Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor on Welcome To Night Vale

Sarah talks to the creators of Welcome To Night Vale, a creepy comedy podcast that’ll steal your heart (then bury it for safekeeping)...

In a small town in the desert, something weird is happening. Maybe the inhabitants of another world are invading; maybe there’s a parade of hooded figures marching through the town; maybe it’s just that there are some strangely decorated helicopters hovering overhead. But it’s probably nothing to worry about. The inhabitants of Night Vale are used to it, and they’ve got their trusty community radio host, Cecil, to let them know exactly what’s going on.

That’s roughly the plot of Welcome To Night Vale, a podcast that’s currently topping the iTunes podcast chart in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. (Here in the UK, BBC radio is keeping it off the top spot, but it’s still in the top 10.)

It’s an amazingly imaginative work of fiction, full of ideas that’ll make you laugh or shiver – or both. Narrated by actor Cecil Baldwin, who has the kind of voice you just want to roll around in, it turns new listeners into passionate evangelists within the space of two episodes. It’s wonderful. I called the writers, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, for a chat about all things Night Valean…

Welcome To Night Vale is brilliant, so congrats on that! For anyone who hasn’t heard it yet, how would you describe the podcast?

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Joseph Fink: Welcome To Night Vale is a twice-monthly podcast that comes in the form of a community radio broadcast from a small desert town where things like ghosts, angels and aliens are part of day-to-day life. When people describe it, they use a lot of something-meets-something adjectives, like NPR meets The Twilight Zone, or something like that.

How did you come up with the idea?

Joseph Fink: Well, I wanted to make a podcast because I listened to a lot of podcasts, and I wanted to make a podcast with Jeffrey because I like working with Jeffrey. But I didn’t want it to sound like any podcast I was listening to, because I figured those already existed. So it took me a long time, maybe eight months to think of an idea that wasn’t something I was already listening to. 

And I’ve always been fascinated with conspiracy theories and wanted to do something where every conspiracy theory is true, and, at least in America, if you’re set it in a town where every conspiracy theory is true, it doesn’t make sense to set it anywhere but in the desert.

So over a few months , in my spare time, I put together the first episode, and then showed it to Jeffrey. I was like “Here, is this a thing you want to spend a large chunk of your time doing?”

Jeffrey Cranor: Joseph had told me about it early on in the process, and he and I had collaborated on a play before – unrelated to Night Vale, we co-wrote and performed a piece here in New York – so then a year later, he came back with this idea, I said, “That sounds cool, let me know how it goes.”

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And we have a mutual friend Cecil, who has an amazing voice and is a great performer, and Joseph asked him if he’d record it for him, and then Joseph’s friend John, who is Disparition, had all of this music and said “Sure, use it for the show”. Joseph put it all together, so several months after telling me about the idea, he sent me an MP3, and said “Here, listen to this, what do you think?” And I said, “This sounds great, let’s do it!”

Let’s talk about Cecil Baldwin for a moment then. His voice is so brilliant, I can’t imagine it working without him, so that’s kind of – almost lucky, that you knew him?

Jeffrey Cranor: Yeah, that’s one of the best things about working in theatre: if you’re trying to work on new projects you’re surrounded by a lot of really talented voice actors and performers and writers, so it’s easier than it seems to run across somebody like Cecil in that world. But yeah, he’s a unique talent and it’s amazing to have him on the show.

Joseph Fink: He has pretty much developed that character with no direction from us. We send him the scripts, he sends us back recordings, and where he takes those recordings, interpretatively, is entirely him.

It has quite a complex mythology now. There are a lot of threads that get picked up later, and it seems like keeping on top of all that must be a massive task?

Jeffrey Cranor: Mmmhmm. We have a good idea because both of us read every script so many times while we’re writing and editing them, and then we listen to them so many times before they ever go up, so we do become pretty familiar with it. But we also keep a spreadsheet, though it’s not up to date right now.

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Joseph Fink: It’s updated to about episode 10 at this point! A lot of the continuity comes not from planning ahead and plotting a through line that’ll go through several episodes, but it’s more like, if I can’t think of anything to write, I’ll go through old scripts and find something we never went anywhere with and see if I can do something with it. We did an episode relatively recently about Eternal Scouts – that wasn’t something I planned when I put that original joke in way back when, but I was looking for something to write about and saw that joke and thought I could do something with it.

Jeffrey Cranor: It’s not that we’re masters of this whole giant universe and we have this whole vision in our heads of the universe’s creation and destruction. I think picking up threads is the perfect phrase for it. We had the Poetry Week episode where Intern Dana gets trapped in the dog park, and I realised when I wrote that particular scene that it seems strange because all the interns die. It’s like that Spinal Tap joke where the drummer gets killed constantly, so when you have an intern who doesn’t follow that, you realise that character needs to keep going; I need to keep writing for this person and find why they’re still alive, what makes them so special.

