Improvising comedy raps with Jessica McKenna

Chad White

Podcasting is a bloated medium with no real revenue stream. But it’s also a wonderful art form with dedicated fans. Sure, for every good or thoughtful show there’s always a blunt, disgusting trash counterpart. That’s just how it goes sometimes. The same can be said about making music. Or performing improv shows.

Jessica McKenna not only broke into podcasting last year; she also managed to guest on some of her favorite shows. Not many people will ever get that chance. On top of that, she’s got her hands in various other subgenres of comedy too like funny musicals and improv or a mixture of the three.. From her sets at UCB to her online shows, McKenna sets a new precedent to how the category should be approached. I recently had a chance to geek out with her on podcasting, improv, festivals and comedy in general.

How are preparations for SXSW?

Jessica McKenna: Good. I;m just pretty much going to show up and roll. I don’t even have to do much prep, which is fun. It’s a good benefit about doing improv.

Is that how festivals work? You just show up and see thousands of people and you just make a fool of yourself?

McKenna: [laughs] I just did San Francisco Sketchfest and, yeah, it was basically just show up and make a fool of yourself. For sure.

How long had you been doing improv? I know you do a lot of stuff for UCB.

McKenna: I started doing it a little bit in high school and then through college. I probably started seriously doing it in college. At that point like ten, twelve years. Then I started taking UCB classes right out of college. I’ve been performing at the theater since 2012.

Why UCB? Why not Chicago’s Second City or any other place?

McKenna: I actually went to school outside of Chicago. Obviously, Chicago has an awesome comedy scene. It’s sort of the birthplace of longform improv. But I had my eye in wanting to work in TV. It made sense to go where comedy was but also where acting and writing jobs were. I actually went to New York for a year and started doing UCB there. I was pretty confident that LA was going to be the right place for me. The Chicago theaters are awesome. No disrespect to Chicago! I spent four years outside of it, going in and watching shows; loving it. I just [felt] that LA -- citywise -- was going to be it.

Here’s something I’ve wanted to know for the past few months: where do you come up with your UCB characters? I know the last thing you did there was the emo band called EPIC. I saw the picture you guys had. They do look epic!

McKenna: [laughs] Thanks, man. It was really fun. I do a weekly musical improv show with a larger cast but three of those dudes are in that show. We were really messing around in the green room after a show, talking about that era of pop, punk and emo music. We were making up stupid little songs [saying] “That would be pretty fun actually.” We pitched the show to the artistic director of the theater that the full band name is Every Place I Cry, which is so ridiculous. We were like “Can we do a show where they are getting back together after being broken up for eight years?”

It wasn’t a [typical] improv show, We didn’t do scenes; we just did one long concert but every song was improvised. We got the first title from someone in the audience. We made up songs inspired by the banter. It was a storytelling-type show like VH1 Unplugged or something where we were talking about stories of coming up as a band. And then it was “Oh yeah, that makes me think of our song” and we would start making up this emo song. It was just so fun! [laughs] It’s so fun doing musical improv in general but emo music is so...they’re singing [with] no subtext in very silly metaphors. They’re trying to put it all out there; their hearts are breaking. It’s always fun to improvise with big emotional stuff like that.

What I love about EPIC and the stuff you do on Comedy Bang ! Bang! and Serious Music on ABCd is that you have a lot of musical influences -- clearly rap and a little bit of rock -- in your characters. That’s a really neat thing you do for them.

McKenna: Thanks. Me and my writing partner Zach Reino, who was in EPIC and Serious Music, that’s been the thing we do to generate stuff for us to be in. Writing comedy songs and, when I was on this Fox sketch show Party Over Here, we got to write two songs for that. I grew up doing musical theater. I think a lot of comedians wish they were musicians and a lot of musicians wish they were comedians. Like a common crossover thing: “Man, it would be great to be in a rock band!” When I do musical improv live, it also pulls from my traditional musical theater styles. Sometimes when we’re writing, we’re actually writing songs. Rap is a very fun genre to live in. I do love putting music and comedy together.

