Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Night Vale in San Francisco

Welcome to Jan 21

I wasn't sure what "Night Vale" was when I first saw it mentioned on Tumblr and Twitter. Was it a TV show? A comic book? A game? When I found out it was a podcast, its popularity was only more confusing. Old-timey radio dramas are what the kids are into these days? I knew The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy had started as a radio show, but that was in the 70s, and Douglas Adams figured out other mediums pretty quickly. I love animator Leigh Lahav, but I found her "Night of the Raging Fangirls" short perplexing. Were people that obsessed with the relationship of two fake people they've never seen? (The fact that you don't "see" characters in books either had no effect on my logic.)

But I gave it a try (episodes are free) and played episodes while I was cleaning, while I was in the bath, and during my Muni commute...and quickly found myself completely caught up with over two dozen past episodes. (They're currently up to 39.)

"Welcome to Night Vale" is a spooky, off-kilter comedy in the form a radio newscast from the titular supernaturally afflicted town. Cecil Palmer (voiced by Cecil Baldwin) is our host, and often (but not always) the only voice we hear. We see Night Vale, an isolated desert town, through this proud resident. In some respects it's a typical American small town; it's made up of chain stores, fast food franchises, and optimistically named condo developments. But then there's the dog park no one is allowed to enter, the spires, the pier at the non-existent waterfront... Oh, and it's ruled (until recently!) by a sinister government of hooded figures, secret police, and mysterious mayor Pamela Winchell.

Through friendly Cecil we "meet" Night Vale's inhabitants, which include Cecil's crush-turned-boyfriend Carlos, a heroic scientist and Night Vale newcomer determined to solve the town's mysteries; Josie, an elderly lady watched over by angels; Koscheck, the floating cat who lives in the radio station's men's bathroom; Hiram McDaniels, an ex-con and mayoral candidate who is also a five-headed dragon; Dana, an intrepid intern currently on an other-dimensional journey; and fearless child revolutionary and summer reading program champion Tamika Flynn. And many, many more.

Cecil and Carlos's romantic Arby's parking lot outing as depicted on an official t-shirt.

Night Vale came to San Francisco as part of its live show tour, and I managed, without murder (but not without a lot of F5 hitting and bloodstone circles), to score tickets for the 1/21 show. And a bonus was added: Cecil Baldwin, writers Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, and credits/proverb reader Meg Bashwiner did a free panel and Q&A at Booksmith in the Haight on 1/19.

Baldwin, Fink and Cranor (or possibly vice-versa?), and Bashwiner at Booksmith.

I won't recount the whole history of "Welcome to Night Vale," which the panelists discussed (they met as members of New York theater group Neo-Futurists), but I was impressed with their commitment to the show. It's clear from hearing Fink and Cranor speak that keeping the writing excellent is important to them. When asked about their favorite episodes, standouts "A Story About You," a haunting episode told in second-person, and "The Sandstorm," a two-part episode where we get a full broadcast from Desert Bluffs, Night Vale's neighbor and rival, were both mentioned.

I also liked their answer to a very good question that came up regarding the Night Vale book that will be coming out in 2015. When asked if it will be illustrated, Cranor and Fink said they would push against that, as they value fans' interpretations of how the characters look. Since we're given little description, fans have made their own art of the characters, celebrating Night Vale's premise as a diverse community. How characters look, the writers said, belongs to the fans.

My headcanon Pamela Winchell is Laura Fraser as Lydia in Breaking Bad.

So after lots of waiting, tonight was the live show. It was held in the Mission District's Victoria Theatre, a 1908 venue. And it was packed. This shouldn't have been a surprise, seeing as the show sold out within minutes (they had to add a second), but seeing all 491 seats filled with happy Night Vale fans really put the show's popularity in perspective. And I don't think a single fan left disappointed.

The opening act, Night Vale "weather" alum Jason Webley, was well picked. A charismatic, Jack Sparrowish hipster, his instruments included an accordion and a bottle of coins. Everyone goes into a theater just wanting the main act to start, but Webley's lively foot-stomping and songs about Orpheus and giraffe ranchers got the crowd laughing and ready for even more fun.

You know your podcast is beloved when the person who reads the credits (Meg Bashwiner again) comes out onstage and is greeted with applause and screams. And then Cecil Baldwin stepped up to the mic, and the audience got even louder. Even as a Night Vale fan, I was floored by Baldwin. Although backed by Fink and Cranor's clever writing, he has to carry the podcast himself, and for the live show, this means standing up onstage alone most of the time, sans props. His stage presence was perfect. He was engaging, expressive, and had great timing. Being able to witness his vocal range in person was enlightening. I learned during Sunday's panel that Baldwin read the creepy verse parts of "The Woman from Italy" himself (I had thought it was a different reader), and this episode gave him a variety of voices to play with.

He was joined a few times by guest stars, which was a wonderful bonus. I wasn't going to spoil it for those who haven't seen or heard it yet (a recording will also be available later), but since pictures are on Twitter, I might as well. Recent fan favorite Tamika Flynn made an appearance with Flor De Liz Perez, who silenced the ecstatic crowd with the poise and assurance her character should have. The audience also went justifiably crazy for Dylan Marron, who was nervous but adorable as Carlos.

If I'm gushing...well, the show deserved it. They did an amazing job.

I'm sure Kevin is just as beloved in Desert Bluffs.


  1. Great recap. I was there with my friend, whom I just read your recap to. Thank you!

    1. I was the girl in the Night Vale shirt! (That narrows it down to...a third?) Thanks for reading and sharing. :)