shooting forever ago what, ten plus years ago, when he was even more of a kid than he is now was mind-blowing. This dude is a savant. He knows exactly what to do, and I barely even know how this set operates or what the language is, and he just somehow already completely knows and understands it.

“So to see him just explode the way he has? I think Inside is one of the most genius things I’ve watched in the longest time, from top to bottom, I just loved every element about it. And it just know it is so vulnerable and real, and him is the best.  I just love it. The genius that is coming out of that, I witnessed that forever go, but now to see him have full control of it and know what he can really do is really cool. It’s really cool to see, and I don’t know if he would take this as a compliment or an insult, but to see this awakening of his own. That he sees he can do this, make this version of the thing that I know how to make it.

"Especially now, because [comedy specials are] so oversaturated in the market right now. There’s a new special every week where this person walks out on a stage and says these things. I’ve always found it to be more fun to be at that event to feel the power of it and the fun of it. Not that we always can be at those events. But for [Burnham] to make his the version that it is, that version is the better version. You would never want to be at that, and you couldn’t – it’s impossible. I just love that aspect of it.”

This search for artistic Zen the comedian returns to as a theme seems to be driving his latest off-stage exploit: entering the world of painting. “During the pandemic, not even a year ago, I really started painting,” he shares. “Now, I’m wildly obsessed with painting. I’ve started to sell some paintings and I think I’m gonna do a potential art show with a bunch of my paintings. And it all feels out of left field as something that I didn’t even – I know I was interested, but it was not something I thought I would be good at. Now I have a lot of them hanging in my house, and going back to your point about affirmation and validation, it is probably the first artistic endeavor I’ve ever taken on where I have cleansed myself for the need for validation. I really like them even if someone said it was garbage. If they did, I would be like, no, I really like it. Some personal growth there.”

Come and Take It Comedy Festival runs Thursday, November 17 through Sunday, November 20 at The Secret Group, 2101 Polk. For more information, visit $20-199.99

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Vic covers the comedy scene, in Houston and beyond. When not writing articles, he's working on his scripts, editing a podcast, doing some funny make-em-ups or preaching the good word of supporting education in the arts.
Contact: Vic Shuttee