Where do your freestyling skills come from? Do you spit rhymes all the time?

McKenna: I just sort of always thought about rapping. In high school, I used to write raps for school projects all the time as a way of getting out of doing more work. I would trick my teachers with a little bit of creativity. It was actually less work for me. They were like “Wow, I can’t believe you want to do this rap in front of the class.” I was like “Yep! This will be easier.” I would do that all the time. And then I started freestyling at parties in college with a couple of friends. Eventually, people thought it was annoying. So, at house parties, we would go find a room and freestyle alone -- just the three of us -- because we thought it was super fun.

When I came out to LA, one of those friends I used to freestyle with in bedrooms at house parties was on a practice improv group with Zach Reino. We used to freestyle to warm up for shows and then, eventually, we liked doing it so much that we put it in the show. It has been a slow progression over time. But I think I do now probably do it a couple of times per week and have for years. It builds up; your brains just gets better at finding those words. I think it’s really fun. And I’m one to be drunk at a party and want to freestyle rap which is, I think, definitely obnoxious but I found a way to get to do it in a less obnoxious way hopefully. [laughs]

It definitely helps; especially with word forming inside your brain. It should help with improv. It’s a cool skill to have. Not many people can do that.

McKenna: Yeah, it’s kind of fun to have an extra little skill to bring to the party. I’m definitely not shy about bringing it out if it’s appropriate.

Where did the idea for Serious Music come about?

McKenna: The characters that Zach and I play are based on ourselves. We’re comedians who, while we’re waiting to get paid for what we were trying to do, we were just making videos ourselves. I think I had just binged Empire, the first season. I was like “It’d be funny if someone mistook our song as real.” [They] took one of our songs as if it was real and we had to write music for a popstar.

I’m a Justin Bieber apologist most of the time. He can make that difficult. He is such a funny character and I do have a lot of sympathy for people who get famous too young like that and what that does to their boundaries and their brain. We tried to create a little douchebag character but you could also see his heart like “Oh, he’s actually an immature kid.” And the two of us will serve as a brother and sister, guiding him towards better behavior. It was a way of integrating music into comedy that was going to be based in the world. Zach and I were interested in the idea that music would break out from a regular world.

This was an opportunity to write something set in the music industry. And a little bit of wish fulfillment on our part. We were like “What if we get to be regular popstars?” [laughs] And in that one, we’re still behind the scenes, but that was very fun for us. That was our first time writing and being in it and we got to executive produce that. That process, we learned a lot.

I like the series. I watched a couple of episodes before this. I noticed since it’s on ABC’s digital platform -- I guess that’s what the “d” stands for -- you guys had a lot more, I don’t want to say freedom, but you guys got a lot more [freedom] that people don’t usually get when I watch these videos. You guys got a limo! Most people, that would be their entire budget. You guys...I don’t want to say lucked out. But you guys got really lucky with getting these types of allowances.

McKenna: For sure. People making stuff in the digital world is not new. We’ve done that too; we have no money, call in favors and make a music video. It’s incredible to have money to make something. To have real producers getting us locations. It looked real. ABC helped us get Ken Jeong signed on was obviously pretty exciting. Oh yeah. No, we totally scored.

[both laugh]

And, because it was digital and not the network, we had freedom the other way too. It wasn’t held to the same language and content standards that network TV would be. We got to make the joke that we wanted to make. Zach and I don’t go that R-rated or blue anyway but we weren’t ever totally reined in because it [wasn’t] going to be on for families. They were like “Make the show you want. We definitely used the popstar character as a way of showing horrible behaviour. We definitely felt like kids in a candy store when we got to show up and real grownups were making our show look good.

Around the same time, you and Nicole Byer and Alison Rich got Party Over Here. I know it’s canceled and short lived. What did you guys learn from that experience? Do you use [the knowledge] on different types of projects?

