The Unseen (But Often Heard) World of Welcome to Night Vale – An Interview with Joseph Fink

Kylie Sturgess

The world of Welcome to Night Vale is surreal and haunting—and it’s the setting of one of the most popular independent podcasts in the world. Set in a mysterious desert town, it’s a cross between Twin Peaks, Area 51, and even a touch of Monty Python. The community radio station host, Cecil Palmer (voiced by actor Cecil Baldwin), relates out-of-the-ordinary events as the everyday experiences of its inhabitants.

While many skeptics may deride conspiracy theories and the paranormal, you cannot deny the creative inspiration such claims provide to shows like Welcome to Night Vale. Joseph Fink, the cocreator of the show, has been touring the world with the Night Vale team, doing live shows and promoting the new Night Vale novel, with a forthcoming tour of Australia in 2016 (where he may have the opportunity to find out more about the Talmud Shud mystery…).

Joseph Fink: I’ve been working with my cowriter, Jeffrey Cranor, for about six years, now. We wrote a play together—did it in the East Village in New York City, which is where, you know, you do plays. I enjoyed working with Jeffrey; I wanted to keep working with him. Both of us really like storytelling—just single person, simple storytelling.

It’s something that’s fairly common here in New York, because there’s a lot of theater, but no one has any money because they’re doing theater in New York City! There’s a lot of, like, “I don’t have money for props, I don’t have money for costumes. I’m just going to stand here, and I’m going to tell you a story!”

That can be really fascinating, and so I really wanted to try and capture that—so I created this idea of community radio from a small town, where every conspiracy theory was true. It’s allowed us to use that single storyteller narration with not a lot of additions.

I brought in some people who are in a theater company I work with quite a bit, called the New York Neo-Futurists, so Cecil Baldwin has been a member of the Neo-Futurists for a while, and I asked him to perform it.

Kylie Sturgess: Do you actually ever do community radio yourself, or have any of the members of the team?

Fink: No, Night Vale is not something that came that much out of radio. It really did come more out of the idea of single person storytelling. There’s a lot of popular radio that people sort of just kind of assume Jeffrey and I have listened to—and in fact, we’ve never heard any!

I’ve not listed to most of the old radio serials; I’ve never heard Prairie Home Companion. I did do, I think, about a week at my college radio station just to kind of see what that was like, and it was okay.

Sturgess: You’re not much of a fan of radio drama, but you’re a fan of podcasts. What got you into saying, “Okay, this needs to be podcasted”?

Fink: I was more wanting to do a podcast before the idea came along… the idea of doing a podcast came before the idea of Night Vale. I really love podcasts; I think there’s just a lot of freedom there. Podcasting is still a really young form, and so there’s still this ability to do things that no one’s ever done with it. Which is not something that’s really available to you in a lot of other forms.

It’s also—it’s the low barrier of entry. We started Night Vale with a sixty dollar USB mic that I already had and a free audio editing software I downloaded, five dollars a month for hosting. That’s still how we make it.

The USB microphone broke, and we updated it with a hundred dollar USB microphone, but it’s still, it’s just, you don’t need that much in order to make a podcast that can exist on the same level as every other podcast!

Sturgess: Welcome to Night Vale is set in a community radio station from a weird desert town where every conspiracy theory is true. Have you always been interested in conspiracy theories?

Fink: Yeah, I’ve always loved conspiracy theories. I don’t really believe them, but I just think they’re fascinating stories. I love them on a storytelling level, on sort of a, a way they act sort of like a religious mythology. They explain why the world is the way it is. As a kid, I would get books of conspiracy theories out of the library, and now I browse through all the weird Wikipedia pages on conspiracy, and out-of-place artefacts and stuff. A lot of that ends up in the show.

Sturgess: What about the audience response, however? Some people might be believers in these kinds of conspiracies; some might be skeptical. How do they respond?

Fink: I think the point of Night Vale is not whether or not the conspiracy theories are true. I just think that’s something that, you know, we use it as a basis, so it’s more about, just, I think it’s more about just dealing with how weird and dangerous life is.

Life in Night Vale is very dangerous, very hard to understand, but so is real life. I think a lot of people can really relate, and really, I think, find some comfort in this idea of a town where life is dangerous and hard to understand, but people just get on with their lives and get on with their days and go about their business anyway.

Sturgess: The show has stayed as a podcast; it isn’t licensed for radio broadcast. What led to this decision?

