People Who Podcast: ‘Welcome to Night Vale’ Writers on World-Building and Language

“In other news, a recent report suggests that things may not be as they seem.” - from the book Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor.

Welcome to Night Vale. Night Vale

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?

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“In other news, a recent report suggests that things may not be as they seem.” – from the book Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor.

It is safe to say that in the town of Night Vale things are never as they seem, and once you listen to the podcast dear reader, you may never be the same either. You will begin to hear strange things tickle your ears about a five headed dragon that ran for mayor, about a faceless old woman that secretly lives in your home, and about a mysterious glow cloud that emits whistling noises, and is also the school board president. If you aren’t backing away slowly, and thinking that this sounds way too strange, then you just may have discovered one of your new favorite things.

The show takes the form of a local news broadcast that reports on the strange goings on in the fictional desert town of Night Vale. Cecil Baldwin voices the radio host with a measure of alacrity, and matter of factness about the daily dangers that await the residents. It’s actually quite soothing to hear him honor the deaths of his various interns at the station. He reports the local goings on be they as important as the mayoral race, or things that may or may not be happening. He provides the local color and gossip from all the towns denizens like John Peters, referred to as: you know, the farmer. Night Vale even has a high school football team whose former quarterback, Michael Sandero, grew a second head and whose mother remarked that she liked the second head better because it was “much handsomer and doesn’t talk back as much”.

In a world full of retreads and people racing to be like everyone else, it’s so refreshing to come upon an original independent property that is wholly unique with a dynamic all-encompassing vision.

If you listen for long, you will notice Cecil talking about the same strange characters from the town over and over again creating a sense of stability in the seeming turmoil. In a strange way, they’ve come to feel like friends. The bizarre conspiracies that are true, and the constant doublespeak can come to feel like a sense of comfort in our own chaotic world. If you’re looking for escapist fantasy, then you can’t get much farther away than this. When you arrive in Night Vale, you are truly lost.

The piercing music score by Disparition is a highlight, as is the introduction of an original song by a different artist every episode in a sequence that Cecil introduces by saying “and now the weather”.

Welcome to Night Vale has been one of the most popular podcasts on ITunes since 2013, and has expanded to books, live shows, and now a network that includes three other podcasts as well. We hope you enjoy our interview with the writers, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor.

Observer: You guys are one of the longest running podcasts out there how does that feel?

Joseph Fink: It’s strange to hear you say that, because there are shows much much older than us. This American Life goes back to the 90’s and WTF goes back to the 2000s. Comedy Bang Bang started about 2008 or 2009.

You know when we started in 2012 it honestly felt like we were coming late to podcasting because popular shows like Radiolab were already established then. Although in retrospect we ended up being before the explosion in popularity and podcasting that happened.

I still feel like we’re still kind of a newcomer.
It’s such a diverse world you created. Are you envious of the people able to hear it for the first time?

Joseph: I don’t know about being envious other than to say it’s always exciting when I hear that people get into it for the first time and really love it. There is something about discovering something that’s been around for a while that you didn’t know was there. You get to discover it, and you’re like “Oh my gosh”. I came to Twin Peaks very late in life, and when I found it I thought “this is tremendous”. A lot of people were like “told you so”, but it’s not only the joy of getting into something new that you love, but also the promise that there will always be something out there that you don’t know exists right now and is wonderful.

I watched Twin Peaks a couple years ago myself. I don’t how long ago you watched it, but for me it was about three four years ago.

Jeffrey Cranor: I’d seen the movie when it first came out, and I loved it, but I didn’t actually get into the show until probably about 8 or 9 years ago.

Wherever the movie premiered at, I think it was Cannes, the audience did not appreciate it.

Jeffrey: No I don’t think it was very well-reviewed.

Okay well, let’s talk about your show.

There are a lot of effects in the show, like voices speeding up and slowing down, and I wonder if they are only meant for the listener or actually exist in that world as well.

Joseph: Sometimes I’ll screw around with my voice in the intro just to keep that part where I tell people news about the world. In a recent episode my voice wasn’t speeding up, it was actually bending the pitch up without changing the speed.

I don’t know if the characters in the world would have heard that necessarily, but the idea was to show a shift between worlds that was happening, and I found the best way to do that was to create a shift in pitch.

Do you have a pool for old sayings that you keep on hand in order to invert them? “A thousand words is worth a picture” is one of my favorites.

Jeffrey: I’ve always been sort of interested in trying to subvert tropes, and I think Joseph is too. I take a given cliché or expectation or fiction and challenge the laziness of that cliché a little bit.

I think we try to go for something pithier like with a quick joke; sometimes adages are the simplest form of tropes to subvert, and so sometimes I go to that well.

I don’t know which one of us wrote it, but there was one I liked that said something like “Look up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. There’s a Moon. There some stars. There are so many things up in the sky to look at”.

I don’t know that I keep a list of those things; it’s just that every now and then I tool around with an idea in my head until it comes out like that.

Those are fun. A lot of the show’s phrases seem to deal with contradictions. I think of the faceless old woman who wanted to increase school funding while lowering taxes. What are some of the contradictions you see in real life that you think you might be influenced by? What are you trying to say with the contradictions?