McKenna: The process of making the show was an absolute blast. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the time to totally find its feet and legs on network. It was basically immediately canceled. But the making of it was such a dream. Those two girls are funny and great. I knew a lot of the writers from UCB. Paul Scheer was an amazing executive producer. Getting to have the Lonely Island know about the music that Zach and I wrote was unbelievably dream-come-true kind of stuff. Half of it was filmed in front of a live audience and it was filmed very, very quickly. It was a pretty crazy process. Basically every day I had to learn a massive speech because we did a lot of stand alone of us on stage pieces. Or one of us had the bulk of the material. It was sort of a whirlwind. It was not my first time having more than one episode of a show. I’m sure I learned a lot in ways that will reveal themselves. It was great to continue to work with those people. I’ve done a couple of things with Paul Scheer before so it was great to work with him again.

Everyone who was involved [were] great people to know and hopefully work with again. I wasn’t writing for the show, except when Zach and I got to write those two songs for it. Some of the writers I knew at UCB wrote great stuff for us. It was fun to get to do both, which is kind of what Serious Music [was about]. I do like control! Not that I don’t think that the writing they did wasn’t awesome but, when you get to do both, it is just like “Right! I get to make all these choices.” Just in terms of being a comedic performer, I like that I’ve had opportunities where I get to write and perform. Just so that I have all of that autonomy; not to say I didn’t enjoy the moments of collaboration. It was such a small writing staff that I thought crushed it. I wish we had more of an opportunity with that show to let it find its way but that’s Hollywood, baby!

[laughs] Lastly, 2016 was this huge year for you -- especially in terms of podcasting. You were on the three biggest Earwolf podcasts (improv4humans, Comedy Bang! Bang! and Hollywood Handbook) and people fell head over heels for you. On the Earwolf subreddit in particular, people just love you. What’s going to happen in 2017 with podcasting?

McKenna: That was a goal of mine. I’m a podcast fan and I’m a fan of those comedic forces. I wanted to be on them. Not making a vision board but I was like “I’d like to be on these podcasts.” I’d been on Comedy Bang! Bang! the show and been like “Okay, I’m starting to have Scott Aukerman be aware of me; this is cool.” When I finally got the opportunity to do them, it was truly a dream come true. These were podcasts that I’d listen to for years and loved. I got to do improv4humans at San Francisco Sketchfest, which was so fun. I’m doing Comedy Bang! Bang! at SXSW. That was the first reason  why I’m coming out there so I’m thrilled. And hopefully more to come. It’s funny because I’ve been a fan of Comedy Bang! Bang! and I know people who have multiple characters and recurring ones. It’d be funny to figure out what that balance is. Do I do new ones or do I bring one of them back? That’s the part I never thought about before. Scott’s like “Yeah, whatever you want to do.” He’s very open.

That’s the funny angle of it where I’m like “Is there a timing where this normally happens?” I don’t know. I should go back and chart what [Lauren] Lapkus did [laughs]. Like “”How often did you bring back Traci Reardon versus other new characters?” That’s a funny little mental gymnastics. It’s fun to see new characters but recurring, going deeper, and making these characters weirder and weirder is also fun. 2016 in the podcast world was a total dream for me. I had such a blast being on the shows I loved for years. What more could you ask for?

Would you ever want your own podcast? I can kind of see a resurgence of Lauren Lapkus in you when she was first appearing on all these different podcasts.

McKenna: Thanks. She’s a great, hilarious lady to be compared to. I would love to! I think people have been pretty great and cool over at Earwolf. We’ll see. It’s a great playground over there. I would definitely love to. We’ll see I guess. At this point, it’s a little not in my full control unless I went and just did it. I guess anybody can make a podcast in their garage as people have proven [laughs]. That would also be a route. But I’m kind of enjoying getting to know everyone at Earwolf, getting out there that way. We’ll see. It’s definitely something I would want to do given the right idea and the right time for it to fit in. It is such a fun medium; I’m very happy to be a part of it. It’s just such a free playground. It’s a blast!

Follow Jessica McKenna on Twitter, check out Serious Music and listen to her on a bunch of Earwolf shows!