About a year and a half ago, a strange and wonderful thing happened to the strange and wonderful fiction podcast Welcome to Night Vale: It became very, very popular.
On the show’s first anniversary in June 2013, each of the then-25 episodes had been collectively downloaded about 150,000 times. The following week, they were downloaded another 150,000 times, rocketing Welcome to Night Vale to the top of iTunes’ podcast charts, where it stayed for several months. It remains massively popular: the podcast currently sits, appropriately, at No. 13 on iTunes’ podcast charts, and demand for the series prompted the creators to launch a live touring show. The show is hitting the Music Farm on its way down the East Coast.
In a podcasting landscape dominated by trivia, comedy, and Serial, the bimonthly Welcome to Night Vale is an anomaly. The show was created by Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink and is voiced by Cecil Baldwin, who shares a name with the series’ central character: Cecil Palmer, the host of the nightly community radio news program in the small, seemingly friendly, fictional desert community of Night Vale. But the daily occurrences in this town — perhaps best described as Parks and Recreation‘s Pawnee, Indiana set in a barren desert and interpreted by David Lynch — aren’t exactly quotidian. Hooded figures who live in the town’s obsidian-walled dog park, minor-league pitchers with psychokinetic powers, psycho-killer librarians, freestanding oak doors that lead to alternate realities, and appearances by angels — all of whom are named Erika — are all parts of daily life in Night Vale.
In fact, the least-weird thing in the storyline might be the romance between narrator Cecil Palmer and the Latino scientist Carlos, who appeared in the pilot yet does not have a last name, and is currently trapped in a desert on an alternate plane of reality.
Welcome to Welcome to Night Vale — a gay love story set in a town whose school board is run by a sentient, dictatorial glowing cloud. “There’s something really comforting about the idea that life is weird,” says Cranor. “People love that thing where there’s a town where just quirky things happen. It’s a relatable thing, and it allows us to feel justified in living in maybe small, backward kind of cities.”
If Welcome to Night Vale were just ennui and despair and interns killing their dopplegängers (or is it the other way around?) all the time, it’s likely that the podcast would quickly grow tiresome. But the show is by turns weird, funny, creepy, and touching — and that’s on purpose. If the show veers off too far in one direction, Cranor says, he and Fink will quickly shift the tone in the opposite direction.
“I’m not going to say it’s easy,” Cranor continues, speaking of finding Night Vale‘s keen balance between weird and beautiful. “Nothing’s really that easy. We have to remember to be weird, we have to remember to be terrifying, we have to remember to be funny and we have to remember to be satirical, and we have to remember to be beautiful. And remembering to be all of these things is really important.”
But despite seemingly capricious tonal shifts, Night Vale is not a random construct — although Fink and Cranor don’t map out the series with any great specificity.
“It’s mostly in our memories and in our conversations,” Cranor says with a laugh. “I’m amazed at how often I forget stuff that we’ve written. We have to go back and look things up. We benefit from the fact that we live in a world where it’s easy to search documents on your computer.”
However, he adds, “Continuity was very important to us when we started out, and it’s still really important to us. [The story] gets more and more complex the more episodes you have … You don’t want to suddenly tell someone, ‘This is not the world that we’ve built.’ And you do run the risk of that accidentally being undone because you didn’t research your own writing.”
Indeed, Welcome to Night Vale‘s success can be attributed largely to Cranor and Fink’s writing, which is sharp, engaging, and often very funny. Radio, after all, is the most visual medium, and the world of Night Vale is described in gnomic language, leaving the finest details to the imagination of the listener.
But Welcome to Night Vale‘s writing succeeds on a macro level, too. As the story of Night Vale has progressed and its popularity mushroomed, its world has gotten larger and odder, boasting a living, breathing cast of characters that’s Simpsons-esque not only in terms of population, but in personality. The residents of Night Vale aren’t just window dressing; they all come with their own quirks and interconnected relationships with other residents of the town. (Narrator Cecil, for instance, hates his stepbrother Steve Carlsberg for reasons that are never explored.)
Cranor likens the greater universe of Night Vale a bit to the universes created by Charles Dickens, where a seemingly minor character introduced long ago can be a major catalyst in a plotline years down the road.
“We do that constantly,” he says. “That’s a big way in which we generate new storylines for ourselves.”
So, too, are the live shows. Night Vale’s world is alive with the sound of hivemind chants and eerie music in podcast form, but Cranor thinks the stories gain more than they lose in a live setting. Each tour is built on a single bespoke script (“We don’t write one script every night,” Cranor says. “That would be impossible.”) that stretches Night Vale’s normal 20-minute running time out to a 90- or 100-minute piece of live theater featuring guest voices, live music, and audience interaction.
“We want that acknowledgement that we’re in the same room as the audience,” Cranor says. “It’s not a theater piece in the sense that there’s a fishbowl with all the actors walking around inside of it and the audience has to sit outside. We wanted to make sure that there was an openness, that there’s no fourth wall. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to be doing improv comedy and asking for suggestions — it just means that there’s a direct acknowledgement that the audience is in the room and they’re part of the story.”
Stay cool. Support City Paper.
City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.