An Ode to "Off Book: The Improvised Musical Podcast", My Favourite Discovery of 2018

As anyone who knows me for longer than a day knows, I believe Comedy Bang Bang to be the closest thing we have to perfect episodic entertainment these days, and I for one crave that kind of creative curious unpredictable communal chaotic joy when we live alongside cynical people and suspicious people and closed off people and people using other people for their own gain and other kinds of people that I’m not overly fond of, but of course let’s not forget that I disparage these types of people because I’m reminded of parts of myself that are sometimes amplified when I’m not being all that great a version of myself.

I digress. This is about my favourite entertainment things of the year. I'm ashamed to admit that I’m pretty lazy when it comes to getting into new kinds of entertainment; I approach streaming TV the way I approach taking a bath - after a day of work I want to be comfortable, I want to immerse myself in something familiar that I know will satisfy me. This laziness is why I haven’t seen a lot of new movies or shows or read new books this year. When it comes to this list of my favourite entertainment things of the year, I initially got into these things due to ease of immersion and because they had that warm bathwater familiarity to them: the social media comedy of Demi Adejuyigbe (his Will Smith rap parodies and September 21 videos) and Gabriel Gundacker (Zendaya is Meechee is my jam of the year), Letitia Wright’s performance as King T’Challa’s little sister Shuri in Black Panther, Donald Glover’s work on Atlanta and the "This is America" video, stand-up specials from John Mulaney and Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette”, D’arcy Carden’s performance in “The Good Place”, and Janelle Monae's “Dirty Computer” album.

I brought up Comedy Bang Bang at first because the reason I got into “Off Book: The Improvised Musical Podcast” was due to the latter’s thematic and contextual proximity to the former, except with the added element of shockingly impressive spontaneous musical theatre skills. So, essentially, my favourite show but moulded in a way to make it even more relevant to my tastes. The first episode I checked out was its 1st anniversary show, that featured some of my favourites like Paul F Tompkins, Scott Aukerman, Paul Scheer, and Eliza Skinner. Right off the top of the episode, and right off the top of every episode, the two hosts, Zach Reino and Jessica McKenna, shoot the shit and figure out the vibe of the room until they stumble upon the topic of the first song. Then Scott Passarella (king of pianists, pianist of kings) begins playing a repeating melody and drummer Dana Wickens finds its rhythm, and Zach and Jess find some lyrical inspiration in seconds and begin to sing along to this newborn accompaniment.

In this episode, you hear the sounds of up to ten people stifling their laughter as people are singing, and it’s as charming as you think it is. The first song came from Zach referencing how there are so many engineers in the room, wonders aloud what kind of engineers they are, and then 6 of the ten performers in the room get a verse about the specific kind of engineer they are (custodial, train, space, love, coffee, and animal). As I’m typing this, I’m aware that I’m writing about a comedic thing that made me laugh in a way that’s very dry and descriptive which always wrings the life out of the idea, so don't worry, reader, I'm annoyed by this kind of writing too. We're on the same page!

I’m describing this in detail partly because I want to know, for myself, exactly why this song made me happier than any other entertainment thing prior to or after in the Gregorian Calendar year. I can pinpoint a few factors: it was unexpected, it was on my way to work in the morning on a packed streetcar, a beautiful relationship was ending at the time and I needed a win, I was feeling exhausted and sad about the world after looking at twitter for five minutes, and then this song comes on, and it didn't have to be full of things that gave me such life and light but there it went and did just that. As the episode continued, hearing these performers do quadruple duty of improvising content, being funny, coming up with rhymes, and singing on-key was transfixing. As well, the entire room was so joyful and you can tell everyone wanted their colleagues to succeed due to how many set-ups and supportive assists were handed out between them.

Admittedly, this was the wrong episode for me to experience first. Imagine never seeing a game of hockey and the first one you see is the All-Star game, and you see the very best athletes in the game playing all at once. That’s how this episode was for me; it wasn’t the most spontaneous of shows because so many characters and bits were pre-established from the guests’ earlier episodes. So I dug deeper and listened to other episodes, and to my delight, every episode is a minor miracle. Zach and Jess are the perfect hosts due to how goddamn talented they are, how goddamn funny they are, and, most importantly, how supportive they are of each other and the guests on their show. In a nutshell, the motto of the two of them is “let’s put on a show, gang!”

To that point, it’s the closest thing we have to The Muppet Show. Furthermore, I declare that it’s more Muppet-y than any show or movie that’s featured any character from the Henson creature shop since A Muppet Christmas Carol in 1993.

Since we're nearing the end of the essay, time to awkwardly tie this together with some serious shit! We need invention today, we need communities today, we need curiosity today, we need open-mindedness today, we need vulnerability today, we need bravery today, we need creativity today, and we need each other today. Off Book: The Improvised Musical Podcast is my favourite entertainment thing of the year because it’s the silliest goddamn show that, to me, is the antithesis to the moments when people made the decision to be selfish, ignorant, dismissive, and brutal to other people in 2018. More curious dorky awkward vulnerable communal creation in 2019, please.