Correction: Originally this review quoted Scovel as repeating the phrase “anal sex” at the start of his special. He actually just says the word “anal.”
Rory Scovel has long reveled in playing the trickster. Early footage shows him confusing and then dazzling a Just for Laughs audience when he takes the stage speaking in a nihilist German accent and confesses to stealing old people. A later appearance on Conan involved a different accent; he played a redneck character—half-full beer can and all. And his shaming of “Day Moon” on the now-defunct The Pete Holmes show will forever live as a cackle-inducing moment. Scovel’s strength lies in his ability to don a character at a mere finger snap, and create elaborate, absurd stories emanating from their point of view. They’re like modern-day adult fairytales only he could dream up.
In his first Netflix special, Rory Scovel Tries Stand-Up for the First Time, those moments still occur in true Scovel fashion, but they are flashes too few and far between. He creates creepy gas station guy, Kathy who never chips in for the bill, and the crappy young baseball player Kevin, each of whom allows him to fly off into cockamamie fantasies. These wild bits are not told from their POV, but rather allow Scovel to play a reactionary character. It’s the natural progression from his earlier impressions, and it’s in such briefly recounted scenes that he flexes his comedic muscles. But such reveries don’t last long.
Scovel’s comedic mind clearly doesn’t operate within the standard stand-up formatting, and it’s all the more exciting for that strangeness, but he doesn’t play to his strengths in his special. “We’re just gonna rant and get to the bottom of stuff now,” he tells the audience, unwittingly summarizing his set. Beginning with an extended bit on anal sex, in which he repeats the word “anal” and laughs at how uncomfortable he makes his audience, Scovel fails to build the momentum necessary to pull off a successful hour. The organization cripples whatever force he starts to assemble, and there’s an overall sense Scovel is still trying to parse out just what a special looks like for him.
His most powerful jokes, about liberals needing to buy guns (“We’re probably going to want water in 10 years. I want to live for today like everybody else, but I got to live for tomorrow a little bit”) and the inanity of gay Republicans, are bright moments in between other, less developed bits. Then, falling in between his special, lies a brief five-minute sketch, “Swanky Questions,” with Scovel and musician Jack White as guests. It’s intended to add levity to the entire affair, but falls flat. Weird is wonderful, as Scovel has proven time and again throughout his career, but that means creating new structures to showcase it, not relying on the scaffolding that already exists.
Rory Scovel Tries Stand-up For The First Time premieres on Netflix on June 20th.
Amanda Wicks is a freelance journalist specializing in comedy and music. Follow her on Twitter @aawicks.