Explaining the simple brilliance of Welcome to Night Vale to the uninitiated can be a difficult task at times. A podcast which presents itself as a small town radio news show, the titular town of Night Vale is located in an unknown state in the U.S. The small town news and gossip you’d usually find on such radio stations is present but not as you may expect. Instead the regular presenter of the show, Cecil Palmer, in a warm and cheery tone describes events such as the sudden arrival of a sentient, glowing cloud comes to town. Things are not as they seem in Night Vale.
The at times surreal but always charming show began in 2012 and is up to 73 episodes on iTunes at time of writing. Night Vale is regularly in the top ten most downloaded podcasts worldwide. As the show is about to set out on another U.K and Irish tour and with the publication of the first book based on the show imminent I interviewed the voice of Night Vale, Cecil Baldwin, about his experiences on the podcast, its origins and its place in the popular culture.
EXPRESS: So how does something like Night Vale start?
CECIL BALDWIN: All three of the creators, myself, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor work in New York City as theatre makers. We work as theatre artists in the sort of off-off-Broadway theatre scene, I’m an actor and Joseph and Jeffrey are primarily writers. We all worked with a theatre company called the New York Neofuturists and primarily myself and Jeffrey were writing and performing and Joseph was more of a novelist kind of writer. But he saw a play that I was in and thought “wow this guy has a really great voice and sounds kind of similar to this character that I’ve been developing but didn’t know what to do with” and asked me if I wanted to record the pilot episode and I said absolutely, sure it sounds great. I love HP Lovecraft and I love horror, I think one of the first adult books I ever read was Stephen King’s It, so I knew that the horror genre was something I was really interested in and I knew how funny Joseph and Jeffrey were so I got the script and I understood the kind of dark humour that was required. We just started recording episodes and putting them out there and begging people to listen and eventually the internet kind of discovered us via Tumblr and Twitter and those people told five more people and five more people told ten more people and it just kind of got bigger and bigger and bigger.
EX: You mentioned Lovecraft there, what were the other influences on Night Vale? It seems to come from the radio drama tradition, which people around my age didn’t grow up with so this is kind of a weird revival of those for the digital age.
CECIL: Oh yeah definitely, I mean we’re not doing anything new *laughs*. The funny thing is you know we made radio drama cool again, but it’s funny I think we all thought of it less as radio drama at first and more as a long log or like almost stand-up comedy monologues. It certainly was different to a lot of the podcasts that existed which were either informational, you know, how to save money or this is what science is all about or this is what the politics of the day is, to you know sort of conversational shows which there are a million podcasts of. Stand-up comedians talking to other stand-up comedians, Marc Maron etc., tonnes of stuff like that. There was a nice little hole that existed that we occupied which was something that a scripted show, that is funny but not necessarily jokes you know, sort of laugh out loud jokes that was character driven, plot driven and had a continuing storyline. You know it’s really funny that people in their 20’s and 30’s who probably don’t listen to the radio on a regular basis really would listen to a radio drama, but that’s exactly what it is. It’s kind of fun being able to make radio kind of Orson Wells War of the Worlds, or like BBC radio drama cool again. It’s really funny.
EX: So the podcast is kind of surrealist at times, maybe absurdist even, not necessarily in its themes but in its script or subject matter. Do you feel this is something in the zeitgeist where surrealism or absurdism is coming back into the popular culture? Even in shows like say Adventure Time which is popular again in the Tumblr and Twitter space which have their surrealist of absurdist aspects and appear to be coming into vogue.
CECIL: Yeah I guess so, I think you can get away with just about anything as long as you’re kind of sincere about it and as long as you put yourself into it. Like it’s funny, people listen to Night Vale and then they know they sort of want to emulate it and they write kind of weird things either on Twitter or through fan fiction but the difference between writing anything weird and putting it out there, making it weird and random for the sake of weird and random, and I think what we’re doing with Night Vale is that from our point of view all the weirdness comes from a very personal place that is either supported by the script itself. So our characters are odd and have strange quirks that make them unique like a man in a tan jacket holding a deer skin suit case is one of our reoccurring characters. He’s inherently strange or creepy or surreal. Or it’s something that is strange or terrifying to us personally so for instance I know Jeffrey Cranor is terrified of spiders so often times you’ll find a lot of references to spiders because he’s kind of pushing himself and creeping himself out since it’s something that’s real to him and he puts that into his are. So the strangeness has to come from a place where you’re kind of challenging yourself or you’re pushing yourself and using yourself as a start rather than saying what can I come up with that just sounds bizarre and is weird for the sake of just being strange.
EX: That makes sense especially given the show has been so great and gotten such praise for portrayal or LGBT characters and themes. Do you think there’s a reason this kind of fantasy/Sci-Fi show or general non-traditional media does a better job at these characters than stuff like soap operas or supposedly realistic shows like Modern Family?
