Interviews

Scott Rogowsky's Hilarious Subway Reading

By David Jenison

Scott Rogowsky's Hilarious Subway Reading

When a late-night talk show books guests like Jon Hamm and Steve Buscemi, people assume the show must be on a major network. In the case of Running Late with Scott Rogowsky, it is not even on TV. The NYC comedian debuted the online-only show back before Leno and Letterman became Fallon and Colbert, and Running took a slow-but-steady approach building a loyal following. This past month, Rogowsky went viral with the hilarious skit Subway Reading in which the comedian reads oversized fake books like 101 Penis Lengthening Tips, Slut-Shaming Your Baby and George W. Bush’s If I Did It: How I Would Have Done 9/11 on the L and 6 trains. He repeated the skit in January 2017 with a new series of book covers all aimed at Trump and his people. PRØHBTD recently spoke with Rogowsky to learn more.

I have to start by asking about the new Trump-themed Subway Reading video. What prompted you to do the new video? 

When I woke up on November 9, turned on the radio and heard the words "President-Elect Donald Trump," I felt like I had been transported to the Twilight Zone. In the days after, I was stewing in disbelief and disgust but felt inspired by all the fluffy memes I was seeing about "MAKE ART" and "FIGHT BACK" and the donations pouring into these organizations that face defunding, and I thought, "I can't offer much, but gosh darnit, I can make another book cover video and contribute in my own small way." So I enlisted the help of some comedy writer friends and designer friends who donated their talents to help expedite the process, hit the L train, and voila—a new video is born. 

For people unfamiliar with the show, please tell me about Running Late with Scott Rogowsky.

It's not the highest of concepts. It's a live, late night talk show that I've been doing in New York for four and a half years now. Prior to Running Late, I was hosting a sports-comedy talk show for three years called 12 Angry Mascots. No one was doing a sports-themed comedy show at the time—and later I realized no one was doing it because the audience wasn't there for it. After ending that show in April 2011, I quickly got the itch to get back behind the desk, so in October 2011, I started an all-purpose, general interest, late night talk show—and I've been doing that ever since, producing nearly 70 shows and welcoming more than 300 guests to the mysteriously stained couch we brought in from the curb. Guests have included bold names like Jon Hamm, Steve Buscemi, Amy Sedaris, Regis Philbin, and Dick Cavett as well as lesser-known friends of mine who are doing cool things.

I started doing stand-up in New York in 2007 in the open mic trenches with guys like Mark Normand, Mike Lawrence, Adam Newman and Sam Morril. It's cool to see them break out and establish themselves as the next generation of stand-up, and I get a kick out of booking them on my show all these years later.

I’ve used my comedy contacts to grow the show and book the bigger names, and I’m always grateful when someone like David Cross or Chris Elliott agrees to do the show. It's not on TV—I edit clips for my YouTube channel—but there’s not a ton of exposure. No one's going to sell 10,000 books as a result of an appearance. It’s really just a chance for guests to have fun and goof around.

From an audience perspective, what makes Running Late attractive versus a [Jimmy] Fallon or Seth Meyers taping is you’re not herded like cattle and kept waiting for hours, only to be seated 100 feet from the stage and forced to suffer through a 40-minute warm-up act. You come to my show, and you’re sitting right up close. And you can drink! And take photos! And you can get a selfie with Jon Hamm afterward.

When you land somebody big like Jon Hamm, what reasons do they give for being on your show?

I wish I knew. Then I could use it to get other people. With Jon Hamm in particular, he's as big a comedy superfan as anybody. He'll voice a talking toilet on Bob's Burgers or appear in Bridesmaids uncredited. Back in the ʼ90s when he lived in New York, he would show up to Luna Lounge and all those downtown shows in the alt-comedy scene, and so I think he saw my show as being in that same DIY vein.

But it was still a tough booking! I was emailing with him for over a year. He would always get back to me—which is more than I can say for most people I email—saying, "I'd love to do it, but can't do this one." "Out of town." "Out of town, but keep trying." And lo and behold, the day of my show, he's like, "I can do it tonight if you still have room for me." I quickly made room. It helped that Jon Benjamin was also on that show, so it was a chance to hang out with a friend and maybe show a different side of himself.

I think that's what I offer. It's not your typical TV appearance where you have to hit the notes and promote this, promote that. I try to give my guests 12 to 20 minutes, and they can go off script and go blue and do whatever they want, really. Jon Benjamin “threw to a clip,” and it was him in the backseat of an Uber on his way to the show. So it's an outlet for my guests to be their creative selves without any filters or restrictions.

For people who only know Subway Reading, what other videos would you recommend?

I like Tindering with my Parents. That's a good one for getting to know me and my family a little better. In another video, I tried to get my dad laid for Father's Day even though he’s been happily married for 33 years. The second largest hit on my channel is a parody of that viral catcall video in which a woman is sexually harassed while walking through New York City. In my version, I’m being harassed by Hasidic Jews. It’s got almost a million views with a limited audience—I think only Jewish folks in major cities will truly appreciate that one. Another favorite is my interview with a Brooklyn pick-up artist. I basically make fun of this guy to his face while he sits there oblivious to it. But if you live in New York, the best thing to do is to come see the live show and get the full experience.

