Interview: Cecil Baldwin and Jeffrey Cranor of “Welcome to Night Vale”

Go to iTunes and check out the top podcasts. Continually swapping first and second place these days are NPR’s This American Life and an offbeat little production that launched in June of 2012 called Welcome to Night Vale.  With roughly two episodes a month, it took this quirky podcast just over a year to reach the top of the charts, and it did that largely through the word of mouth culture of social media. In particular, Tumblr.

Night Vale is set in a fictional desert town where sinister paranormal, extraterrestrial and supernatural events are par for the course. All these strange happenings are reported on by the unfazed main character, a local radio announcer known as Cecil.

Of particular interest to LGBT listeners, Cecil is in love with Carlos, a handsome scientist who has come to the town of Night Vale to conduct mysterious experiments. With all the weird goings on, the relationship between Carlos and Cecil might just be the most normal element of the podcast.

Carlos and Cecil have developed quite an impressive following, with mountains of fanart, cosplay and fanfiction. (The couple’s rising popularity is such that they nearly dethroned fictional gay icons Kurt and Blaine from Glee in a recent poll on ) Night Vale is simply everywhere these days, so we were very pleased to talk to WTNV writer Jeffrey Cranor and the Voice of Night Vale himself Cecil Baldwin about the show, the fans, and the genesis of the gay romance between Carlos and Cecil.

Carlos and Cecil Night Vale
art by theopteryx

TheBacklot: We’ve heard that the relationship between Cecil and Carlos wasn’t the plan from the get go, when did it start to feel like that’s where this story was going?

Jeffrey: I don’t know who instigated it, I mean Joseph wrote that pilot episode and he had the mention of Carlos. As it began in the pilot he was just an unformed character that was played off that idea of a stranger in a strange town, a normal guy in a strange town exploring the scientific oddities of Night Vale. We didn’t really have much, other than the sheer kind of the adoration you have for a beautiful stranger in a stranger land and the way people stare at him.

We didn’t think of it as romantic right away. And as we went on with it the more and more we started describing Carlos and thinking about what his personality was, Joseph and I just sort of got to liking the character and enjoying the character and we couldn’t see why the character of Cecil wouldn’t love him as well for the same reasons that we did.

And so we started moving it that way and seeing if it worked out, not unlike an actual real life relationship where you start hanging out with somebody more and then over time you realize “Yeah, I could really be with this person for a while.” That’s kind of how we felt about Cecil and Carlos as we wrote more and more interactions between them.

Cecil, what do you find captivating about them as a couple, and what is it like to be a part of that?

Cecil: I guess what I find captivating is that, like Jeffrey said, it happened very organically. It’s not like they sat down and said, “What do we need in this podcast to make it popular and let’s check off the boxes and see how many demographic groups we can hit and appeal to.” It definitely just happened very naturally.

I think for me what’s great about playing Cecil the character and what’s really fun about their relationship is that I get to address the idea of gay relationships as something that is utterly normal. It’s like many people have commented, in the strange world of Night Vale the fact that there’s a gay relationship and a relationship with a person of color is the least weird thing going on in this podcast.

It’s just so natural and in performance I think what’s a lot of fun is allowing that, to reflect relationships in very mature kind of way, where it starts off as a crush and then you have a couple of episodes where Cecil is very giddy about any interaction he has with Carlos and going through the worrying phase of “Does he like me? Am I annoying him? What if he hates me?”

And then finally achieving reciprocation on Carlos’ part and then moving on from there when they’re actually going on dates, and they’re kind of building a relationship together with the sort of things that happen when you’re in a relationship with someone from the mundane to the fun. So you know it’s not all romance; it is negotiating schedules and habits that just sort of irk you about your partner but you still love them anyways and so you accept them for who they are.

Recently Joseph Fink (creator and co-writer of WTNV) tweeted a screen cap of an email from a listener who disagreed with the gay content on the show. How do you guys react to messages like this?

Jeffrey: I don’t how or if Cecil receives this or in what way he may or may not receive that type of stuff. Sometimes people will email Joseph separately from me, sometimes they’ll email the Night Vale account which we can both read and we’ve had- I can only think of a couple of pretty outright “I don’t like the gay stuff” type of emails and I just ignore them. There’s no reason to engage that type of dialogue there’s nothing I can say to that – you know sometimes I can’t reach my family, who love me dearly, about the issue and so let alone some stranger over email. I don’t even know where they’re coming from who they are or why they would write me that. So yeah generally speaking I ignore them.

I will say this, you know about 15 years ago I was working in a theater company in Dallas in the late 90s and we did a play that had gay characters in it. It was not a political play about homosexuality but it had gay characters in it. That was mentioned in a Dallas morning news review of the show and we received a bunch of voicemails that next day after the review ran from really angry people, people saying really mean and awful things. But I do think we’ve come a long way. I think there are hopefully fewer of those vocal people writing shit like that. Maybe that’s me being rose colored- I don’t know. You know it’s different for me because coming from someone who does not identify as gay I probably receive much less of that.

