INTERVIEW: Welcome to Night Vale’s Cecil Baldwin
– By Allan Lear
“A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep. Welcome to Night Vale.”
So began the first ever episode of Welcome to Night Vale, a twice-monthly podcast that has grown over the last five years to one of the most successful ‘comedy’ podcasts going. Unlike other comedy shows, however, Night Vale is not a sketch show or a radio sitcom. Rather, it is something that treads the border between humour and horror; like an audio League of Gentleman, its sensibility is gothic and macabre, and it draws humour from cognitive dissonance and ambiguity rather than puns and slapstick.
Night Vale takes the form of a regular local radio show presented by talking head Cecil Palmer. It’s an old-fashioned community radio show where Cecil chats about local news, advertises upcoming community events, and reports on traffic and the weather. It just so happens that in the sleepy desert town of Night Vale, upcoming events tend to be less like boy scout jamborees and more…well. You know. The sheriff is holding a barbecue and blood sacrifice in Goat Legs Meadow on Friday. Bring your own bottle and plump firstborn child. P mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn. In church hall if wet.
That kind of thing.
Night Vale has just celebrated its hundredth episode and shows no signs of stopping any time soon. To get a better idea of how it all came about, I spoke to actor Cecil Baldwin, who plays Cecil Palmer himself. Bear that in mind: Cecil Baldwin and Cecil Palmer are not the same person; they’re just two people with the same name who sound identical. But they aren’t.
I’ll get the stupid question out of the way first, if I may: how would you describe Welcome to Night Vale to someone who’d not yet listened to it?
Night Vale is a scripted, fictional podcast that comes out twice a month, and it’s about a radio show that comes out in this little town in the American southwest desert where every conspiracy theory you’ve ever heard is not only true…but people just kind of accept it and then move on with their lives. So you have ridiculous things like…a glowing cloud becomes president of the PTA, or there’s a tiny civilisation under a bowling alley that is waging war on the humans above, and everyone just goes “oh, must be Tuesday”.
Night Vale recently celebrated its hundredth episode. You’ve been with it right from the start, haven’t you? You’re the longest-running performer.
True! I remember, it was about three and a half, four years ago. I was working with a theatre company with Jeffrey Cranor, one of the co-writers, and Meg Bashwiner, who’s one of the regular performers on the show. And I had met Joseph Fink [the other co-writer] through that company. I knew he was a writer and he was really trying to establish his name as a writer, and then just very casually at the bar one night he said “hey, I really love podcasts and I’ve written the pilot for a podcast, and we need a radio announcer voice actor. Would you be interested?” And when you work as an independent artist you try to say yes to as many projects as you can – if they’re interesting or they’re with people you enjoy – because you never know what’s going to take off. Sure enough, two years later, Night Vale became the phenomenon of fictional podcasting that it is.
When you first started Night Vale you were recording without a director or a sound engineer. As an actor, did you find that a freeing experience? Or did you miss the collaboration?
Actually, I think it was a freeing experience. Because I could work on the show in my own time, I didn’t have to impress anybody…you know, I didn’t have anybody standing over me going “OK, can you try it again but with one little change?” I would sort of do all that in my own head…I would hit record and perform, but then afterwards I would listen to what I had just done and kind of take off my actor hat and put on my director hat. I’d go “this needs to be different, that could be faster, this could be slower, that could be funnier”…all those sorts of things.
Now, I will admit that as the show got more and more complex, and the other characters started to come out in seasons two and three, there were times when I did wish that I could get feedback. You know, I’d say, “hey, I’m sending you this episode…is this the right direction? I need a second opinion here,” and Joseph and Jeffrey have always been really good about that. And generallyy their answer is, “sounds great”.
The theatre group you came from was the New York Neo-Futurists*. What was their ethos, and do you think that’s had an influence on Night Vale?
Oh, sure. If you look at episode 100, it has every voice actor that has ever been on the show, and if you look at the list, I would say that easily two-thirds of them are Neo-Futurists. There’s something about the way that the Neos work where you don’t have time to second-guess yourself, it’s very rapid…you rehearse on Tuesday and you perform on Friday, and you’re doing completely new material every week. So you can hand someone like Kevin R Free or Erica Livingston a script, and they’ll make a choice, they’ll create a character that’s really fun and interesting to listen to, and they can do it really quick. And when you’ve got a deadline of two episodes a month…you need to make the best art that you can in the deadline allowed.
