The week of October 25, 2015

How ‘Welcome to Night Vale’ works its eerie magic

By Rae Votta

All hail the mighty glow cloud, but do not go into the dog park.

If you know what that means, you know Welcome to Night Vale, an eerie podcast created by Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink. It’s often described as The Twilight Zone meets A Prairie Home Companion: a community news and variety show from a town where supernatural lights appear in the sky above the Arby’s, hooded figures are regulars of the local pizza joint, and interns repeatedly go missing. With a growing fan base, the creators have recently taken the show’s quirky, ominous style on the road with a series of live shows and an appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. They’ve also tried something different: releasing a Night Vale novel.

We sat down with series creators Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink, and main voice actors Cecil Baldwin and Dylan Marron, to learn about the making of Night Vale, how the characters drive the story, and why podcasting today is like moviemaking in the 1970s. What follows is an edited version of those conversations.

What’s the writing process for Night Vale?

Cranor: We started working together about five years ago, and we wrote a play together. I think during that process, two things happened. One, we both were talking a lot about podcasts. We just liked podcasts a whole bunch. Joseph said, “I think I’d like to do a podcast.” I’m like, “That sounds really cool. I like podcasts. I don’t know what it’ll be.” Just like, “I don’t know either. I’ll figure it out.” Because you don’t want to make the same podcast that somebody else is already making.

We just accidentally developed a way of writing together which is a back-and-forth. I write a thing; Joseph writes something completely different. We figure out how to weave them together. We also edit each other’s work and create a singular voice in what we’re doing, so the play had more of a sense of a single voice—which fed into how we do Night Vale. We tend to alternate episodes. It’s not true for all of them but for 95 percent of them. One of us wrote it and the other person edits.

Fink: I know exactly the very first thing I wrote because I was trying to think of Night Vale. Mainly at the beginning, I thought of it in terms of a gut feeling. I just thought about deserts and conspiracies and stuff like that.

I just got a certain feeling in my gut, and I just tried to write stuff that gave me that feeling. The very first thing I wrote is that paragraph about lights above the Arby’s in the first episode. That paragraph, I wrote that. I was looking at it, I’m like, “OK, I guess that’s it.” That’s the world. I just tried to write other stuff that felt the same.

“The weirdness of Night Vale is illuminated because we get to see it reflected by Carlos being like, ‘Whoa, OK, hold on. What? This place is messed up.’”

Is it hard to not let any of the book story touch what’s happening in the podcast now, or is it all intertwined?

Cranor: We tried to touch the two of them together. We consciously thought about the book as something that needed to stand on its own. If you didn’t even know what a podcast was you would say, “I like this cover, this title.” You’d pick it up and read it. You want to be immersed in a novel that is in and of itself a good book. We also want it to relate to the Night Vale world. We don’t want people to consider the novel episode 77b or something. You know what I mean? We don’t want it to be so timed out to that. It does take place in a general time period of where we’re at in Night Vale now.

You have a LGBT lead character and a prominent LGBT love story in Night Vale. Is that something you came into it going, “we want to have a LGBT story here,” or was it more that’s just where the story went?  

Fink: Yes. There’s the thing, we’re like, coming out of the Neo-Futurists; when we write for the stage, there’s something about coming at it honestly. Part of the Neo-Futurist aesthetic is you are who you are. That’s part of the reason why somewhere along the way we just name Cecil’s character, Cecil. It’s not truly Neo-Futurist because they are playing a character, but there’s some shorthand there… I always feel like we’re taking parts of the actors and putting them into the character, because you know the actor. I’m going to take Cecil Baldwin’s name and name the character that; I’m going to emphasize qualities that can help match his voice. Why would I then take his sexual identity? Why would I take that away from him? Why would I reverse that on him? That seems very strange.

Cranor: Yes. The Carlos/Cecil thing was very organic and just sort of where the characters led. It didn’t occur to us that it was a big deal until after. It was more of a, “Oh, OK.”

Fink: This is simultaneously really wonderful and really terrifying that that was such a big deal to people. It’s sad that it doesn’t exist that much. It’s so exciting in Night Vale for people because it doesn’t exist very often and it never occurred to me that that doesn’t exist that often. It was really a big learning experience for me.

Cranor: Which is, I think, partly that whole New York theater bubble. Nothing about that seemed unusual to us. We’re just going along and then, “Oh, there’s the rest of [the world].” It’s a lot harder out there.

“The story about the relationship is going to be much more interesting than us trying to convince this invisible listener that our love matters.”

