Seeing Scott Rogowsky outside the HQ app is like seeing an elementary school teacher outside of her classroom. When I first pull up a stool next to him at EastVille Comedy Club’s bar, I’m overcome by a sense of misplacement; like most self-described HQties, I typically see this man twice a day in a highly controlled environment: from the torso up, shrunken down to the size of my palm, and beamed into my iPhone via the newish trivia app HQ. Now here he is, a trim, full-sized human in a down jacket and a yellow HQ-branded hoodie enjoying a hot toddy at a downtown Manhattan bar, as if his life doesn’t revolve around presenting me millennial-grade witticisms and questions about dead presidents. I suppress the urge to yell: “Get back to your green screen before the Quiz Daddy portal closes!” But there are more urgent matters to address.
“Can you tell me all the answers to HQ tonight?” I ask. Rogowsky flashes an exhausted look. Before he can answer, the only other person sitting at the bar — a college kid in a beanie — interrupts.
“You’re Scott Rogowsky,” he exclaims. “I fucking knew it! My girlfriend didn’t think you were, but I fucking knew it. Can I get a picture with you?”
Rogowsky dutifully poses for his fan’s selfie, and for a moment there’s a glimmer of his host persona: a pair of smizing green eyes and a toothy, almost manic smile framed by a manicured beard. “We all play HQ!” his fan declares. When he turns back to me a second later, it’s gone.
“No,” he tells me incredulously. “I can’t give you the answers.”
Rogowsky has clearly relished the sudden fame and fandom that HQ — a somewhat dystopian, live trivia smartphone game with cash prizes — has earned him over the past five months. Most of the posts on his Instagram account (@traptrebek, a hint in itself) are dedicated to his band of enthusiastic followers; he is what Twitter users call a serial faver; and in the many, many interviews he’s given since the app went viral in November, he is extremely excited, if not a little overwhelmed by all the attention. (“It’s a thrill to be recognized,” he told The New York Post. “If you have tweeted at me or DM’d me, thank you,” he told BuzzFeed News. “Maybe one day I’ll have time to scroll through all the DMs, and maybe have a Bachelor-style reality show to choose someone? I don’t know.”) But on the freezing December evening that I meet him at this open-mic night, he is simply tired.
“I’m not at my best right now,” he says. “And I had a really shitty night of sleep.”
Rogowsky’s unrelenting holiday hosting schedule, which will close with a special, if glitchy, New Year’s Eve countdown on the app, is wearing him down. That, and the day before, some people from Ohio — high schoolers, maybe? — got a hold of his phone number, added him to an 18-person group chat, and sent him a string of messages along the lines of “answer us, Quiz Daddy.” (He deleted the messages and blocked the numbers.) When we meet, he is living with his parents in Harrison, New York, as he looks for an apartment. He takes the late train home, and usually gets in around 11:30 p.m. Needless to say, he is looking forward to taking a vacation, which is supposed to start with back-to-back Phish concerts at Madison Square Garden — for which he would be skipping two whole HQ games. I remark that his absence is not unlike a star quarterback skipping a big game.
“What? Do you want me to host every single game?” he asks. “I have a life. I need to take a break. I haven’t had a vacation since July. When I’m not hosting HQ for these last six months, it’s because I’ve had to be in St. Louis or Houston or Indiana for comedy. Doing stand-up with the Sklar brothers, doing their podcast.” He continues to list the obligations he’s racked up over the past few months. With instant fame, apparently, comes instant scheduling headaches. “I had a wedding in Boston for a weekend. I haven’t had a vacation. That’s why I’m taking one in January.”
That Rogowsky would prefer not to spend every waking hour of his life dedicated to smartphone trivia is understandable, because he is a human being, not an algorithm. And like any human being, he should be able to enjoy basic things like sleep, free time, and ’90s jam bands. But HQ has made his life unavoidably hectic. The trivia show broadcasts twice every weekday — at 3 and 9 p.m. ET — and once on Saturday and Sunday. Rogowsky usually gets to the studio a few hours early to look over the 12 questions prepared by HQ’s trivia writers; that’s when he offers revisions and brainstorms jokes to insert in the broadcast. When it’s time to go live, he puts on a wardrobe-assigned suit, steps in front of a green screen, and hosts the show — with a little help from a teleprompter. It all ends with Rogowsky doing a little jig as the usernames of winners flash across the screens of hundreds of thousands of smartphones.
