People Who Podcast: Improv Meets Tolkien Adventures in ‘Hello From the Magic Tavern’

 

The logo for the podcast Hello from the Magic Tavern. Allard Laban

This is People Who Podcast, where we talk to the people behind some of the most fun and interesting podcasts available today. Why do they make their shows? What do they love about them? And is podcasting actually a viable career option to today’s recent batch of graduates?

If you have been searching for a comedy podcast that’s completely improvised and set in a magical fantasy realm, then congratulations–Hello From the Magic Tavern just may be what you have been searching for!

If not, then you should probably stick around anyway if you like copious amounts of fun. If you don’t, then I don’t know how to help you exactly. Perhaps you should try mainlining news programs whilst ingesting decaf coffee?

Well for everyone else, if you haven’t listened to Hello From the Magic Tavern, take a listen. I really think you’re going to enjoy it. Three veterans of the Chicago comedy scene have created a podcast that is rather unlike anything else, and has been updating very regularly since March of 2015.

Arnie Niekamp stars as a fictional version of himself, and as he explains in a monologue at the top of every episode, he fell through a dimensional portal behind a Burger King and found himself in the magical land of Foon. The podcast is set in a tavern called the Vermillion Minotaur in the town of Hogsface, where he, along with his two best friends and co-hosts Chunt the Shapeshifter (currently in the form of a badger) and Usidore the Wizard interview a new guest nearly every episode, and help Arnie discover anything and everything about the new world that he finds himself in.

Chunt is played with delightful aplomb by Adal Rafai, and Usidore is played with extreme bombast by Matt Young. The trio play off each other extremely well, and following the rules of improv every new situation, no matter how ridiculous, is treated as absolute truth. The strength and fun of the show is in how they deal with, and sometimes extricate themselves from every strange new element that is introduced. Once introduced, many plot points become running jokes integral to the show, like how Chunt becomes anything he has sex with, or how Usidore is known by many different names throughout the kingdom.
The initial arc of the show, over the first one hundred episodes, was Usidore’s quest to defeat the looming threat of the Dark Lord and recruit everyone who would join him. Despite trying his best to find worthy companions, his efforts ultimately proved unsuccessful, and in episode 100 (spoiler) the Dark Lord took over the town and the tavern as well.

The three friends are now prisoners, are forced by the Dark Lord to continue the podcast, and are now plotting their escape with the help of the still steady stream of new characters every episode.

I caught up with them over the phone to talk podcasting and all about the world of the show. 

From L to R: Matt Young (Usidore), Arnie Kniecamp (himself) and Adal Rafai (Chunt). Danielle Scruggs

Observer: What’s your favorite running gag on the show?

Adal Rifai: I really enjoy the stuff about Arnie not being good at math. It’s just a small subtle thing that only emerges every once in a while.

Is that true Arnie?

Arnie Niekamp: You know what? I am good at math, I’m just slow. My mother is a math teacher. I think in the moment it’s hard for me to visualize stuff, and I need to write it down. I’m sort of sure that there was a moment where I messed up some math, and I try to grab onto the weird things that are given to my character without shoehorning them in too much, and whenever numbers come up I get them wrong. This is why I talk about not being good at math.

I don’t know if I have a favorite running joke, but I do really like the joke “so much child death”. Obviously the literal idea of children dying is terrible, but in a fantastical world you realize the conditions are terrible. So it frequently comes up that children die because life is tough, and there are monsters everywhere. So it was just this idea that comes up “oh so much child death” is a phrase that comes up time and time again. That to me is funny, and I know a lot of our listeners find funny, but when you just try to explain it without context it sounds very strange.

Matt Young: (in a Usidore voice) That’s definitely not funny out of context.

I don’t know if I have a running joke that’s my favorite, but I like the little moments where meta things happen. I remember this one specific time that Arnie started describing Star Trek, and he called it Star Wars. Now since I’m in this fantasy world, I can’t correct him, and he knows I can’t correct him. He’s having fun poking at me because he knows I want to correct him.