Jeffrey: I don’t know if there is anything necessarily to say. I grew up a fan of Alice in Wonderland, and the book is filled with contradictions, which makes it wonderful. The whole thing is a series of paradoxes or oxymorons or things that can’t exist the way they exist, and I always think that in a world like Night Vale, that’s a really interesting way to confound people.

I think we try to avoid being too on the nose about how Night Vale is a parallel to our current world. Obviously there are always going to be parallels to our current world, but we want to try and allow the listeners to discover those parallels for themselves rather than for us to spell it out exactly for them. In the case of the increase school funding lower taxes bit, that’s just another one of those strange contradictions just to mildly throw the listener off some, but not to necessarily make a comment about any one politician or anything.

You’ve been writing together for a long time. Do you have any rules set up? Your show has a lot of contradictions, and it seems like they were uncontradicted later, if that’s a real word. So do you have any rules in play, or is anything fair game?

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Joseph: We have pretty strict rules for ourselves that we established right from the beginning. The very first thing we talked about was how the show can be as weird as we want, and we can take it anywhere we want, but we have to have strict continuity. If you just write weird things and they don’t have any effect and they change from episode to episode, then the whole thing feels weightless. However, if you make sure that no matter how weird an event is it matters, and affects the world and that leads to other events, then no matter how weird the event is, it starts to gain weight and becomes something you can emotionally be invested in. We really try to make sure that everything that happens stays having happened, and affects the world going forward. That’s really important to us
There’s a floating cat in Night Vale whose name means “darkness” after one of the plagues in the Biblical story of Exodus. I’ve been going to the internet to figure out how to pronounce the word Khoshekh right. Is that the only Hebrew name on the show, and is there anything else that was influenced by plagues or anything else uncomfortable in the Bible?
: I think that’s our only Hebrew name. I grew up religiously Jewish, and took Biblical Hebrew in University, and weirdly I actually wasn’t the one that named it Khoshekh.

I don’t know if there’s anything else in Night Vale specifically from Judaism, other than the fact that it’s an important part of my background, and it certainly shows up in my writing. I also think that growing up with the language of specifically Jewish American English translations of the Bible influenced a lot of my rhythm of language from years and years of reading.

I noticed that Bree Williams wrote an episode recently, and in an interview I was talking to James Urbaniak about the shows that she writes with him. I couldn’t figure this out online so please forgive me, but was she the first guest writer?

Jeffrey: We’ve had several guest writers on our show, but having Bree Williams was really exciting because Getting On with James Urbaniak is one of our favorite podcasts of all time. I just think Bree’s writing on Getting On has been so sharp, and so smart, and it was really great to have her write for us

It’s one of my favorites as well. The episode where she describes James Urbaniak choking someone for the whole episode is chilling.

How old do you think you should be to listen to the show, or does that ever come into play?

Joseph: Early on our audience was mostly young women, and that was partly because we blew up on Tumblr, and that’s kind of the demographic of Tumblr. Our appeal has broadened quite a bit over the years since we’ve written the novels. We never had a goal audience. People were like “What demographic were you writing for?”, and I would have no idea how to write for a demographic; that seems like poison to creativity. We have always just written the stories that seems interesting to us. I hope that people find them interesting, but we have no way of having any guess who will find the stories interesting.
I absolutely totally understand that. I didn’t necessarily mean that you tailored it for a specific audience. I saw this one page comic about Where the Wild Things Are talking about how parents didn’t want to let their children be exposed to that material even though childhood is a terrifying place and dealing with fears can help them through it. That’s the idea I was thinking of.

Jeffrey: We get asked sometimes by email “Is this show appropriate for my kid?”, and I just think “I don’t know. I don’t know your kid.”

In my mind I think the show is appropriate for all ages, but I also don’t know the type of things that a parent should or shouldn’t show their kids. Growing up sex and cuss words were always off-limits for me on television whereas with Joseph’s violence was off-limits, but I could watch whatever violent show I wanted and that was never a big deal.

We don’t swear in the show. There’s no sex. There’s not a lot of descriptive violence, but I think there’s some very adult themes in it, and some things a child won’t find interesting or might find alarming.

Joseph: Building on what Jeffrey said, there’s no objective description of what a parent thinks is right for a child. From quite a young age my parents had no problem with me seeing nudity or swearing, because it just didn’t seem that big of a deal. The violent movies that my friends were watching at age 7 my parents wouldn’t let me watch when I was 14. They just really thought violence was damaging, and I’m not sure they were wrong.

We do talk a lot about the reality of death, and the reality of dealing with life in a very direct way, and I think each parent would have to decide for themselves how much they want their kid listening to existential philosophy.

I guess it is existential philosophy I hadn’t thought of that. What role does Disparition (composer and producer Jon Bernstein) play in the show? Do you hand over the episodes to him and then he fills in their musical parts? How does your collaboration with him work?

