“To me, that would be the greatest accomplishment for them to not be able to recall anything, just to know that they loved it, and be like, 'All I know is I loved it and I would go see it again but I don't really totally remember how we got from one topic to the next or what those topics were.'“
– Rory Scovel
Guy MacPherson: I just turned down Leave It To Beaver so I can hear you.
Rory Scovel: Good. Turn it up. I say full volume Leave It To Beaver.
GM: It still holds up.
GM: So you're in Chicago. And busy as all get out. What are you doing?
RS: I'm here in Chicago doing four improvised standup shows at the Lincoln Lodge. And freezing. Freezing to death at the moment. It's so cold here. It's like six degrees, which is not good for my L.A. body. When it gets to 50 in L.A. I can't handle it. Now here we are at six.
GM: You've gone soft.
RS: That's right. That's exactly right.
GM: You say four improvised standup shows. Isn't that just like regular standup shows for you?
RS: You know, it's funny that you ask that because we're currently cutting a documentary. Last year in Atlanta I did six shows in a row fully improvised and we shot it for a documentary. Just recently a friend said, 'You've got to put some text at the beginning because your fans think that's what you do anyways.' And I was like, 'Oh shit, you're right. We have to make sure there's some kind of text that this is not my usual thing.' I would say my usual act is probably 60 to 80 percent written material that was born out of improvised spontaneous moments. I try to keep it loose and play around when I can and sometimes I'll be on a show where those improvised, spontaneous, fun moments is most of the show and those are my favourites. That's kind of what led me to experimenting with going up and really challenging myself to not do any pre-thought-out jokes, no pre-thought-out material. Legit get on stage like an improv troupe would get on stage to get a suggestion and go. However mine is obviously a shattered fourth wall where I'm very interactive with the audience and doing lots of crowd work and really mining any single moment I can possibly mine to make some comedy out of it. It's been quite a lesson.
GM: If a situation presents itself where you do have something you've said before that you know is funny, do you have to stop yourself from saying it because then it won't be totally improvised? How does that work?
RS: Absolutely. Absolutely. I will find myself in a topic. A big part of my act right now, in my actual written hour, I've got a lot of sex stuff that the whole hour kind of starts with. So last night's show, I stumbled into some sex stuff and I just made sure to be careful to not at all talk about anything that already is a joke or say anything that is a joke. In standup we sort of have these throw-away lines that we reuse. I'll find myself in an improvised show either having just said one of those lines or about to say it and I don't let myself go down the road of where that line usually takes me in my regular standup act. I just quickly back away from it and reset and try to get another topic or just keep talking. It's weird to be on stage knowing that you just have to keep talking hoping that you find something that's interesting. These are rambly answers but my discovery with this process is that when you have to just keep talking, you realize that more so than trying to find something that's funny, you're trying to find something that's engaging and then you hope that your natural sense of humour maybe makes that engaging thing funny when you really start to talk about it. It's weird to be 15 years into this business and just now having that revelation but I'm definitely grateful to have it.
GM: Once you stop with the improvised shows and go back to your 60-80 percent structured shows, will you incorporate more of the improv?
RS: The shows that I did in Atlanta last year for the documentary, a lot of the jokes that I stumbled on in those six shows are now a very big part of my current hour of standup, that is my set, written standup. So my discovery in that regard is that I've realized I can go on stage and do these improvised shows and walk away with material that I can then work on towards an hour of standup comedy. It actually makes me feel better about my writing process knowing that's kind of how I write anyways. I get on stage and I just kind of have a topic or I have a punchline and I figure out how to get to it. Now I'm just doing that more so on steroids, I guess.
GM: Some people might think the improvised show is difficult and causes a lot of angst or energy...
RS: For me for sure.
GM: But on the other hand, maybe it allows you to do more acting and still be able to do standup because you can just go and improvise a set if you want to perform but haven't had time to sit down and write.
RS: It's kinda true. The only thing you have to make sure the muscle you keep working is not allowing your heart rate to rise in the moments of having nothing to talk about because then your brain shuts down. So it's really figuring how to get to that zen place of flowing conversation or flowing ideas so that you continue to come up with something that's interesting and funny. That's kind of the only thing. I look forward to the day where I maybe have a weekly show in L.A. where I just go up to do an hour of improvised standup to constantly keep that muscle in check.
GM: Are you doing the improvised shows here in Vancouver?
RS: No, it'll be my actual hour. Those two nights will be my set hour that I'm working on towards a special by the end of the year.
