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November 11, 2014 11:14 AM   Subscribe

"Here's the thing. You have no real control over popular success. You only have control over artistic success. If you're not concentrating on the latter, the best case scenario is you do not achieve the former." Jeffrey Cranor, co-writer of "Welcome to Night Vale," talks about what has made it a success. (Night Vale, previously.)
posted by jbickers (38 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
Awesome. Night Vale is very much made with love.
posted by Artw at 11:17 AM on November 11, 2014 [2 favorites]


This would make a good companion piece to the How to Win the Lottery speech.
posted by edheil at 11:39 AM on November 11, 2014 [3 favorites]


You have no real control over popular success. You only have control over artistic success.

That is so, so true. I've found in blogging that I have no freaking clue which posts will do well and which won't. I've worked for hours on a post and been really proud of it, only to see it drop like a rock. I've seen mediocre posts I slapped together in half an hour go viral. The day I posted something that I thought was solid work but too dry to have much appeal to many and saw it do better than anything I'd posted in a month was the day I threw up my hands and resigned myself to never knowing what would prove popular and what wouldn't.

All you can do is concentrate on doing good work, and then put it out there and hope for the best. Your most popular work may not be your best work, or even representative of your main body of work.
posted by orange swan at 11:44 AM on November 11, 2014 [8 favorites]


I took a long car trip over the weekend and made a good faith effort to get into Night Vale - and just couldn't. I started out with the much-recommended "Cassettes" episode and found the humor ham-fisted, nothing especially creepy about it, and the whole thing to be a little self-congratulatory, as if the narrator (or the writer) *thinks* he's a lot funnier and more talented than he actually appears to be.

But it really *does* seem like something I'd be into, and I'm willing to forgive a lot under pretty similar circumstances (Lovecraft and "Dark Shadows", for instance). Is there something I'm missing? A better episode to start with?
posted by ryanshepard at 11:57 AM on November 11, 2014 [5 favorites]


You should probably just start from the first episode. It all builds up. Cassette is really kind of a meta episode.
posted by Drinky Die at 12:07 PM on November 11, 2014 [12 favorites]


The episode A Story About You, while not adhering to their typical format, was the first time the show really seemed to reach for and attain something great and eerie. I'd give that one a shot.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:09 PM on November 11, 2014 [5 favorites]


Seconding starting from episode #1. They found their footing as they went along, but everything in there builds on what comes before. (I would not recommend any exceptional episodes out of context; the context is what makes them work.)
posted by Shmuel510 at 12:11 PM on November 11, 2014 [6 favorites]


I feel like Cassette is only creepy once you're more familiar with Night Vale and Cecil. I agree that you should just start from the beginning and give it 3-4 episodes, and also try A Story About You. If you're still not feeling it after that, it's not for you. Though if you're short on time and just want the most bang for your buck, if there's any episode that's going to work fine out of context, it might be A Story About You.
posted by yasaman at 12:13 PM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'd start from the beginning. The effectiveness of the mood of some of the later episodes is built upon what elements are slowly revealed (or hidden) in the earliest episodes. I am partial to the earlier episodes, mainly because of how much was conveyed through the single voice of an unreliable narrator. It sort of opens up as time passes.
posted by krinklyfig at 12:16 PM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


The sentiment behind this article is right, but boy do I ever think that Night Vale is a poor example of the sentiment. Night Vale has very much gone downhill because they started playing to popular success rather than artistic success. It used to be creepy and dark and mysterious. Then fans started dressing up like Cecil, shipping him with Carlos, and so on, and the podcast totally bought into all the fanwankery. And it became a sitcom and a soap opera.

In the last Night Vale thread, a lot of us were upset with the last big arc being resolved in a couple of live episodes. They featured voice actors mugging for the audience and everyone in the stands hooting and cheering. It felt so opposed to the spirit of the show! That's what I thought at the time. But then I realized that the live show wasn't an outlier. That's what the show has become. The five-headed dragon is no longer just a weird image in the shadows: now he's five funny characters voiced by James Urbaniak. Gross. The show is always mugging for a hooting audience now.

Such a shame... it used to be so good. The difference between early Night Vale and current Night Vale reminds me an awful lot of Twin Peaks before and after the Laura Palmer murder was solved.
posted by painquale at 12:18 PM on November 11, 2014 [11 favorites]


I think Night Vale peaked at "Renovations" and has lost its way since then. I'm hopeful it will come back, though. I didn't love every episode before, so maybe there's just been a string of less entertaining ones.

