The banality of community radio meets the paranormal, fantastic, and absurd in Welcome to Night Vale, a serialized podcast that chronicles life in a fictional, small Southwestern desert town. The dog park is forbidden to both dogs and humans and home to mysterious hooded figures. Street Cleaning Day is a terrifying, life-threatening phenomenon. A brazenly authoritarian city council operates a secret police that constantly monitors all citizens. Oh, and there’s also a mysterious, glowing cloud hovering over town that rains down dead armadillos, lizards, and crows.
But as odd as all this may seem to outsiders, it ultimately adds up to everyday life for the folks in Night Vale. Cecil Gershwin Palmer (voiced by Cecil Baldwin), the host of Night Vale Community Radio, reports the news in a calm, matter-of-fact tone that belies just how bizarre these occurrences actually are. And it’s this juxtaposition and treatment of the extraordinary as ordinary that drives much of the humor and charm of Night Vale.
“It’s eldritch horror meets The Onion meets Parks and Rec,” says Jeffrey Cranor, who in 2012 created the series with Joseph Fink.
The Night Vale crew is currently on the road with a touring live show, “A Spy in the Desert,” which will stop at the Charleston Music Hall this Fri. Sept. 28. The series initially became a cult hit through Tumblr fandom and word-of-mouth hype. Mainstream success followed, and today, the spooky series has more than 130 episodes and two novels. A TV adaptation for FX was announced last December.
While the surreal storytelling showcased in Night Vale has been compared to cultural fixtures including Stephen King novels, Twin Peaks, and The Twilight Zone, Cranor said the series was inspired by two works that “aren’t science fiction or horror at all.”
“The first is Deb Olin Unferth’s novel Vacation. The other is Will Eno’s solo play Thom Pain (based on nothing). Both of these works used language in a way Joseph and I truly admired,” says Cranor. “Unferth and Eno wind their sentences in unexpected directions. They build visuals and tiny worlds of rich stories and then successfully twist those narratives in sharp moments of horror, absurdity, or humor. We started writing Night Vale with these writers in mind, attempting to craft similarly structured stories.”
And while there are some running jokes and continuing plot points throughout Night Vale, the stories aren’t necessarily told in a linear fashion or chronologically by episode, which makes “A Spy in the Desert” accessible to both Night Vale newbies and longtime listeners. In fact, audience members don’t have to be at all familiar with the series to enjoy the live show.
“Just like a person listening to episode one of the podcast for the first time, a live show drops the audience right into the world,” says Cranor. “It’s weird and funny, and they’ll get it right away. Also, Cecil Baldwin is such a gifted performer. He uses the audience energy, a constant give and take, to build on funny moments and then bring them back down to stretches of gravity and drama.”
Although “A Spy in the Desert” doesn’t significantly diverge from the format and content of a typical Night Vale podcast episode, Cranor said the live show is ultimately more than just the equivalent of taping an episode in front of a live audience.
“The main thing is the audience interaction. Our live shows follow a similar structure to the podcast … but the important thing is to write and perform it in a way that acknowledges that the audience is there in the room with us,” he says. “We want people to laugh and cry, of course, but we also want to keep them on their toes. We want them to have some input into the energy of the show. It’s a fun challenge for us as writers and especially for Cecil as a performer. We always include some element of audience interaction in our live shows, and ‘A Spy in the Desert’ has been one of our favorite uses of this yet. I can’t tell you what it is, but it’s really cool.”
For Cranor, audience participation and establishing a sense of connection are the highlights of taking Night Vale on the road, as it presents an opportunity to transform a more isolated medium like podcasts into a communal experience for both creators and fans.
“Podcasting, by nature, is a lonely activity. I don’t mean ‘lonely’ in a bad way, just that listening to a podcast is mostly something a person does by themselves, listening through earbuds. Unlike theater, there’s not a chance to bring people to experience the stories as a community — or for podcast creators to meet their fans,” says Cranor. “So our live shows have given us a bunch of opportunities to meet fans from all over the world; we’ve been to 16 countries in our four years of touring. Their stories are amazing, and it’s indescribable the feeling you get from knowing something you created has had such a positive impact on so many people you didn’t even know.”