It sounds very like our theatrical tradition of repertory.
And you know what certain actors have in their toolbag. So you know where to put people – say, this person always plays a really amazing villain, or this person is always really funny in these kinds of parts…so you can write towards those people as actors rather than not knowing where to start.
I believe it’s from the Neo-Futurists that you got your character named after yourself?
Yes, I think that was it. The first time my name appeared in the script, I wrote to Joseph and I said “OK, let’s talk about this one, guys…am I me, Cecil Baldwin? Am I a version of me? Am I supposed to be in Night Vale? Does this mean that this is all a dream that I’m having, or is it just that the character needed a name, and you picked ‘Cecil’?” And I think that was kind of it. They needed to make a decision, and it just seemed like the most logical one. Then, in the course of the next few months, Night Vale became very popular, and it was interesting to watch fans of the show trying to parse out the difference between Cecil the actor and Cecil the character.
And if there’s one thing that the internet does not do well, it is handling ambiguity. People don’t like having to make decisions on their own, they really like creators of shows to tell them exactly who is right and exactly who is wrong. I think in Night Vale we didn’t want to do that; we liked having that sort of ambiguous space where you don’t know if it’s a character or a person…what do you think this character looks like? We’re not going to give you the easy answers. It’s delightful to watch our younger fans, especially, get so frustrated with not getting the right answer.
There’s a wonderful line from one episode where a character is content for something to be a mystery because it’s “a sort of opaque fact”…something he simply knows he’s not meant to know.
Right. And there’s a lot of that in the show. The first time we started playing with the idea of the unreliable narrator…for a year and a half, Cecil’s point of view on Night Vale was taken as gospel. Then, especially with the Steve Carlsberg character, Joseph and Jeffrey started playing with the idea that maybe Cecil isn’t as reliable as we want him to be…he’s a flawed human, and his reporting is not a hundred per cent accurate. So there’s this character called Steve who, classically, Cecil hates and he’s the worst in this very histrionic kind of way. But then we did the first September monologues, and Steve had this monologue about not being as bad as people make him out to be. So there’s definitely room for point of view and ambiguity in the show – and that’s fun. It allows people to create their own opinions and their own interpretations of the work, rather than being “this is canon, this is not, I’m right, and you’re wrong.”
I believe fan art was a big thing…
Oh, it’s amazing. I still go to Tumblr and search the Welcome to Night Vale tags, because people are still creating fan art that blows my mind. As someone who can’t draw to save my life, I am always honoured and inspired by what fans of the show have made.
There was a moment early on when we had just started to get popular – just a little bit. It wasn’t crazy, but more than just our friends were listening to the show. I was with my boyfriend at the time and I said, “Hey…I just got a Facebook request…from me. Someone named Cecil Baldwin has asked to be my friend.” It was the first time that I’d had a fan account, and I thought, what a strange existential 2014 crisis…do I friend myself? Am I friends with myself? Should I be friends with me on Facebook? And of course I said no, because I have no idea who that person is…but I remember my boyfriend and I laughing about that. Only in the modern world can you debate whether you should be friends with yourself.
Thinking of boyfriends, I’ve just caught the episode where Cecil and Carlos finally get together. It seemed like when Cecil’s adoration for Carlos was introduced it was a bit of a joke, and you had a very sonorous-voiced radio announcer acting like a giddy teenager. Was it intended to go further, or has that been an organic progression?
It was very organic. The progression was – Carlos is actually mentioned in the first episode, but his role was as the foil to Night Vale. He was the logical, reasonable outside voice that comes to town and says, “Your town is fucked up. Clocks don’t work here, I don’t understand, nothing works, it’s crazy”. But the way the writers described him was with perfect hair and perfect teeth, a sort of dark and mysterious stranger. In my mind he was like Dean Cain in the show Lois and Clark, where they just threw a pair of glasses on him and were like, “Now you’re a nerd!” but we all know he’s really Superman underneath. That was like the image I had in my head. I just kept thinking…well, if I was living in this tiny little town of about three thousand people and a dark, mysterious stranger came to town…at the very least I’d be curious about him, which is in the script, and I’d probably even have a little crush on him, just because he’s something new and interesting and different to the same old, same old of Night Vale.