Joseph and Jeffrey talked about how they said that they write by incorporate aspects of the people that they are casting and they said they felt like it would be crazy to take your [LGBT] identity from you, Cecil. But obviously it’s something that’s been a big deal to the fans.

Baldwin: I mean, I don’t think there was ever the intent to have a gay relationship as kind of the central thing. The idea of Carlos as a concept, I think, was much more about the outsider.   

The idea is that he’s the foil for Night Vale. You know the weirdness of Night Vale is illuminated because we get to see it reflected by Carlos being like “Whoa, OK, hold on. What? This place is messed up.” But again it’s just in performance; my kind of acting is that you start with yourself and build out from there. And I think it was just honestly reacting to this situation that I was in. Where I was like, well if someone who’s incredibly smart and handsome (and you have kind of a crush on them) comes into town, you react honestly, and I think Joseph and Jeffrey took that idea that started with me and built out from there. It became this sort of central relationship.

And for Dylan: How was that experience for you, to join the cast later and realize, “I’m representing something, I’m telling a story that people are really connecting to, and I’m watching it go from a small project we’re doing to this phenomenon.”     

Marron: Yes, that’s a good question. It was crazy, but I think that when you… The only thing that matters is if you play the truth of it. If you are playing the importance of representing something, it’s going to not read. There’s a lot of work that’s like, “We are going to put a gay couple in here because all love is equal,” you know? That’s a really noble goal, clearly, but the thing is the story that you’re telling, it’s about your fight for love being equal and it’s not the story about the relationship, whereas the story about the relationship is going to be much more interesting than us trying to convince this invisible listener that our love matters.

Baldwin: I’m a little bit older; I came out in the ’90s.This is like when Ellen [DeGeneres] kissed a woman on TV: shocking and newsworthy and “This is huge.” And so I think having the perspective that maybe your average 14-year-old listener doesn’t have… You know, I would go to the bookstore or I would rent movies or TV; we didn’t even think about that at that point. But it was this idea where a lot of gay-themed media and art was just that. It was made by gay people, for gay people, and it was completely segregated. There was no gay and lesbian crossover. There was none of that.

“It seems like a terrible idea to react to people liking what you’re doing with being like, ‘Oh, I need to do a bunch of other things that aren’t that.’”

When did you start to think, “What should we do next?” One interesting thing is you don’t have any visual representation of your characters: Did you think, “Should we have an Instagram? Should we really be working on a TV show?”

Fink: No. I mean, neither of those, I guess. It seems like a terrible idea to react to people liking what you’re doing with being like, “Oh, I need to do a bunch of other things that aren’t that.” We were No. 1 in iTunes for, I think, three months. And when that happens you get all sorts of emails: It was all really interesting stuff, but we really just wanted to always think about what we can do well enough that it’s worthwhile. We knew we could do a book that was worthwhile, and we are certainly are looking at other things but, again, it’s all very slow.

Baldwin: I mean, I don’t think it’s coincidental that the roots of Night Vale are deeply founded in experimental theater, in New York theater. Because it’s the feeling of “I’ve scraped together a couple of hundred dollars, and we don’t have enough money to put everything on stage, so we’re going to make some really simple basic decisions and let the work just be that.” Everyone comes, no one comes, it doesn’t matter. Just do it. And I think it would be very different if Night Vale grew out of Los Angeles and scriptwriters, and TV and film.

Marron: I just don’t think Night Vale would have happened if that was the route that they went down.

Baldwin: Or I think it would have been much more derivative of other things that already existed. I mean, it could have been anything.

Marron: We live in a time when the three of us right now on my phone could record a podcast. And its success will be determined by the product we are putting on.      

Baldwin: It’s interesting; the world of podcasting reminds me in a lot of ways of the ’70s in filmmaking. Because in the late ’60s, with the fall of the studio system, all of a sudden you have all these amazing professional filmmakers who have worked within the studio system—which was the only game in town. In the ’70s you start to see people making wildly diverse, daring, edgy films, like Robert Altman. All these filmmakers came out of that period, where all of a sudden they could make the films that they wanted to make, but also had the knowledge of working within the studio system of how to get that done.

So you have this rare mix of technique, drive, and platform. And I think the podcast world is experiencing that right now. The technology is so easy that anyone can do it. It allows people who maybe did not have access to a voice or a platform in the past, and it doesn’t take a lot of technology. I mean you can be as ambitious as you want or you could be as simple as you want. And hopefully people will continue to get out there and find new and interesting ways to experiment with it. And find the rules that they want to break in order to make something new and exciting.

Illustration by J. Longo