Rory Scovel’s new Netflix special is called Rory Scovel Tries Stand-Up For the First Time, a premise the comedian never mentions on stage but does commit to during a taped mid-show sketch featuring Jack White. “What about a guy who doesn’t know what he’s doing, is completely out of his element, unattractive, probably not that funny,” White tells a talk-show host (Ben Swank), Scovel’s bearded grin beaming in the background. “What would that be like?” The answer to that question is most likely something close to a train wreck. Stand-up is such a unique, strangely complex art form—the idea of letting an audience know you are about to make them laugh is odd in itself—that documenting a person’s first time would be more cruel than comedic. Just look at the noose-heavy marketing for Showtime’s stand-up-centric I’m Dying Up Here, which suggests telling jokes on stage without the proper respect will literally kill you.
But Scovel is no first-timer. A South Carolina transplant who made a name for himself in the crowded, improv-heavy comedy scenes of Washington, D.C. and New York, Scovel already has several specials under his belt; one of which, 2013’s Live At Third Man Records, was released exclusively on vinyl through White’s label. So why the title? The closest thing to an answer comes midway through First Time, after Scovel, with his trademark faux-fluster, tries to explain how a microphone works. “That’s my best guess,” he shouts. “I’m 36, and my best guess is something a child would just rattle off the top of their head.”
It might not sound like a compliment to say this is in line with how Scovel approaches stand-up—no one wants to watch an amateur perform comedy, much less a child—but in many ways it’s the truth. Scovel is such an energetic, infectiously curious comedian that his setups and punchlines feel like a kid playing with something shiny for the first time, all genuine wide-eyed wonder. In fact, the best bits of the special are stories of Scovel’s “firsts”: anal sex (“I didn’t like it, and I think that makes me a gentleman”), or his hotel-room trial run with a FleshLight (“I found out that I’m a guy who just fucks whatever you got”). Like stand-up itself, these might be things you can’t imagine trying yourself, but you are damn glad Scovel did, either once or hundreds of times, just to hear the story.
Which, ultimately, is what First Time ends up being: the story of a stand-up who doesn’t quite feel like he’s planned any of this out. At his most natural, Scovel feels more like a one-man improv team that didn’t bother to ask the crowd to participate. He adopts and drops personas—an FBI agent undercover as a Little League coach, O.J. Simpson’s raspy-voiced friend, etc.—like his own sentient suggestion box. “What if this was the whole show?” he asks the audience, several times, usually after parodying a particular style, like the “world’s brattiest comedian” or the typical “Get a load of this guy” observationalist. As if, in Scovel’s mind, the weirdest thing a stand-up could do is stick to one style for an entire performance. Even a single voice.
One of the great, subtle pleasures of First Time is how often, unintentional or not, director Scott Moran catches faces in the crowd who don’t entirely “get” it yet. Scovel excels at the type of joke—perfected by Andy Kaufman, run into the ground by Family Guy, then revived by Reggie Watts—in which the sheer length of the setup becomes the joke itself. (Scovel was a writer on The Eric Andre Show for three years, and it shows.) So we get to watch on two layers, as Scovel cracks himself up piling absurdities on top of each other, and as even the most stone-faced audience members start to crack as well. We’re watching Scovel earn these laughs, one autoerotic-asphyxiation joke at a time.
Where the special sags, though, is any time Scovel dips into the political. It’s not so much a matter of talent—he does have a killer bit about mayors smoking crack and carrying giant scissors—but of timing. Scovel recorded First Time before the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but still devotes several, extended portions to the two candidates. As a result, even the most spot-on observations, and even the comedian’s awareness (“look how happy we used to be”) comes off as dated. That is, except for one exceptionally delirious segment, in which Scovel explores the “possibility” that Barack Obama was not a U.S. citizen. “If you think it’s so easy to fucking pull that off, you go to another country, and you get as far as president,” he says, letting us in on the joke with his Seth Rogen-esque chuckle.
It’s a point as hilarious as it interesting. Because it once again circles back to that title. There’s a possibility the comedian simply enjoys the built-in weirdness of claiming this is his first time trying stand-up then never explaining why. But there’s something to love about how gleefully Scovel imagines someone unfit for office rising to the highest office there is. Just like we know the 44th president of the United States was, in fact, an American, we know for sure Rory Scovel has tried stand-up before. But the idea that maybe he hadn’t? That’s absurd, and it’s fascinating, and Scovel is never as funny as when he’s fascinated.