Joseph: Disparition has a library of music that he’s released, and I do all the sound editing for almost all the episodes, that’s why in the credits where it says “produced by Joseph”: It means the audio production. Disparition has done a couple episodes directly that were a little more complex sounds, and he’s obviously a lot more skilled at that than me. I have a library of music that I’ve separated by mood and theme, then most of the time I’ll just go through those and find one to fit. On our live shows Disparition is our production manager on the road, and plays music live on stage and kind of creates a soundtrack for that live show.

I feel like parts of Night Vale have a cheery nineteen-fifties feel to it. I don’t know if you guys are familiar with the video game Fallout, but some of the stuff you guys do with the commercials and the bowling alleys and Americana, and seems to pull from the same stock.

Jeffrey: I haven’t played Fallout, but I’ve heard people mention it before, and I am familiar with it. People mention that there are a lot of a fake ads, and desert or post-apocalyptic strangeness. I think there’s a lot of overlapping in different areas of fiction.

The show takes place now, very much on the day that the episode is released, and we often reference things like Tumblr and Facebook. There might be certain clichés of Americana that are tied to clichés of the fifties, but I think it is very much written for the America of now.

What’s the All Hail tour that’s on your website? What can you tell me about that?

Jeffrey: This is our fourth live show that we’ve taken out on tour, and every year we write a new touring live show script. It follows through the voice of Cecil, the narrator of the show, and we tell more of an evening long story. It’s written as a live performance as opposed to just a podcast. Cecil performs with some guest voices on the show, and Disparition performs music live, and we always bring a musical guest with us that will open the show and play the weather song. It’s really fun to get out and have a live interaction of Night Vale with people. We’ve toured to sixteen different countries, and probably done well over two hundred shows across the world. We just finished a tour across the eastern part of the US, as well as some of Canada and the Midwest. We’ll have another European tour this fall, and more US cities this summer in the South and in the West.

Do you see Night Vale stickers and t-shirts and stuff out in the wild much, and is that still a thrill for you?

Joseph: Obviously we’ll see them quite a lot around the live shows, and it’s not too uncommon to see them in the wild. I was recently walking in Chelsea and maybe like a fifteen-year-old kid skateboarded by wearing a Night Vale shirt and that was cool. It’s still cool walking by the bookstore and seeing our book in the window. It’s still pretty exciting.

What can you tell me about It Devours beyond just the blurb that’s online?

Jeffrey: Not much right now other than the Blurb. This is our second Night Vale novel, and we kind of write our novels the way we do our live shows, which is to say that it’s a standalone story. It does not require that you listen to a hundred and eight episodes of a podcast or read the previous novel or anything like that, but it takes place fully within the world of Night Vale.

In the first novel we explored all of Night Vale through some new characters in town, and there was more of a sprawling epic family story feel. In this one we wanted to have it feel closer to a page turning thriller. It follows Carlos and his scientists, particularly a scientist named Nilanjana, and pitted them against a cult named “The Joyous Congregation of The Smiling God.” We just wanted to play around with “terrible things happening in Night Vale, things to be resolved, action suspense blah blah blah” – all the things that go into writing.

It’s a lot of fun to set a series of novels in a world without needing to be like serialized necessarily. Night Vale is such a rich world. We have a really great job getting to write tons of stories, especially in the novels, with different characters and different intentions, histories and motives without necessarily having a constant serialized storyline.

How would you guys describe the Angels? I’ve been trying to figure them out.

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Joseph: Describe in what way I guess is my return question.

Do they correlate into anything that could be described, or is it supposed to be more of a feeling?

Joseph: We describe them as much as we wanted to describe them in the podcast. We generally avoid visual descriptions of characters for a variety of reasons. One reason is that on a personal level for me, I’m deeply uninterested in physical character description, and I tend to skip them if I’m reading something. I just think it’s a boring and lazy way of defining a character from the writer’s point of view. What they look like for the most part, other than how it affects how people treat them, doesn’t tell you who the person is. That can be shown in better ways than just describing them. It doesn’t tell you who the person is. What tells you who the person is, is what they think, what they say, what they do, and how people interact with them, and so we’re much more interested in that. Describing something physically is just not something we’re super interested in.

Wow! I’m glad I asked because that was a super interesting answer. Do you have any intentions of ever stopping or how far do you think you take it?

Jeffrey: Just based on the idea of the history of humans suggest that everybody stops doing whatever they’re doing at some point in time. At some point we will stop. We have no we have no intention to do so anytime soon. We enjoy doing it. I feel like if you enjoy doing something, and you can make a living doing it, then there’s no reason to stop.

I couldn’t agree more. Do you think you’ll bring in more outside perspectives like on the Orbiting Human Circus for instance?

Joseph: Last year we started The Night Vale Presents network and have four different podcasts on it – Welcome to Night Vale, Alice Isn’t Dead, Within the Wires, and Orbiting Human Circus of the Air. They’re entirely separate podcasts and we have several more that we are working on that will be released over the next couple years. Our goal is to find people that are doing cool work, but aren’t working in podcasting yet, and bring them into podcasting.

People Who Podcast: ‘Welcome to Night Vale’ Writers on World-Building and Language