Comedian Rory Scovel never knows exactly what he’s going to say when he steps on stage. But in his latest stand-up special Live Without Fear, he threw out the script altogether and performed six consecutive nights of fully improvised material. On the other end of the creative spectrum, Scovel recently took on a major role opposite Rose Byrne in the Apple TV+ series Physical. He joins The Last Laugh podcast this week for a surprisingly deep conversation about his unlikely path from experimental comedian to mainstream actor.
As we speak, it’s been almost 10 years to the day since Scovel made his Conan debut alongside his friend and fellow comedian Jon Dore, in which they performed an extended bit premised on the idea that they had been double-booked on the late-night show. The joke is that instead of sharing the spotlight they each perform their own acts simultaneously side-by-side.
“I remember being so wildly nervous,” he recalls. “Really there’s just one mistake you can make and it’s listening at all to the other person. It only works if you can tune them out, which is really hard to do.” Scovel still laughs when he remembers how viewers “truly believed” that it was unintentional. “I mean, I had comics ask me if it was a true, genuine mistake and I was like, ‘No! Why would a late-night show be OK with that?’” he says.
That unwavering willingness to take chances has been present in Scovel’s career ever since, including in Live Without Fear, which he released on YouTube last month. The combination special and documentary chronicles his week-long residency at a small theater in Atlanta where he deliberately went on stage each night without any prepared jokes. Through sheer charisma and spontaneity, he managed to pull off an electric and often hilarious set each night.
But his biggest risk to date might have been entering the world of dramatic acting, first as the deeply unsympathetic Danny opposite Rose Byrne’s Sheila in Physical and soon as a 1920s drug dealer in Damien Chazelle’s upcoming Hollywood epic Babylon, starring Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie.
When Scovel first read the script for Physical, his first thought was, “Oh wow, this is real. This is about real stuff.” As for his character, he realized, “This guy’s not even likable. And there’s not really a joke to ever save this guy’s likability.”
“I was really drawn to that because I do so much comedic acting that even when you’re playing an unlikable character, you’re always given a joke and comedy can create likability even when you’re a bad guy or you’re just a piece of shit character,” he explains. “I love the fact that I would have to sit in this. And also if I wanted to try to find any likability, I’d have to carve it out completely on my own and not with a joke, but trying to tap into this guy’s vulnerability and his insecurities and see if people can relate to it and go, ‘Oh, I get it. He’s not a monster, but he sort of is, but I get why he sort of is.’”
That tricky balance between drama and comedy is apparent in the exclusive clip below from episode 7, which airs this Friday.
Scovel reveals that he was “wildly intimidated” by the prospect of acting opposite Byrne, who has proven her chops in both comedy and drama. “I mean, she is just incredible. When you see her in comedy, she’s pulling it off. When you see her do more dramatic things, she’s pulling it off.” But without his comedic charm to fall back on—or the stand-up stage to escape to—he had no choice but to go all in.
“The pandemic took stand-up away and that’s an interesting psychological place to get to when you’ve been doing it for, at that time, 16 years,” he adds. “So it’s interesting to go, that’s gone. And I have this opportunity. I really should try to learn how to do it because I’ve never been given this type of opportunity.”
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