Mission to Zyxx is a podcast about how the real treasure is the friends we made along the way. No, seriously.
I spent five years sitting in a cubicle staring at numbers in blue light-reflecting Microsoft Excel spreadsheets and wishing I could be anywhere else in the universe. The only silver lining was that the job was so mind-numbingly mundane that our managers let us wear headphones all day long. Any distraction I could latch on to was a welcome one. I was lucky enough to find a few quiet, like-minded comedy nerds hidden among our team. We shared a love of absurdist comedy and spent our days chatting about whichever new Star War had come out that year. Listening to podcasts kept us sane, and we’d pass on recommendations over the company Skype for what was making us giggle the most each week.
One of the dudes, Tom, and I bonded over improv comedy podcasts, and he got me hooked on Scott Aukerman’s Comedy Bang! Bang!. The jump from there to Paul F. Thompkins’ Spontaneanation came soon after. Then Superego, Improv4Humans with Matt Besser, Off Book: The Improvised Musical. Every guest on one podcast would lead us down a rabbit hole to another, and to us, that’s just what made podcasts the perfect vehicle for comedy. Eventually, we started listening to episodes of our favorite shows in tandem, at our separate desks, IMing our favorite lines to each other as they happened. It got to the point where Tom couldn’t even clock in before I would ask if he’d listened to the new episode of improv team Big Grande’s The Teacher’s Lounge yet.
It’s hard to recall who found it or which podcast had brought us to this one, set out in the middle of the galaxy. Mission to Zyxx is a serialized and (mostly) improvised science fiction comedy created by a group of improvisers that met while performing at the New York chapter of the Upright Citizens Brigade theater. Each episode features a guest comedian that plays a new oddball character the crew meets on their mission. Every adventure is packed to the brim with hilarious space-themed goofs that are highly quotable. Like so many sci-fi epics that blasted off before it, there’s much mythology to learn in the Zyxx Quadrant. It’s a rare comedy podcast that I highly recommend starting with episode one. (And I promise you, it is nothing like The Phantom Menace.)
The story stars a motley crew of galactic ambassadors traveling to planets in the Zyxx Quadrant on a diplomatic mission of peace for the Federated Alliance. The band of misfits is (sort of) led by Pleck Decksetter, a naïve, Luke Skywalker-type played by writer/director Alden Ford. He leaves his planet of Rangus 6 to explore the galaxy and avoid becoming a farmer like the rest of his species. He eventually learns he might be (but probably isn’t) “The Chosen One” of Zyxx’s version of The Force, “The Space.”
Pleck is assigned to travel the galaxy in the sass-talking spaceship The Bargarean Jade, lovingly known as “Bargie” (played by Moujan Zolfaghari, seen on At Home with Amy Sedaris). A “protocol and diplomatic relations droid” C-53 (Jeremy Bent) provides the straight man to Pleck’s bumbling antics. Think of C as a sort of less neurotic C-3PO or Data from Star Trek, until he ditches his restraining bolt and starts to have a bit more fun. They’re joined by a 12-foot-tall furry, scaley, talon-chested, former smuggler-turned-security officer, Dar (played by writer/performer Allie Kokesh). The crew is assigned missions by a 19-inch bureaucratic bird-lizard, Junior Missions Operators Manager Nermut Bungaloy (This American Life’s Seth Lind). Winston Noel rounds out the cast of regulars in several hysterical roles, most notably as a series of clone soldiers called C.L.I.N.T.S. and a cosmic bean named Beano. Trust me, it all makes more sense when you start listening.
Zyxx isn’t like most improvised podcasts, however. I’ve always found it beneficial to listen on a fancy pair of noise-cancelling headphones due to the work of sound designer Shane O’Connell. O’Connell creates soundscapes that surround the listener and puts them directly on these unknown planets along with the crew. His use of panning, diegetic sound, and the orchestral score creates a universe that feels long lived-in. The complex and exciting opening of Season 4 throws you right into the action of a speeder chase, as the action and jokes weave in and out of your ears. Every planet has its own unique sound effects and noises deep in the background. And even something normal as Pleck crossing from one side of Bargie’s hull to the other sounds like it’s happening all around you. While our co-workers might have seen Tom and I stuck giggling at our desks in the real world, they didn’t know we were on a far-off meeting with strange beings like Finniford J. Ryan, the forgetful loan shark that’s an actual shark in a mech suit. O’Connell’s work sets Zyxx apart from any other improv podcast.
When you look past all the aliens, robots, and talking spaceships, Mission to Zyxx at its core is a show built on friendship. The characters razz each other as true friends do, but you know that the bonds they forge on their adventures are real. You can tell that the team of improvisers that comprises the cast truly enjoys working on the show together. The show is a labor of love, and nothing shows that more than the behind-the-scenes clips that play after the credits. That’s when your ears get a peek at how the show works. The cast is constantly “yes and-ing” each other’s goofs, sometimes having to explain to the guest something like how money is called “kroon,” but otherwise, it works the same. Because of the ability to edit, the improv can be a bit looser to help keep up with the continuity of the ever-evolving universe. When a joke hits hard, the laughter of the performers might inadvertently be in the episode, which means perfection is not as crucial as capturing these moments of connection with friends they genuinely enjoy performing with.
This month, Mission to Zyxx will post its last episode of the series, ending its five-season run, with three of those at home on the Maximum Fun network. My friendship with my former co-workers hasn’t ended, but it certainly has changed now that we aren’t paid to all sit in the same room. Tom and I still text each other about comedy multiple times a week, though nothing beats listening and laughing to something we love at the same time. The epic tales of the crew of The Bargarean Jade may be ending, but their legend will live on through our podcast apps. They’re not unlike my group of friends stuck in a bunch of cubes together. When you’ve been through traumatic and hilarious adventures with your co-workers, you’re permanently bonded for life, for better or worse.
Jack Probst is a writer and record collector from St. Louis. He appreciates the works of James Murphy, Wes Anderson, and Super Mario. Send any and all complaints to @jackdprobst on Twitter. He enjoys writing paragraphs about himself in his spare time.