In theory, Third Man Records is far from the ideal distributor for a comedy album. The Jack White-founded label has a live venue at its Nashville, Tennessee base where musical performances are recorded and transferred directly to vinyl. The practice runs counter to how the majority of modern comedy albums are produced, in which two or more performances are typically edited together to create the best show possible. At Third Man, though, the artist—as is the nature of live music—gets just one take.
Rory Scovel’s Live at Third Man Records is his second album. Whereas 2011’s Dilation was an hour of 11 separate tracks on a range of topics, Third Man is an actual record, featuring an A- and B-side, each roughly 20 minutes long. And while Dilation featured material inspired by Scovel’s real life, Third Man is, by comparison, a radical departure, as it’s almost entirely bereft of any mention of Scovel the person.
Scovel spends the first five minutes of the A-side speaking in a German accent, bizarrely riffing on the phrase “such whats” for much too long. He then offers a few slogans for his character’s home nation—e.g., “Germany: we know that you know”—before slipping into a thick Southern accent to play a Christian comic-preacher who is weirdly aware that he’s at Third Man Records recording an album; Scovel references the fact that this album is on vinyl nearly half a dozen times.
The B-side features Scovel utilizing his normal speaking voice, doing more traditional material. He spends a fair amount of time talking about Salt Lake City—“the whitest city in the world”—before segueing into a discussion on different levels of racism.
Scovel’s not a traditional stand-up comic. He’s unapologetic about using voices, and he’s more than willing to detour around his material to play off the crowd. Those tactics make Scovel a unique talent, but it’s fair to say they might not make him the proper type of comic to record a one-off show. The mode by which Third Man operates is conducive to capturing intimacy—preserving the spark of a live performance that post-production inherently strips away. Scovel—obviously capable of carefully crafted material—takes full advantage of these circumstances, riffing and being hyper-present to such a degree that much of the album comes off feeling almost too in-the-moment. At times, it’s difficult to distinguish which material is prepared and which is authored spontaneously. This is unquestionably a performative gift, but comedy is dependent on landing laughs, and unfortunately for Scovel, much too often there isn’t enough of an overall positive reaction to merit a work created for posterity.
It’s unfair to condemn a comic for experimenting or trying to grow as an artist. And considering Third Man is available only as a physical record with no digital edition, it’s an ideal medium for experimentation. As it stands, Scovel’s effort is noble and well-intentioned, but the end result is far from what he’s proven capable of.