At one point on his debut, Dilation, Rory Scovel begins to talk about the Michael Phelps scandal, prefacing his story with, “Watch out, two-year-old joke coming at you!” He later remarks, “Writing jokes is hard, so I try not to do it.” He’s being a little over-the-top with the self-effacing here, but he’s not without a point. Scovel doesn’t come off as the type to labor over material, meticulously working it into the sharpest state possible. Instead his approach might best be summed up as “getting up there and talking about pot and stuff, and hoping it’ll be funny.” Though some of the material falls flat (his joke about being forced to blow his dad after getting caught with cigarettes is neither funny nor shocking, nor is it a fresh take on bad taste), Dilationis overall a very funny album. After it’s over you might not remember many specific lines, but you’ll be glad you spent time in Scovel’s company.
Scovel specializes in jokes so loose and freewheeling that they barely qualify as shaggy-dog tales; a clump of dog hair drifting apart in the breeze, maybe. But give the man credit. Listening to Dilation, it sounds like it was an act of deep personal strength for Scovel to put the bong down long enough to wander onstage with a general idea of some jokes he might tell once he’s there. Stoner humor is the laziest humor possible (There are few easier ways to receive applause than by asking, “Who likes to get high?”) but it’s undeniably where Scovel lives, and he gets a pass because his best jokes in this vein are remarkably specific, memorably weird spins on the tropes of the genre.
The best joke on Dilation suggests that the most efficient way to get high-school kids to use birth control is to show them a picture of Scovel stoned at the movies in the middle of the afternoon. Wearing 3-D glasses, obviously. When the kids realize teenage pregnancy means they won’t be able to spend their 20s and 30s getting high and going to matinees, they’ll start taking condoms more seriously. Scovel pulls off this very clever inversion of well-worn “sex and drugs and the dangers to the youth” cliché through a mock-serious tone that suggests a sharper mind that he likes to let on. Or maybe it’s not so mock-serious; Scovel really does seem to believe there couldn’t possibly be a better way to spend one’s 30s than stoned and watching 3-D movies. You might not agree, but you’ll be glad that he thinks so.
The other great get-fucked-up joke on Dilation is too grand to be spoiled here. Suffice to say it’s an ode to the virtues of driving on mushrooms. That Scovel hilariously compares the experience to intergalactic travel shows a gift for specificity of detail and metaphor that he would do well to cultivate, as his amiable charm has its limit and can only do so much to redeem his lazier material. The Phelphs bit leads to a joke about over-enthusiastic stage parents training their kids to swim that Scovel tries his best to sell purely with gusto; unfortunately the attempt never finds a comedic core.
His loose approach can lead to whimsical moments, but it can also lead Scovel astray. He might enjoy talking with the crowd at length and goofing on an audience member’s enthusiasm for all things Michigan, and they were probably fun if you were in the room. But on record they’re just not that interesting, and they drag on far too long and sap energy from Dilation, which is not that fast-paced to begin with. He also has a bad habit of occasionally reverting to the “talking from the audience’s perspective” shtick using a high, wacky voice, a device Jim Gaffigan owns so thoroughly that any comedian attempting it comes off poorly. He also overuses a stuffy, rich-guy voice, another of those lazy crutches he would shed if he had any interest in trying harder.
But should we really want him to try harder? There are dull spots, uninspired topics and plenty of meandering on Dilation that wouldn’t be there if he cared about self-editing. But Scovel’s comical wanderlust gives him the patience to stroll around a comedic idea and poke it with a stick in hopes of finding something that will kill. If he doesn’t, he’ll just mosey on over to the next thing that pops into his head. A tighter approach to joke writing might lead to a more respectable joke-to-dud ratio, but it would also lose the easygoing, “Eh, maybe this will work” spirit that makes Dilation feel like an accurate representation of shooting the shit with its likable creator.