Billed as community radio from a small desert town where every conspiracy theory (ever) is true, Welcome to Night Vale is the podcast that launched serialized fiction to the top of the download charts. 190 million downloads, two New York Times bestselling novels, multiple world tours, a couple script books, and their own podcast network with nine more fiction and non-fiction shows, series creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor are more than a little humbled by the levels of success and adoration their creation has garnered.
Cranor, a relatively recent transplant to the Hudson Valley, was kind enough to let us pester him about our wild fan theories ahead of the show’s latest tour, debuting for the very first time this August in a Spiegeltent workshop at Bard College’s Fisher Center. Check out the interview below.
You and your wife — choreographer Jillian Sweaney — moved to Saugerties a few years back. After growing up in Texas and living in The City, what were your impressions of the Hudson Valley? What made you want to live here?
It’s so stunningly beautiful out here. I grew up in a pretty bland part of Texas. Geographically, topographically, the general look of it … it was fairly flat. And the summer season sprawls pretty heavily in the way that winter sprawls here.
Jillian’s boss lives in Rosendale, so we were up here off-and-on, visiting and seeing sites and doing cultural stuff, and we just really wanted to live here. It seemed like a nice way to get out of the cost and hassle of New York City, and we reached an age where we just wanted a house and a car and to live next to mountains.
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Your last show, ALL HAIL, debuted at the Bell House in Brooklyn. What made you decide to workshop this new show up at Bard College in Dutchess?
We learn a little bit more each time we do a tour — not only how to write and create the show, but how to better get it up on its legs. The Bell House is about 300-400 people. The previous tour, the very first live performance was in Boston at a 2,000-seat hall that was sold out. We had never performed the script live before, and we had to perform it for 2,000 people. We said, ‘Let’s start with smaller audiences next year.’
We’d been wanting to work at Bard for a while. It’s close to home and we like this area, and there’re a lot of cool things happening up here. Ticket sales weren’t vitally important for us, so why not do it in a place that we like, a convenient place for all of us to get to? Bard College has a long history and it seemed like a prestigious place to workshop a new show.
When you announced the show, the name was bleeped-out. Can you tell us a little about the show, or at least the name? Or is it just titled TONAL BEEP?
I’m gonna write that on my list of possibilities. ‘Tonal Beep.’
We don’t have a show name yet. We have just the most loosely based idea of what it contains at this point. A lot of the times when Joseph and I sit down to write a live show together, we have to think about it differently than the podcast because it can’t just be something meant for people to listen through earphones or car stereos or whatever. Every live show we’ve done, we’ve incorporated some element of audience participation. [In] All Hail people had to chant an oath of fealty to the Glow Cloud. With Ghost Stories our goal was to try and see if we could have a full sixty seconds of silence on stage. That’s audience-interactive too, because the audience has to allow that to happen.
Who has been one of your favorite supporting characters to write?
It depends on my mood at the time, but live shows are fun because we get to find out who can join us at a show. If Kate Jones can join us somewhere in Europe, I know I can write a Michelle Nguyen part. Earl Harlan is really fun to write, and when we’re in L.A. Wil Wheaton will usually pop in and do a show with us. He and Cecil specialize in long, deep pauses, and those are fun to play with as a writer, to find the things that really make them uncomfortable with each other on stage. The two of them really make a physical show of it.
Be the cryptid you want to see in the world.
— Night Vale podcast (@NightValeRadio) March 7, 2018
Have you ever encountered a fan theory so good you ended up including it in later episodes?
I will say this: Sort of?
You have to clear your mind of all of that so you’re not taking anyone’s ideas. I had built a character named Simone Rigadeau, who was a transient who lives in the Earth Sciences building at the community college, claiming that the world had ended in the early eighties. Zack [Parsons] had written this thing happening in 1983 around the Able Archer phenomenon, and somebody mentioned on Twitter, ‘Oh man! I think this ties to the whole Simone Rigadeau 1983 thing.’ I was like, ‘Oh, I bet it does!’ We just kind of in our heads said ‘thanks for pointing out something we wrote earlier so we would remember that.’
Do we need to be familiar with all this plot to understand the live show?
We write our live shows so that you would never have to listen to a single episode of the podcast. Certainly people listen to it and still enjoy it — we don’t tell stories we’ve already told — but we also write it in a way where if you just get dragged off the street, you’re going to be fine.
Is it weird to recognize Night Vale cosplayers at your shows, considering most characters canonically lack visual description?
It is very strange. It’s weird to see somebody reflect back what you did to you or even just in their own communities; to realize I made a thing that people know about, and that people can have for themselves rather than for me. It’s not just somebody coming up to me like, ‘Hey, I really liked your show, thank you for doing that.’ It’s somebody who takes it home, does whatever they want with it, talks to their friends about it, moves on about their life celebrating it in some form or fashion. That’s really amazing. That’s a rare moment for an artist, to be able to do something like that.
FX recently picked up the rights to a potential Night Vale series, to be adapted by Gennifer Hutchison (Better Call Saul) and with you and Joseph as executive producers. How do you transition this world to a visual medium?
To clarify, they picked up a development deal to make Night Vale into a series, which doesn’t mean it definitely will be made. But yeah … we talked with Genni Hutchinson about ideas for how you turn it into a show. You can’t very well have Cecil reading scripts on air while people … what, enact like a true crime dramatization of the show? That’s not how that works. We have to make it into a real TV drama, having full characters.
Some of it will be making brand new characters for the TV show that haven’t existed before, and some of it will be taking familiar characters and putting them on screen. All we can really do is say, ‘Hey, when we talk about a character’s race and the representation that we’re going to see on the television show, just note that here are the things about what we feel.’ Like I don’t want an all-white cast. Also, Dana is not white. So if you make a character of Dana, she can’t be white. Some characters are canonically Not White. Cecil is canonically Jewish. There are certain things that we would want to make sure don’t get written over in that way.
We were honest when we said we don’t have ideas in our head. We just kind of leave it alone and make sure we put up some protections so that we don’t end up having our show get whitewashed our outright changed.
But will Jackson Publick still voice five-headed dragon Hiram McDaniels?
I would be so excited for that. It’s like that Game of Thrones thing of how you only see the dragons like once an episode. We’d have to really carefully save up to make sure we could actually have a five-headed dragon.
Night Vale has toured 35 U.S. states and 16 countries, from Dublin’s Olympia Theatre to the Sydney Opera House. What’s been your favorite space to play?
The real chills were at Sydney Opera House because you’re at Sydney Opera House. It’s just amazing, that feeling that you have to remember, ‘Oh, yeah, this is a show I wrote and am performing on the main stage of the Sydney Opera House.’ I was looking at a tourist’s guidebook of eastern Australia like, ‘I’m going to be in Sydney a couple days, what should I do there?’ and it was like, ‘Must-Do Things In Sydney — One: Go to a show at the Sydney Opera House.’ Check! Already doing it! Something like that is really amazing. I’ll get to have that for the rest of my life.
Welcome to Night Vale’s new live show premieres at Bard College’s Fisher Center Spiegeltent at 7 p.m. on August 12. Tickets are already sold out, but you can snag tickets for any date on the tour starting 10 a.m. local time Friday, June 22. (Keep your eyes peeled, as a few tickets tend to become available shortly before tour dates, and also because no one ever wants to buy unpeeled eyeballs. Gross.)