Andrew Johnston: You’re listening to Podcast Squared. This is episode 191 or 2. I can’t remember because I’m recording it ahead of time. Anyway, on today’s show we’re going to have an interview with one of the co-creators, the co-writers over at a podcast we mentioned all the way back in episode 188. It’s called Welcome To Night Vale. We had our very own Ben Tippett tell us how great it is and we talked about it a little bit. So now we’re going to talk to the creator, Joseph Fink. Joseph, how are you doing today sir?
Joseph Fink: I’m doing okay. It’s been a long week, so I’m a little tired. Looking forward to the weekend.
Andrew Johnston: Yeah, yeah. We had a little conversation earlier in the week, and you were saying that Night Vale has actually started eating up your entire life.
Joseph Fink: Pretty much … this week at least. I’m hoping to stabilize it to something a little more sustainable, but this week pretty much from getting up to when I go to bed, I’ve been working on Night Vale stuff.
Andrew Johnston: Yeah, and that’s pretty great. It’s something you guys created entirely on your own. It is its own unique entity, and it’s really been getting quite an impressive response. How has that, in addition to just giving you more work to do … and now you can start shifting to Night Vale through your daily life, what are some of the other reactions you and everyone has been getting out of this?
Joseph Fink: It’s bizarre for us. It’s not something I think any of us have quite caught up to. The level of response we’ve been getting has really been overwhelming. I actually just this afternoon met with Jeffrey and Cecil and we were talking about it. It’s been weird for all of us. Yeah, I don’t know. It’s been something like it hasn’t really become real for me … the extent of the responsibility. So that’s kind of where I am now.
Andrew Johnston: Yeah, absolutely. I can understand that. One of the questions I want to ask … we sort of get this out of everyone … is where did this whole thing come from? Why did you decide to start this podcast in the first place?
Joseph Fink: Okay, yeah. I’ve listened to a ton of podcasts, and so I’ve wanted to start a podcast for a long time, but I didn’t want it to sound like any of the podcasts I was listening to because they already existed. So it took me a while, probably like 8 or 9 months, to come up with the idea of Night Vale. I’ve always been fascinated with conspiracy theories. I came up with the idea of this place where every conspiracy theory is true, and then life just goes on from there.
Once I came up with that idea on my off time I just starting putting together little bits and pieces here and there, and eventually I had a first episode script. And then I got Cecil, who is a friend of mine, and John, who does the music, who is also a friend of mine. Just kind of asked them if I could get their help putting together a little test episode of something.
That was the pilot episode that we eventually released. It’s exactly that test episode completely unedited, which is why it’s a little rougher I think than the rest of them. I showed that to Jeffrey and I was like, “Hey, do you want a spend a long time writing this with me?” And he was up for it. So that’s how that started.
Andrew Johnston: Alright. You mentioned how you wanted something that was definitely unique, and I think Welcome To Night Vale accomplishes that goal because it’s sort of equal parts terrifying and hilarious, depending on your part in a particular episode. I was listening this week, and I made a terrible mistake. It was a really bad idea for the audience of putting it on and then taking a shower, and it was the Faceless Woman episode … which is the creepiest thing ever. Just the sound of the voice and that whole she’s at your left or your right … you just look around. She’s wondering why you can’t see … All of that sort of thing. It terrified me in a way that … as someone who’s a fan of horror movies and horror fiction, nothing has terrified me like that in quite a long time.
How is that possible? How is it that a show like Welcome To Night Vale can instill fear in a way that even some of the great horror movies that have come out recently, like Evil Dead, couldn’t accomplish?
Joseph Fink: I’m not sure I’m the best one to answer that question. I don’t know … we have clearly started writing intentionally creepy lately, but when we started out, it didn’t occur to us that Night Vale was creepy. It actually was not something we were trying to do at first.
There’s a reason it’s listed under comedy on iTunes. In our head it was essentially comedy with some kind of poetic story telling mixed in. And then we started seeing responses from a bunch of people being like, “Oh, this is so creepy.” And we were like, “Oh. It is?” As that’s continued, we have started … Faceless Old Woman Jeffrey definitely wrote to be creepy, and it is actually the first Night Vale Episode that creeped me out. I don’t find Night Vale particularly creepy when I’m listening to episodes we’ve put together, but the Faceless Old Woman one is particularly creepy. Credit entirely to Jeffrey; he wrote that episode.