In many ways, Rogowsky’s human-ness is one of the most interesting and challenging elements to the tech startup that employs him. By all traditional game-show host standards he’s been an immediate success, building a dedicated viewership in the hundred thousands in a few months by sprinkling inventive nicknames and buzzwords onto an otherwise straightforward trivia show format. Like Alex Trebek or Ryan Seacrest, he has become the default spokesperson for an entire institution, a handsome face armed with cute catchphrases that draw an audience, regardless of their personal interest in the competition. The Cult of Scott has grown so strong that Rogowsky’s Instagram account is now littered with fan arts and crafts bearing his face; highlights includes Christmas ornaments, dolls, and mugs. His broadcasts are frequent enough that they resemble a daily vlog, the medium of choice that has helped YouTube personalities like Jake Paul and Casey Neistat collect millions of dedicated, young followers. Fans of HQ aren’t necessarily tuning in to see Rogowsky eat a bowl of cereal, but most of them are probably delighted to watch a short video of his dad celebrating a birthday.
“I don’t think I’m interesting enough to even sit in front of a camera and talk about myself all day,” Rogowsky tells me. “But now with HQ, it’s become a vlogger-type mentality, and now I sort of understand that there’s an intimacy between a person in front of his camera and the audience.”
By Silicon Valley’s standard logic — which dictates that every startup should aim to become as ubiquitous as possible and then go public — Rogowsky’s lack of automation has become a somewhat unprecedented obstacle for a tech company. “Replicating Rogowsky’s riffing is one of the hurdles HQ Trivia will have to overcome if it hopes to succeed long-term,” Quartz wrote this week. “While it’s possible to develop a near-endless list of trivia questions, finding hosts skilled at both scripted material and off-the-cuff comedy — and able to do both multiple times a day — may prove more difficult.” When I said as much to a venture capitalist I met for coffee in San Francisco last month, he likened the situation to a Wall Street Journal story he had once read about Cirque Du Soleil’s hiring strategies. Because the Canadian entertainment company must export its fantastical shows worldwide, it avoids hiring unique performers. “Working with such singular talent forces Cirque to walk a tightrope,” the 2007 article reads. “The artistic side is always looking for new acts. The business side wants to make sure they aren’t irreplaceable.” HQ employs a handful of understudy hosts to fill in for Rogowsky when he’s gone, and it even experimented with a “Guest Host Week” featuring new faces like Dillon Francis. But so far, no one has stood out as Rogowsky’s equal. He may not be as rare as an opera singer or an acrobat, but he has proved to be the only Quiz Daddy that the world’s youth has widely embraced.
HQ cofounders Rus Yusupov and Colin Kroll may have learned that the hard way in November. After Yusupov discovered that Daily Beast reporter Taylor Lorenz interviewed Rogowsky for a short profile, he called her in a rage, demanding, among many things, that she not publish a quote about how Rogowsky can still eat at the salad chain Sweetgreen without being recognized. “He cannot say that!” Yusupov reportedly yelled. “We do not have a brand deal with Sweetgreen!” He also threatened to fire Rogowsky: “You’re putting Scott’s job in jeopardy,” he told Lorenz. “Is that what you want?” She framed the story so as to highlight Yusupov’s outlandish behavior, and the internet quickly rallied to Rogowsky’s defense. “PROTECT SCOTT AT ALL COSTS,” wrote one Twitter user. Multiple news outlets defended his honor and wondered whether he was all right. A #FREESCOTT hashtag emerged. (People still tweet it anytime he misses a show.) Rogowsky did not lose his job, and Yusupov later tweeted a selfie with the host, calling himself a “cliche, stressed out startup founder.” Amid the titillating internet speculation that day, Yusupov — who later told The New York Times that he was still learning how to work with talent — had been taught an important lesson about the nature of the beast they’d created. (“I admit that I made a mistake,” Yusupov said in the follow-up.) Rogowsky stayed; when I asked him about this incident, he said the Daily Beast article spoke for itself.
Now Rogowsky’s outsized role presents an essential question in the emerging live-trivia app genre: Does the value of something like HQ lie in the technology or the talent? This was, according to Rogowsky, a topic of discussion that came up naturally in the early days of the show, long before all that internet drama turned the game into a viral success.
“In the very beginning, there was total leeway; they didn’t give me a manual or anything,” Rogowsky says. “I would be up there pretty much completely improvising stuff. That’s where I came up with the ‘HQties’ and ‘savage question’ — just things that were occurring to me in this lonely studio.”
