Heather Visits Welcome to Night Vale

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Imagine a sleepy desert town where every conspiracy theory is true and paranormal events are just a routine part of daily life. Secret police? They’ve got them. A dog park that no one is allowed to enter or acknowledge that is regularly inhabited by hooded figures? Sure. A mysterious glow cloud that hovers around the town? Of course! That’s the premise behind the podcast Welcome to Night Vale, a sci-fi/horror/fantasy podcast that has more than a healthy dose of deadpan humor and surrealism thrown in for good measure. Done in the style of a fictional Night Vale radio show, it presents news, announcements and advertisements about the town and the odd events that seem to happen in the fictional town with alarming frequency. The show also does a weather report in every episode, which is not actually weather, but a song by an independent artist. The best description that I’ve heard of the podcast is “NPR from the Twilight Zone.”

I first heard about Welcome to Night Vale on another pod cast that I regularly listen to, Pop Culture Happy Hour. One of the panelists was discussing it and while I didn’t necessarily think that it sounded like something that I would like, I made note of it. While I occasionally like things from the science fiction and fantasy realms, those aren’t my go to genres and I already had too many podcast that I listen to. Welcome to Night Vale wasn’t going away, however, and when it was not only mentioned on my beloved The Thrilling Adventure Hour but they did a crossover episode, I figured it was time for me to finally give this podcast a chance. I started downloading all the episodes, though I didn’t get around to starting to listen to them until relatively recently so I am really way behind – there have been 68 episodes of the podcast released and I’m only on episode 14. So I have some catching up to do.

I’m still a little on the fence about how I feel about the podcast; while I generally enjoy it, I don’t know that it is necessarily for me. It is very funny and the performances are wonderful, but I do occasionally find my mind wandering during an episode because I’m just not connecting with it. A little of this stuff goes a long way for me, especially absurdist comedy. Each episode is only around 20 minutes and while I’m usually pretty engaged for the first five to ten minutes, I do tend to lose a little steam as the episode progresses. This is a podcast that I cannot multitask while listening to; the soothing voice of the host Cecil and the mostly deadpan delivery require my full attention or they too easily become background noise. I need to focus, since because anything can happen on the podcast it isn’t easy to drift in and out. I was equally entertained and baffled by the pilot episode; it is such a weird little show that even though it might not be my specific tastes, I still want to see hear what they’ll come up with next.

While I’m still figuring out how big of a fan I am going to be of Welcome to Night Vale, I am into it enough that when I heard that the live show was coming to Albany I decided to attend. I wasn’t too worried about being so far behind on the podcast because the episodes that I had listened to were generally not serialized. I figured that I could jump right in, especially since they are doing the same show for every stop of the live tour, so it couldn’t be that tied in to what was happening on the podcast. I was also really curious to see who the fan base was for this podcast. I didn’t know anyone who listened to it, so I really had no idea the composition of the fandom. By the time I bought my ticket the show was almost sold out, so there were obviously people that were into the podcast.

The first thing that I noticed walking into the theater was that the crowd was decidedly younger than I would have thought it would be. I wasn’t the oldest person there by a long shot, but I’d guess the median age of the audience was mid-teens to early twenties. I’d guess that a fair number of the crowd were still in high school. There were also a decent number of people who were in cosplay, which I always find amusing since I’m probably the last person that would ever turn up somewhere in a costume and yet I seem to keep finding myself at events where people are dressed up. More power to them; I secretly envy them that they feel that passionate about something. I am enthusiastic about a lot of things, but I’m just not wired to go that extra mile.

The live show kicked off with a few songs from Mary Epworth, the artist who would be performing “the weather” during the show. I wasn’t at all familiar with her music and I actually liked her quite a bit. Her sound has a 60’s psychedelic vibe that I dug. Probably not music that I would have found on my own, so trying one new thing already lead to me discovering another new thing. She was on stage for about 25 minutes and had some lovely banter with the audience. I’ll be keeping an eye out for her new record that just debuted.

The biggest surprise about the Welcome to Night Vale live show was the number of different characters involved. The early episodes of Welcome to Night Vale only feature the host Cecil; there are mentions of specific residents of the town, but they are not featured. I knew that the show eventually evolved beyond just Cecil – as fabulous as he is at what he’s doing – but I had no idea the deep bench of characters that have been added in subsequent episodes. I suppose this was the only downside of not being current on the podcast; I followed the overall story of the show, but I know I didn’t get all of the references that the rest of the audience did. They were very excited to see some of these additional characters, while I had no idea who they were or their significance. Not a huge hurdle for a newbie to overcome, but I didn’t get the full Night Vale experience that the rest of the audience did.

Even with this limitation, I still enjoyed the show, though I thought it was just a little bit too long (it clocked in at around an hour). The writing really is sharp and creative and much credit has to be given to actor Cecil Baldwin, who voices Welcome to Night Vale host Cecil Palmer. His delivery is just as important to the show as the writing and his deadpan delivery is completely on point. Basically, he sells the hell out of this premise and is very funny in the process. Even with the additional characters, this is Cecil’s show and his performance makes or breaks if Welcome to Night Vale works. I enjoyed “meeting” some of the new characters for the first time and I look forward to listening to the episodes of the podcast to fill in their backstory and make better sense of some of the relationships. I laughed way more than I expected during the show; I don’t know if the live experience with other people just made things funnier or if the show just had more humor written into it. Whatever the reason, the story and performances worked for me and reignited my interest in the podcast. I was also fascinated by the dude sitting next to me, who had literally no reaction during the duration of the entire show. He didn’t laugh. He didn’t clap. He barely even moved. It is entirely possible that he was a pod person. I always find people like that odd – why even bother going to the show?

I’m not sure that I’ll ever be a devoted Welcome to Night Vale fan; I appreciate what they are doing and I think it’s tremendously creative, but perhaps just a little too far outside my wheelhouse for me to ever fully be invested. But even if I am only a casual fan, I am glad that I decided to see the live show and fully plunge myself in the Night Vale experience. It was well done and smart and made me laugh a lot, which is never a bad thing. It was a fun night and gave me a better sense of where the podcast is headed, which has further piqued my interest. I don’t know that I’ll ever be fully caught up on episodes, but I plan to keep plugging along for the time being. Sometimes it’s good to step outside your comfort zone and try new things.

Episodes of Welcome to Night Vale are currently available on iTunes, Sticher, Libsyn and Soundcloud.

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