Fink: Really, there’s just never been a reason to. It’s available all over the world in podcast form, and people seem to want to watch it on YouTube, for some reason, so it’s also available there if you want to stare at our logo while you listen to it. It’s just, you know, there’s not really a reason …. We get requests all the time from radio stations, “We’d like to play your show,” and it just doesn’t, to us, it seems like, “Well, make something of your own.” We just don’t have any reason to put it on the radio when it exists as podcasts. That’s kind of in the podcasting world.

Sturgess: The Welcome to Night Vale book is out, and I thought it was pretty accessible to new readers, for people who weren’t into podcasting. I was able to give them the book and they got into it. There’s also scenes in it that are familiar, characters that are familiar, for regular listeners of the show. How did you achieve the balance in creating the book Welcome to Night Vale?

Fink: It’s a balance we’re very conscious of. It’s the same balance that we have—you know, we’ve written four different live scripts—and it’s the same sort of thing we do with the live shows that we tour. We want super fans that have listened to every episode three times to really get something out of it. At the same time, we want people who are coming to the show, who don’t even know that we’re a podcast, they know nothing about us, we want them to be able to follow the show and enjoy it. That’s something we’ve been doing with the live show for a while.

We did the same thing with the book, which is, you know, yes, if you’re a super fan I think you’ll find stuff in the book that other readers wouldn’t, but we really did write it to be something you can pick up just because, because the cover is interesting to you, or maybe you’ve heard something about it, and then be able to just completely follow the characters and have a satisfying experience without ever needing to know anything about the podcast at all.

Sturgess: You mentioned the live scripts. What’s it like taking a podcast to the stage?

Fink: It’s a lot of fun! It’s something we’ve been doing for a couple of years now. We’ve done a little over a hundred and sixty live shows in eleven different countries. Since we’re stopping off in New Zealand first this tour, Australia will actually be our thirteenth country that we’ve toured into.

Sturgess: Wow, that’s impressive!

Fink: Yeah, we’ve done it all over. The live shows have really developed into their own thing that kind of is this parallel but separate from the podcast. They’re these full shows of live theater, in a way. As you said, we all kind of have theater experience, so it was pretty easy to develop it into a live show. Cecil, our narrator, is a trained stage actor.

The shows are done radio theater style, in that it’s just microphones and actors holding scripts, and then our musician playing the background music live. There’re no sets or costumes or anything, but Cecil in front of an audience, with just a microphone, has this ability to really move an audience and kind of control them. He has this really great way of interacting with an audience; it’s a lot of fun to watch.

The Australia tour will be with Dessa Darling, who is a Minneapolis-based rapper. Dessa is somebody we’ve toured with a few times. This will actually, I believe, be her first time performing in Australia. She is easily the coolest person I know, and also just one of the most extraordinary live performers I’ve ever seen.

We’ve toured with her, and when you tour, eventually you get a sense of the show, and so you’re just kind of sitting backstage chatting, and you don’t necessarily watch the whole thing. When Dessa was performing with us, everyone in the cast would stand in the wings and watch her perform, because every night she would do something different. There’re very few musicians I’ve seen who can work with a crowd the way that Dessa works with a crowd, so I’m very excited to be bringing her as our musical guest.

We’re doing almost every major city in Australia in about six days, so …. It’s mostly do a show, fly to the next city in the morning, and do the show that evening.

It’s often the case on tour, people are often like, “Oh, you’re in Paris, you should do this,” or “Oh, as long as you’re in Chicago, you should do this…” but we come in the afternoon of the show, do the sound check, do the show, and the next morning we’re out. We rarely see anything of the city except for our hotel room and the theater!

That said, I know that most of us on the tour are planning to arrive either early or stay late after the tour and take a little vacation around Australia, because it’s a bit far from New York! My wife and I are coming, I think, ten days before the tour starts and doing a little vacation.

Sturgess: Will you be checking out any of the local conspiracy theories while you’re here, or do you think you have enough of them already inspiring you?

Fink: Night Vale is a very particularly American show in that we deal with this very American set of conspiracies. In a lot of ways, kind of, we are unaware of what the conspiracy language of the world looks like in different countries. I think I’d be very fascinated to learn about Australian conspiracies.

The only Australian conspiracy I can think of, and it’s a fascinating one, that I know about, is that guy that was found dead on a beach in, I want to say, the forties? A body was found on the beach, with no apparent cause of death, and no one could identify who the person was. They weren’t decomposed at all, they were perfectly recognizable, it’s just their fingerprints didn’t come up.

I’m forgetting all the details. It’s a very mysterious case. The only thing he had on him was a ripped out final page from this epic poem from somewhere in the Middle East…. That’s the only Australian conspiracy theory I’m aware of.

Sturgess: I’m going to have to go check it out, and hopefully they didn’t turn out to be a community radio host….

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.