But for someone new to it, I'd start at the beginning.
posted by Foosnark at 12:26 PM on November 11, 2014


Yeah, I feel like a project like Night Vale has a short natural life span, after which it becomes difficult to recapture the kind of creative energy that inspired it. I kinda wish they had done what Andy Daly did with his podcast and put a strict limit on the number of episodes.
posted by krinklyfig at 12:26 PM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


I definitely disagree that it is going down hill. The recent Homecoming episode was one of my favorites.

And Cecil was gushing about Carlos from the start, I wouldn't blame the fans for that one.
posted by Drinky Die at 12:27 PM on November 11, 2014 [8 favorites]


It's weird to hear complaints that Night Vale is no longer "creepy"; it seemed to me like it was a spoof on creepy from the start.

Also I can put in my two cents disagreeing with "start from the beginning." I actually started it with, like, episode 11 or 12 and went backwards, and it was unexpectedly great. I loved having no context whatsoever for "the faceless old woman who secretly lives in your home," and then finding out only later what that was all about. I wonder if a person could listen to the whole thing backwards at this point, or if there's too much now...
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 12:32 PM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yeah, Cecil/Carlos was a thing from the start, and it was a thing before the show gained a critical mass of slash fans from Tumblr. I lost some interest when Night Vale started getting more serialized plots like the thing with Desert Bluffs because I liked the more stand alone nature of the earlier episodes, but I've always enjoyed the running thread of the Cecil/Carlos relationship and don't think it's ruined the show.

As to mugging for a hooting audience, well, I can't blame them. Doing live shows is a way for the whole enterprise to make money beyond merch and donations, and special guests are a way to sell tickets and liven up what would otherwise be a live show that consists of Cecil just talking. Plus, it's clear they've taken some cues from the likes of the successful Thrilling Adventure Hour. I'd have been perfectly happy if Night Vale was a limited run podcast that stayed in the early format, but I'm not going to begrudge them taking their success and running with it to take the show in a new direction.
posted by yasaman at 12:38 PM on November 11, 2014 [5 favorites]


The faceless old woman who secretly lives in your home left me a note on my bathroom mirror in lipstick that wasn't mine the other day, saying "Good job." She's so nice.
posted by Deoridhe at 12:42 PM on November 11, 2014 [14 favorites]


Oh, I guess Night Vale could also have real advertising to support itself, but I think there'd be a fan outcry if they replaced the current "ads" with real ones, and I doubt many sponsors would be okay with the general format of the current "ads," as hilarious and unnerving as they are. The ads have been some of my favorite writing on the show to date, I'd hate to hear them replaced by the standard bland stamps.com or Audible podcast ads.
posted by yasaman at 12:45 PM on November 11, 2014 [4 favorites]


You have no real control over popular success. You also don't always get to choose who your fans are, or how they react.

A Couple Of Guys Doing A Podcast With Friends -- heck, Joseph Fink was his OWN guest weather in the first episode -- grew exponentially into the #14 album on iTunes and a live European tour. As Cranor put it, "Tumblr happened," and suddenly you find yourself responding to people claiming that your characters are intentionally all Caucasian and thus you're racist or that Cecil DOES TOO have a third eye or how Character X needs their own episode or similar things and all of a sudden, you have to keep yourself from molding the show around the fans' expectations instead of simply letting them react.

Many times, a writer finds that he has 'n' accessible and good ideas in him and it's a struggle riding a concept beyond that point. Writing creatively is hard. Writing creatively on a regular deadline is fiendish. Writing creatively when the audience has ballooned and the original conception of the show is tiny in the rear-view mirror and Jackson Publick is one of your voice actors now and you know that your quickly-acquired megafans are just as capable of turning on you due to the mercurial nature of the Internet? My brain hurts just thinking about it. I wish them all the luck in the world keeping the quality standards up.
posted by delfin at 12:47 PM on November 11, 2014 [8 favorites]


"Got a home improvement project? Need help? Incomplete? Having feelings? Strange feelings? Feelings you’ve never felt? Incomplete? Is your body filled with hot blood, waving curves of sinew and skin? Can you feel all that blood? Is it even your blood? How can you be sure? Incomplete? Are you dizzy from it all? All of this? What are your hands doing? Incomplete?"