Arnie: It is worth noting that Matt does a really wonderful improvised podcast about Star Trek, and when I say that Star Wars is Star Trek, I know it’s really gonna get under his skin.

Running jokes in and of themselves are fun, and sometimes they get old, but they’re like a touchstone that you can return to when the context of something has changed. In the show you build up this language and catchphrases show things about the world. Then when things change dramatically it’s fun to see how those catchphrases change when you return to them. So what is the version of these catchphrases in this new context? I’m trying to think of a good example.

Chunt’s up with that?

Arnie: Yeah, even something as simple as Chunt’s catchphrase is an example. We did an episode that takes place in a cowboy world, and for that episode, it was called Hello from the Dusty Saloon and instead of Chunt being a talking badger, he was a talking horse, and Usidore was a gunslinger. I don’t remember what the horse’s catchphrase was.

Adal: I think the catchphrase was “champing at the bit.”

Do you think podcasting is a viable career option?

Matt:  A full-time career is probably pretty unlikely for most folks right now.

Adal: I’d equate it to trying to make acting be a full time career. I think you have to be doing something else, and have it be a passion side project. If things go right for you, it could absolutely become a career. I know our friend Aaron Mahnke does a podcast called Lore and he’s carved out his niche in the podcast community. He’s gotten so much success, and it’s his full time job now, but it started as a passion side project.

You have to focus on the journey, not the destination. I think it’s just a matter of putting some love and care and creativity into it, and hoping for the best. I don’t think you could actively make that happen.

Arnie: I think it’s possible, but it’s gotta be so tough. It’s probably harder than being an actor or being in a band. We’ve been so blessed that we’ve started to get a taste of success, and it’s nice to have some money coming in from sponsors and merchandise and stuff like that. Still, there are a lot of people that work on this podcast who really help us out a lot, and everyone is really making less than minimum wage for their time. We hope to make more money off it, but really it’s a labor of love.

Is there a podcast where that’s the only thing that person does? Obviously Marc Maron is one of the most successful, and there are others like the McElroy brothers who are amazing. They have a billion podcasts, and still two out of the three of them work for a very successful video game website. The highest level of success in podcasting is still probably not as high as some people think it is. That’s all the more reason to buy some t-shirts and go see a live show.

I read that the emails you get on the show are real emails. Do people play along and write questions as if the show is real?

Adal: We get people that pretend to be in the world like “I’m this character you mentioned”, and we tend not to read those because we don’t want to read emails pretending to be from inside the world. If people email us and have questions, we try to read whatever we can, because it allows them some ownership of it. Some bits on our show have come from emails from fans. Isn’t Can the Wizard from an email?

Matt – Yeah someone asked a question, and they didn’t call me Usidore. They just asked the question “can the wizard something” and there was a weird pause, and I was like “Yeah, I know Can the Wizard”.

Arnie: When people send us physical things I just like the idea of those things living in the world and the audience connecting with those things. Someone sent us mugs, and it said “I’m a dad, that’s my superpower”, and I would talk about it all the time on the show. Someone else sent a shirt that said I’m questing for the lunar sword”, and I wore that to a couple of live shows, and it became a running joke. I love stuff like that. People feel like the show is real, and we also in a weird way feel like its real, and allow that to grow.

Has Hello From the Magic Tavern taken over your life when you try to do improv in other venues?

Arnie: I don’t perform any more because I don’t have time. People make assumptions about my eating habits because of the Burger King reference, and whenever I’m in a fast food restaurant someone always taps me on the shoulder, and says “I love your show.” My fans are in fast food restaurants, or at least I’m just more visible in fast food restaurants.

Matt: one of the stranger things that’s happened to me is, and this has happened three or four times now, a coworker or friend comes up to me and says that someone recommended the show to them, and the person that recommended it to them had no idea that they knew me. So without knowing me, total strangers have recommended to my friends that they listen to the show. It’s become popular enough that people I don’t know recommend it to people that I do know.

Was the rebranding of Season Two intentional all along?

