Interview: Joseph Fink; Welcome To Night Vale (Part 1 – Early Influences)
I stared at the clock face as it stared back at me, un-blinking, flinching ever forward. Outside the drizzle created a damp upon which the existing damp had started a war with, spreading the wet from near to far. Upon the screen, I waited, for my time to make the call. Suddenly, my time was now….
Were the words that greeted me when Joseph Fink, co-writer of surrealist hit podcast Welcome To Night Vale, picked up my skype call on a mild Wednesday afternoon from my suburban bedroom. Night Vale has recently been booked for not one, but two shows in Dublin this October as part of their UK tour, a tour which has almost completely sold out and will culminate in a second pairing of shows, this time in London’s o2 Sheperd’s Bush Empire. Needless to say, this wasn’t quite part of the plan when they started. “It was started completely as a hobby,” Fink begins, when asked about how the podcast has gotten to this point. “Y’know, my friends and I, it was just something we enjoyed doing. Our entire goal, when we started it, was that maybe someday there’d be a few people who weren’t friends or family listening to it. We certainly had no goals beyond that, other than to enjoy making it.” And obvious success has followed that enjoyment, with a fandom that has spread throughout social media like a wildfire, but they haven’t shied away from the idea of touring, either.
“Well doing the tour, so we’ve done several tours up to this point. This will be the fourth tour we’ve done this year. In January we did a tour of the West Coast of the US, in March we did a full tour of the US and just this July we did a tour of Canada and parts of the US.” He explains, going on to talk about how the live show came about. “The live show has sort of evolved into its own kinda thing, we all come out of a background of live theater and so this is something that is very, eh, we have a lot of experience in. We know how to put on shows like this. At this point we’ve done live shows somewhere in the range of 75 times in the last year, so we’re pretty smooth at it at this point.”
Coming out of live theater, the basic concept of Welcome To Night Vale is one that becomes less strange when you bear the one-man-show style in mind. Cecil Baldwin, the one leading voice of the show, who provides this mix of narration and broadcasting as Cecil, the fictional radio-show host, sculpts Night Vale for us through news, announcements and advertisements based around the current affairs of the desert town. Only occasionally joined by a guest character, Cecil is the one and only star while Fink and other co-writer Jeffrey Cranor create each episode themselves. And as it turns out, theater wasn’t just an early common interest, but where it all began as well.
“We all met through theater, Jeffery and I met through, basically we all through the New York Neo Futurist which is a performance art collective in New York. Jeffrey, who co-writes it with me, Cecil who performs it, and Meg, who is our touring MC, they are all members of the New York Neo Futurist and I met them all through that.” Its not only where they met, but its also where he and Jeffrey worked out their writing process. “Jeffrey and I did a play together, that we wrote and performed together in New York back in 2011. It was the first thing we wrote together and it kind of developed our co-writing process that we still use. “ Soon thereafter, Night Vale came to be and Cecil was brought into the picture – “After that play I enjoyed writing with Jeffrey, I wanted to keep doing it, so I created Night Vale so we’d have something to work on and then I invited Cecil because he has that great voice.”
But even beyond the theatrical roots of the show’s formation, Night Vale takes great influence from not just theater, but literature too. “The style I think definitely is heavily influenced by New York City down town experimental theater, the kind of language and the kind of building a world from very little that people are doing down there. It also, I think, comes a lot from literary sources; Deb Olin Unferth, whose an American writer whose been very influential language-wise, Thomas Pynchin as well, I would say is very influential on Night Vale.”
Given the format of Night Vale, with Cecil acting out a pre-written script and other guest characters chiming in on occasion, and the emphasis on surrealist fantasy and sci-fi, it bears easy comparison the classic radio-plays such as War of the Worlds and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and old television series like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. When I asked about the comparison, Joseph makes it very clear they weren’t an influence, and the intended idea is actually a little older. “Actually not, the community radio format kind of came out of, I very much enjoy single story-teller things. The much older than radio, just the person stands in front of you and tells a story, and community radio was a convenient way of creating that in audio form. But Night Vale is not particularly based on old radio-plays, I would say its based a lot more on monologue theater and story-tellers, which is sort of what our live tour is, its Cecil on a stage telling you a story, and so it goes back to the influences that Night Vale came out of.” And although Cecil is the one man on stage, he has minimal involvement in the writing of each episode. “Jeffrey and I write it, he performs it. Its not an improvised show, its a show that is very, very carefully scripted. He definitely will tell us if a sentence is really hard to say or things like that, but the writing is very much Jeffrey and I.”