I think as an actor you just try to make the most dynamic choices possible. When you’re working on film or TV you have the luxury of people seeing your face and body language and all that, but when you’re working in a purely audio medium you have to make everything a little bit bigger, a little bit broader, to translate to the medium of aural-only. So I just fangirled out over Carlos as a character choice, thinking again, “I wish I had somebody here, this is too much…” I always tell Joseph and Jeffrey that I can always pull it back, or make it more subtle, or do something else…but they ran with it. And then every time Carlos appeared from then on, it became kind of written in to the show; Cecil got a little more excited and a little more excessive, and little more…you know. Teenage crush, hearts-and-flowers. Until finally it just became part of the show that these two are in love, and it happened in a very organic way.
As you were speaking then I got this image in my head of Cecil sat at the radio mic, talking his way through a traffic report and just doodling the name “Carlos” in all the margins.
And you made that image yourself. That wasn’t part of the show – I don’t think it was** – but if this were a TV show, then someone would have to light it and shoot it, and actors would have to be gathered, and a director would have to work it all out, and it would have to have script approval from the ratings and all that sort of thing…but you, as a listener, made that image yourself and filled in the gaps left by the show. And I think that’s why the podcast medium, the radio show medium, is very intimate. It allows the audience to build this world for themselves…we’ve given you some of the answers, we’ve given you the blueprint, but the audience really takes ownership over everything else.
There seems to be a tradition in American fiction of characters like Cecil as heroes. What do you think it is about the radio man that seems to capture the American imagination?
I think it goes back to the early twentieth century and the golden age of radio. Think of Orson Welles doing War of the Worlds…that broadcast was so revolutionary that people ran for their lives because they really thought that aliens were attacking the United States. It worked so well that it became a national emergency – over a fictional radio show.
The lone voice radio host is part of the American psyche, it’s part of the lay of the land. I remember listening to an American radio host called Delilah, she’s got a national syndicated radio show, and people can call in and request songs from Delilah, talk about their relationships, and all that sort of thing. She’s still going. I literally listened to this show for twenty years – not religiously, but whenever I hear it… There’s these certain touchstones that are part of the American landscape, people grew up with them, and even if they don’t actively listen to them then it’s still passively in the background of our shared vocabulary. I’m sure in the UK there are people that have just been part of the landscape when it comes to radio, radio theatre – in fact, doesn’t the BBC have a radio drama that’s been going on for about forty years?
Oh, The Archers?
Yes. It’s a holdover from those golden radio days. What’s funny about Night Vale is that we’re not reinventing the wheel, it’s nothing new – we’ve just taken the idea of a radio show and updated it. We’ve made it a little bit spooky, and a little bit funny, and we include characters that are gay or lesbian or transgender, and characters of all different races and nationalities, because that honestly reflects the world we live in, rather than whitewashing the whole thing and playing on the nostalgia of “back in the day”. Screw that. The time is now. Let’s make art that reflects the times we live in.
As an outsider to American culture, you sometimes see a nostalgia for the very whitebread world of the imaginary 1950s…
Sure. Our President-Elect ran an entire campaign on that.
It seems that there are media, particularly the TV, that are happy to pander to that. Do you think podcasting as a medium is inherently a better medium for subversion?
Oh, absolutely. It’s literally pirate radio. I mean, I’m not saying that one is better than the other, but is it better for subversive art? That’s absolutely true. Look at the progression of a film – a student has a really good idea for a film, and they make a three-minute short, say, and it’s really scary and very clever, and it goes viral on the internet. And it cost ten thousand dollars to make, tops, but it’s a pure, original idea. Then a film studio comes in and says “Hey, you’ve got two hundred million hits on YouTube or Vimeo or whatever! We want to buy your idea and make it into a feature-length film”. Then, in the act of taking something three minutes long and making it into a ninety-minute picture, it’s then test-marketed, it has to be approved by every Script Manager, every executive has notes on it and it goes through different rounds, and every time it goes through that process it gets watered down just a little bit more, and just a little bit more, and almost without realising it, it moves away from the originality of the three-minute short film. Then it comes out and it’s OK, but you miss the impact of the original.