Joseph Fink: I think we end up looking like we’ve planned things out a lot more carefully than we actually do. A lot of times it’s just in retrospect, like let’s see if we can tie things together somehow.

Jeffrey Cranor: I will say that, when we started writing scripts early on, Joseph said what was important to him about the show – and I think in retrospect it’s one of the most important rules that we established for ourselves – was that continuity was key. That’s not to say that there aren’t a couple of little things here or there where you can be like “well in this episode you said that this was that but then later you said this…”

The main one is that in one episode we said that no-one has ever seen a hawk and then five episodes later they’re talking about hawks, so there are little things like that. And whether or not Cecil believes in mountains, things like that! But we’ve really concentrated on continuity and making sure that the rules of the universe we’ve set up work within that universe, that we’re not violating any laws of physics as they relate to Night Vale, or violating any moral codes as they pertain to Night Vale. I think when you do that you can keep the continuity and ideas together.

You use the medium really effectively – because it’s radio, you can throw in all sorts of things without needing to think “okay, we need an effects budget for a five-headed dragon”, or whatever, you can suggest things and let the listener imagine things. You’ve got space to do all this stuff, like the Lovecraftian idea of unknowable horrors that you almost couldn’t show without ruining them. But do you think it could work in another medium?

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Jeffrey Cranor: I do. I think it would have to be restructured quite a bit because it’s so much from Cecil’s point of view. It’d be hard to just have Cecil narrate and then show all the things he’s talking about on screen, because you’re right, part of it is theatre of the mind. But there are so many successful animators and even live action horror directors and creators that you could find ways to reframe the narrative to tell that story, and create humour in a different way but in the same tone of voice.

Joseph Fink: I mean, I can’t get too specific because the plans aren’t too specific, but we do have some vague plans for putting Night Vale in another medium. Nothing too specific; just kind of testing the waters.

I don’t know if I’d want to ever see Cecil. Like I don’t want to know if he looks like a normal guy or an eldritch abomination – I almost don’t want it pinned down, I want every possibility to exist.

Jeffrey Cranor: Right. I remember growing up listening to a lot of radio as a kid; my stepfather would listen to sports radio stations in the morning while taking me to school, and we’d listen to this host, and I remember thinking “oh, this is cool, I like listening about my sports teams and this is fun.” And then one day I opened a newspaper and there was an article about him and it had a picture of him and I remember thinking “that’s really disappointing.”

Because I had this voice in my head for so long, and it’s not necessarily that he was a hideous person, but it took a bit of that magic out, once I knew what he looked like. Before that I had the whole world in my head. If you’d asked me to draw him, I don’t think I could have drawn a picture of what I thought this guy looked like, but I remember seeing the picture and it shattered something.

Joseph Fink: I remember seeing a picture of Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, for the first time, and that was so startling to me. Because he was a man in his 50s, and if you listen to his voice he sounds like he’s 20, at most. For me, I know Cecil, so it’s hard for me to see anyone but the actor Cecil when I hear that voice, but if you don’t know him, I can see that.

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You recently had Mara Wilson as a guest voice. How did that come about?

Joseph Fink: She approached us on Twitter. She was a fan of the show and at some point she contacted us saying if we ever wanted her as a guest voice, she was up for it. And we’re always excited to work with people who are talented and fun to work with, and she’s both, so we found something cool for her to do.

Jeffrey Cranor: She was a super big supporter of the show, and she promoted us a lot. She got into the show early on, when we had far fewer listeners and followers on Twitter, and she was pumping out stuff on Twitter and her blog quite a bit. She’s a genuinely nice person and a good writer and she’s great, so it was very hard to say no to that.

Will there be more guest voices in future?

Joseph Fink: Yeah, we actually have more already recorded and edited together.

Can you say who?

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Jeffrey Cranor: Jasika Nicole, who’s an actor friend of mine. She was on the TV show Fringe, and we asked her to be a guest voice and she’ll be on in a couple of episodes’ time. The September 1st episode, I think.

Speaking of guest voices, will we ever hear from Kevin again?

Jeffrey Cranor: Definitely. We don’t have a time or place that I know that that is happening, but he’ll certainly be back.

Joseph Fink: Yeah, 100% for sure. I really love Kevin, and I love Kevin’s acting, and I like that episode.

The Sandstorm is everyone’s favourite episode, isn’t it?

Jeffrey Cranor: Yeah, that and A Story About You, and One Year Later, those three are really like key episodes for us.

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Let’s talk about the weather. How do you pick the songs for the weather for each episode?

