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For stand-up comedian Rory Scovel, the best moments of a set can be when a joke doesn’t land the way he thought it would.

That outlook may come as a surprise, as one would assume a comedian’s worst nightmare would be . And for Scovel, a Greenville native and USC Upstate graduate who got his start performing around Spartanburg in 2003, that once was certainly the case.

“You know, just like anyone else, you want the thing that you thought of to work, and you’re kind of terrified if you don’t get the reaction that you kind of calculated getting,” he says.

But as Scovel, who performs at the Charleston Comedy Festival this Friday at the Sottile Theatre, gained more experience and confidence as a performer, that mindset changed. Rather than view a joke not working as the ultimate worst-case scenario, he uses it as an opportunity to explore another trick in his comedic arsenal — improvisation.

When Scovel moved to Washington, D.C., more than a decade ago to seriously pursue a career in comedy, he signed up for improv classes at Washington Improv Theatre. At the same time, he was also performing stand-up at open mics. The two styles, he says, “kind of blended together without my awareness and without any kind of intentional motivation to do that.”

So if during a set the audience doesn’t react to a joke the way Scovel had anticipated, “it kind of opens up that spontaneous improv moment of something to play with,” he says.

“But it also is since so much comedy is the element of surprise, I think when something doesn’t work and then what you do with it is kind of surprising to the audience. So in a way, it actually is a joke that works, because it’s almost like, oh, the thing you thought was the completed joke is really just the setup,” he says. “So it’s still kind of trying to pull off some kind of enjoyable magic trick. … Sometimes it’s my favorite because it really catches people off guard, and when you catch people off guard is when you’re going to get the biggest reaction and the biggest laugh, hopefully.”

It’s a style that has proven to be successful for Scovel, who now lives in Los Angeles. He released his first comedy album, Dilation, in 2011 and in 2013 recorded a live show at Third Man Records, musician Jack White’s label. He also made appearances on Conan and @midnight prior to the summer 2017 release of his Netflix special, playfully titled Rory Scovel Tries Stand-up for the First Time, which earned positive reviews from critics at outlets including AV Club, The Decider, and IndieWire.

First Time begins with a nod to its title, as an emcee completely botches the comedian’s name during his introduction and rebuffs a handshake as Scovel timidly walks onstage before launching into his absurdist humor. Throughout much of the show, Scovel spontaneously jumps from one idea to the next in a way that doesn’t make logical sense but still manages to feel like a smooth transition. (At one point, he wonders aloud how microphones and record players actually work before riffing on frisbee. His bits run the gamut from hangovers in your 30s to the instructions given by TSA agents in airport security lines.)

Scovel includes some political humor in the special, mainly about the 2016 presidential election. When First Time was actually released, however, the election was over, and so the joke is a bit outdated. It’s a fact that Scovel acknowledges as he looks into one of the cameras and says to viewers, “I know, people, you’re watching. Wherever you’re watching this, whenever it is, you’re like, ‘But wait, the election’s already happened. We already know the results.’ Guess what? Everyone in this room — we don’t know. So look at us. Look how happy we used to be. We used to be so happy, and it all fell apart.”

And despite the oft-repeated sentiment that the country is currently more politically divided than ever, Scovel says he isn’t avoiding making jokes about politics.

“I do have a whole new chunk in my new hour that is a lot of government, a lot of Trump stuff,” he says. “I never shy away from it, because anything that I think I feel any kind of passion about I think is usually the best stuff to write jokes about and say stuff because I think the more people can really relate to it. I know there’s like sort of one aspect where people are like, ‘I want to come to a comedy show, and I want to not talk about politics. I want to forget about that and think of lighthearted stuff.’ But I come from a mindset of the stuff that’s the hardest to deal with and talk about. I think a comedy show is maybe one of the best places to talk about because maybe a joke about it can change your perspective of it, and then maybe it doesn’t feel so heavy the next time you think about it.”

In addition to touring fresh stand-up material, Scovel will soon be working on his new half-hour scripted show, Robbie, written with Anthony King. Scovel plays a small-town church basketball coach who tries to live vicariously through his son to achieve the glory he’s always wanted. The series was picked up for an eight-episode run on Comedy Central.

“I’m just hoping that we make something that people find entertaining,” Scovel says. “I mean, finding entertainment and getting people to sit down and watch TV, especially something on cable that isn’t a sporting event, is very difficult to pull off these days. So I kind of am going into it with a low expectation of — and my stand-up is a little bit like this, too — a low expectation of not necessarily caring so much what everyone thinks about it. I want to make sure I am happy and proud of the thing that I made, and I’m confident that if at the end of the day I do feel that way, then we made a good product that I think other people will enjoy.”

Robbie marks a continued transition into acting for Scovel, who’s appeared on television shows Ground Floor, Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous, and Those Who Can’t, among others. More recently, he played Amy Schumer’s love interest in the 2018 film I Feel Pretty.

For Scovel, there’s a similarity between the early days of performing stand-up and being on a film or TV set for those first few acting gigs.

“You know, with stand-up, you kind of go up in front of an audience. Even on day one, you’re just suddenly a comedian. And you’ve never even done it. You get on stage in front of people, and you have to be up there as though you know what you’re doing and performing,” he says. “And I think because stand-up is structured that way, you kind of walk into acting like that. You kind of just hope that each day you kind of get a little more confident and learn a little something more that makes you better at it or enjoy it more.” —Emily Pietras