Andrew Johnston: Yeah. I think that might end up being the key to success then … is just not being intentional … because it is funny. I don’t want people to think that it’s a straight up horror show like a We Are Alive or something, but it’s definitely funny. Something about that cadence and just the way that it came through is so … it can be so creepy sometimes. The damn Man in the Tan Jacket …
Joseph Fink: The Man in the Tan Jacket. Maybe it’s just Jeffrey writes very creepy stuff because Man in the Tan Jacket … I’ve written some of that stuff, but that was a character he created.
Andrew Johnston: Maybe Jeffrey has some problems.
Joseph Fink: We all have problems. I feel like Jeffrey is a very well-adjusted human being, probably one of the more well-adjusted ones I know, so I’m not sure that’s the answer. I think maybe he’s just a very good writer.
Andrew Johnston: Hey, nothing wrong with that, right?
Joseph Fink: Yeah.
Andrew Johnston: It was a big deal when you guys hit on the comedy charts over at iTunes. You exploded up the rankings. I haven’t checked recently. I’m not sure if you guys … Are you still holding towards the top, or is it …
Joseph Fink: We are at number one still.
Andrew Johnston: Nice.
Joseph Fink: We’ve been at number one on the U.S. chart for a little over two weeks. We’ve also kept an eye on international charts. We’ve at various times been number one in six other countries as well.
Andrew Johnston: Very nice. Do you feel that this is really going to help break some of the stereotyping that comedy podcasts have gotten since the explosion of Marc Maron and Adam Corolla … where a lot of comedy podcasts tend to be, just interviews with people that are theoretically funny. Now maybe more people are going to invest in scripted writing, or maybe exploring new ways to get comedy through in the podcasts.
Joseph Fink: Yeah, I don’t know if I’d use the word stereotyping because I feel like that’s something that comes from outside. I feel like it is something which unfortunately comes from within, which is that comedy podcasts kind of suffer from a lack of imagination, a lot of them. They are the same format, over and over.
Which is not to say like Night Vale was amazingly creative in its format. There’s been a lot of stuff that say little American town where weird things happen. It’s not the original idea ever, but the point is that you can do kind of anything with podcasts. It’s a stretch of time in which you stick sound. I hope it gets more people trying new things. I think that there’s a lot of room in podcasting. It’s still a very new media and I would really like to see people trying new things. And there are … I don’t know if you’ve ever heard Neil Hamburger’s New Year’s Eve?
Andrew Johnston: I’m familiar with Neil Hamburger. I did not know he had a podcast yet.
Joseph Fink: Oh, go check out his podcast. It is actually one of my favorites. It is, again, doing something radically new with Podcasting that really excites me. Every episode is New Year’s Eve, and it’s celebrating from Times Square Hollywood. It’s a bizarre podcast; it’s mostly music and creates this whole alternate world.
There’s Getting On with James Urbaniak, which is also doing something radically new with podcasting. I’d really like to see more of that. I’d like to see … I don’t know if there was a stagnation in podcasts people were making, but maybe in podcasts people were listening to … the ones that were getting popular. I don’t know …
Andrew Johnston: You said that it comes from an internal thing. I think it’s very much a self-feeding system.
Joseph Fink: Yeah.
Andrew Johnston: There was that stretch where Paul F. Thompkins was on a show every week somewhere.
Joseph Fink: Paul F. Thompkins was very funny. Actually, his podcast is doing something different. I really like his podcast because it is … it’s kind of almost like a podcast variety show, although he puts out episodes very rarely, because I think it’s a lot of work. But he’s actually an example of someone who’s doing some interesting stuff with podcasting. It is true that he is still on every single podcast. [crosstalk 00:10:45]
Andrew Johnston: Yeah. There’s definitely variety in podcasting, but I think the real special thing with Night Vale … it might just be the right time and the right show, but by hitting number one, dethroning the Adam Corolla, the Joe Rogan or whoever was number one for a thousand weeks before …
Joseph Fink: Generally what’s number one is This American Life. That was a big deal.
Andrew Johnston: Yes, but in the comedy section, especially.
Joseph Fink: Oh, in the comedy. The comedy section it’s … I think the number two for a long time behind us for the last month has been WTF.
Andrew Johnston: Yeah. That sounds about right. Just putting up that new thing at the top of the charts, I’m hoping that it’s going to inspire these people who are creative and do have a lot of interesting ideas to follow suit, and hopefully not copy in any way. There’s plenty you can do, and you’ve already listed a few really interesting shows out there. There’s a million more. I’m just hoping that now people will say, “Oh, so you don’t just copy Marc Maron. Maybe you can do something very different and come up with a good show.”
Joseph Fink: Yeah, I’d be excited for that. Even outside of comedy … just podcasting in general I think could use some really new ideas because it’s a field that can support new ideas if people try and do them.
