who dares wins
Put Yourself First – Off Book: The Improvised Musical
On our TVs and computers, we’re inundated with stand-up comedy. In the past five months, Netflix has honored its commitment to release a new stand-up special every week. And as our contributing editor and die-hard stand-up fan Rachel Kolman has tried to keep up with the tsunami of filmed comedy content, I’ve taken a step back. I love stand-up. I used to do it. I’ll probably do it again. But I’ve been drawn ever-increasingly to its stepsister, improv.
And in the more passive mode of comedy consumption—listening—improv is queen. Comedy Bang! Bang!, the flagship improv show of podcast company Earwolf, just crossed the 500 episode threshold and is as strong as it’s ever been. But there’s a new show from Earwolf, Off Book: The Improvised Musical, that already has a much higher ceiling.
In improv, the excitement comes from the increased degree of difficulty. The fact that all the material is generated on the spot means that, yes, some of the jokes are going to bomb. You’ll hear a line and think, Damn, if only they’d said In-N-Out instead of Taco Bell, that would’ve lead perfectly into etc., etc. But because all the material is created in the moment, when a joke works—when it feeds the other actors in the scene, and it carries through to unexpected but inevitable wells of humor—the thrill is so much greater than watching or listening to even a great stand-up performance. I would say it’s like magic, but since magicians know how their illusions are going to unfurl 99 percent of the time, even that’s not a fair comparison. Good improv is like real magic.
And in Off Book, hosts Jessica McKenna and Zach Reino are wizards. Sometimes they singe their eyebrows off, but usually they turn mud and lead into gold and silver.
In their first episode, they collaborate with universally acknowledged Mayor of Podcasting Paul F. Tompkins. They ask him about his first experience with musical theater and after two minutes of chat, break into their first song which is inspired by Tompkins’s bad luck with musical theater as a kid. From that, they build an entire show, with a diverse and funny mix of songs that tell the story of three kids who use Ayn Randian philosophy to power themselves on to musical theater glory after being harshly reviewed by their own parents. There are jazzy numbers, ballads, up-tempo patter songs, and the I Want song that every musical needs. Hearing it all cohere in 50 minutes is perhaps the most surprising bit. But these improvisers are so game—when they make a mistake, they fold it into the next lyric, and things that started as misheard words can become cornerstones of later songs or twists in the plot.
McKenna and Reino are hilarious, their pianist Scott Passarella is literally an unsung hero, and I’d say they bat at least .800 on catchiness alone. Some real standouts from this episode are “Put Yourself First,” “You Can Do That,” and “No One Wants To Eat at Chipotle.”
Chicago’s Moment – Vic Mensa’s The Autobiography
White man telling niggas to ball like Phil Jackson
Pray to Jordan, the play was enough to put up the bail
And a train don't stop and we ain't have to ride them rails
Gas in the tank, hardly enough to make it home
They say home is where the hate is, I'm from where they kill their own
Probably film it on their phone, a generation addicted
To technology, the problems we face, it's so conflicted
To take the burning road and just roll with the punches
Niggas thought I was gone, I Derrick Rose from the trenches
- Vic Mensa, “Rage,” from The Autobiography
I was mostly familiar with Vic Mensa, a 24-year-old rapper and singer from Chicago, from his earlier collaborations with Kanye West. Mensa co-wrote “All Day,” a Kanye track that earned him a Grammy nomination a couple years ago, and he lent his vocals to “Wolves” on Kanye’s The Life of Pablo. But last month, Mensa started popping up on podcasts like Hannibal Buress’s Handsome Rambler, so I decided to see what the big deal was.
The song and video for “Rage” are significant achievements and show that unabashed introspection and emotional vulnerability are the new and dominant counter-trend in hip hop. In this song, Mensa describes struggling with depression and alludes to his own suicide attempt. And as he discussed with Buress, his music is already helping young people come out and share their own stories of depression and self-harm, which is so important.
And just as important, for those times when the depression lifts and you want to drive around and listen to something real ignorant? Mensa also can do this:
Yup. Do both. Always do both.
above image: "vic mensa," erik aldrich / flickr
 Counter to the Migos flow, and its attendant mumbled bars.