The ridiculous joy of ‘Off Book,’ the improvised musical podcast
Matthew Munhall | Wednesday, November 1, 2017
Writing and producing a new musical can be an intensive and protracted process. Lin-Manuel Miranda spent seven years meticulously composing the music for “Hamilton.” Benj Pasek and Justin Paul first pitched “Dear Evan Hansen” four years before it debuted on Broadway.
Jessica McKenna and Zach Reino do it every week. McKenna and Reino are the co-hosts of “Off Book,” the podcast on which they improvise a completely original musical in each episode. The series debuted in July on Earwolf — the podcast network co-founded by Scott Aukerman of “Comedy Bang! Bang!” — and from the jump has been a wacky delight. Every week, “Off Book” is a shot of pure, unadulterated joy, full of infectious songs and ridiculous character arcs.
McKenna and Reino are seasoned improvisers — both are regular performers at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles — and bring their musical theater knowledge and upbeat energy to the podcast. Each episode begins with the duo chatting with their guest, who relays an anecdote that becomes the jumping off point for the new musical. From there, they invent a dizzying array of characters and musical numbers, accompanied by Scott Passarella on the keyboard, who impressively keeps pace as the duo comes up with songs on the fly.
McKenna and Reino are excellent musical improvisers and have such a strong rapport that their guests often seem daunted by jumping in alongside them. Despite lacking musical theater experience, comedy podcast favorites like Paul F. Tompkins, Mary Holland and Erin Whitehead have done an admirable job trying out an unfamiliar genre. The episodes are elevated to another level, however, with the presence of Broadway actors like Nicole Parker, who played Elphaba in “Wicked,” and Rory O’Malley, who has starred in “Book of Mormon” and “Hamilton” — they both lend their impressive vocal talents to such silly material.
As an introduction to the show and its hilariously labyrinthine plots, I recommend listening to “Pillaging For Your Dreams,” featuring fellow UCB improviser Drew Tarver. The episode follows a young boy from the backwoods of Georgia who dreams of being an NBA referee and eventually involves a cross-country road trip, a band of marauding pirates, a naval battle, and an existential crisis in the midst of a police chase. It also has my favorite musical number of the series to date, about bears that unsuccessfully attempt to disguise themselves as pigs in order to eat other pigs. The song ends with Reino pointing out the ludicrousness of this conceit: “Why are we trying to play it coy as if we need to use some clever ploy? / We can just go over there and eat a bunch of pigs!” McKenna follows this with a ridiculous closing refrain: “We forgot that we were bears!”
So much of the manic energy of “Off Book” results from listening to the duo dig themselves out of the holes they’ve created. In “Arms Race” — a thrilling tale about a cyclist competing in a race while simultaneously trying to stop his arms-dealer father — Reino launches into a song about delivering nine kicks to the villain, one for each amendment in the Bill of Rights (“There are ten!” McKenna gleefully points out). As they begin listing off amendments, McKenna and Reino quickly realize they can’t name them all. “This one’s for the American right to gather and protest,” Reino sings, having already mentioned freedom of speech. “OK, son, that still falls under number one,” McKenna retorts.
Like many improv shows, “Off Book” nearly spirals into chaos each episode, before somehow finding a way to connect its divergent plot threads in a climactic finale. McKenna and Reino’s apparent love of musical theater makes these exaggerated happy endings not only uproariously funny, but often surprisingly touching. You probably won’t see a show about a joint robot-and-cat corporate takeover — with a love duet between a stapler and a flan, to boot — on Broadway anytime soon, let alone every week.