Andrew Johnston: Right. Absolutely. We had on our show, I guess about a year ago, the guys from This Is That … which is a Canadian show which is like an actual radio show where they go out and do sort of the human interest pieces … but they’re completely fake. So it would be like the guy who wants to have sex with beavers, or something weird.
And people have responded to them, every episode. Tons and tons of people respond to them as if the show was real and they sort of like are yelling at them for saying absurd things, or like the people they feature in the story should be sent to jail. Now yours is a little more supernatural, but have you guys gotten any responses now that you’re presumably reaching quite a large audience. But a lot of people sort of respond to you like, “Who’s this guy in the jacket? What’s up with this graveyard? What’s going on with the dogs?” Like actually thinking that this somehow is a real thing?
Joseph Fink: No, I have not seen that. We get a lot of responses these days. I’m getting around 200 emails a day these days. So there’s a wide variety of stuff that are labeled nice and not nice. I haven’t really seen anyone mistake this for real. I feel like that’s not the intention of the show. We make no attempt to fool you, at all. And I don’t know of anyone who thinks it’s real.
We have the weather section, which is a song every time. I was in Spain a few months back and I heard this street musician playing that I really liked, so I got his contact information and emailed him about him being the weather on Night Vale. I don’t think his English was wonderful. I think he thinks he’s going to be played on the radio in some small U.S. town called Night Vale. I’m not clear … My Spanish isn’t great, and his English wasn’t great … but that might have happened … but that was my fault that he’s never heard the show.
Andrew Johnston: That would be pretty great if he did think that he was essentially a weatherman in some small town in the middle of America.
Joseph Fink: He seemed enthusiastic. I’m not sure how much we actually were able to communicate to each other, so I’m not sure what he thinks is going on.
Andrew Johnston: By the way, where is Night Vale? I know it might be revealing too many secrets, but where … Did I miss a specification or is it in a town?
Joseph Fink: There is no specification. Night Vale is in the desert in the United States. It’s not in Texas. We’ve had to add that because for a while we had this thing where everyone who was from Texas just assumed it was in Texas. They’d be like, “Check out this podcast about a small Texan town.” Even though we never mentioned where it is, and that kind of started to annoy me. I’ve made the official decision that it’s not in Texas. Other than that we have no location information.
Andrew Johnston: The good news is that there may be a limited number of states that could be desert states, but what people don’t know is that Delaware is definitely in that running. It could definitely be Delaware, if anyone’s ever been there.
Joseph Fink: I have one guy who told me he was sure it in New Jersey. My girlfriend is from New Jersey and I spend a lot of time there, and I’m not sure where he’s seeing the giant desert. We did actually have one listener who made the following argument, which I can’t argue with, even though that was not the intention. His argument was that we mentioned the grocery chain Ralph’s, and Ralph’s is only in California.
Andrew Johnston: Uh-oh.
Joseph Fink: I wouldn’t read anything into that. It was an interesting argument though.
Andrew Johnston: I can’t imagine it’s only in California.
Joseph Fink: Apparently it is. I don’t know. I grew up in California, so when I was trying to think of a big grocery chain I thought of Ralph’s, because I was used to seeing a lot of Ralph’s. I did not intend to use it to locate Night Vale anywhere.
Andrew Johnston: Yeah, well, we’ll have to do some research. See isn’t that the best part though about having all these fans … is that someone is going to draw a map. There’s going to be all of these conversations. You’ve created this thing, but now it’s being run with. People are just letting their imaginations take total control over this world that you created. And then you get to have that feedback. Is that the most rewarding thing you’ve ever done?
Joseph Fink: It is both great and terrible. It’s really great to have all these people having an experience with Night Vale like that. I’ve had an experience with all sorts of works—books, and TV shows, and movies that have meant a lot to me and that I thought a lot about. So it’s nice to have people doing that with Night Vale.
It’s less nice when they email me with fifty questions trying to get me to confirm or deny all the different stuff they’ve made up about Night Vale. They want specifics about the layout of Carlos’ house because they’ve come up with a layout, and they want to know if they’re right or not and they send me a list. That’s less good because it’s like … Everything we had to say we put in the show. Anything else, it’s your imagination. I’m not going to tell you if you’re right or wrong.
Andrew Johnston: Right. You talk to guys like the Tolkien professor. He does all this stuff about J.R.R. Tolkien, the Lord of the Rings, and people will ask him these questions. And he’s like, “It’s just whatever you want the answer to be, guy.” He’s dead. There’s no answer for it. And even if he was alive he’d probably be like, “Why are you bothering me?”