When money gets involved there are so many people, and there are so many gatekeepers protecting that money. And protecting their investments, and rightly so. But if you want to make something that is directly from a creator’s brain, or a company of people, directly from their creative brains to an audience of people, then podcasting is a really great medium. Because the barrier for entry is so low. You really just need a microphone, and some sort of editing software which you can get for free, and a computer. You can scrape together enough money, if this is something you really care about, to have one computer – as opposed to tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of the best video equipment and sound editing and all that sort of stuff. Because money is not as tied up in the world of podcasting – yet – it makes it that much easier for people to get the word out.
Yes. We’ve learned over the years with things that are cult successes – I mean, literally the definition of something that is “a cult”, it means it’s out of the mainstream, it’s beloved by the fans, usually hated by the critics, and people obsess over it. And I think the reason that people obsess over things that are – quote unquote – “cult” is that they have ownership of it. The fans have stock in the product. You know – The Rocky Horror Picture Show, any number of horror movies that have become cults over the years, Boondock Saints – you could name any cult success where this thing comes out, it’s an underdog, everyone’s like, “What is this stupid thing? Shelve it” but then small pockets of real people discover it and start to love it so much that they then tell five other friends, and those friends tell five other friends, et cetera et cetera, and then it becomes a cult success. And that’s literally what happened with Night Vale. We made this podcast for no money, it’s free, it’s available on the internet, and slowly…somebody in Australia started listening, and that person told ten of their friends, and those people each told ten more people, and it became a cult success. It’s just a podcast – it’s not a film or a novel, or anything like that – and I think that’s why it’s got so much press coverage is because it is kind of one of the first of the new media to achieve that level of cult success. But it’s just non-traditional, is all.
Do you find that, as a new medium production, the press tend to seem surprised that it’s happening?
Yes, absolutely. You know, it depends who you’re talking to. If you’re talking to wired.com, you don’t have to explain to them what a podcast is. But if you’re talking to a local newspaper, oftentimes they don’t understand what a podcast is; or they do, but they know that their readers don’t. So you spend a lot of time just saying “OK, so imagine a radio show…except it’s on your computer…and you can listen to it wheneeeever you want…” You have to take it back to square one and describe to them what this thing is. I tend to talk to people like that the way I would talk to my parents, like, let’s do the basics before we get into the more esoteric, crazy stuff.
But when it comes to cult success versus mainstream success, I think that, because it is a podcast, it does have popularity amongst the millennial generation. I think there’s a level of gatekeepers in Hollywood and New York that don’t really understand what that means, and are reluctant to find out. They’re still very much stuck in the old guard – “is it a film? Is it on TV? If not, then it’s not worth anything. That’s real success.” So it doesn’t matter how big your podcast is; if it isn’t a TV show then they don’t know what to do with it. So that’s the current crisis of career that I’m having right now.
It has been a career, hasn’t it? Four or five years, Night Vale’s been running now. I’m going to go ahead and assume you didn’t think that would happen at the start…
Right, right. And that’s the thing: Night Vale was really in the vanguard of successful podcasts. Since then, big corporate TV people have started waking up and taking notice. HBO has a podcast now. It’s really flattering and amazing to have been at the forefront at that. When people look back at the sort of age where new media became popular, it’s like: Mark Maron, This American Life, Planet Money, Radiolab and Welcome to Night Vale are all going to be mentioned in the same breath, and that’s extremely flattering and makes me really proud to work on the show.
Thinking of being influential, who would you say has influenced your portrayal of Cecil?
Oh, gosh. There’s definitely a Lovecraft, Stephen King, David Lynch influence on the show…but in my performance? Uh…Kyle McLachlan as Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks. I think that’s probably the biggest one. Agent Dale Cooper mixed with Shakespeare, is the best way I can describe it. Because Kyle McLachlan portrays that character, who is in every episode, he’s absolutely the protagonist of Twin Peaks, and he’s a good person, he’s an optimistic person, dealing with very dark circumstances. And even in his lowest moments, he’s never quite defeated. I think that’s the inspiration I wanted for Cecil Palmer. It’s so much more interesting to watch someone who’s very hopeful for the future deal with very dark, negative circumstances. If Cecil was defeated every week, then eventually it would just be kind of sad and a little bit masochistic. Eventually you’d just lose interest. But because there is this positivity and hopefulness about him, you start rooting for him, just like you’d root for a friend or someone you know. So I think Kyle McLachlan in Twin Peaks is a huge influence on me.
