Jokes on Jokes

How a comedy special gets made

What it takes to go from stage to screen, according to the production team behind Rory Scovel’s upcoming Netflix special.
Jokes on Jokes

How a comedy special gets made

What it takes to go from stage to screen, according to the production team behind Rory Scovel’s upcoming Netflix special.

As Netflix cancels some of its riskier, more expensive shows (The Get Down and Sense8, for example) it’s investing heavily in a far more affordable way to draw eyeballs: stand-up specials. Marquee comics such as Chris Rock, Amy Schumer, and Dave Chappelle have released recent specials exclusively through Netflix, which can use that name recognition to grab an hour of audience attention at substantially lower costs. If Chappelle’s specials proved nothing else, it’s that some comedy specials have begun to command levels of attention and scrutiny comparable to any scripted show. (Though Netflix makes Maria Bamford’s blessedly bizarre stand-up-adjacent show Lady Dynamite, it notably hasn’t joined the rush to make prestige shows about stand-up comics, like HBO’s Crashing or Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here.)

What’s the deal with stand-up specials, anyway? These days, fans know everything about how movies and TV shows get made — perhaps too much. But how does a comic’s live act go from stage to screen? How do you take a bunch of shows and stitch them together as a coherent special? How do the cameras consistently get that same faux-intimate feeling?

Comedian Rory Scovel’s upcoming second special, Rory Scovel Tries Stand-Up for the First Time, was produced by Third Man Records and filmed over three nights at the Relapse Theater in Atlanta. And after a months-long process involving an indispensable team, it will premiere on Netflix on June 20. The Outline spoke to four of the people who helped make it happen — co-founder of Third Man Records and executive producer on the special Ben Swank, director Scott Moran, director of photography John Campbell, and Third Man in-house editor Brad Holland. Below, they explain how a comedy special gets made, after the jokes have been written.

The executive producer

Ben Swank: We do a live series of records here in our venue, [Third Man’s Blue Room]. So whenever an artist comes in, if it’s live music or a comedian or whatever, we record it and then release it as part of the Live at Third Man series. Rory was literally a guy that Jack White, [who co-founded Third Man Records], ran into somewhere here in Nashville. Rory handed him a CD, Jack listened to it in his car and thought it was hilarious. One day he handed me the CD case and said, “There’s contact info here. Can you track this guy down and have him come do a live show here?” So he came and did it, and to this day it’s one of my favorite things we’ve ever done here.

We finally got to the stage of, we should do something else together, something like a more sketch-based recording. But then he had an idea to just do a stand-up special, and [asked if we would] want to come on board and produce it. We’d been talking about getting into film production, and this seemed like a really good place to jump into it. We just felt really aligned together, so we just said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” It made sense to bankroll it ourselves. Rather than finding someone to agree to it and then fund it, we thought it’d be better if we just went ahead and completed something. That way Rory could have complete say over the editorial content, and we just thought the less people involved, the better. And luckily, Netflix was into it.

“If you’re needed, then get involved. Otherwise, let them be good at what they’re good at.” — Ben Swank

Our involvement was more about support and pulling the crew together and getting the actual production made, and just sort of trying to be a partner. We helped with the editing, obviously, but it was more about being a nice, philosophically sympathetic partner in helping get it made. It’s mostly about knowing who the artist is and knowing they need to be trusted. I was on set for filming and things like that, but I like to be out of the way, be a good silent partner. I think projects often get tied up into a ‘too many cooks’ situation, which can often kill creativity.

My job is to make it all sound really easy. I’ve done a lot of event management over the years and been in lots of different aspects of that, and at Third Man we do lots of really over-the-top, detailed projects — some that are filmed, some that are recorded. We did this whole crazy thing for the world’s fastest record ever produced and sold. Really, it just kind of fits in with everything else we do. A good producer’s job is to make sure the director and artist have the support they need. If you’re needed, then get involved. Otherwise, let them be good at what they’re good at.

A storyboard sketches out a scene from Rory Scovel’s upcoming Netflix special.

A storyboard sketches out a scene from Rory Scovel’s upcoming Netflix special.

The director of photography

John Campbell: I’m not sure there was a time we were ever not talking about Rory’s second special, but some time in the summer of 2016, we went to look at the venue. He wanted to do it at the Relapse Theater, because it’s where he did one of his favorite shows of all time.

Step one was just getting a look at the room that he picked out. I started scoping it out online. There [wasn’t yet] an agreement with Netflix in place, but I started poking around and asking friends who had done things that either were [created as] or became Netflix Originals about what kind of cameras they used, what specs they used, kind of getting a rough idea. We knew if it didn’t go to Netflix, we at least wanted it to be quality. I just started taking a look at the room online and investigating different camera options. Then we had our first visit, where we put down a tape measure and measured the room. It has a super low ceiling — it’s a pretty non-traditional room for comedy — so we just started thinking about how we shoot something that looks big in this room.

I picked up a bunch from trade magazines like American Cinematographer. They feature a bunch of Netflix shows, and I picked up from those that Netflix is pretty rigorous about the specs they shoot in. There’s a list of Netflix-approved cameras. A true, absolute, 100 percent 4K capture is really important for them. There’s a whole DSLR look that’s the default of any recent production that wants to look nice, but doesn’t have a ton of money. For Rory’s first special, we used the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Cameras and vintage 16mm lenses from the ’70s to sort of take off the digital edge. We wanted something a bit more polished this time, and went with the RED Epics. For all but one camera, we shot in 5K so we had a little wiggle room in post. The range of the cameras gave us a lot of options.

