On Tuesday evening at 9 p.m., players of the viral interactive game show HQ Trivia were confronted with a fuzzy “technical difficulties” screen instead of usual smiling host New York comedian Scott Rogowsky. Fans were worried. “I can't believe hq actually murdered scott rogowsky for salad endorsement reasons,” one player said on Twitter, and others tweeted with the hashtag #FreeScott.
The concern for Rogowsky, if a bit exaggerated, was real. Earlier in the day, The Daily Beast had run a story in which HQ cofounder and CEO Rus Yusupov threatened to fire the charismatic host for talking to the press.
It is unclear whether the technical difficulties were due to the internal conflict or simply the surge of traffic to the app caused by all the press, but the game finally opened at 9:30 p.m. and Rogowsky appeared in his usual black suit and tie. All seemed well in the HQ universe again.
“Hi! Good to be here, having a completely average day, nothing going on,” Rogowsky quipped. “Look, we are all good here at HQ HQ!”
On a recent chilly afternoon — sometime between the game shows at 3 p.m. and 9 p.m., of course — Rogowsky met with me at a Soho juice bar. The dustup with The Daily Beast story had not yet occurred, and Rogowsky was telling me about his pre-HQ life, the Manhattan comedy scene, and his decade long career — which included producing and starring in web series for Comedy Central and ESPN — for what I hoped would be the first profile of him.
Getting to Rogowsky was not easy. Yusupov— formerly of Vine — has been personally running the startup’s press account with an iron fist (trackpad?). Earlier this month, I wrote to Rogowsky to request an interview. He immediately forwarded my email to Yusupov. “At this time we are not making Scott available for interviews. Let me know if I can answer any other questions for you about any stories you might be writing about HQ,” Yusupov responded. “I saw you reached out directly to Scott Rogowsky about an interview request. I am handling all press and media inquiries for the company so you can just go through me moving forward.” Rogowsky and I continued to email directly, however, and he agreed to meet with me.
The strategy to control Rogowsky’s public image eventually backfired. When The Daily Beast decided to profile Rogowsky, Yusupov flew off the handle. The Daily Beast ran the story anyway, reframed around Yusupov’s reaction. Yusupov’s objections included a comment Rogowsky had made about ordering a salad from Sweetgreen. “He cannot say that!” Yusupov told The Daily Beast. “We do not have a brand deal with Sweetgreen! Under no circumstances can he say that.”
It makes sense that HQ would make nice with Rogowsky: He is quickly becoming irreplaceable
The online backlash was fierce and the CEO was forced to backtrack. Later that night, Yusupov snapped a selfie with Rogowsky at Sweetgreen and tweeted, “Q: Who's a cliche, stressed out startup founder? A: me.” He’s now looking for a publicist, if you’re interested.
It makes sense that Yusupov would make nice with Rogowsky: He is the face of the app, with players affectionately dubbing him “Quiz Daddy,”and he’s quickly becoming irreplaceable. HQ has blown up in the past couple of months, nearly tripling its players per show within the last month alone, and a lot of that has to do with Rogowsky: People in the game’s chat section vie for his attention and get legitimately upset when there are substitute hosts, despite his grueling schedule of twice-a-day hosting duties during the week.
After ordering a complicated smoothie, “HQ Scott” outlined his career and pre-fame life for me. Except that he had to tiptoe around a clause in his contract that prohibited him from sharing details about his role at HQ. That contract was up for renewal when the Daily Beast story hit, and it would have cost Rogowsky dearly to lose it: The app has rocketed him to stardom, however fleeting it may turn out to be, in a way none of his previous projects ever has.
After living in “deep Bushwick” doing the “struggling comedian thing” more than a decade ago, Rogowsky realized maybe standup wasn’t his path. “I’m not a big drinker and hate staying up past my bedtime,” he said, which is not very ideal for a standup’s lifestyle. It turns out to be perfectly suitable for a wholesome internet quiz show.
“Everything else I’ve worked on basically been canceled,” he joked, recounting his professional credits, including an ABC hidden camera reality show.
Right before becoming a viral meme, the comedian hosted the live show Running Late with Scott Rogowsky with his dad in Manhattan. Guests have included John Hamm, Steve Buscemi, and Jenny Slate, which he booked by using his network and literally tracking people down at events.
As late as May of this year, his plan was to move to L.A. earlier to expand the live show. But he auditioned for HQ and got the job, which kept him in New York, where the startup is based.
As much as Rogowsky needs HQ, HQ arguably needs him more. There are other hosts, including Sharon Carpenter, but Rogowsky has hosted the most games — over 150 live quiz shows thus far. When the show failed to start on time on Tuesday night, 120,000 fans were there waiting, many calling for him to show up in the app’s fast-moving comment section.
If you think playing HQ feels dystopian, being on the other side of the black mirror is even more eerie.
“Hosting something live online is surreal because the only way I get to experience it is when people send me photos of them playing the app out in public,” he told me. “The silence is deafening. It’s strange to be hosting in front of nobody, even though 120,000 people are watching and playing.”
Unlike a traditional TV quiz show, the host doesn’t have real life contestants to banter with. And while in the early days he was able to read all the comments and shout people out during the game, the feed has now become too fast for that.
This is where Rogowsky has to get creative, inventing little in jokes with the audience — like calling them “H-Qties,” both to avoid dead air and make the audience feel included. “My showbiz skills help me with this type of hosting,” he said.
When I ask how his new schedule, which includes live hosting slots at 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. during the week, he admitted that “it’s hard to see a Broadway show or dinner.” He also currently commutes into the city from his suburban hometown, saying, “I’m in between apartments right now, it’s not all roses.”
Nevertheless, the host genuinely enjoys the rapidly growing community around HQ’s popularity, something he’s looking forward to help grow. “The internet has become so divisive and filled with echo chambers,” he said. “This is an enjoyable way to bring people together in a nonpartisan, fun way.”
As we finished up our meeting, the host took the opportunity to set an important record straight regarding questions HQ-ers constantly ask during games. “Yes, I am wearing pants during shows,” he confirms. “And no I’ve never worn eyeliner, I just have naturally lush lashes.”
All joking aside, I asked him if he’s being held hostage by HQ. “I think last night’s game proved that I’m alive and well,” he texted me. “Not being held hostage, we’re all good!”