The idea that the actual Home Depot might not want this to be their real ad just makes me so, so sad.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 12:54 PM on November 11, 2014 [19 favorites]


As to mugging for a hooting audience, well, I can't blame them. Doing live shows is a way for the whole enterprise to make money beyond merch and donations, and special guests are a way to sell tickets and liven up what would otherwise be a live show that consists of Cecil just talking.

I saw the "Librarians" show live, and it wasn't like that; there were a couple of other speakers besides Cecil but they weren't highly featured and didn't ham it up much. It came off as a particularly good episode, well-adapted for a live audience.
posted by Foosnark at 1:02 PM on November 11, 2014 [2 favorites]


If you like the format of Night Vale (spoof on small-town public radio) but don't like the way it's progressing, I recommend you go and listen to the Kincaid Weekender right away. It's not going for the creepy vibe, but it's a tight four episodes that start subtle and work up to ridiculous.

Or if you want to keep the funny-creepy theme, try The Witching Hours. Fun and Games and Portrait of the Artist as Another Man were some of my favorite episodes.

Why yes, I do seem to be binging on New Zealand podcasts lately. Basically I'm just following Jonny Potts around.
posted by echo target at 1:07 PM on November 11, 2014 [13 favorites]


Count me in as a fan who thought the Desert Bluffs arc was too drawn out and ultimately unsatisfying, much as I loved Tamika Flynn. But I think this new direction is really interesting: that Night Vale's weirdness is actually pretty closeminded and intolerant. (And heartbreaking suggestion that Carlos isn't exactly rushing to find a way back to Cecil and Night Vale.) I wouldn't say I'm 100% on Team Steve Carlsberg, but I'm finding him more and more sympathetic with each episode.
posted by book 'em dano at 1:08 PM on November 11, 2014 [7 favorites]


One of the biggest draws of Night Vale (and thus something that makes doing it live on stage particularly puzzling) is that it was a purely auditory experience at heart. As the NatLamp Radio guys once sang, "You Don't Have To Look At Pictures On The Radio," and thus the laws of physics and logic need not apply (akin to Spike Milligan's fabled unsteady relationships with time and space on the Goon Show).

A five-headed dragon character surely sounded a lot funnier to the staff when they weren't trying to figure out how to have it read a speech to a live crowd. (This is the Zaphod's Second Head Principle at work.) Now, they're storyboarding with an eventual visual aspect in mind as well... and that changes how they write.
posted by delfin at 1:19 PM on November 11, 2014 [2 favorites]


The closeminded intolerance isn't new either. When the underground city beneath the pin retreival area of lane five of the bowling ally was discovered Cecil went into full-on Hutu radio mode, insisting (without any evidence whatsoever) that the (unseen) undergrounders were a warlike threat which needed to be pre-emptively fought. He advocated forming militias. The show periodically reminds us that as genial as Cecil may be he himself is not fully insulated against the wrongness of his environment.

Night Vale is usually satire of the horror genre, which is why its occasional moments of real horror are so effective.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:22 PM on November 11, 2014 [4 favorites]


Nthing A Story About You being Night Vale's finest hour early on. I listened to that episode while riding a train north into a steadily darkening storm, and it was fantastic atmosphere. I've listened to it again and again.

Whatever the vagaries of the development of this podcast, I think this advice is spot-on. Make art that you love to make. Success may or may not follow. The art, and benefits thereof, will remain.
posted by Existential Dread at 1:26 PM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


Also, they gave a Weather spot to my favorite Kiwis, Black City Lights, on The Deft Bowman episode.
posted by Existential Dread at 1:31 PM on November 11, 2014


We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese , that is my favorite WTNV ad of all time.
posted by KathrynT at 1:37 PM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


COMPUTER
posted by Artw at 1:52 PM on November 11, 2014


FWIW, I thought that "The Debate" actually worked really well as a live show and a recording.

The election story never really caught my interest, nor did Jackson Publick's voice acting as Hiram McDaniels... However, the recording of The Debate is fantastic, and is one of my favorite episodes.

My only complaint is that it was left out of the continuity of the podcast episodes. It actually makes that storyline make sense.

I honestly don't know why they couldn't capture some of that magic in the anniversary show.... Like many others, the recording of that one fell a bit flat for me.
posted by schmod at 2:01 PM on November 11, 2014


And Cecil was gushing about Carlos from the start, I wouldn't blame the fans for that one.

