Zach Reino and Jessica McKenna—known as The Zach and the Jess—are seasoned improv comedy pros with all the pertinent credits for making stuff up on the fly in front of paying customers. Both trained with the Upright Citizens Brigade (McKenna also studied with the Groundlings) and have written some damn funny songs, but they are best known for their musical podcast Off Book: The Improvised Musical, which comes to Mississippi Studios this week.
You may have seen other improv groups tackle musicals, but you’ve never seen any as accomplished as these two freaks of spontaneity (they’re like those twins who can read each other’s brains, which is creepy, fascinating and highly entertaining). OK, sure, maybe we can see people ad-libbing words to songs that don’t exist on any corner in Portland, but these guys can make them rhyme.
WW: What amazes me most, besides your lightning-quick and clever brains, is your timing. How much trust do you have in each other?
Zach Reino: Maximum trust. The longer we do this, the more our brains kind of melt together, and we’ve been performing together for over a decade now, so…
What does it feel like to make up a great lyric on the spot that really kills with the audience?
Jessica McKenna: The live audience really makes it. But also I love making Zach smirk when he sees where I’m going before the audience does.
Reino: In a live show years ago, there was a third-act twist where the character one of us was playing was revealed to be a character the other of us was playing in disguise. We both realized it only a second before the audience did, so it felt like a magic trick for everyone. That show I believe had tech issues and was lost to time, so you’ll have to trust me that it was cool. Or at least as “cool” as musical improv gets.
Do people ever come up to you who hate musicals but say they love Off Book?
Reino: Weirdly, this actually happens a lot. People have strong opinions about musicals. We love musicals, but we also understand why some people don’t. I honestly don’t know exactly what it is about our show that bridges that gap, but if I had to guess, it’s that our show feels more accessible than many musicals? Also it’s way, way more stupid.
How critical are you of yourselves after a performance?
Reino: These days, basically not at all. We’re always trying to be better and smarter, and try things we haven’t done before, but there is only so much you can critique a show you’re never going to do again.
How many musicals have you done now? Is that some record?
Reino: Just with Off Book we’ve done over 300, and outside of that we’ve done hundreds more, either in practice or with other groups. I don’t know if it’s the record, but it is a record of some kind.
What feedback from an audience member or critic after a performance has stuck with you?
Reino: Someone in a YouTube comment once called me a “talentless nothing man,” which is the funniest burn I have ever received, and apparently I’m going to remember it until the day I die. We’ve had a number of people reach out and tell us that Off Book the podcast has gotten them through tough times, or been a go-to listen when they’re not feeling good. That amount of audience trust is a huge honor, and something we and our stupid, stupid musical improv show try very hard not to take for granted.
McKenna: Someone once said I had a voice like someone kicked out of a boys’ choir, which I still don’t totally understand and is sort of why I don’t read the comments, ha ha. But our fans are incredibly kind and generous.
What would you tell someone who wants to try improvised musicals?
McKenna: Pretend you’re already good at it! One day you will be, but you need some protective armor of delusion when you first start because it’s a li’l tricky! Just like regular improv, confidence is key, but don’t be afraid to fake that confidence, baby! People basically can’t tell the difference.
What do you think about Portland? Will you do anything for fun here?
Reino: Portland rules. We always have a great time here. Last time, we hiked up to the Pittock Mansion, and that was really fun.
McKenna: We always have a great time in Portland! We’ve gone to some great food stalls and tiki bars, and the fans there are awesome.
Are you improvising these answers?
Reino: As far as I know, yes. But it kinda depends on whether or not you believe in free will versus a predetermined future.
McKenna: These answers were fated long ago…
SEE IT: Off Book: The Improvised Musical plays at Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi Ave., 503-288-3895, mississippistudios.com. 7 and 9:30 pm Tuesday, Sept. 19. $25. 21+.