Joseph Fink: It is an interesting thing that I feel like people get so invested in these fictional worlds that they lose sight of the fact that maybe there isn’t a absolute answer. Because someone made it up, anything that’s not specifically within it can be made up … that there’s no specific answer.
It’s almost like … I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, but you’re dreaming and in your dream there’s something you’re about to find out or something like that. And then you wake up. And you’re like, “Oh, I didn’t get to find that out.” And then you realize you’re never going to find it out because it was just a dream. It was not real, and you’re never going to find out whatever that mystery was in your dream.
I feel it’s like that. People want there to be more beyond the boundaries of the fictional worlds they encounter.
Andrew Johnston: Yeah. Sometimes you can understand it being maddening. That dream thing, you kind of really want to find that out. But does it really matter … everything. Does everything really matter? Is there every small detail that important that you can’t just let that go? It’s not like when your favorite television show got canceled early. It’s a different situation.
Joseph Fink: Yeah. These are not major story elements. I don’t want to be down on people that are super enthusiastic about it because that means a lot to us. We’re very excited about it. The fan art that we’ve been seeing has been incredible. It’s just sometimes I want to shake people and be like, “Use your imaginations. You have one. It’s wonderful. You don’t need to rely on us to give you every aspect as how you picture this world. Let yourself go. That’s part of enjoying it.”
Andrew Johnston: Yeah. And you’d think they already have to do that, right? They already have to picture … because it’s not a visual medium. They already in their minds are piecing together what the Man in the Tan Jacket looks like, or anything along those lines.
Joseph Fink: Oh yeah, it’s been interesting. We’ve had a huge explosion of visual fan art, which is interesting for a show which has no visuals and intentionally has very few physical descriptions. We rarely describe people. It’s just not really what’s important in our show. And I think part of that is it allows for a huge amount of creativity on the part of the artist.
Say you want to do Old Woman Josie of the Angels. I’ve seen so many radically different interpretations of what Old Woman Josie of the Angels looked like, and it’s very exciting to see the different ways people imagine it. There’s been some really incredible art that I’ve seen that has come from people listening to the show. I think maybe not having a concrete visual to base it on has kind of sparked some of that … given more people more freedom to try stuff.
Andrew Johnston: Yeah, absolutely. That kind of response is exactly the sort of thing that will feed a monster, just like Night Vale could easily become as it continues to grow in popularity. We do have to move on the lightening round, but I want to ask you real quick, what are some of maybe the future plans. Is there anything you can let us in on? Maybe you guys are going to shift to weekly episodes, or every day …
Joseph Fink: Oh no. There’s no way we can really do, as I said, any more frequently than we are. They are very, very labor intensive. They have to be written, and then edited several times, and then recorded, and put together with sound and music. There’s a reason we do it twice a month. And there’s a reason it’s not very long, each episode. It’s just very labor intensive.
We do have a lot of plans. We have, just in the next couple weeks … I don’t know when this show is going up, but in the next couple weeks as of August 2nd, we have a new website with like … We’re doing new merchandise. We’ve had a t-shirt for a while, but people have been asking for all sorts of things so we are trying to expand that.
We have a live episode that we’re going to do in New York City. It’s almost entirely locked down to Thursday, October 10th right now. It’s 90% for sure of the date. It’s going to be the weekend of New York ComiCon. Again, there’s no one definite enough that I can tell you, but there’s some very exciting people that I would be thrilled to have that are very, very likely to be in our live episode … some fairly well-known names.
Andrew Johnston: Great. We’ll keep an eye out and when it comes up we’ll put it in the news section and let everyone know.
Joseph Fink: And in December we’re going to be releasing a book that’s like a Night Vale companion with scripts with behind the scenes annotations and Night Vale short stories, and some of the Night Vale art and stuff like that. So there’s all sorts of stuff, and then I don’t know … we get offers for different stuff every day, so I can’t really tell you. We’re not sure where this is going exactly.
Andrew Johnston: Well it’s going somewhere, and it sounds like it’s going in the right direction.
Joseph Fink: I hope. I hope. We’ve been popular for three weeks, so it’s really a matter of we don’t know what we have yet. We’re just kind of looking at this being like, “We don’t know what this is … yet.”
Andrew Johnston: Come a year from now when you’re all billionaires, you’ll know exactly.
Joseph Fink: Come a year from now when we have the billions of Podcast dollars, yes. Then we will know.
Andrew Johnston: Alright, well we’ve got to head on to the lightening round. So this is a really … just four questions, right?
Joseph Fink: Okay.
Andrew Johnston: You’ve got all the time in the world to answer them, but I like to call it a lightening round anyway. And then at the end, you get to ask a question for next week’s guest, but they can’t know who they are. Are you ready?
