Why you should care
Because you want to believe.
At the crossroads of nothing and nowhere, beneath indifferent stars, alien aircraft and a toxic, anthropomorphic “Glow Cloud” that rains down dead animals, lies Night Vale, USA. It’s a place you might vacation if you’re interested in visiting Radon Canyon (where the views are “literally breathtaking”); in being assaulted physically and emotionally (and probably sexually) by storm troopers from an openly public secret police; in going insane.
Welcome to Night Vale is the creation of two (apparently) sane people — Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor — who developed the idea for a podcast about a fictitious local news broadcast from a Roswell-themed desert outpost rife with flying dinosaurs, hooded occult figures who congregate at dog parks, and major existentialist concerns. “We spent a lot of time drinking beer together, talking about podcasts we liked,” says Cranor. “We didn’t want to do a podcast someone else was doing, and we’re not comedians — neither of us has any improv abilities. Then Joseph came up with this idea of a town where every conspiracy theory was true and we took that as the jumping-off point.”
The “news” is delivered by local radio personality Cecil Gershwin Palmer (voiced by Cecil Baldwin), who dispenses observations about Night Vale’s myriad conspiracies with a vaguely smug air of authority that bears a whiff of willful stupidity. According to Cranor, “[Baldwin’s] performance has really informed a lot of our writing. The evolution of storylines … some of it comes from writing but a lot of it comes from the way Cecil performs scenes or talks about other characters on the show.”
Meaning, the podcast argues, is something invented, a story created after the fact to try to make sense of the nonsensical.
The remarkable success of Welcome to Night Vale — it’s frequently among iTunes 10 most downloaded podcasts — can best be explained by the yawning void that is human existence: Night Vale playfully, absurdly juxtaposes the banalities of daily life (PTA meetings, tourist board promotional campaigns, public radio pledge drives) with otherworldly happenings that frequently involve aliens, the secret police or some synergy of the two. This Mad Libs approach to local news stories lends each episode a dark humor and underlying meaninglessness driven by an existentialist ideology that has coursed through the podcast from its inception.
Fink and Cranor get to the inherent absurdity of life by stripping away the evaluative process of assigning meaning to experience. In Night Vale, a pack of three-headed pit bulls high on meth eats several children; the manager of the town’s Pinkberry franchise changes the flavors of yogurt offered. The one event is no more meaningful than the other; both are simply occurrences. Meaning, the podcast argues, is something invented, a story created after the fact to try to make sense of the nonsensical.
Welcome to Night Vale is a difficult listen at first, a dog’s dinner of seemingly unrelated, random anecdotes that go nowhere fast. Narrative arcs only present themselves after several episodes, and even these arcs — true to the show’s perspective — are treated with the same ambivalence as ones involving a five-headed, fire-breathing political terrorist, or the town’s useless city council. But it’s rewarding in the long run — a kinder, narrative-averse, H.P. Lovecraft–meets–NPR take on Seinfeld played out in the middle of nowhere. It’s a show about nothing. Just like life.