GM: Where you try standup for the second time?
RS: Exactly. The second time ever getting on stage. That will be my entire catalogue. It will be an exact recording of all of the times I've done standup [laughs].
GM: You've compared what you do to jazz. I'm a huge jazz fan. Jazz has a structure. What you're doing in Chicago is like free form jazz where there is no structure.
RS: I also reference Phish a lot just because they also start a song and then four minutes into the song they do a 20-minute improvised jam and then they come back and close out the song. Similar to what you're saying, the semi-structured jazz. I think my attraction to that kind of music is that when you can't predict what the music is about to be, you have a better chance of getting lost in it because your brain doesn't grow numb to knowing when the beat will come or when the changes are going to come. I think that's what I love about throwing jazz on at home. It's kind of the perfect music because I don't have an attachment or a memory to any specific moment that comes up in the song so it's easy for my mind to drift and wander and get lost in it. It's almost like it's a perfect ambient sound. I think that's what I like about what I think standup can be is to try to get people laughing and feeling good but almost in an ambient way where when they leave the show, it would be great if someone's like, 'Did you enjoy the show?' I would love if someone would be like, 'Yes.' 'What'd he talk about?' 'I don't even know.' To me, that would be the greatest accomplishment for them to not be able to recall anything, just to know that they loved it, and be like, 'All I know is I loved it and I would go see it again but I don't really totally remember how we got from one topic to the next or what those topics were.'
GM: Maybe you should perform in old age homes.
RS: [laughs] This is where I find out my key demographic.
GM: You're no stranger to Vancouver. I know you've been here lots.
RS: I've done the Biltmore a bunch, which is such a great venue. This will be my first time at the Rio, though, so I'm pretty excited about that.
GM: I know a lot of times you'll just start in on an accent, whether it's a southern one or some vaguely Germanic or Scandinavian one. That must be harder to fool people now the more known you are. Does it get the same kind of reaction? Or have you abandoned that?
RS: I haven't abandoned it. I think my core audience – and it feels so weird to say 'my core audience' – I think anyone who has been a long-time fan, if I were to go on and do my southern guy or the German guy, I think they almost enjoy getting caught up in it. Like, 'We know he's not these people where these punchlines are coming from because he's doing a character,' but I think they almost appreciate knowing that sometimes I'll do a character. I think anyone who is a fan gets excited knowing 'This isn't who he is but I guess this is what he's going to do tonight.' And then I think people who haven't seen me who show up at a club or wherever, they just assume that's who I am so they still pay attention. The catch of the characters for me is that I still just do my act anyways. I have a feeling that if I wrote an act for those characters, it wouldn't be as appealing to people who liked what I did. I think they'd be like, 'I'd rather just see him do what he does than do the show he wrote for that character.' I think that makes sense.
GM: I think it does. Like your buddy Jon Dore, you both will do something and the fun is seeing how long you do can get away with it for.
RS: I did an Irish accent when I performed in Dublin this past summer. Every time I've been there people tell me they get very offended when you make fun of their accent or you try to do their accent in a funny way. So I really wanted to challenge myself, like, I want to go up there and I want to be really offensive with the accent and see if I can get them to think it's funny. So this last time I decided to lay into it for twenty straight minutes and not look back at all. And also have it naturally fade away at some point because I wasn't great at doing it. What I learned is even in the moment where the people are like, 'Oh, I don't like how he's doing our accent,' there's a certain amount of time, if they're still willing to watch and listen, that they will change their thinking and start to cheer it on and see how long it can go. I don't know what that is. I think it's something in our human brains that makes us go, 'Ugh, I don't want this to happen,' and then it hits the five-minute mark and then we all go, 'Alright, well how long can it go? Let's really cheer it on and see if we can go the whole time.' I have no clue what that is but I think that's what happens sometimes at shows. People go, 'Oh, he's doing the southern guy for five minutes.' And then they get to the point where they'll be like, 'I wonder if he'll break.' And then they'll go, 'Ooh, I wonder if he can keep it up the whole time. Oh my God, I hope he's able to do it the whole time.' They go through this weird phase where they change their thinking about it. That's not everybody. There are some people who just don't like the material or anything I'm doing so they naturally don't cheer for it in any capacity but I think people who are fans, there's something about that they kinda want to see if that starts to happen.
GM: Are there any particular themes you're talking about in your current hour?
