On its face, Welcome to Night Vale doesn’t seem like it’d be one of the most popular podcasts on the Internet. Each episode is a fictional community-radio broadcast from a small desert town where conspiracy theories are all true, multi-headed dragons run for mayor, and something secret and sinister lurks behind every mundane occurrence. The show is primarily voiced by Cecil Baldwin, whose smooth, calm NPR-style delivery reinforces the conceit that everything that happens in Night Vale is complete ordinary, even if the star quarterback has grown an extra head and a telepathic glowing cloud has taken over the PTA. But something about this strange podcast clicked with audiences, leading to a live West Coast tour, an East Coast tour—the latest of which hits TLA for two shows in a single night—and an upcoming novel set in Night Vale, to be published by Harper Perennial.
Series creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor sat down with Philadelphia Weekly to talk about what makes Night Vale tick, and what people can expect from the live show at the Theatre of the Living Arts on Monday, March 3.
PW: Welcome To Night Vale presents a skewed perspective on small-town life, which is something many authors are drawn to, from Stephen King to Rod Sterling’s Twilight Zone, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. What fascinates you about that subject? Are you guys from small towns originally?
JEFFREY CRANOR: We both came from suburban towns of big cities. Joseph’s from outside of Los Angeles, and I’m from outside of Dallas originally. More than anything, I think it’s sort of the strangeness of Night Vale, and my love of things like Twin Peaks, is seeing the mundane things in life and putting a very different and very odd twist on them. And it’s not just about being strange; it’s about finding a new way of presenting metaphor, a new way of presenting a character or an archetype or a storyline that we’re familiar with and finding a new way to subvert it. As an artist, I find that really interesting.
JOSEPH FINK: I agree with all that. Also, a community radio host makes more sense for a small town. It makes sense that community radio would cover events like a PTA meeting and stuff like that.
So the idea of it being a community radio was there from the beginning?
JF: The concept was there in the beginning. That was the point of view that I started with.
JC: It just gives you a better opportunity, as a writer, to write about a town itself if your narrator is local to the town. It would have to be a small desert town; the motif from the get-go was a place where all conspiracy theories are true. We just take that as everyday life, and then move forward from there. There’s just something about the American Southwest that makes it the home base for so many conspiracy theories.
There’s an intricate mythology to the community of Night Vale. Is it difficult to keep everything in proper continuity? Is it something you sweat over? Or is it easy because it is just the two of you writing it?
JC: It’s somewhat difficult, in the sense that there are moments where you think “Ugh, I gotta go look this up. I gotta look through old scripts and see if I’ve referenced this character or this address before. Got to make sure I got this street name right or this highway name right.” And that’s not so much difficult as something you have deal with. The search function on your computer is pretty nice for that.
Something Joseph said when we started the show was, we can get away with writing anything we want to write as long as we are strict with our continuity—which can mean a lot of things. A lot of continuity is just tone of voice. You can’t have Cecil behave in a way that is inconsistent with his character. Now, his inconsistency as a person is a part of his character, so there’s a lot that we’re allowed to play with, because that’s who he is. There’s a lot of inconsistencies to laws of physics in Night Vale, too, that we can play with, because that’s part of the consistent through-line of Night Vale.
So, keeping up with facts and laws and street names—that’s the most time-consuming part of it for me. But as far as the continuity of the show in general, I feel like I have pretty good grasp of that in my head.
JF: I wouldn’t use the word “stressed” with it. It’s something I keep in mind, but it’s not particularly stressful. I think you’re right in that it has something to do with it just being the two of us writing it. Because it’s just the two of us, it’s a lot more focused, and it’s easier to keep track of this stuff. It’s occasionally something you have to spend time on, but for the most part, it’s not that stressful to keep continuity.
One of the reasons people have been hooked on the show is the ongoing narrative. Was that always the plan to have an advancing story?
JC: Not at first, for sure. I want to say that Night Vale wasn’t supposed to be anything in particular when we first started; we were doing it on an episode-to-episode basis. We never sat down and said, “This is the kind of show we want to write; this is our grand vision for it.” It was just “What do I want to write about this week?” The continuity is what allowed us to do that and still have it feel like a continuing story. You could improvise and then build on what you had already improvised, and it all felt like one piece. We have, in the last year or so, started to plan out some stuff, to figure out the stories ahead of time, just out of sheer necessity because we have a lot of balls in the air at the moment. But there’s still a lot of elements of an episode introducing something, and we’ll both like it, so we’ll build on that.
How is writing the live shows different than writing the podcast?
JC: We’ve been learning a lot about writing for the live shows. The script we’re touring with now—that we just took down the West Coast and are about to tour the East Coast with—it’s our third live show full-length script. As we wrote the podcast, we learned who Cecil was as a character and what the town was as a character. And once we started to write our first live show, which was a script called “Condos,” in a few different towns, we realized, “Wow, this is an entirely different thing.” Cecil is a great actor; he interacts with people on stage all the time, and he is so great with an audience. So we realized that writing for the live show meant that there was a different headspace you had to be in. You have to think about the audience present there. You have to think about how Cecil interacts with the audience and how the transitions take place if you have a guest voice coming on—how they enter the stage and how they interact with Cecil. So that’s been kind of fun to write for. It’s a new way of thinking about it. And, of course, when we do the shows, it’s a blast because you get that rare thing for a writer; you get more of that playwright type of feeling when you get to have your words that you wrote—that normally, in the podcast, you don’t get to see anybody experience—and suddenly you get to see hundreds of people experience.
JF: It’s a lot of fun writing stuff that sticks to the rules of the podcast, still has that fourth wall up, still has that character, and he’s still talking about a community radio show, but learning how to write it in a way that brings the audience in and feeds off their energy. It’s a fun balancing act to do. It’s a lot of fun.
Both of you have a background in theater, writing and performing. Did that help when you decided to take the podcast into a live theater format?
JF: It’s allowed us to hit the ground running with these shows. We know how live shows work. We know how they kind of flow. We know what to expect from audiences. Cecil is excellent with audiences; he’s had years performing in front of them and is very comfortable doing so. That familiarity with doing live stuff and knowing how live stuff works has been extraordinarily helpful. At the same time, it’s a different type of audience than you often get at theater. So it’s really interesting to see how it plays with audiences that maybe you don’t see when you’re doing downtown experimental theater.
JC: It’s a really different environment because there’re so many fans who come early, if the show is general admission, and wait in line so they can get to the front of the house. That’s a really fun experience, too—to have almost a concert-like mentality. And Cecil has a super-likeable persona on stage, so it’s really great to be like, “I wrote that!” I love that people have transformed this thing that we wrote into something so magical and great.
Welcome To Night Vale seems to have a young fan base, a lot people in their teens and early 20s. Did that surprise you guys?
JC: We did not expect that all. We never had any inclination that there would ever be a fan base for the show. We just always thought, let’s just hope there’s a bunch of people who like listening to the show. But when it went into having a giant fandom, that fandom originated on Tumblr. Tumblr seems to skew younger, in terms of people who use Tumblr, and that made for a younger audience base for our show—which is awesome. I say “audience base” as if it’s a marketing term I’m familiar with, or that we ever thought in terms of that, which we didn’t. It’s really cool to look in the audience and see people who look nothing like us and who are really excited about our show. That’s really nice.
What can we look forward to seeing at the Philadelphia show?
The Barrymore Awards aren’t ballyhoo