What were some of the fake covers that didn’t make it into the Subway Reading clip?

There was only one cover that I had to take out because the title was too long, and it’s actually my favorite one. It's a parody of [Facebook exec] Sheryl Sandberg's [book] Lean In. My cover looks exactly like the book, but it's got a picture of Fat Joe the rapper, and it's called Lean Back after his big song. The subtitle is Refusing to Dance, Pulling Up Pants, and the Will to Do the Rockaway by Fat Joe with Sheryl Sandberg.

Did anyone on the subway engage you about the book covers?
Only one person really said something. This Latino gentleman was eyeing me while I read the Trump book [The Art of Fucking Your Daughter], and as he was getting off the subway, he goes, "Yo, where'd you get the book?" I said, "Amazon,” and he goes, "Man, I fucking hate that guy. I drove two hours to vote against him." That was the only verbal interaction I had in four hours of shooting.

Right as the video went viral, the Ask a Native New Yorker question on [NYC website] Gothamist was, “Is It Wrong to Read Over Someone’s Shoulder in the Subway?”

Interesting.

I expected the article to reference your video. What do you think, is it okay to read over someone’s shoulder?

Well, if it was Gothamist, then you won’t find my video. They seem to have place a moratorium on Scott Rogowsky-related content. Meanwhile, nearly every one of my videos is tailor-made for Gothamist readers—they’re all New York-centric, featuring New Yorkers and New York landmarks—I mean, could this subway video be anymore perfect for them? I’ve been interviewed by The Guardian in London and El Mundo in Spain, and the video has been translated into a dozen different languages, but the blog that purports to cover “New York City’s personalities, news stories and media” won’t even link to it? It’s hilarious to me at this point. Someone clearly hates me over there. I'd love to see the internal memos being passed around by the editors: "Yep, I know it has 4 million views, and it’s all over Instagram and Twitter, and the Daily News interviewed him, and Fox 5 put him on TV, and every other blog in the five boroughs is loving it—but we're going to pass. The moratorium stands."

But to answer your question: Sure! The subway is one of these unique spaces where it’s public but very intimate. Everyone is crammed in together, forced to acknowledge each other. And it’s also a very boring environment if you forget to bring reading material or headphones. Once you’ve scanned all the banner ads and fantasized about which fellow passenger you'd leave your spouse for, there's not much left to do other than peek at what your neighbor is reading. I've definitely read along to the latest James Patterson thriller or spectated an exciting game of Fruit Ninja.

Of all the recent presidential candidates, who would you want on the show based entirely on comedic value?

I would say Lyndon LaRouche.

I don’t even know who that is.

He's the perennial nut-job. He's got to be 90 years old.If you look, he's most likely running this year. He runs every time.

The obvious answer is Trump, but that's because I love hearing him talk. I genuinely love hearing his voice and cadence and tone. “Everyone who hates me is a loser; everyone who likes me is terrific.” It’s the most simplistic fifth-grader mentality... I can't get enough of it. My feeling is this: He'll give a big State of the Union address where he pitches President Trump mugs, t-shirts, all his merch—does $40 million in revenue—and then three months later, he'll realize it’s the worst job in the world. He doesn't want to fly to Moscow, he doesn't want to go to disaster sites, so he'll resign. 

You addressed political correctness in comedy. What type of prohibitions do you feel people try to place on comedians?

I spent my first year out of college interning at The Onion and contributing to their videos. They’re the lightning rod for political correctness. They get all sorts of letters and hate mail, but at the end of the day, the driving motivator for the writers was, “What is the target?” Is the target a person of influence and power? A corrupt corporation? You wouldn’t write jokes about starving people in Africa, but the Children's Aid societies claiming to help the starving people in Africa while the CEO is spending the money on private jets—that's the target. It's a matter of figuring out who you're going after with your comedy. Go after the right people, and you can be as offensive as you want.

I have a problem with comedians who mistake being offensive with being clever. I wouldn't even say it's a fine line. It's a very obvious line between what's legitimately intelligent and funny and what's just uninformed, witless garbage.

What do comedians understand about each other that other people do not?

I think we all understand that we can't be doing anything else but comedy. There's a common understanding that we're all in this business because we're not skilled at math. We don't know how the markets work. We don't understand how to be adults. We're here to make jokes because that's all we know. We’re stuck doing this. It’s our inborn, warped view of the world. You're born with this mentality and perspective on things. That's why it's so hard to teach comedy. If your brain isn’t naturally coming up with things like The Art of Fucking Your Daughter, then I don’t know what to tell you.

I want to finish with a New York-centric question. Do you think the Meatpacking District really needs the largest Starbucks on the planet?

Is that really what's happening? I think the Meatpacking District needs to be bulldozed and turned back into a meatpacking facility. The worst people in New York City are attracted to that area. Maybe the Starbucks could install an abattoir, and if you open the wrong door, instead of going into the bathroom, you fall in and get turned into sausage. I want to see more meat coming out of the meatpacking district.

David Jenison (david@prohbtd.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.

 

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