Halfway through Rory Scovel’s new comedy special Live Without Fear, Scovel stands onstage, pulls a cheap, shiny red tablecloth from one of the front-row tables, and drapes it over his shoulders like a cape. That moment, which then escalates into a high-key goofy set of tablecloth cape bits, has the feeling of a train that’s come fully off the rails, a bizarre spontaneous choice that makes no sense whatsoever and is the result of nothing at all. That’s also the aim, the appeal of what Scovel is trying to do. The sequence that follows after that stupid-silly decision to wear a tablecloth as a cape captures that quicksilver “you had to be there” feeling, where the giddy specificity of one weird choice, a certain responsiveness from the audience, and a combination of luck, timing, skill, and mood just happen to come together to make everything so much funnier.
Live Without Fear was recorded in 2018, a part-documentary, part-stand-up special that combines footage from six straight nights of fully improvised live stand-up performances at the Relapse Theatre in Atlanta. As Scovel tells the camera in one of the special’s offstage scenes, he has written nothing for the shows. This is not an hour of material he’s been slowly building for months; the special is not designed as a capstone achievement or a final draft. “A little bit of that takes you away from the spontaneous thing that I enjoy,” Scovel says. “So now I’m going to try to figure out how to make it just the spontaneous stuff. Those are my favorite parts of every show, the things that I can’t predict.”
So it makes sense that the special — all the parts filmed from Scovel’s live performances, at least — is a bit of a mess. They run in order, beginning with Scovel’s nerves before walking onstage the first night, then his left-field choice to immediately start talking about a person being killed by a self-driving car, and then his postshow assessment of what he could’ve done better. Then the next night, he’s back with new nerves, new fears that he’ll bomb, new crowd-work bits about sex and porn, and new postshow analysis in the car ride back home. (High on the list: that he’s relying too much on crowd work).
Running throughout the special, cut in among the scenes from Scovel’s performances, is a one-on-one conversation with Bob Wood, the man who runs Relapse. It’s an account of how the theater came to be, a bizarre and unlikely story that winds its way through dilapidated conditions, not-quite-legal acquisition, walls full of mice, several cycles of collapse and rebirth, and not a small amount of what Wood feels confident is divine intervention. It’s a story that hits “too unlikely to be real” several times even before it gets to the strangest parts, but the most striking element is Wood himself. He has a total determination that this theater should exist, an unswerving confidence that somehow it will all work out.
Including the improbable story of how a comedy club came to be as part of a documentary about spontaneous, improvised stand-up comedy is a decision that comes with a cost. It distracts from Scovel’s work. There is less time for footage from each of his shows, and for the idea that Scovel is trying to achieve in Live Without Fear, that’s a real issue. For all his fears of bombing, there is very little footage of it actually happening, or even just sequences that don’t play all that well. For a regular special, that would be expected. It’d be material fully written, and it’d be edited to be a beautiful, perfectly funny, immaculate production of a highly polished thing. But the aim of Live Without Fear is messy, live-wire improvisation. It’s an illuminating idea, because for some percentage of comedy audiences, there’s a belief that all stand-up is like this. So much stand-up has moved toward a faux-casual style, with jokes built like anecdotes and winding, deliberately stumbling structures, that it’s not hard to confuse actual missteps for performative ones. Some of the appeal of Scovel’s idea is in the illustration of the thing it is not. The stumbles are real. The mistakes are real. And yet, because of the editing, other than the scenes where Scovel offers commentary on his own performance, there’s not a lot of dead air, awkwardness, or stuff that just doesn’t land.
There’s a small betrayal in the title, and in the fact that the special exists at all. Each of Scovel’s shows may well have been electrifying, occasionally excellent showcases of improvised genius combined with inevitable minor disasters. Or maybe they were wall-to-wall raunchy crowd work. Or maybe Scovel repeated elements of the show from night to night. We don’t know! The presentation of it as a filmed special is exactly the safety net that Scovel claims he’s doing without. Scovel and the special’s director Scott Moran still get to pick out all the best parts. Performing the shows may have been terrifying, but by the time they are released as a special, Moran and Scovel get to polish and shape the result, and they get to mull over all the decisions that Scovel deliberately refused to make before walking onstage. In that respect, the inclusion of Wood’s account of creating this theater feels like a detraction, a decision to excise some of the liveness Scovel wanted to capture, and replace it with something else.
Still, Live Without Fear does succeed in capturing something most specials do not. Wood’s account of how Relapse came to be (and how close it is to closing) gives Live Without Fear a sense of place that most specials lack. Wood talks about seeing the rafters in the building’s basement and knowing they’d be a remarkable comedy space. When Scovel later holds his arm up at an awkward angle, grabbing one of those rafters in a weird bit about audience participation, the joke hits harder because somewhere you know Wood is off to the side watching. The tablecloth section is one of the best moments in the special, because it is the best combination of Scovel’s improvisational wit and his instincts for playing with the audience. But it’s also because by that point, Live Without Fear has also made you care about this space, about the guy who painted the walls and hung the lights and probably laundered all the tablecloths, too.
As a record of spontaneity, Live Without Fear can’t really hold onto the thing it’s trying to grasp, and anyhow, “record of spontaneity” is always going to be a paradox. It is an unexpectedly great record of this place, though. Even though what we see from Scovel’s performances is an edit, a selection of the highlights, a punch-up of Scovel’s raw material, we also see that this theater and the audiences it fosters are as much a part of those performances as anything Scovel does or says on the stage. Live Without Fear is not a special full of transcendent comedy, but Scovel is magnetic, ribald, and the embodiment of his own pre-stage reminder to “have fun!,” but more importantly, to “be fun.” The comedy he creates as a result is oddball and delightful even when it’s also juvenile and, as he admits at one point, just a touch hacky. But just as striking, and ultimately more memorable as a special, is that Live Without Fear is an account of what great comedy can feel like, live in the room. It will make you want to go see live comedy again. It will make you hope someone does something as silly and inspired as wearing a tablecloth like a cape.