Joseph Fink: I guess. I’m more worried about having to come up with a question.
Andrew Johnston: Yeah. It’s tough. First question. I’m going to give you a series of apocali, and you must choose the one that you would most prefer to live in. Are you ready?
Joseph Fink: Sure.
Andrew Johnston: Your choices are a zombie apocalypse, a robot apocalypse, a biblical style apocalypse like the Rapture and whatnot in which you are not chosen … you’re not Raptured, or a Cthulhu style apocalypse.
Joseph Fink: Okay, I’m going to go with the biblical one because I think it’s the most interesting of those three … of those four stories.
Andrew Johnston: Oh yeah?
Joseph Fink: I think zombie apocalypse is kind of boring and robot apocalypse is pretty similar to zombie. I think the biblical story would be the one with the most interesting twist.
Andrew Johnston: Alright. Sounds good. And there’s no good people left in the world, so that will be fun.
Joseph Fink: Sure. There’s no hardcore Christians. I know a lot of cool people that probably be left behind, so we could hang out.
Andrew Johnston: Yeah. Left Behind. There’s a whole movie series in that.
Joseph Fink: Exactly. There’s a whole movie.
Andrew Johnston: Alright, question number two. If you could have one superpower in the world, what would it be?
Joseph Fink: II guess instant teleportation, because I really hate flying. And so anything in which I didn’t have to get on a plane anymore would be great.
Andrew Johnston: Alright. Nice. Addressing a very practical issue.
Joseph Fink: Yes.
Andrew Johnston: Alright, third question. Our champion of the podcast, the official mascot, is a hippo—a nondescript, everyday, plain old hippo. And I ask you, where would a hippo fit inside of Night Vale? What would he be doing in Night Vale?
Joseph Fink: I guess the hippo would be in the Night Vale Zoo. The motto of the zoo is that you go to the zoo so the animals can watch you. I guess that’s where you would store a hippo. It’s Night Vale so I guess the hippo could be anywhere, but let’s put him in the zoo.
Andrew Johnston: Sounds good to me. Alright the fourth question comes from our last guest, it’s Tim Pritlove, the man behind the Podlove technology that’s trying to make publishing podcasts that much easier. He wants to know what kind of hack do you prefer? Quick and dirty or long and elaborate?
Joseph Fink: I don’t even understand the question.
Andrew Johnston: (laughs) What kind of hack do you prefer? Quick and dirty or long and elaborate? He has said he leaves it up to you to interpret as you will.
Joseph Fink: Okay. I guess Jeffrey would be the better person to answer this as he is actually a computer guy. I am not a computer guy. Let’s say long an elaborate.
Andrew Johnston: Alright. Fair enough. Alright. So now that you’ve answered Tim’s question, you get to ask a question for next week. It can be any question in the world, one that’s maybe a little less confusing than that one.
Joseph Fink: That was kind of a confusing one. Go ahead and put me on the spot. Well, apparently your Podcast has a mascot, so what is their mascot?
Andrew Johnston: Hmm. That one could even just sort of extend into life, right?
Joseph Fink: Yeah, because I don’t know if your next guest is going to be a podcaster. Because I would have said, “What is your podcast mascot?” but I don’t know if they’re going to have a podcast. I guess we’ll just say, “What is your mascot?”
Andrew Johnston: Well, yeah. They’re either a podcaster or they’re someone who works in the podcasting world, so they probably have some kind of mascot. But that will be an interesting question, especially if they don’t have one for their show … to see what they come up with. Those are sometimes the fun questions is when the person has to be like, “I guess I’ve got to answer this somehow.”
Joseph Fink: Can I change my question that I ask the next person to, “Which hack due you prefer … quick and dirty or long and elaborate?”
Andrew Johnston: No, because it’s already been done.
Joseph Fink: Okay.
Andrew Johnston: Alright. You can find Night Vale at commonplacebooks.com. You’ve got Welcome To Night Vale right there. You guys are the Twitter @NightValeRadio, Facebook/Welcome To Night Vale. Is there anything I missed?
Joseph Fink: No, that’s us. That’s our thing.
Andrew Johnston: And as a side update, there are Ralph’s in Arizona.
Joseph Fink: There you go. So take, dude, who thought he figured it out.
Andrew Johnston: Ha ha. Well, Joseph, thank you for coming on the show. I really hope that this train keeps running and that we’ll keep talking about Night Vale as being one of the most popular podcasts out there for years to come. I really appreciate what you guys are doing.
Joseph Fink: Thanks. Boy, wouldn’t that be nice.