By Angel Navedo
When Scott Rogowsky brought his stand-up comedy act to New York from Baltimore in 2006, he quickly identified the places where his style would be most appreciated. After developing his routines while studying at Johns Hopkins University, Rogowsky decided to venture off the beaten path into the smaller bars of Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan to tell his jokes. But he found his sports-related comedy wasn’t going over very well with his audiences.
Rather than change his approach, Rogowsky began to seek out sports fans who enjoy a good laugh. But there were no easy laughs — or easy deals — in the beginning; Rogowsky’s idea of a sports-themed variety show stalled for nearly two years while he sought a partner who complemented his vision.
Then, using the stage at Comix, in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, Rogowsky partnered with Neil Janowitz, an associate editor at ESPN The Magazine, to lure premier New York athletes — like former Jets safety Kerry Rhodes, current Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, Giants left tackle David Diehl and Knicks guard Chris Duhon — for interviews that parody the format of late-night talk television.
Janowitz had trained in improvisational comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and written for CollegeHumor.com.
“It was the perfect combination,” says Rogowsky. “I figured I’d bring my comedy knowledge and connections, and he’ll have his sports connections, and we could create this show. He’s been phenomenal in being as dedicated as I am to this thing.”
The 12 Angry Mascots, as the show was called, debuted at the UCB Theater in September 2008, with a 30-minute act. The show ended with an interview with Will Leitch, founder of deadspin.com, a popular sports blog dedicated to mocking mainstream sports coverage.
The owner of the theater liked the show, Rogowsky explains, “but said we’re not there yet—that we hadn’t found our voice. And how could we argue? It was our first time doing it.”
After a performance at Chelsea’s Cell Theatre, Rogowsky decided it was time to bring the 12 Angry Mascots to a comedy club, and he sought out Comix, where Brian Baldinger, the club’s director of talent development, responded positively.
“They were pitching out a show that was unique and reaching people that don’t typically come out to comedy clubs,” said Baldinger. “They passed out some links to their videos, including a sketch they had done about the Super Bowl … and it was really well produced.”
So he booked the 12 Angry Mascots for March 2009. But attracting an audience of sports fans who share the Mascots’ passion for sports-related comedy hasn’t been an easy task. Many sports fans seem to be more interested in watching games than attending a sports-themed comedy show.
Timing was also an issue. Comix hoped to book events months in advance, so Rogowsky and Janowitz often have to forecast the future of popular local teams, hoping to avoid scheduling conflicts.
Sometimes it doesn’t work. Last October, the 12 Angry Mascots featured the Jets’ Revis and the Knicks’ Duhon on the same evening the Yankees were on the verge of clinching their 40th pennant against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The March show, featuring Rhodes, competed with the NCAA basketball tournament—and torrential rains. While 82 customers paid to walk through the doors that night, Rogowsky was disappointed, considering Comix can accommodate up to 300 people.
“Well, Robinson canceled the day of the show, but we ended up getting 150 on the dot,” said an immensely relieved Rogowsky. “We kept doing the show,” and Comix kept bringing them back.
The club enjoyed the Mascots’ dedication to providing a candid look at some of New York’s most popular sports figures. The content doesn’t vary greatly from the light-hearted nature of late-night television, but Janowitz and Rogowsky use their access to highlight the silliness often found in sports.
Last March, Rogowsky and Janowitz took the audience at Comix on a tongue-in-cheek tour of the new Yankee Stadium, playing the roles of Hank Steinbrenner and Derek Jeter, respectively. Playing off of the astronomical costs of the new stadium, which had sparked widespread criticism, the Mascots sarcastically discussed the new Hard Rock Café in right field and the Rainforest Café in left field.
Eventually, the athletes joined in the comedy. David Diehl sat in the audience wearing a Green Bay Packers hat for a Brett Favre impression, mocking the quarterback – who debates whether to retire or play during the offseason – as he mulled over whether to have cheese ravioli or a bacon burger. The waitress was finally allowed to walk away after Diehl decided to “sit this one out.” To end the sketch, Diehl replaced the Packers hat with a Jets hat and asked about the pizza. (See video.)
The Mascots learned that athletes — usually mired in grueling competition — appreciate the opportunity to showcase the lighter side of their personalities.
“We have a little bit of a network now of player reps we can go to, but it’s still very difficult,” Rogowsky said. “We usually come down to the wire every month trying to book a guest.”
Players are willing to do the show because they believe in the comedy and want to be part of it. Christopher Higgins, a left wing for the New York Rangers until he was traded away in February, had so much fun as a guest that he agreed to appear in a sketch taped for the Internet, jn which he interrupts Rogowsky and Janowitz with an elaborate idea for a sketch of his own. (See video.)
It also helps to attract athletes when the Mascots donate part of their proceeds to a charitable cause — as they did last October when proceeds from the show benefitted the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America.
Some players aspire to careers in entertainment when their playing days are finished. Rhodes was nicknamed “Hollywood” for his actor’s résumé, appearing in a Lady Gaga music video and having two acting roles to his credit.
Ultimately, the players seem motivated by the comedy and exposure to fans in a non-athletic environment.
The success of the live show led to an opportunity with ESPN.com, featuring the 12 Angry Mascots in a series of sketches titled “NFL Writers Room”; they filmed eight episodes for the Web, which appeared on ESPN’s website from Oct 16 through Dec 11, including a special Super Bowl edition they sold to atom.com. The premise of the sketch suggestss that weekly NFL competition is scripted in an office filled with temperamental television writers.
In the skit, the actors play writers who sit around a table developing unlikely results for upcoming games and debating which records should be broken — as if the games themselves were scripted. In one episode, they discussed having Chicago Bears running back Adrian Peterson break the single-game rushing record, only because he shares a name with the Minnesota Vikings star runner who is a more likely record-breaker.
Professional sports has dedicated, sometimes fanatical fans, emotional athletes and shrewd business practices — and that gives the Mascots plenty to satirize. If there is a record that is unlikely to be broken or a star whose reputation seems to transcend his sport, Rogowsky and Janowitz set out to bring the sports stars down to earth and to prove that professional sports can be downright hilarious.
“Ultimately, I think this thing could be on TV,” says Rogowsky. “But I just want to get to the point where we’re selling out the show every time, people are lined up at the door to get in, and we’re packing the place.”