All seasoned comics have dealt with hecklers or the stray bachelorette party. But when a party bus full of wildly drunken, noisy strippers and their boyfriends comprises the majority of your audience, you’ve reached a professional milestone — however dubious.
“I especially remember the one girl right at the front who thought I was rude for asking her to not be on her phone during the show,” said L.A.-based stand-up Rory Scovel, referring to his 2011 Colorado debut at the “Grapes of Rad” show at the Gothic Theatre in Englewood. “That was a weird situation, because had that party bus not shown up, there wouldn’t have really been anybody there. But it was also like, the worst people.”
Fortunately, Scovel is expecting a warmer welcome this week as he continues headlining Comedy Works through Saturday, Feb. 2 — thanks in part to steady appearances on “Conan,” “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” and the 2012 debut of his Comedy Central half-hour special.
But the critically acclaimed comic has also proven himself a ferociously skilled club performer, his material veering from self-conscious drug and masturbation jokes to more philosophical subjects, all wrapped in brilliantly disarming crowd work and improvised absurdity.
So was that Gothic Theatre show one of the hardest you’ve ever done?
I did a show in Vancouver last year at a club called the Comedy Mix, and just out of nowhere a real fight happened in the room. The bouncer got into it with this table, and it went on for like five minutes. Everybody in the whole club kind of stood up and were watching that as it went on, and people were yelling and leaving. So I just stopped talking. There was no point in even trying to be funny. It was so captivating!
Did your set ever recover?
You can’t affect it either way, you can just hope that once they leave, (the audience) is ready for a show. So I just started doing tons of jokes on the fight and how it may have started and we got things moving again.
You also pride yourself on being able to deliver a different show from night to night. Does the improv element ever backfire?
Yeah, totally. I risk it, but there’s times when the improv isn’t working. The audience will be weirded out by the fact I’m so loose or making it up, or playing different characters or talking to invisible people and acting things out. There’s definitely shows where I can tell pretty quickly that the audience does not even understand what I’m doing and thinks I’m mentally unstable. So I try to go back into jokes, but it usually isn’t very fruitful when I go into the jokes because I’m so discouraged that they didn’t like the thing I thought was funny, and I’m telling the jokes in a kind of spiteful way. I hate that when it happens and it’s just a challenge to navigate.
Does that make you want to stick to your practiced set?
Yeah, sometimes when I’m prepping to do a five-minute spot on “Conan” or “Fallon,” I realize how tight I could make everything if I would just concrete it into a set. But overall I think I’d go crazy keeping it too structured. When you’re in the club, it really is such an in-the-moment, fun thing. Some comics always start and end at the same point, but to me that doesn’t feel like a genuine, “this audience, this night” kind of feel. They’re great at selling it, but that’s not me.
Can you name any comics who influenced that aspect of your shows?
Bill Hicks and Steve Martin. I really like the in-between space of those two guys — that middle ground of saying something that’s a passionate opinion about something serious, but maintaining a silly vibe to it.
Between your late-night appearances, Comedy Central half-hour and Comedy Bang Bang podcast appearances, do you feel like more of your audience is there to see you specifically?
I can definitely tell, even if people don’t come up to me and say it afterwards, I feel like I can kind of tell who those people are throughout the show. It’s definitely not an overwhelming amount. And I think it also depends on where you play. If I do a black box theater or a show put together by other comedians in a city (like the Fine Gentleman’s Club show Too Much Fun, which Scovel stopped into on Wednesday of this week), there’s a better chance the audience will know most of my stuff and be interested in it. But there’s some clubs you play, and maybe the demo that goes to that club isn’t necessarily the comedy fan. They just go to the show to see who’s there.
Ah, yes. As Henry Owings once told me, they just want comedy to be “administered” to them, regardless of who’s doing it.
Totally. That’s why I like Denver Comedy Works, because even if it’s just people coming who haven’t heard of me, they seem to be open to a fun show. They don’t have a preconceived notion of what the set’s going to be like.
I talked to Patton Oswalt a few years ago and he told me you were one of the comics to watch out for. Now that you’re consistently seeing some national success, who are some of your favorite up-and-coming comics?
Oh man, I’m not going to able to name all of them.
You can just name a few…
There are just so many that I love watching that are so great. Reggie Watts is always inspiring because of how he performs improvisationally, as well as Kate Berlant. She’s in that vein also of what I really enjoy, very stream-of-consciousness, just free-flow comedy. I don’t really know where it’s going and I really enjoy watching that aspect of her and Reggie. As far as people that I wish I could be, that inspire me in terms of wanting to be a little tighter? Anytime I see Hannibal (Buress) or John Mulaney perform, it makes me angry at myself because I feel like those guys set the bar on the combo of talent mixed with drive, and it makes me always wish I could sit and and try to write more. Not that that would lead to what they’re capable of, but it makes me wish I sat and tried to put more jokes in. Those guys are just great at perfecting their own thing. Those guys make me wanna work harder.
That’s funny, because Hannibal and John Mulaney were among the other up-and-coming comics Patton was liking when he mentioned you.
I also like Doug Stanhope, Todd Glass, Bill Burr and Patton Oswalt. There’s something about those last two. I think Bill Burr is one of the greatest, even in just his speaking voice, he has one of those voices — there’s just something to it. It’s silky smooth.
RORY SCOVEL: Stand-up comedy. 8 and 10 p.m. Friday; 7:30 and 9:45 p.m. Saturday. Comedy Works on Larimer Square, 1226 15th St. $22. 303-595-3637 or comedyworks.com.