RS: I don't know if overall I've got themes yet. I think that's the difference between what we do in the U.S. And I think Canada and the U.S. are similar in this regard in terms of the style of standup vs Australian comedians or European/U.K. comics. What we do is we have jokes that make an audience laugh for an hour. In other places, they really write a thematic hour. My process is when I decide I want to do a special, I go, 'What have I been doing in the hour of just trying to make people laugh that I can now try to write out the themes?' So I'm definitely in the hunt for that show to show, but it probably won't be there in a satisfying way until I tour in the fall. I mean satisfying for myself where I go, 'All right, I've wrapped it all up into a nice tight bow.'
GM: Will it be for Netflix, too?
RS: I think so but I'm learning day to day that I don't totally understand this business. [laughs] That's what I assume my deal is, that I have another one with them but we'll see.
GM: How's the ju-jitsu going?
RS: Fantastic. It's fun. It's fun to do. I've only gone a few times so I need to get back in there. That's the one thing the road takes away from you. Ben Roy and Ryan Belleville actually do it quite a bit, and they're blue belts now. It's fun to see that they go out on the road and bring their gis with them and pop into different studios to train. Ryan, I found out, goes to the same place Ben introduced me to. I thought this is great, two comics that come to this one place, this is perfect.
GM: Do you practice in a full wet suit?
RS: No, it's the gi, the traditional outfit. I have a wet suit underneath just in case there's a flood.
GM: Because I heard that you also did karate in a wet suit.
RS: Oh, through [Chris] Gordon? There are probably some very revealing photos of that.
GM: He also said that you have a helluva slap shot in hockey.
RS: Oh man, he took me in Calgary to play indoor ball hockey and oh my God, you could probably picture how the whole thing played out. Here's the American guy who's never even held a hockey stick vs however many Canadian guys who grew up playing it religiously. And then someone passes it to me and I try a slapshot and I just slammed the stick right into the court. Everyone had a good laugh. I tell you what, I might still be suffering some muscular injury from that, and that was years ago.
GM: I'd probably do the same thing. I've never played hockey and I'm Canadian, how do you like that?
RS: I tell you what, maintain that. Stay unique, stay different.
GM: Chris Gordon, of course, is known as Canada's smartest comedian.
RS: I would agree with that. I know that that's self-dubbed; he gave himself that crown but I'm okay with that. That also adds up to why he's so smart; no one else is giving themselves that title.
GM: No, I gave that to him.
RS: [laughs] Oh, you gave it to him?!
GM: I also asked Ewan Currie if he had any stories about you and he said he has 45 minutes of you on film yelling behind a backstop in The Sheepdogs video, but he couldn't use it. It was very funny, though, he said.
RS: Yeah. Well, some of the magic is left on the cutting room floor.
GM: Did you always want to act and now you're doing that?
RS: Now I'm doing that and it's been fantastic. It's been surreal to want to do it and then get to do it. It's pretty bizarre.
GM: Did you study it or are you just a natural?
RS: No. I think there is a little bit of a natural element in the sense of just wanting to be a performer in general, but then I think getting on stage over and over and over again and failing in standup helps you to learn vulnerability in a way you didn't know you could before. Then you just try to figure out how to pay attention and learn and work with actors who you can learn from. So it's kind of been that. It's been more me asking questions and watching other people and trying to take advice from amazing directors I've been lucky enough to work with. I would say I'm on the path to learning currently.
GM: In a sense your standup is acting, with the different emotions you play with and characters you play, but I guess you're not interacting. Although sometimes you are with the crowd, but not another actor.
RS: Yeah. Not getting that feedback is interesting; you just have to trust yourself. And strangely, that's the one person I've never trusted.
GM: With your standup and its absurd and offbeat sensibilities, when you were starting 15 years ago, who was doing that kind of thing? Who were your role models? How did you know that was a thing you could do and the audience would accept it?
RS: I really didn't know. I came across a David Cross CD after college and that was enough for me to want to try it but I really had no awareness of standup in terms of trying it or who was really doing it. I knew of the legendary people like Seinfeld and Carlin and others that you randomly see on Comedy Central, like the Amazing Jonathan, or you come across Nick Swardson. But you never apply it to yourself; you just look at it as entertainment. It doesn't look like something you could actually figure out how to do or try to even do. And then suddenly you just do it and you find out then in real time if you're capable of doing it or not.
GM: Okay, see you up here. It'll be cold.
RS: Yes. I'm prepping for it now. I appreciate the interview. Thank you so much.