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It was 2017, and the world was Scott Rogowsky’s oyster.
He had spent several years toiling as a comic trying to make it in New York when he auditioned for a new app-based game show called HQ Trivia. Little could he have foreseen what was to come, as the startup — from Rus Yusupov and Colin Kroll, creators of Vine, who sold their company to Twitter for a rumored $30 million in 2012 only to see it shuttered in 2016 — snowballed into a global sensation.
Millions dutifully logged on via smartphones at 9 p.m. E.T. to play along as Rogowsky posed a series of multiple-choice questions, each round more difficult than the last. Any players still standing after the final question shared in a communal pot — usually somewhere between $750 and $2,000, but, as corporate sponsorship from the likes of Wendy’s and Nike joined the bandwagon, sometimes as high as $400,000.
Dapper, charismatic and quick on his feet, Rogowsky had stumbled into the break he was looking for.
His following, which dubbed him the “Quiz Daddy,” ballooned from a small, passionate tribe into a rabid fan army. Studios booked their stars — everyone from Dwayne Johnson to Robert De Niro — to appear alongside him. And his unusual rise to stardom made him catnip to morning shows, late shows and everything in-between.
Behind the scenes, however, HQ Trivia was coming apart at the seams. The app could simply not keep up with demand, crashing frequently and at the most inopportune moments and failing to deliver on promised payouts. Eventually, the fad began to wear off. After over a year of explosive growth, and despite a half-dozen attempted spinoffs, usage started to plummet.
Then the unthinkable happened: On Dec. 16, 2018, after the company holiday party, co-founder Kroll accidentally overdosed on fentanyl-laced heroin. He was found dead in the bedroom of his Soho apartment at age 34.
Already beset by low morale, HQ Trivia could not survive the loss of the genius coder who built it. The company announced it was ceasing operations on Feb. 14, 2020. (It has since found a buyer and still exists in some form, a shell of its former self.)
Rogowsky, meanwhile, saw the writing on the wall and — after clashing since day one with Yusupov — left the company in April 2019 to host ChangeUp, a baseball show on the DAZN streaming service. The entire saga will be retold in an upcoming CNN documentary, Glitch: The Rise & Fall of HQ Trivia, which will air in 2023.
Then the pandemic happened, and baseball didn’t, and Rogowsky decided it was time to shake things up yet again. So he moved to L.A. and opened up a vintage T-shirt store in Santa Monica (yes, really — it’s called Quiz Daddy’s Closet, it’s at 2525 Main St. and Rogowsky is behind the counter).
The time now feels right to get behind the camera again. So Rogowsky, 37, has joined Gamestar+ — another gaming startup, only this one based around TV sets, not smartphones. The company, which bills itself as the first “interactive streaming board game platform,” has also signed Steve Harvey and Ken Jennings to host play-at-home versions of Family Feud and Jeopardy!
Rogowsky’s game has not yet been revealed. But ahead of that announcement, the Quiz Daddy caught up with The Hollywood Reporter to unpack the strange journey his life has taken over the past five years — and underscore his dogged determination not to become the game show host equivalent of a novelty song.
Hi, Scott. What were you doing during the pandemic? It seems like it would have been the perfect time for HQ, yet HQ didn’t exist.
Man, what a year. What was I doing? So I was actually on my way to South by Southwest to do some activation for American Express, doing some panel. I was on my way to the airport when that whole thing got canceled. I turned around and went home.
In February, a month earlier, HQ officially shut down. A year prior I had left HQ. I left in March 2019 to do this baseball show on DAZN [pronounced “da zone”]. We were two weeks away from our season 2020 premiere and hey, no baseball season. So honestly, what was I doing? Not much. I’m sitting around watching a lot of movies.
Where were you?
I was in my new apartment in New York. I had broken up with my girlfriend. We broke up on New Year’s. So it was the breakup, Kobe [Bryant] dying, Australian wildfires, COVID — that was a heavy three months there. And I was in my new apartment alone.
2021 was more of a transitional period for me because that was like, “OK, now I don’t have the job in New York, I don’t have the girl. What am I doing here?” So that’s when I actually moved from New York to L.A. in April 2021 and started this new chapter in my life, my L.A. era. I’m thinking big things for 2023. I think this is the year that Scott Rogowsky could get back in households as a name. I’m hoping this is going to be a renaissance year for me in a way.
Let’s go backwards, if you don’t mind, to how you ended up at HQ Trivia.
