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Rory Scovel
Photograph: Mandee JohnsonRory Scovel

Improvisational comic Rory Scovel will try anything once

Whether he's flaunting his questionable German accent or learning how to play the piano onstage, Scovel's comedy gets folks laughing at his failures

An electric piano was waiting for Rory Scovel onstage in Montreal. It should be noted that the stand-up is not a musical comedian, and has only started taking the most basic of lessons. Still, he requested that the Just for Laughs festival organizers provide a piano when he performed this past summer. There it stood, in the dark black-box theater, unused, unreferenced even—until Scovel invited an audience member up to play a few tunes. Turns out the guy was pretty excellent, and suddenly, Scovel had a makeshift backing band.

The fourth wall at a stand-up show is already pretty flimsy, but Scovel pretends it doesn't exist at all. The audience actively participates in his act, either directly playing a part as it did in Montreal, or as subjects in one of Scovel’s surprising comedy experiments. As one of the first acts booked on TBS's Conan, for example, Scovel and fellow comic Jon Dore startled the crowd by performing simultaneous sets about completely different things.

Scovel’s act keeps everyone on their toes, himself included. He lays on a thick German accent for some Holocaust jokes before jumping to deep thoughts about shitting at a gas station. The onlookers can feel the sense of risk Scovel, and when a joke lands, the release of tension is palpable.

Part of the joy Scovel gets onstage is from allowing audience members to chuckle at just how erratic his performances can be. “I’m a little afraid that if my set simply goes from A to B every time, then it doesn’t feel like there’s a part of me in the show,” he says. “I push myself to have something to talk about even if I don’t have a punch line, so my back is against the wall and I have to get myself out of it. Sometimes you find comedy.” He laughs. “Not all the time.”

Scovel now has a deadline for goosing that hit-to-miss ratio. His shows at SubCulture are warm-ups for a taping of his first hour-long special later this month, which will immortalize an ephemeral gig forever. But unlike his two previous albums, Dilation and Live At Third Man Records, Scovel is producing this new one himself, leaving plenty of wiggle room for whatever whims strike in the moment. “I like that the show isn’t a product—if something happens tonight, that’s tonight’s show," he says. "If you try to repeat it and act like you’re discovering it again, it feels so fake."

Scovel adds that he’s made that electric piano a permanent feature in his act; when someone at a recent show hit the keyboard’s demo button, it was awesome. Though such an incident may happen only once, Scovel would never let it go to waste.

Rory Scovel plays SubCulture Sat 8–Mon 10.
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