Stand-ups have been doing sets on talk shows since the Eisenhower administration. If you watched them all with the sound off, 95 percent would look essentially the same. Ten years ago, however, Rory Scovel and Jon Dore gave us something that had truly never been done before. Watch it now:
From the moment Conan O’Brien confesses that two comedians will be performing at once due to a booking error, the audience is in uncharted territory. Four minutes of cacophony follow, capped by a walk-on from an audience member to perform the old “arms” gag while Dore plays guitar and sings a song he supposedly wrote for his grandfather, which ends with him screaming at the man, then smashing the guitar to bits.
It seems impossible that something like this would get past “the suits.” Those on the production side of the entertainment industry are usually portrayed in media as soulless bureaucrats out to keep things safe and predictable for advertisers and the network, an obstacle in the way of a performer realizing their vision. This isn’t always true. In the case of Dore and Scovel’s bit, a “suit,” Conan talent booker J.P. Buck, was an integral part of its creation.
For ten years, Buck booked 366 Conan stand-up sets with an eye for, in his words, “bravery and originality.” Both are on display in memorable moments like Tig Notaro pushing a stool around the stage for five minutes, Shane Torres spending his entire set defending Guy Fieri, and Ian Abramson telling his jokes wearing an actual, working shock collar. “Growing up, I didn’t know there was such thing as a comedy booker,” says Buck. “I thought Steven Wright just happened to show up backstage at the Tonight Show and Johnny just put him on. Once I knew that was someone’s job, that’s what I wanted to do, and I wanted to do it for Conan O’Brien.”
To Buck, O’Brien was the most original voice in late night. Unfortunately, his first job for Conan was at The Tonight Show in 2010, with orders from NBC to play it safe. “I could book anything you might see at a comedy club that had salmon on the menu,” Buck explains. A set where Deon Cole read from his notes and crossed off jokes that didn’t work was the most unconventional booking Buck was allowed. The Tonight Show slot was short-lived for O’Brien, but thankfully, when he moved to TBS, the show would be on his terms. “In our first meeting at TBS, O’Brien said he wanted the stand-up to be as out-there as the rest of the show,” Buck remembers.
Buck took O’Brien at his word from his very first booking, Canadian comic Jon Dore: “In my first segment, Jon Dore was drenched with rain, challenged a guy to fight him, and ended the set shirtless with a giant penis drawn on him.” When he received only positive feedback, Buck felt empowered to push the envelope. The result made comedy history. “There is no other late-night show where this would have happened,” said Scovel while looking back on the two-comics bit in a joint April 2021 interview with Dore on the podcast The Set Up.
While meeting with Dore in 2011 to plan a follow-up to the “rain and penis” set, Buck remembered a performance from the 2009 Just for Laughs festival in Montreal. At an alternative showcase curated by comic’s comic Andy Kindler, Dore and Reggie Watts did an early version of the two-comics bit. “I had never seen people laugh that hard,” says Buck. “I remember looking around the room and thinking, Is this really happening? I also remembered thinking, This will never get on TV.” With O’Brien’s instructions in mind, Buck decided to prove himself wrong. Dore was in immediately. He suggested comedian Rory Scovel for his partner. “We just trust each other instinctively onstage,” Dore said on The Set Up.
A studio audience has different expectations than hardcore comedy fans at an alternative showcase at midnight. Buck couldn’t count on the Conan audience to be familiar enough with stand-up tropes to recognize when they were being subverted. The crowd at the taping might greet the chaos Buck witnessed in Montreal with bewildered confusion, and if they didn’t get it, no one watching at home would, either.
Dore, Buck, and Scovel met at West Hollywood hangout Jones Bar in 2011 to polish the bit for TV. Unlike the ten-minute freewheeling Montreal version, Buck and the performers agreed this incarnation needed to be short. “Ultimately,” said Scovel, “it’s just one joke.” Buck suggested heightening the bit halfway through: An audience walk-on and a guitar song (and subsequent smash) would pump the energy up enough to close on. Buck suggested that O’Brien should introduce the bit by apologizing for an unfortunate double-booking, giving the audience context for what was coming. Dore and Scovel agreed. With the format set, there was little left to do but wait for the date.
“You can’t really practice it,” Dore explained on The Set Up, though the pair did create a few guidelines. Dore told Scovel, “‘I’ll go loud, you go quiet, then you go loud and I go quiet,’ and that was pretty much it.” It’s impossible to overstate how different this is from nearly every other set in late-night history, typically timed out to the second mark and rehearsed dozens of times before the air date. It’s a testimony to Buck’s faith in the comics and O’Brien’s commitment to innovation that the set was allowed to go before the cameras with only a loose framework and no run-through.
Not everyone shared Buck’s confidence. Buck says that at the blocking rehearsal, Conan producer Jeff Ross told him, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” But Buck was optimistic after the host’s introduction. “Conan absolutely sold it,” says Buck. “No one in that audience had a clue this was a bit.”
Dore and Scovel’s plan worked perfectly. It had to. “Once you stop to listen to the other person,” said Scovel, “you’re dead.” Unable to concentrate on more than one comic’s train of thought at a time, the audience was hit with more comedy than their brains could process at once, and the spillover of information forced them to laugh from their inability to keep up. Dore was the first to go loud, screaming, “TALKING ZEBRA!” over Scovel’s first setup and getting a huge laugh from both the audience members following his monologue and the ones following Scovel who heard only a surreal non sequitur. Dore then went quiet just in time for Scovel to describe the forceful flush of an airplane toilet at the top of his lungs. “BOOM BOOM!” he repeated, and the audience erupted. Scovel went low just in time for Dore to bellow, “I got anal warts!” As if they recognized that they weren’t going to top that laugh with more jokes, the comedians unloaded their secret weapons. Applause greeted each escalation of their comedic arms race, from the audience member’s manic improv with Scovel to Dore smashing his guitar with rock-star intensity. The crowd gave the pair a lengthy ovation when O’Brien returned to the stage, unaware they were still in the bit. When O’Brien asked for the comics’ live dates as late-night hosts have since 1954 and received unintelligible, simultaneous answers, the crowd delighted in the subversion of the trope, just like they did in Montreal.
It’s hard to imagine a set that embodies Buck’s values of bravery and originality more than this one, which was only possible thanks to the comics’ ability to focus under high-pressure circumstances and their willingness to risk career damage should the unconventional piece bomb. Thanks to Buck’s proficiency at working with artists, the set is an unqualified triumph: “I hate telling people you had to be there,” he says. With the enthusiastic support of a boss willing to practice what he preached, Buck trusted his performers and his comedic taste and managed to produce the same reaction in a Burbank television studio he saw in a room full of comedy connoisseurs. Thanks to his eye for comedic innovation, we all got to be there.
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