A promotional video for HQ Trivia, hosted by Johns Hopkins University alum Scott Rogowsky. (Video courtesy of HQ Trivia)
Scott Rogowsky comes from a long line of law school grads — his dad, his mom, his uncles.
As an undergrad at the Johns Hopkins University, he was perfectly prepared to follow suit.
And then being funny got in the way.
“I started doing standup at Hopkins. That sort of spurred the whole thing,” says Rogowsky, who proceeded to ditch the idea of law school, move back to his native New York and, after a few years on the periphery of the humor circuit, get a gig as host of a quiz show app called “HQ Trivia.”
Now, 11 years removed from JHU, he’s still funny, he’s gotten surprisingly famous and he’s the jocular host of an addictive twice-daily quiz show. “HQ Trivia” regularly has about 1 million people staring at their phones at 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. EST, punching in the answers to trivia questions and, if they’re good enough and can answer all 12, splitting a pot of money with other human repositories of obscure — some might say useless — information.
“I’m very happy here, and I’m going to sign up with these guys and be part of their long-term future,” Rogowsky, 33, says over the phone from his Manhattan apartment. “If I can stay here in New York, do this for the next 10 years, 20 years, then I’ll do it.”
But it is, admittedly, not what he had in mind back in Baltimore, not even on Jan. 28, 2005. That was the day, at the end of a January mini-mester course called “The Stand-up Comic in Society,” he got his first taste of performing in front of an audience. He was the last person to take the stage; about 300 people were hanging on his every word, Rogowsky says. He killed it.
“After the show, people were coming up to me,” he says, “strangers were coming up to me, saying, ‘Have you ever done that before? You should do that — you were great.’ ”
Adam Ruben, who taught the course (still does) and helps produce the “Mortified” storytelling shows in Baltimore and D.C., agrees that Rogowsky made his mark. ”Scott did a great job,” he says. “You could see it was always something he was destined to do. He’s one of those people, you just know that’s something he wants to spend every day doing.”
A comedy career for Rogowsky seemed inevitable. Until, that is, he tried doing the same show in front of a crowd that hadn’t been warmed up by about 20 other laughmeister wannabes who had just taken the same course he had.
“Two weeks later, I tried the same material at an open mic night in D.C. and totally bombed,” he says. “I learned my first lesson about audiences early on — you gotta have an attentive audience, and it helps if they’re your fellow college students who are probably drunk or high.”
Regardless, he was hooked. He started a comedy club on campus his senior year, he says, staging open mic nights in the cafeteria and bringing in young talent years before they would become famous. He got Baron Vaughn (USA’s “Fairly Legal”) and Todd Levin, who would later write for Conan O’Brien, to come to Baltimore. “In 2006, I was getting John Mulaney to Hopkins,” Rogowsky says. “No one appreciated that at the time.”
After graduation, he went back to New York, looking to make his mark. He made videos and posted them on YouTube and elsewhere, including a series where he would sit in a subway car reading books with attention-grabbing titles (“Human Taxidermy,” “Slut-Shaming Your Baby,” “Getting Away with Murder for Dummies”) and secretly filming passengers’ reactions. There was “Start Talking,” which Rogowsky describes as an “ambush talk show,” that went up on the Go90 streaming service last year. And there’s “Running Late,” a talk show he’s been doing for six years, with his father, Marty, as his sidekick.
It was all fun, and all pretty funny. But it wasn’t earning Rogowsky a living. Maybe, he thought, a change would do him good.
“I thought it was time to move to L.A.,” he says. “I had done my show out there in May and February , had some great results. I thought, ‘You know what? I need a change of scenery, a change of pace.’ ” So he gave up his apartment and moved back in with his parents, figuring he’d save up enough money to head for the West Coast come September. There, maybe, he could land what had become his dream job: correspondent for “The Daily Show.”
Within the first week of the premiere of Emmy-winning writer Lena Waithe’s Showtime series “The Chi,” Twitter and the inter-webs were flooding with comparisons to one of the most prolific shows from Baltimore — “The Wire.”
Only, there was this one last audition Rogowsky figured he’d try. So he headed to a studio in Chelsea, read off a teleprompter while standing in front of a green screen, then went home to continue preparing for L.A.
“And then I got the call, ‘Hey, we’d like you to actually host this thing.’ I thought, ‘Let me give it a shot. What the hell?’ ”
That shot has worked out pretty well. Rogowsky admits he never saw “game show host” as his career goal, but that’s pretty much what he is, and he’s loving it.
As the host of “HQ Trivia,” he gets to crack jokes, banter with his unseen audience, deliver puns that would elicit groans were they not so apropos (he calls the show’s fans “HQties”), look smart and manic and say whatever he wants.
“I understood what this was,” he says. “I’m gonna talk to a camera, crack a few jokes, read some trivia questions and get to improvise, just be myself, and have latitude and leeway to just bring my personality into it. I thought, there could not be a better gig.”
(The Baltimore Sun’s interview with Rogowsky occurred before a report by tech website Recode that Founders Fund, the venture firm founded by controversial billionaire Peter Thiel, is raising $15 million in funding for the app. The connection to Thiel, who helped fund the Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit that eventually bankrupted Gawker Media, has caused a social media campaign to #DeleteHQ. Rogowsky did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the controversy.)
Rogowsky is developing a loyal, at times even rabid, fan base — perhaps most surprisingly, he admits, among the app’s female fans. He's known online — flatteringly, for the most part — as Quiz Daddy. In the course of a recent profile in New York magazine, the author paused to ask his readers, “Why did three straight female friends try to crash our interview?”
“I don’t understand that at all,” Rogowsky insists.
But sex symbol or just another game-show host, Rogowsky knows enough to appreciate it when the gods smile on him.
The inaugural Universal FanCon, the first large-scale, 24-hour event that celebrates pop culture and the diversity of fans, will come to Baltimore in April, touting guests like Kristian Nairn, a.k.a. Hodor from “Game of Thrones."