Is there any other show in the podosphere as simultaneously weird and popular as Welcome to Night Vale? Last July it rocketed up the charts seemingly out of nowhere, briefly eclipsing digital megalith This American Life as the most downloaded podcast on the internet. WtNV inspires a fervent devotion in its proponents, who create fan art and fan fiction and catalog it extensively on wikis and recommend it to everyone they know. It has become a beloved artistic phenomenon; an unforeseen and irreproducible mutation of the podcasting medium.
WtNV is the “community radio show” of a Southwestern town beset by haunting events, made all the more disquieting by the metronomically benign narration of its host, Cecil Baldwin. Mysterious figures flit in and out of episodes. The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home is up to her old tricks. Concerned parents petition the School Superintendent, an “ethereal and menacing glow cloud,” on behalf of their “daughter,” a detached adult male hand wearing a ring etched with words in Cyrillic. The weekly “weather report” is a musical interlude. Night Vale exists within the expansive logic of a dream, but it’s full of quips and asides that ring unsettlingly true in our reality.
The creators of WtNV, Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink, have been touring the country with a live version of the show, and they’ve written a WtNV novel to be released next year. I caught up with them at the Emerald City Comicon.
Did you ever anticipate this being such a hugely popular podcast?
Fink: Absolutely not. It wasn’t like we didn’t think this was possible, it’s that we didn’t even think about it. This was not a situation we anticipated at all.
Cranor: We went into it with the idea that we like writing together, and we like making things and working with Cecil [Baldwin]. We made a podcast that we would enjoy. We knew that somebody would like it out there, but we had no idea what that would look like.
It seems almost specifically tailored to be this sort of gnomic thing that people feel that they discovered-
Cranor: Mm hm.
Fink: We’ve always tried to keep doing what seems interesting to us. I feel like that’s the only way to make something that someone will find interesting, is to make it personal to yourself.
Cranor: It’s because it’s an independent project. We weren’t hired by anyone to do this. We built it and made it, and it’s online and free to everybody. There’s a real excitement to discovering a thing for yourself. Because it didn’t come via a television ad or billboard, there’s an excitement to discovering something.
What was your reaction when you realized it had become this-
[Fink flashes a thumbs-up]
Just a big thumbs-up?
Fink: There was this very weird period right when it blew up on Tumblr. They were talking about us on the same terms as, like, Vince Gilligan, but I was still selling green energy on the streets of New York. So I was seeing people talk about us in those terms, and then going outside in the New York summer and saying, “Have you signed this yet?” So there was this very weird disconnect-
Fink: Yeah. I eventually quit. It’s been amazing. This is what I’ve wanted to do my whole life, so it’s been kind of an unexpected path to that, but no one really ever takes the expected path to anywhere.
Cranor: It took us a couple weeks, maybe a full month to realize what was happening, because usually we could look at our download numbers, and we’d see little spikes and we could always relate it to something. John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats mentioned us on Twitter, and that was really exciting. We got a nice bump from that. We got mentioned on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour. Every time we got some little press mention we’d see a bump. But then we got a giant bump that just kept going and we didn’t know what was happening. Neither of us was familiar with Tumblr—
Fink: We were going to all the people who had mentioned us before and saying, like, “Did you mention us again?”
Your podcast was recommended to me as a comedy podcast, but the more I listen to it, the more I hesitate at that way of describing it.
Fink: That’s our fault. We labeled it as comedy on iTunes.
Cranor: It’s iTunes’s fault, really. There was no real category for us.
If there was an iTunes category for it, what would it be?
Fink: Audio fiction I guess? It didn’t work in Arts, because most Arts things are talking about art, and it didn’t work in literature because that was talking about lit. Comedy was the only thing. We make jokes.
Cranor: We definitely pack jokes in it.
Cranor: Satire and also surrealist humor and poetry-
Fink: We do the live shows and I’d say the most common reaction is laughter.
Cranor: Yeah. Second most is crying [laughs]. Third is bleeding [more laughs]. I think it was mostly just not having the right category in iTunes to put it in, because literature and poetry—early on we didn’t identify poetry in the show as we may do now.
Fink: We also didn’t identify the horror aspect. It really wasn’t a thing where-
Cranor: We were never trying to write horror.
Fink: People started telling us it was scary and we were like, “Oh, really?” Since then, we have intentionally started writing some scary episodes but that was after people told us it was a scary show.
It’s a sort of “comedy horror,” the way you would laugh at certain things in David Lynch.
Cranor: There’s a David Lynch or an Onion element to it, where it’s presenting mundane things as insane or insane things as mundane.
Fink: There are a couple episodes like “Cassette,” where Cecil finds cassettes of a younger self and listens to them. That one was really grim, and I was like “I just wanna write a scary episode.” It really isn’t a very funny episode, it was just written to be a flat out horror story.