These “joke buckets,” as Rogowsky calls them, created a structure in the show that allowed him to riff, and thus feed an insider language for his most dedicated viewers. On any given day, “HQties” would become “HQubicles,” or “dollars” would turn into “duvet covers.” Just one of dozens of Quiz Daddy variations was “Quizzie McGuire.” Fans offered their own iterations, including “Lag Daddy” — a playful reference to the app’s frequent tendency to freeze.
But around the end of August — when Rogowsky estimates the audience sizes were still hovering around only 1,000 viewers — there was talk of making the game more predictable. Leadership asked Rogowsky to tame his intros so that they would last no longer than 10 seconds. “They’re tech guys,” says Rogowsky. “That’s the tech mind-set.” After some conversations, they found a happy medium, Rogowsky says: He scaled back his freewheeling soliloquies, and was permitted to make the broadcasts personal.
When we meet in late December, he is in the process of signing a contract to be a full-time employee at the company. “It’s not The Scott Rogowsky Show, but it’s also not a haircut in a suit reading a prompter,” he told me in a follow-up email. “I think we’ve found a good balance now where people are tuning in because they enjoy the entertainment value I bring to the table, and they’re also getting a rush out of the competition and the large amounts of money on the line. My goal is to keep people in the game even when they’ve been eliminated. Come for the questions and the chance to win cash; stay for the show.”
Still, even though he has amassed a legion of dedicated online fans, Rogowsky doesn’t think the trivia world revolves around him. In fact, he expects that gigs like his may soon have their own version of late-night show competitions.
“Look, some people don’t like me as a host,” he says. “There’s Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, James Corden, Conan. They’re all doing the same thing, but they have different fans. People gravitate toward one or the other. I’m sure it will come to the point where people are like, ‘Oh, I play HQ. I play The Q.’” He paused at this mention of a knockoff trivia app. “OK, maybe not The Q.”
By the time EastVille’s open mic begins, the only people in the audience are me, the HQ fan, and his girlfriend. And the only people on the lineup are Rogowsky and a last-minute addition named Alfonso. This is the kind of show that Rogowsky, a veteran of the New York comedy scene, might’ve done nine or 10 years ago. He hosted an open mic in the back room of Otto’s Shrunken Head during the summers of 2006 and 2007, and would also do late-night mics at spots like the Village Lantern and the old PIT, where sometimes the only other people in the audience would be fellow comedians. Before he began working at HQ, he was already far gone from the scene, working on a handful of online projects and hosting his own live comedy talk show, Running Late. But when I asked to see him do a set, EastVille fit our respective schedules. “You don’t have to do this,” I offered as we filed into the club. But he wanted to help out Alfonso, and, after all, it’s never easy to book a full house when you’ve got a standing 9 p.m. slot in front of a green screen.
After a brief introduction from the open-mic host, Tommy, Rogowsky takes the stage in his HQ hoodie, his lanky body framed by two red velvet curtains that are pasted onto the wall behind the stage, covering nothing in particular. He begins by firing off a handful of weather observations — “It’s colder than the shower I took after seeing those Kylo Ren shirtless pics!” — and pauses to soak in the silence of the room.
“This is actually more people than I’m used to performing in front of. This is good. This is very good.”
He moves on to the fact he’d turned 33 earlier that month, a topic he covers through the lenses of astrology (“If you look at the Hebrew calendar, I was born the year of the coupon”), his similarities to Jesus (“We’re both bearded Jews, fond of sandals, and I’m probably going to get crucified this year, over a tweet”), and a brief tale about a 33-year-old he dated when he was 23 (“We used to role-play. I would be a paleontologist working at a museum, and she’d be a pile of old bones … that I could have sex with”).
I chuckle at the last one. The jokes aren’t great, per se, but something about Rogowsky’s stage presence remains charming. I find that I’ve grown so accustomed to watching him ramble on in a little box in my palm for the past few months that no matter what he says, it’s comforting, like having an old Friends episode on in the background while you’re vacuuming.
After a smattering of jokes about his dating life, in which he suggests that Hollywood should option a movie based on his Tinder use called “American Swiper,” he finishes up, handing the mic back to Tommy.
“Give it up for Scott Rubinowsky!!” Tommy says, oblivious that the man who’d just graced the stage would perform in front of hundreds of thousands of people in just a few hours. The college kid and his girlfriend applaud enthusiastically, still drunk off the feeling of seeing the Trap Trebek in person. Rogowsky takes a seat next to me, appearing to be both slightly aggrieved and amused.
“Rubinowsky,” he mutters. “You nailed it.”