Writing an original musical is impressive. Creating one on the spot—complete with characters, plot, and catchy songs—is something else entirely. That’s what UC Irvine alum Zach Reino and Yorba Linda’s Jessica McKenna do each week on their Earwolf network podcast “Off Book.” Accompanied by pianist Scott Passarella (also from Yorba Linda) and producer/drummer Dana Wickens, they’re joined by guests such as Rachel Bloom (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”), D’Arcy Carden (“The Good Place”), Rory O’Malley (“Hamilton”), and Chris Redd (“Saturday Night Live”).
McKenna and Reino began their comedic partnership in 2011 after meeting through the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Los Angeles. Having studied theater (McKenna at Northwestern University, Reino at UC Irvine) they soon began writing and performing musical sketches together. “Something that would happen a lot and still happens, was instances of, ‘You just did exactly what I was about to do,’ ” McKenna says. “And not normal ‘next moves.’ So we realized we had a lot in common in our comedic sensibilities.”
They soon became regulars at the UCB Theater and still perform there with musical improv teams Baby Wants Candy and Magic To Do. In early 2017, the Earwolf podcasting network approached McKenna about creating an audio show. “Off Book” launched in July 2017 and quickly amassed a dedicated following. “They’re willfully positive in a way that’s really unique,” says Reino of their fans, who started calling themselves Sleepy Babies after an off-hand remark made on the show.
The fandom’s positive outlook reflects the show itself. “We’re playing with a genre that tends to have happy endings,” Reino says. “And we both happen to be happy, emotionally stable comedians, so our comedy doesn’t come from some kind of deep pain.” McKenna adds, “We aren’t trying to make the shows necessarily uplifting. We are going for funny first, but we just aren’t bleak comedians.”
As for the magic behind creating a musical out of thin air: “There are a lot of hours of practice that go into it,” Reino says. “We had to learn how to improvise a melody, how to rhyme consistently, how to structure a story and a song.” “Nothing is preplanned,” McKenna adds, “but there are years of training behind that. We are trying to meet interesting characters, figure out what they want, and put obstacles in their way.”
Having hosted a few live shows across the country, the pair hopes to plan a live recording in Orange County soon. “Maybe we can do a show at UC Irvine or at my high school, El Dorado,” McKenna says. “Or the OC Fair! My mom won a blue ribbon for her apples there, and I used to perform there with dance groups and show choirs, so it would be a beautiful, full-circle performance for me.”
6 More Questions with “Off Book” Hosts Jessica McKenna and Zach Reino
Zach, what were your experiences doing improv at UC Irvine?
Reino: I was on a team there called Live Nude People (With Clothes On), which was a name chosen to catch people’s attention. The shows were every other Friday at 11 p.m. and there would be hundreds of people attending. The community was such that old Live Nudes like Chris Kelly, who later became the head writer on SNL, came back and taught us what he had learned at UCB. And we also did a musical show every quarter called Quarter in Review, which was a crash course into the other thing Jess and I do together which is writing musical comedy and parodies. So by the time I graduated college, I had hundreds of hours of practice and stage time, which was really great.
Did you study theater in college thinking you would go into that world specifically?
Reino: I thought I was going to learn musical theater and move to New York and do it. And as I went through the program, I realized my character type is not really clear—I’m not a leading man, there weren’t (at the time) parts for me on Broadway, I didn’t like dance enough to be in the chorus, and I didn’t sing will enough to break down any of those barriers. And I just fell so hard in love with improv at the same time.
McKenna: Basically, same. I was in these two comedy groups and people were paying more attention to that. I wasn’t getting cast in (theater) department shows until my senior year so I didn’t think I was a serious actor.
Reino: We’ve just gone to where we saw doors opening and we both saw a lot of talented people around us and realized the importance of carving out a niche. And it’s also what we really love.
Tell me more about Scott Passarella and Dana Wickens’ roles as the pianist and drummer on the show.
Reino: Scott also does improv and he’s probably one of just five improv pianists that I really love and who really do all of the work.
McKenna: As an improviser, he can make choices and we encourage him to mess with us, do key changes, pick up the pace, or just start playing music at any point to get us to start a song. It really adds variety to the show.
Reino: Dana is our producer who has also played the drums for a long time, and we knew that would be the next instrument we would want because it really fills out the sound. And she was already in the room so we were like, “Let’s get you a drum set!”
Why do you think the musicals you create tend to be so positive?
McKenna: Musicals in general tend to be uplifting even if they end bittersweet. Like in “Les Mis,” even if Jean Valjean dies, it’s like, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” It’s still uplifting.
Reino: Not to say that we wouldn’t do a gritty space drama. But it would be a silly gritty space drama.
McKenna: And we do touch on deep issues, we just don’t sit in them.
Reino: Toxic masculinity, sexual consent—we don’t try to bring up these topics, but we’re not afraid to talk about them if that’s where the story goes.
McKenna: Sometimes it’s funny to call out a character who is problematic, and call a creep a creep. And then he gets eaten by a bear.
What’s the difference between doing musical improv on stage versus on a podcast?
Reino: I think what surprised us the most is how not different it is. The one big difference is we’re sitting in chairs around a table, which allows us to be more aware of what the other people are doing around us since we’re always making eye contact. We do that on stage too, but it’s easier when you’re facing each other the whole time.
McKenna: There’s not much of a difference other than it’s less physical. I’m less of a physical performer anyway, but Zach is a very physical performer. I’ll give him mad props for his dance skills. And we can also play multiple characters a little more easily and quickly, since there’s not that physical limitation of, “Now I’m over here!” We do that in live shows too, but it’s just easier here.
Reino: Also if I’m a lion on the podcast I just have to do a lion voice. If I’m a lion on stage I have to decide how I’m going to physically portray that. You’re looking at a human being so you’re imagination is not doing as good of a job.
For the podcast’s one-year anniversary show, you had a lot of favorite guests come back, including Scott Aukerman and Paul F. Tompkins. What was that like?
Reino: It was so fun. It was also so crazy. Almost everyone we asked showed up and almost all of them had their own mics. So there were like nine people in that room doing multiple characters each.
McKenna: It was really heartwarming that they all wanted to come back and made themselves available to do that.