Joseph Fink: A lot of the early weathers, by which I mean the first year’s worth, are just songs I’ve loved for a long time. There’s a few that Jeffrey brought, like Robin Aigner and Rachel Kann, but the rest were just songs I loved. In the future, we’ve had so many submissions from people coming to us asking to be the weather, so there’s gonna be more and more weather songs that are people who’ve approached us.

Jeffrey Cranor: We do get a lot of really good weather submissions. There’s a lot of great music out there and we only put out 24 episodes a year, so we’re finding we can take submissions from people who’ve sent us really great songs, but it’s gonna be a long time before we can put them in there.

Joseph Fink: I think we might have a year’s worth of weather already lined up. Anyone we accept after this might be waiting over a year.

Jeffrey Cranor: We just had Mary Epworth on episode 26 and I think we asked her to use her song six months or so ago. So it’s pretty backlogged.

Welcome To Night Vale is free to download, but it obviously takes a lot of your time and effort to create it. How do you monetise that? How do you get people to support it?

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Joseph Fink: Ask them.

Jeffrey Cranor: So far, asking people for donations has worked, in the sense that we’ve gotten quite a few donations and it’s been really nice. With the number of downloads we’re getting, hosting has gotten more costly, and it’s also all structured within the business of Commonplace Books, so there’s administrative fees and things. I think we’re trying to figure out that model right now, to how this becomes financially sustainable over time. Right now we’re not running ads, which isn’t to say we won’t in the future. We’re listener supported, and that’s okay because we’ve been able to pay Cecil to do the work, and pay John for his music, and that’s really important to compensate artists for good work.

Joseph Fink: We’re looking at ways of expanding, for instance, the merchandise side of things. We have one t-shirt right now, but there are things we could do like posters, and in the fall we’ll have a companion book out through Commonplace Books, as well as live events… Stuff that not only would help us financially but also be cool, stuff for our listeners to enjoy and get involved with.

On the Commonplace Books site, you said that this is one of the best times ever to be an artist. It feels like we hear a lot about the opposite: that it’s harder to get published, or get noticed, or whatever, so – can you expand on that?

Joseph Fink: I’m the one who wrote that phrase, so I’ll defend it. What I mean by that isn’t that it’s necessarily the easiest time to be an artist – there have been easier times where you could do your art and people would pay you, whether that’s rich people during the Renaissance or big companies in the past 100 years or so. But I think it’s the best time to be an artist because, it’s hard work, but it is possible at the moment to do art and make a living from it and do it entirely independently.

The way distribution is now, you can distribute over the internet for not much money. For instance, we’re the number one podcast in Australia, and it doesn’t really cost us any more money than distributing the podcast to people in New York City. It’s possible now to run things on your own, to do whatever art you want and to have a direct relationship with the people that you’re giving art to. It’s a lot of hard work, because as well as doing the art you have to do the business side, but I think the rewards are wonderful. Being able to exist as an independent entity without any gatekeepers or worries about contracts with large organisations is fantastic.

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Finally – what’s the creepiest thing you’ve ever heard, whether that’s a ghost story or an urban legend, or just something that’s freaked you out?

Jeffrey Cranor: I have one story and it’s not something said to me but something that I saw that I never had an explanation for. And I made a note of it in the companion book that we’re publishing, in that it’s the inspiration for the Man in the Tan Jacket.

It was probably about nine years ago, and I was in New Orleans for a conference for my work. While I was there I drove up to Jackson to see a friend of mine, and late at night I drove back to my hotel in New Orleans. It was probably about 2 in the morning, and the thing about that area of the country is that the roads are all slightly elevated because it’s all swampland, so it’s nonstop bridge after bridge. There’s no grass off to the side of the road, you’re just going over swampy water, and there are wide shoulders on the highway. And as I was driving, I saw a light up ahead.

As I got close to it, I was slowing down because I realised there was a car on the side of the road and it had completely burst into flames. The whole thing was engulfed in flames. I slowed down because I didn’t know what was happening, and about 100 feet away, lit up by the flames, there was a man standing on the shoulder just smoking a cigarette, very calmly and casually. And I didn’t really have an explanation for that. It was a really haunting kind of image and I don’t know what to make of it.

Joseph Fink: I don’t know if I have anything someone’s said to me that wasn’t a book I read or a film I watched. I guess there was something that happened when I was very young that’s always stuck with me, because I wasn’t sure if I remembered it right, or if because I was a small child I was misinterpreting what I was seeing.

I was in the backseat of my parents car and they were driving us on the freeway in Southern California where I’m from. And I remember looking into the car next to us, and there was a little girl about my age – about five years old – and she looked terrified. She was slamming on the window of the car, and I thought she was trying to get out. I didn’t say anything or do anything, because I was five years old, but it’s always stuck with me because I never knew what was going on there.

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Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, thank you very much!

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