Off Book Podcast Hosts Jessica McKenna and Zach Reino Make Up Musicals on the Spot

Jessica McKenna and Zach Reino don't need no stinking sheet music for their musical comedy podcast Off Book. The two perform tonight at the Dallas Comedy House.
Robyn Von Swank
Jessica McKenna and Zach Reino don't need no stinking sheet music for their musical comedy podcast Off Book. The two perform tonight at the Dallas Comedy House.
Comedy is hard. Musical comedy is harder, much harder.

Musical comedy requires great timing and delivery for the comedy part. The other half requires a dancer's build, a strong voice and hours of sweaty rehearsals and run-throughs.

Jessica McKenna and Zach Reino, the hosts of Earwolf's musical comedy podcast Off Book, perform a brand new musical every episode, but they don't need to drench a pair of sweatpants or apply Aspercreme to their aching joints at the end. They don't even need to memorize anything. They just make it up as they go.

"I do not miss the dancing," McKenna says. "I could never do the spots."

McKenna and Reino will bring another improvised musical to life for an episode of their podcast at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Dallas Comedy House in Deep Ellum.

Both come from a musical theater background in high school and college and discovered each other and their abilities while training together at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in Los Angeles in 2011. They performed together in a long-form musical improv group called Baby Wants Candy that became a regular show at the UCB theater and even made an appearance and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

They also formed a second improv show called Magic to Do featuring performers creating a series of disconnected scenes. They ended up combining both shows for their pilot and Earwolf picked them up last year as a regular series.

"It's best for our skill set," McKenna says. "Both of us looked at the Mount Everest that is musical theater and we realized the best strategy is to use what we love about it but use it in our own way. It allows us to still scratch the itch we have for musical improv."

The episodes feature McKenna, Reino and a celebrity guest performing an original musical comedy based on an opening conversation that eventually morphs into a series of show-stopping, storytelling tunes. The styles range from the traditional, majestic musical styling of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show to the modern, rhythmic beats of a hip-hop-iscal like Lin Manuel Miranda's Hamiltion.

"What we love about it is that depending on the guest and what the mood is or the subject matter, being able to have that flexibility is great," Reino says. "I think a lot of our musicals trend towards the classics of musical theater, but we also have a love for the hip-hop space."

The guests also come from a variety of backgrounds, including comedians Paul F. Tompkins and Kyle Dunnigan and some Broadway stars such as Nicole Parker and Taran Killam. Reino says the guests don't need to have Celine Dion's or Luciano Pavarotti's pipes to be in their musical. They just have to be "willing to take a swing at it.

"Jess and I have been doing it long enough that even if you're not a super strong singer, we can still sing behind you," he says. "We try to bring in our people who do all sorts of stuff. We have Broadway people who aren't really comedians and improvisers who aren't singers. We like to mix it up."

The mix of guests also gives the show a special variety of flavors that increase the potential for surprises. McKenna says audiences can be just as moved by someone who doesn't have a natural singing voice as they long as they give it a go.

"If we only had musical improvisers on the show, we would have run out a long time ago and wouldn’t have the same variety," she says. "People love hearing both sides, like Taran Killam, who just crushes it but also like people who they’ve come to love through another podcast. They just love to hear them try. There's something sweet and vulnerable about it.”