I moved to the city in 2007 and was just doing open mics, that whole grind. I had a show called Running Late with Scott Rogowsky, which was a late-night talk show that I was doing in New York. It was finding an audience. I was all set to move to L.A. to try that route in 2017 when I got a call from this guy who I used to work with at The Onion back in 2008.
He said, “Hey, I’m working with the Vine founders. They got this game show they’re cooking up, some trivia show. It’s on a phone. You want to come in and audition to host?” I thought, “What the hell. I’ll do this, I probably won’t get it and I’ll just move to LA.”
I did the audition and didn’t really give a shit about it because I was thinking, “A game show on your phone, great, what’s next, maybe I’ll be on gas station TV after this.” To me, in 2017, in my old-soul show business mind, content on your phone was the lowest of low. I didn’t do Vine. I didn’t care for Snapchat comedy. I was a purist.
Anyway, I did the audition and because I didn’t care, I was cracking jokes that probably weren’t safe for air, but I was getting the room laughing. So they hired me. And that was it. It was just a total fluke thing. “OK. You’re the host now. Come on in and start writing some questions and start doing some beta tests.”
I was in there writing the questions in the beginning. It was such a small team, it was a startup. The blend of tech and media was always a bit of a tension, and it’s ultimately what led to the downfall, I think. But it’s also what made it successful to begin with. It’s the reason we had a professional looking show with a professional host with technology that was unmatched anywhere else in the world. It was a wild ride, man. I would have done it for 20 years. Unfortunately, it burned out almost as quickly as it shot up.
What can you tell me about Rus Yusupov and Colin Kroll? Because Vine is back in the news. Elon Musk ran a poll asking if he should bring it back.
Rus famously regretted selling Vine. He wrote that famous tweet, “Don’t sell your company!” So they were probably pretty bitter about it and scorned by how the whole thing went down — selling their company and then Twitter basically shutting it down soon after.
Rus, his personality is not one to want to share the spotlight. He’s the kind of guy who wants to be taking credit for things that he believes are his creation. So when Vine was getting big, he was very thrilled. He was winning Webby Awards, all these things. But then all of a sudden the people on Vine started getting bigger than Vine itself. The Logan Pauls, all those Vine stars, racking up millions of followers, and they were getting all the power. They weren’t getting paid by Vine, they weren’t employees of Vine, they’re just using this platform and becoming celebrities, making millions of dollars.
I don’t think that sat well with Rus particularly because he didn’t have control. All of a sudden you lose control of your platform because now these people are controlling and they’re going to say, “Hey, I’m going to leave Vine and go here. I’m going to take my 8 million followers.” And all of a sudden if they have more power than the platform, then the business could be in trouble.
I don’t know exactly how things went down with the business, but that’s exactly what happened. All those Vine stars went on to continue their careers elsewhere.
So when it came to me and my celebrity growing with HQ, I think there were flashbacks to that — where he says, “I don’t want to let this guy get as big as Jake Paul, as all these Vine people.” And he tried to clamp down on me. For those first six months I was hosting the show, he had a gag order on me. I couldn’t do interviews, I couldn’t do what I’m doing with you right now.
I would get emails from GQ, Interview magazine, morning shows. I also wonder how many emails came into HQ’s office that I never saw. Rus said, “Every time you get a request for press, forward it to me immediately. You cannot do it.” And I dutifully followed his rules, forwarded the email, and the opportunity disappeared. So he controlled the narrative as much as he could until it just got too big. No one could control it.
What kind of contract did he get you involved in?
They were six-week, independent contractor contracts. I think I signed three six-week contracts, which ended up being the first six months of the show. He got me cheap, and no benefits, and no equity. Then I signed a bigger deal, once things got too big to deny. It was either sign me for a multiyear deal, or I’m not going to do it. At that point it was one of those things where I had realized I had some leverage here. I wanted to keep doing it, obviously, but I could play that card.
So I finally got a nice deal with benefits, I’m a salaried employee now, and that’s what I wanted. I left frankly because I had another job. I had this other opportunity, the DAZN job, which was a much better-paying show, and better hours. With all the drama going on, and Colin’s unfortunate passing, it was a really crummy place to be working at that point in early 2019. The morale was terrible, people were being fired, the writing was on the wall that the ship was sinking.
Did you have a decent relationship with Colin? What did his death bring up for you?
Basically, he was a great guy. He was a brilliant guy. He was really the coding genius behind all this stuff. That was an incredibly tragic thing, and came out of absolutely nowhere. I didn’t know him personally to the point where we were hanging out partying all the time, so I didn’t know about his habits. Apparently he was getting sober for some time.