Arnie: We always had this idea that when it was time to go off on the quest that the Dark Lord would pop up and take over the town, and it would be a new chapter on the show. We kinda always knew that’s where we wanted to go, and we decided to call it a new season, because it’s a new status quo. When we enter a new status quo after that, then that can be a new season. I realize that we’re very lucky that people like to go back to the beginning and binge listen. I assume that most listeners listen to the most recent episode and realize that they want to start from the beginning. However, I’m really cognizant of the fact that the total number of episodes is really high, and that’s intimidating not just to binge listen, but to go back and check it out at all. Maybe one hundred episodes isn’t too high, but is two hundred or three hundred too high? Setting up a series of seasons helps take the pressure off a little bit. It seems like most new listeners still go back to the beginning, but from my perspective, I want to make it less intimidating just to listen to the first episode. There’s no perfect solution.

Do you think you’ll ever get tired of doing this? Is there an end goal?

Adal: I’m still having a blast with it. I think there’s still a lot of untapped fun to be had, and I think we’re going to keep doing it for at least another hundred episodes or more, and continue to see what fun stuff comes along. The minute it becomes a chore I’m sure we might have a discussion, but so far we aren’t jaded.

Matt: You certainly don’t want anything to overstay its welcome if it feels like it’s come to a natural conclusion. However, the premise of the show is such that even if we were to defeat the Dark Lord we still have Arnie who’s a fish out of water, and anytime we have a new guest we can just add a whole new series of elements, and discover whole new problems to deal with. The problems aren’t what make it interesting; it’s the little discoveries of the nonsense, and the details of this world can be whatever we want it to be.

Adal: We’ve given ourselves so much pivot room, and the world has no clearly defined edges. It’s almost like my favorite comic series like Sandman or Fables or The Unwritten where anything and everything is jammed into this world, and at any time we can zoom into that. Offices and Bosses was a throwaway thing, and it became its own little miniseries. There’s so much else in the world we’ve given ourselves permission to explore.

Fan art from Hello From the Magic Tavern. Chantal Adele Thomas

Arnie: Yeah and who knows honestly how long season two will last? I’m guessing not one hundred episodes, but probably for a good long time, and we try not to concretely set where we’re headed in the future. We’re very open to something cooler or weirder or more fun coming up in the moment, but we also have several big floating ideas of what new and different status quos would be and fun things that could be a season three and four.

What was most fun for me as a listener was when something seemed to be created in the midst of the show and you guys would play off of that. I’m thinking specifically of the mouse that carried messages for everyone – “mouse-ages”. Can you talk about some of the more fun parts of the show for you?

Matt: When we have guests on, we always tell them that it’s their episode, and they can’t really break anything. We want to make them look great, and anything that they bring in is valid. That being said, sometimes someone says something that’s a little too close to earth, like when someone brought up how there were Jews in Foon. Then we get to explain what it’s like to us whether it’s the same in both worlds or it’s different.

It’s always about taking whatever they give us, whether it’s something they just said in the moment, or something they’ve been thinking about. They give us little pitches of what their character should be; just a sentence or two long of, for instance, a mouse who gives messages to people, and that’s it. We want to make that look great, so it’s about saying yes this does exist in this world, and I already know about it, because I’m this wizard who’s been everywhere.

Having the point of view about it that it’s always been a part of the world is sort of a fun justification game. Something was obviously was just said off the cuff, and we get to pretend it was always there and that’s the fun of the show.

Arnie: I love when something happens that is so weird or funny that we’re just like we have to talk about this for a little bit and it turns into a thing.

Matt: Fish mind control.

Arnie: Yeah some idea like fish mind control. We have to explore that weird idea that none of us would have come up with on our own. Suddenly we’re exploring the reality that “Hey is it possible that all of our minds are being controlled by a fish at the top of a tower with mind control powers and how do you know?” The weirdest thing about the mouse episode is that it’s about a mouse with human strength that works for a dragon. Then we go into fifteen minutes of talking about the setup of the mouse house, and suddenly that’s what we’re more interested in. “Wait a second there are seven hundred mice and you each have your own room?” The things that you’re surprised to be talking about turn out to be the most fun, and that’s why I love improv. The performers can be just as surprised as the audience by the things that are happening in the moment, and it feels very real.