And Shakespeare…when you’re performing Shakespeare, every word has to be a surprise. When you take away all the visual elements and the words are the only thing you have – it gets real fun, as a performer. It’s a labour of love, getting to discover that things like that.
Cecil is quite a complex character. On the one hand, in his job he often seems to support the ruling cadre, but on the other he’s not afraid to call for a new mayor…
It’s similar to where a lot of us are in the modern age. People who are smart and savvy look at the news and think, oh my god, horrible things are happening…I don’t know what to do about it. I should have trust in the system, but it seems like the system is flawed…it takes a long time to lead up to that. So by the time it’s a year or two years into the show and Cecil’s talking about revolution with Tamika Flynn – well, things have to get really bad for Cecil to turn on his beloved town of Night Vale. When you’re working on an episodic show, you have the time to build those character arcs. You know, you don’t have to do it in eight episodes, an hour each episode, where you’ve got to get to the point. We’re doing twenty-plus short stories a year, so you have time to build the character over a year or two to get to these emotional climaxes.
He seems to have grown as a character. To being with he felt almost like an arm of the oppression itself, but now it’s more that he is on the side of Night Vale itself. And to him, Night Vale isn’t the council or the mayor, it’s the citizens.
It’s the people. It’s the people that he reports on, and that he’s a part of. That’s it exactly. And again, it’s the ambiguity of – how do you love a system that’s made up of individuals? How do you love the individual but hate their decision collectively? Honestly, these bigger philosophical questions are what it’s like to be a citizen in 2016, 2017 in America or in the UK. In the grand tradition of sci-fi, horror and fantasy, Night Vale tackles a lot of pressing modern issues but does so using metaphor and therefore can get away with making people think about the world that they live in, in a different way. Not because they’re standing on a soapbox preaching doom to people, but because they’re wrapping it up in a story and it’s not talking about gun control, it’s not talking about immigration…but it is. It’s just talking about those issues in the world of Night Vale.
I think the closest I’ve come to hearing it comment on The Actual State of Things is some of the alternative NRA slogans that are produced…I think my favourite is “Guns don’t kill people, and if you say they do, I will shoot you with a gun and you will (coincidentally) die”.
Yeah, and I think that was literally one of the first items that went up on our website that you could buy. And people just went nuts over them, because again, it’s taking the world of Night Vale and it seeps out into the real world. Some people would put them on their cars and you think “oh, they like the NRA”, but if you read the actual thing…do they like it? It’s living in that world of ambiguity. People love easy answers these days, they want an entire issue wrapped up in a headline. And most things in life are more complex than that. That’s when Night Vale is at its best, when the writing and performances are at their best – when it’s not a full stop, it’s a question mark. Or an ellipsis…
Finally, while I’ve got you, can you give me a list of horror movies you would personally recommend? Since The Slaughtered Bird is sort of meant to be a film website…
Sure, yeah. Perennial favourites are Suspiria, Stage Fright, Return of the Living Dead, Videodrome…and some of the modern ones. I really enjoyed It Follows; there’s a movie, I want to say a Danish*** movie, called Borgman that I really love; Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom, which I always recommend to people who like Twin Peaks.
Thank you for your time, Cecil!
Thank you. And I must commend you on the T-shirt collection you have on the website? I was looking through them before and, being a horror fan myself, I was like, “I would wear that…I would wear that…oh, that one too…I would wear that T-shirt.”****
Welcome to Night Vale is available to download for free, in its entirety, at www.welcometonightvale.com as well as being available on iTunes at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/welcome-to-night-vale/id536258179#, Soundcloud at https://soundcloud.com/nightvaleradio, and YouTube at http://youtube.com/welcometonightvale.
* Neo-Futurism is an art movement that rejects the flabby onanism of the postmodernists in favour of positivity and engaging optimistically with future possibilities. It likes technology.
** It wasn’t. Came out of me own fevered brain.
*** Dutch actually, but not far out.
**** This is honestly something Cecil said, unprompted and without prior agreement. But it might find its way into some of the other interviews on the site from now on…