But the bottom line is, I’ve learned this since, he had been a lifelong addict. And there are genetic reasons for that, a family history of these things. And then ultimately it was this fentanyl thing. You hear about this every week — these fentanyl deaths. So that’s what it was. There was some misreporting that it was suicide, a party guy just going crazy. No. He was using these drugs, but he was a smart guy, and he wasn’t going to screw up the doses and things. He knew what he was doing, he was doing it as responsibly as he could, and he just got a bad batch with fentanyl. There are many brilliant people who are succumbing to this fentanyl stuff. It’s just crazy.
Do you recall where you were when you heard?
I was on a little vacation visiting my sister overseas in Scotland. So I missed the holiday party. The holiday party was that night, which is when he died. Sunday morning I get back to the States, I’m ready to do my big first show back after three weeks off the air, and I get this news flash: “Colin Kroll, founder of HQ, dead at 34.” I was like, “What?” It was completely insane. Just totally shocking. Devastating. Not just for his family, his friends, but ultimately the company. You can absolutely pinpoint his death to be the nail the coffin for HQ because once that happened, Rus became a CEO again, and then within a year it was bankrupt.
But then there were some highs, right, for you? Meeting Robert De Niro …
It was mostly highs. De Niro, The Rock, John Mayer, Awkwafina, Keenan Thompson, LaKeith Stanfield, Danny DeVito, Kevin Hart, Mark Cuban, Gordon Ramsay. These were all co-hosts with me. Massive celebrities who were all of a sudden nervous entering my domain, my little shoebox studio, and they’re saying, “There are a million people watching right now?”
It was second nature to me. I started from zero, then 50 people watching, then 5 million people watching, but it happened gradually so I never got nervous. But for these guys coming in, first time, a million, 2 million people, that could be a little jarring. Live without a net. This wasn’t like TV.
How did you adjust to fame?
At the height, it was like Justin Bieber-level sometimes. You walk down the street and everyone’s trying to get a photo with me. The biggest response I ever got was at the B’nai Brith Youth Organization International Conference in Orlando, Florida. The Jewish teen organization. There was 4,000 kids, Jewish kids from all around the world, and now I’m the biggest Jewish celebrity of the time. They were losing their mind. You could not have that more perfect demo. I spoke at their convention and it was about three or four minutes of just sustained applause. There’s video of it on YouTube you could watch. I was blown away. I felt the sound waves knocking me back, and one kid rushed the stage and give me a hug — security had to pull him off.
So what can we expect to see you on now? What are the shows you’re doing on Gamestar?
We’re developing a trivia show, pretty much a proprietary show that’s going to be my take on trivia. Obviously, it’s not HQ. But it has the elements of Gamestar that make it, I would say, better than HQ. HQ was 9:00 p.m. every night, or 6:00 p.m. on the West Coast. If you missed it, you’re out. There was some excitement to that, obviously, but not everybody can make it at a certain time. Now with Gamestar, you can turn it on anytime you want. I’ll be there interacting with you, it feels live, and you can be playing with multiple people in your room across the world.
This is just the beginning of my relationship with them. It’s exciting to think that I’m in good company with Steve Harvey, Ken Jennings — they’ve got some heavy hitters they’ve signed up. It’s nice to be considered in that league now amongst all the other great, iconic hosts.
Gamestar’s going to be a place where, if you’re a show producer right now and you’re pitching to ABC and CBS and Game Show Network, you’re going to be pitching to Gamestar. It’s going to be happening quickly.
At the peak of HQ mania, you signed with Dixon Talent, which manages Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel, and ICM. Are you still with them?
I cleaned house at the top of this year just because I was moving to L.A. and I just wanted a fresh start on everything. It’s been actually nice. There’s a bit of a psychic weight with some of those things — the psychic payment of waiting to hear, and what are they doing for me this week? Who are they calling on my behalf? I’m very involved in my life and my career, and when I pass it off to some other group, I want them to be just as involved. And I wasn’t finding that with some of these big agencies. It was not maybe the best culture fit, ultimately.
Right now I’m independent and I’m enjoying it. I have my lawyer who’s been with me since day one, and he’s fantastic, and the two of us are taking on the world here. But I could be open to signing with an agency if I really feel like it’s a good fit because I’ve been with several over my career and I haven’t quite found that fit yet.
Did you participate in the upcoming CNN documentary about HQ Trivia?
Yes, I did participate in it and I believe 2023 was what they were saying for a release. I’m not involved in the production, I just appeared in it.
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