Adal: I feel like my brain is just so chock full of pop culture and I consume so much of it as a reference point to be an improviser, and when someone says something it just unlocks twenty doors. “Here’s what I know about mice or books I’ve read or tv shows or whatever”, and I immediately start to work those into the conversation or bump set to someone else to spike one down.

When you’re talking about all the pop culture that floats in your brain it reminds me that you guys had Elliot Kalan, who I really love from The Flophouse, on an episode recently.

Adal: He was amazing.

Matt: We kept getting him to sing songs which I feel like is the worst thing to do to somebody, but he was so game for it. It was immediately a fun day with him and we’d never met him before. There are certain guests that I love like Steve Waltien, who’s been on several times as Tom the Traveler. He’s someone that we’ve performed with for many many years, and it’s very easy to slide him into the show, and it always feels like an old friend is back. Charlie McCracken who plays Spintax the wizard makes us feel that way too. Also there’s the other end of the spectrum with someone we don’t know like Felicia Day who came on and played Jyn’Leeviyah the Red, and she was amazing, and so funny, and clearly had listened to the show, and was a fan. She played this character we had been building up and talking about for months and months, and when she came to do it we were like “Do you want to do this? We know it comes with some baggage”, and she was like “Yeah I’ll do it”, and she knocked it out of the park.

Is there anything you would change about the earlier episodes, and how do you think you’ve progressed together as a group?

Arnie: That’s a tough one. We’ve definitely gotten better at doing the show as we’ve progressed and I’m sure if I went back and listened there would be things I’d be critical of, but the idea of changing things has a time travelers conundrum sort of feel. The mistakes are as much of our DNA as anything else and sometimes something falling flat leads to something even better being woven out of that failure. When I think of the early episodes, I mostly think about how smart we were to keep them very very short. I suspect this is part of why we have such an unusually high number of folks going back and listening from the very beginning.

Adal: I think maybe having a more clearly defined list of rules about how my shapeshifting works and the ins and outs of it. So many emails my way are asking about how that process works and what would happen if Chunt had a threesome, and all this other weird stuff. So I wish I had more clearly defined for myself and the show how that process/magic exactly works.

Matt: I don’t think so. Although those early episodes may feel a little different if you listen to the whole show and then go back. Early Usidore is slightly less bombastic, and Arnie once described it as “the 1st season Homer Simpson version of Usidore.” I love that the show has evolved over time, and hopefully will continue to grow.

Arnie: We’ve all performed together for a really long time, well over a decade, so we already had that base of being really comfortable and confident performing together. The same goes for a lot of our guests who are often friends of ours from the Chicago improv scene. I think we’ve gotten a lot more confident just being on the mics and performing in a studio. It’s a weird skill. To me so much of getting good at improv is getting as comfortable as possible in an uncomfortable situation. The way you do that is by putting in enough time on stage that you can be loose for your funniest stuff to come out. You kind of have to learn that all over again in a studio. So two years in and we’ve gotten in enough practice to be as confident and silly and comfortable as possible. I think people like the lived in quality of our relationships. It may sound silly to feel like the friendship between a wizard, a badger and a dude from Chicago feels genuine and complicated in the way real friendships are. However, I think we bring that aspect of our history to the show, and it just deepens over time.

Adal: I think we can read each other really well in terms of when someone has something; like a good dance partner we can anticipate someone’s move and help get it there. What Arnie said about the years playing together and comfort is dead on. I think we click really well at this point, and are aware enough of each other’s style that we can have a nice give and take, but are also surprised by one another at times in the best possible way.

Matt: I think we’re better about giving each other space to do something and explore it. We still support each other, but maybe now we’re not as quick to dog pile on something that seems fun. Instead we sit back and listen and lend support when it’s really going to show off the other hosts and our guests.