I just listened to “Visitor” and it’s the first time I ever thought about what a duck’s eyes look like. I kinda feel like I need to Google image search-
Fink: Oh, you should. Because I didn’t know what they looked like, either, and Jeffrey showed me a picture, and it is one of the more terrifying natural things-
Cranor: Yeah, they’re really awful and horrifying. Here, I’ll show you one right now. [Looks up picture of a duck’s eye on his phone]
Fink: It’s the orange around it!
Cranor: It’s also that black dome of sheer hollowness.
Are you ever surprised by people’s reactions?
Fink: Kind of always. The fan base we have is one we’re very happy about, but it’s not one that if you’d have been like, “Hey, write something that will appeal to teenagers and especially to teenage girls and younger women”-which is a big part of our fanbase-I would have no idea what to do. Again, we started this thinking, “Maybe ten people we don’t know will listen to this, and that’ll be fine.”
Cranor: We also hear a lot from people that they feel soothed by the show. One of the more common compliments, and it doesn’t sound like one, is, “I fall asleep listening to your show.” They want to hear it going to bed, which I take as a real compliment, because I listened to a lot of radio going to sleep as a kid. There’s something soothing about a person talking while you’re sleeping, especially someone as sonorous as Cecil, and the shows tend to have a resolution every episode, Cecil brings you home and it ends with “Good night, Night Vale, good night.”
Fink: We did have one episode where we kinda screwed with the ending and it resolved in a very creepy way, and people got mad at us. They really wanted that landing. As someone who falls asleep to Parks and Recreation episodes, I have to say, it’s also a compliment in that you really have to have a fondness for something to want to fall asleep to it. There’s this feeling of being comforted by something you know really well and you like a lot. That’s why it’s nice having old Parks and Rec episodes on when I fall asleep, because I love that show.
And perhaps because no matter what insanely unsettling and nightmarish thing happens, you’re gonna land on “good night”-
Cranor: And there’s always a “stay tuned next for this,” there’s always a carryover-
Fink: It’s always interesting to me how existential we can go and not have it put people off.
Fink: We get pretty bleak a lot, and we’ve never gotten people saying, “You should tone that down.”
It’s not surprising that John Darnielle would like the show, because some of the characters in his songs could be living in Night Vale…
Fink: I’m a huge fan. On our tour, he did a show with us in Durham.
Cranor: He played a character on the show and improvised a song for us.
I think of “Lovecraft in Brooklyn.”
Fink: Oh yeah, he has that same sense of writing them for himself. They’re from this very intense point of view.
And his music has that same feeling of discovery, of, “This is just for me.”
Fink: Yeah. Let’s just talk about the Mountain Goats!
“Welcome to Night Vale on: the Mountain Goats.”
Do you see it branching out into other media? I know you’re working on a novel. Is that finished yet?
Fink: Supposedly, it’s coming out in the fall of 2015 on Harper Perennial.
Cranor: For Joseph and I both, coming from theater and writing backgrounds our whole lives, it’s really exciting, because after the podcast, we’ve been able to do a touring theatrical show—because our live show isn’t a podcast, we have professional actors doing this and it’s not unlike Thrilling Adventure Hour where you hire amazing people to read your scripts and they perform the living shit out of it and it’s great—
Fink: One of the best writing tips we have for people is: Get great actors. It doesn’t matter what you write at that point, they’ll sell it [laughs].
It almost seems like something in a visual medium could be very dangerous because it’s such an auditory thing.
Fink: I don’t think so. That’s not what we’re working on right now, but we write to the medium. So for instance, we’re writing the book differently than we write the podcast, because the podcast we wrote to be listened to and the live show is a script written for the live experience and it was written to be said on a stage, with an audience there. The book we are writing as a novel. I don’t think it’s a matter of it being intrinsically tied to a medium.
Cranor: If we were to move to a visual medium, we’d have to sit down and think how we’d do it. And we have to do that with the novel too, because you don’t have a voice there to tell it, so we do have to think very strongly about point of view and how the story’s told and who’s telling it. Also, 80,000 words is different than 2600 words.
Fink: In a lot of ways it’s not.
Cranor: It’s off by like two digits!
Fink: You just write for a while and eventually you have 80,000 words, in the same way that you write for awhile and eventually you have 2600. It’s the same basic principle!
Can you describe yr collaborative process?
Cranor: Where we’re at now, for the podcast, is we alternate writing each episode. We do have a shared file that we use where we store separate bits of traffic reports and community calendars and horoscopes that we can pull from, but more and more we write our own episode and pass it to the other person. They have a pass through it, and the other person will add a lot to it and edit down a lot and make little questions and notes.
Fink: Every script is very much a cooperative thing in that way, although each script has one person who is the driving force behind the idea.
Fink: I dunno, I think we’re gonna keep making things we enjoy and see what makes sense on a case by case basis. I don’t know that we have a “five year plan.” We’ve been doing what seems fun and makes sense as it comes.
You guys have a fairly rabid fan base now—do you feel the pressure of that?
Cranor: Not really. The show became popular because we were writing the things that we wanted to write for ourselves. If people like that, I feel confident they will continue to.
Listen to Welcome to Night Vale here.