“People always say, ‘Is it hard to hold the camera steady when you’re laughing?’ I don’t know.” — John Campbell

The room is a little on the smaller side, and has a pretty low ceiling, which makes it hard to place the cameras. And even more than the camera placement, we were thinking, “How do we light this room?” Rory wanted it to have the more intimate feel. He kept saying he wanted people’s feet right up next to him. Rather than fighting that feeling of the room, we embraced it.

The day before the show, we had time for a little rehearsal, and to play around in the room, which is a luxury you don’t always have. We established a color scheme for the space, including the Third Man colors, just sketched everything out. By the time we got to Atlanta, it was just minor tweaks on stuff we’d already fleshed out pretty well. We watched the footage between shows to see what we could be doing better. I feel like when you tell people you film stand-up specials, people always say, “Is it hard to hold the camera steady when you’re laughing?” I don’t know. It’s not especially different from most other live events. I think this special feels like you’re in the crowd, which is unique and fun. Every job is different if you take it seriously.

Before production, the production team maps out lighting and other visual considerations.

Before production, the production team maps out lighting and other visual considerations.

The director

Scott Moran: The first stand-up special I did was Rory’s first special, which he paid for himself — that was kind of a risky deal. It was kind of like, “I’m going to invest money in myself, do a special, and try to sell it when it’s all done.” It ended up getting sold to [the comedy subscription service] Seeso. For this one, Rory assumed someone would buy it. Even though it felt like we shot this in a dank basement, my job is to make it look like it’s worth more than it costs. It’s about choosing your camera angles wisely, so the movement fits the comic.

Usually, work prepping the set starts about a month out. [It took] longer in this case, because I’m friends with Rory. [On the night we’re shooting the special], my job before we start is: I stand on stage and look for troublesome people in the audience — people who look like they’re going to be obnoxious, people who are definitely going to be on-camera and have logos on their shirts, sometimes tall people. It kind of sucks, [but] sometimes I have to ask tall people to sit in the back. You know, they’ve been waiting in line, but it’s going to look as if their head just pops up in the middle of the frame. Or if there’s someone with a bald, shiny head sitting in the front. That’s kind of my job, just regulating the crowd and making sure it’s going to look good on camera. There’s usually very little problems.

“My job before we start is: I stand on stage and look for troublesome people in the audience.” — Scott Moran

We had a bonus show to film, which was great. The plan for the last show was for Rory to just go out and improvise. He just went out and fucked around for an hour and a half, barely did any of the written material. So we had that in our arsenal for editing, but we actually didn’t use any of it. It’s always a more pleasing edit to me when it’s just one show, and you’re not editing other stuff in and creating a Frankenstein. I like to keep it as natural as possible.

Then you basically take a journey to note city. Some people want crowd shots, some people don’t want any crowd shots. You choose between six different angles. Rory and I noted everything down to the end of the special, down to where the titles pop up in the intro. Nothing is there by mistake — it’s a lot of creative conversations beforehand and a lot of prep. I don’t always know a comedian, and then I have to work creatively with them on something that’s going to mean a lot to their career. I hope they trust me.

Spoiler alert: A six-panel storyboard maps out the show’s end.

Spoiler alert: A six-panel storyboard maps out the show’s end.

The editor

Brad Holland: I’m the in-house editor and cinematographer at Third Man, and I was asked if I’d be interested in helping to film and edit this special when they were originally working it out. I decided to just edit, because it seemed like a pretty consuming project: a full special with multiple cameras and a lot of media to manage. I’ve done a lot of different types of concert films and music videos and other types of interview-based specials, but I’d never actually edited a stand-up special before. So I downshifted my role into organizing everything for Rory and Scott, [the director]. They have the insight, and I facilitate showing them different options and different timings, so we could figure out the strongest material and the strongest moments.

For a concert or music thing, there’s more of a hectic energy to the editing. But the type of editing for a stand-up special is more about letting moments breathe, and letting certain timings play out without overcutting. Scott helped me through some of the initial things, where it’s good to let this moment go, or to go wide here so you can see action. It was definitely a different style than I’m used to, but once we got into the editing, we figured out quickly what was needed for the special.

“It was a monster. It was almost 7TB of media.” — Brad Holland

Some of it was just trial-and-error, especially for the beginning, where it’s more skit-based. It’s a matter of just narrowing the best takes, or trying different takes to see what would play off the other one better. I remember for [one sketch bit], a mock interview scene with Rory and [Jack White], they [went] through entire runs of the jokes, and it was a matter of figuring out which sections were similar, and which played the best together. It was fun for us to sit and organize that, and see what footage was working the best.

The special came together pretty quickly. During the intro scene, it took a while to figure out what track would work during a long Steadicam shot at the beginning. We’d edited everything without music, so choosing that track was a bit difficult. We had to cut a few things out of the special in the end, and maintaining the flow of all the jokes while maintaining the essence of the entire thing was a challenge. But I’m an editor, I’m always an advocate of tightening things and cutting things down.

We basically started using one of the nights that we thought went particularly well, and if we ran into jokes where Rory or Scott said, “Oh, that was better on Friday night,” we needed to be able to jump over to Friday and fish through and find that joke. There was an instance where there was a joke he wanted in that he didn’t complete or didn’t do on the previous night, so going through and being able to find that joke and cut it in seamlessly — those are the advantages of keeping it organized. It was a monster. It was almost 7TB of media.