CECIL: We have the luxury and the curse of being an independent operation. It’s amazing that we can do whatever we want, go wherever we want. If Joseph and Jeffrey decided tomorrow that everyone in Night Vale was suddenly killed, that’s what would happen. We’re not beholden to a larger network to kind of keep up with the status quo and it’s great because we’re afforded creative control. There’s certainly a number of acting choices that I made on the show that had I had a director, a producer and someone who represents our sponsors standing over me going “uh I dunno, that voice sounds a little out of the mainstream I’m not sure people will relate to this character, let’s find a way to make it relatable to everyone and therefore probably really bland and boring” then the show probably wouldn’t be what it is. Of course the flip side is that we’re independent operation and even on this tour where we’re coming over to the UK and Ireland for the second time, it’s taken us months and months to put the tour together ourselves. We’re at the level now where we have a booking agent and we have people who professionally put together tours like this but at the end of the day it’s just the three of us and Meg Bashwiner who’s our MC and Jon Burnstein who’s at Disparition who does the music. It’s just us, we operate our own show. So we don’t have the luxury of corporate money but we also don’t have the artistic implications that corporate money brings to the table as well.
EX: As the main character and voice of Night Vale, coming from a less stable and less publicised platform did that make it extra surreal when it took off and you saw yourself as a cosplay character and featured in fanfiction all of a sudden?
CECIL: Of yeah, it was crazy. You know I’ve had a good career in that I’ve been able to perform for differing sized audiences and I’ve performed for the President of the US and Supreme Court justices, doing Shakespeare and very professional kind of respectable theatre. But for the most part we’re used to doing a show in the East village or NY for 100 people if we were lucky. So it definitely did make this very strange little project that we’d started all the more surreal when all of a sudden I’m getting emails from friends of mine that I haven’t seen since I was like 15 years old saying my kid loves your show, do you remember me we, went to school together, can I possibly get a postcard or a mug or something. Yeah it was just very strange and really delightful at the same time.
EX: So something that’s been talked about at the show a lot at the moment and you’re publicising is the book, is that an exciting new facet to the world of Night Vale?
CECIL: There’s 70+ episodes of Night Vale but this is the first time that we’re stepping out into the mainstream and you know it’s not a book that’s being published by me, Joseph and Jeffrey it’s being published by Harper Perennial which is an imprint of Harper Collins, one of the largest publishing houses. I believe it’s being released by Orbit in the UK. Kind of a big deal companies you know. And it’s great, Joseph and Jeffrey co-wrote the book, it is about Night Vale and it has a lot of the characters from Night Vale but it takes those characters in new directions that have not been covered on the podcast. So hopefully it will appeal to those fans of the show who have listened since episode 1 and also people who have never heard of the show who don’t even know what a podcast is and just want to pick up a book that has all the tenants of Night Vale, that’s funny and scary and sincere and heartfelt and you know kind of makes you question your place in the world and existence in general. So hopefully it’ll be a huge success and we’ll kind of expand the world of Night Vale even farther than it is now.
EX: Is that something the three of you find difficult in building up the show, the balance of bringing in new listeners and now releasing a book that’ll have new stuff that not everyone may get and may bring new people on board again? You’ve built up this world that you may have been unsure how popular it would get or how it could end or anything like this, is that difficult in terms of balancing a mythos and a world?
CECIL: Oh sure I mean I think it’s natural for any project you work on, I’m constantly amazed whenever I start something how much people know about a certain project. I mean sure we have hundreds of thousands of fans worldwide but there’s always gonna be people that are new to the show, that are new to what we do and I think it’s about you know, making them feel just as welcome as the people who’ve been with us since the beginning. You just kind of have to keep creating art that is good and that is consistent and know that the new fans will eventually catch up and keep the older fans interested in what you’re doing. You want to keep creating good product to keep people interested.
EX: So final question, are you really excited to be touring again, back to the UK and Ireland? You get all over the world with the show now.
CECIL: Oh yeah, I’m so excited. It’s gonna be great. We’re going to some new places I haven’t been before like Wales, so the show in Cardiff will be my first time there. We’re getting to play a couple of cities we didn’t get to do on last year’s tour like Leeds and hopefully the places we have been like Dublin and London will have a really warm reception coming back. And I hope that everyone enjoys the show that we’ve written for this year and that its new and exciting, we took a lot of lessons we learned from last year’s tour and we’ve kind of put them into the new script so I hope everybody enjoys it.
Welcome To Night Vale are performing in Dublin’s Olympia Theatre on September 19th, Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel is set to be realised on October 20th in the UK and Ireland.