Carlos was just a hot scientist who Cecil adored from afar. The fact that they actually started dating and that Carlos became a voiced recurring soap opera character is, I think, due to fan reaction. (Maybe the writers had the relationship all planned out from the start, but I honestly doubt it.)
posted by painquale at 2:13 PM on November 11, 2014


Carlos and Cecil's first date was set up in the 16th episode, The Phone Call, which was in the first year of the show before it really exploded in popularity. So I don't think you can say Cecil/Carlos was all due to fan reaction. Carlos actually talked in that episode too, though they got a different voice actor for him when his role expanded.

It's fine if you don't like Cecil/Carlos, but it's not like it came out of nowhere or was shoehorned in after the show got really popular.
posted by yasaman at 2:57 PM on November 11, 2014 [3 favorites]


Oh, I guess Night Vale could also have real advertising to support itself, but I think there'd be a fan outcry if they replaced the current "ads" with real ones, and I doubt many sponsors would be okay with the general format of the current "ads," as hilarious and unnerving as they are.

Why would they need advertising in the show? They just sold this essay about the show to Cory Doctorow as advertising for his new book.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:56 PM on November 11, 2014


I actually like "the new" Night Vale. I loved the Desert Bluffs arc so much I made a knitted skirt with the Desert Bluffs logo on it. Yeah, I'm weird. I haven't watched a live show, but I've enjoyed the recordings. (Isn't The Debate canon? There's a lot of references to a certain angel and his bone table and his distinctive dialogue in later episodes.) And I've enjoyed bringing in other voices on the show--my favorites being Jasika Nicole and Mara Wilson. I dunno, I guess I don't see anything wrong with their success.

On a related note, I recently watched this speech by Cranor and hoo boy. It talks about the total whammo of the show becoming popular after the first year, that what once was a fun thing to do with your friends has become a business, and suddenly he can do live tours in freaking Europe instead of working his incredibly shitty previous day job. It's the best year ever--but he wakes up freaked out all the time.

Whoa.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:00 PM on November 11, 2014 [3 favorites]


The problem I had with "A Story About You" is that they're skillful writers — surely they could have found a way to write it without making "you" explicitly gendered. As someone who identifies as female, there were aspects of the narration (it's been a while since I've listened to it, so no specific citations) that felt like a splash of cold water as far as knocking me out of the "you" means "me" mindframe.
posted by Lexica at 9:48 PM on November 11, 2014 [3 favorites]


Carlos and Cecil's first date was set up in the 16th episode

Hmm, I guess that probably was planned from the beginning, or close to it. I don't think I'd mind their relationship on its own (I cheered for them at the beginning too), but now that relationship is just one piece of a big ongoing soap. Similarly: I loved the Desert Bluffs episodes on their own. But then we started revisiting them and learning more about them. Night Vale is best when it's mysterious and otherworldly, but it's become chummy. We are becoming familiar with people and their plans and comfortable with the rules of Night Vale universe.

Fan response often causes writers to revisit popular characters and places when they should leave well enough alone. Night Vale is particularly sensitive to being weakened by familiarity, but for some reason it has indulged in making things familiar. I was partly blaming the fans for that, but maybe its not the fans' fault and the writers were moving along that trajectory anyway.
posted by painquale at 2:21 AM on November 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


I should add that I don't begrudge Cranor or anyone else for the choices they're making. I'm just offering an explanation for why I used to think the show was fantastic and now I no longer do.
posted by painquale at 2:23 AM on November 12, 2014


I have to admit, Carlos/Cecil shocked me - but I assumed Cecil's reaction to Carlos was because all Horror Genre Scientists are Ruggedly Handsome with Perfect, Perfect hair - and so all of us were enamored of Carlos and his smile.

Now I think they're freaking adorable. Carlos' "I'm a SCIENTIST" slays me (especially as the daughter of a SCIENTIST). I'm really sad Carlos has found the new most amazing place, though. 8(
posted by Deoridhe at 2:03 PM on November 12, 2014


The Homecoming episode is the finest episode to date. It's so marvelously subtle at first and then BLAMMO and then back to subtle. I think part of the reason so many people feel like the first year was the best year is that they started listening when there were already many episodes to gorge on. Now, waiting between episodes makes the less finely crafted ones stand out more. It's not that there were fewer meh episodes early on, it's that you quickly went to the next one and they faded in memory. It's the same reason that people loved the episode Fly when marathoning Breaking Bad, but there were a lot of complaints about it when it initially aired. Certain types of episodes just work better when you're speeding through them.
posted by stoneweaver at 12:00 PM on November 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


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