Cecil: For me I don’t handle a lot of the email for Night Vale as much as Jeffrey and Joseph do. I usually get the really positive stuff, like the really awesome emails from people and especially now that we’re doing more live shows and we’re going out into the world and getting to meet the fans, it’s really amazing and heartwarming the people that come up to me and they’ll bring their girlfriend or boyfriend to the show and they’re obviously so excited to see a live reading about a show where homosexuality is just normal and not only is normal but is actually, I don’t know, very maturely dealt with. It’s not the main gist of the show.

I think I saw someone who on some online forum was just like, “You know what’s cool about it is that their relationship is like a subplot of a subplot.” These characters don’t exist just to be gay and for me I feel like that’s a major part of how queer representation is presented in a lot of mainstream media. We are plot points.

A lot of times we are, like I said earlier, “Oh we need to hit all the demographics; we need a gay character in there so I guess we’re going to write one in.” And then suddenly they don’t do anything besides just be the gay character. And so it’s really great getting to have these fans email me and talk to me after shows and say, “Thank you so much for kind of being representative not just for the community but being representative of people in our community.” That to me is really great.

But I don’t think I’ve received any kind of negative backlash personally. I think Jeffrey and Joseph have the correct attitude which is – just delete it. You can’t change people’s minds if they’re that upset about the fact that there are gay characters in the show. You’re not going to change their minds with a brief email explaining why you wrote this. It’s better to just let them have their opinion and keep doing what you’re doing.

Jeffrey: And almost every single bit of email correspondence that we get and in person communication with fans is positive and people have a great response.  It’s heartening that it’s such a small handful that would send us an email like that one.

 What’s it like to have such a direct relationship with your fans?

Cecil: It’s really cool. I have an actor Facebook page and a lot of people contact me through that. It’s everything from people saying “Hi, I really like your work” to people who have said really amazing things about how this podcast has been really inspirational for them and things like that and it’s a blessing in that, because the internet brings everyone so close together, you do have that kind of direct link to your fans.

Jeffrey: In places like Tumblr and Twitter and Facebook, but especially on Tumblr, you can get so much immediate creativity from fans which is really where a lot of the blow up started was with slash fic and fanfic writers and fan artists things like that. I think that the Tumblr community allows them not only to, well we didn’t have a presence on Tumblr when that happened, so what’s amazing is not just reaching us but that they can reach each other about stuff and share ideas.

It’s pretty fascinating for a show that not only has no visual components to it but that where we sort of actively seek not describe too many visual elements of the show to people because it’s theater of the mind and we want people to be correct about their idea of what something or somebody looks like. It’s really amazing that there’s some consensus and there’s some disagreements on things like that, there’s a whole dialogue amongst the fans that they’re able to have about the show.

A lot of that gets sent to us, like nail art and Halloween pumpkins with our logo, wool knit hats, and crazy creative stuff that people have made for themselves. It’s really great.

Art by briiing-me-that-horizon

Do you guys have a clear idea on the background of Cecil and of these characters, where they come from or where they’re going?

Jeffrey: We’re getting there and we’re evolving our process over time. Early on we were taking it on an episode-by episode basis and just keeping the rules of the universe uniform, but not necessarily thinking in terms of overall plot.

As we got through that first year we kind of realized, wow there are some quite big overarching plot elements like Cecil and Carlos that kind of came out of organic discussion and writing. So we have been more active; Joseph and I will email or sit down and talk about some things that we’re going to do and want to do. So yeah, we have a little bit more of some overarching storylines and the timeline in which this or that storyline could be resolved or a storyline that could be introduced sometime soon.

So those are the things we’re playing with, figuring out a new process for finding the overarching storyline but still making sure that we strike that balance of a show that anyone can listen to right away and have an idea of what’s going on without slowing down the avid listener that’s been listening since episode one with a bunch of expository stuff every episode we definitely don’t want to do that!

About there being more background on Cecil, definitely, Joseph and I have been working on a lot of writing recently and part of that for me is not writing episodes but more of like backstory of characters that may or may never make it into the show. But it’s kind of helpful for me personally to understand people better and what their relationships are.

Writing out minor characters like Diane Creighton, I’m really interested in Diane Creighton and so writing stuff like that. That’s kind of how the character Dana came about. I just sat down and was like, “I need to do more with her.” So I just wrote a bunch of stories with her and found her storyline and put that in the show. The same thing is happening with Cecil, like in the episode Cassette that came out in October.

The fandom kind of freaked out when they found out Cecil’s fictional last name. Did you guys feel that there needed to be a separation between Cecil (the actor) and Cecil (the character) or was it just about bringing more depth to the character?

Jeffrey: For us as writers it was both. We’d never given him a last name but we’d never thought of his last name as Baldwin. That was one of those rare instances of us taking one really particular fan question and addressing it really directly in the script.

Cecil: I remember the three of us were sitting down one day– you have to understand that in our world there’s a sort of pre-July 2013 and then post-July 2013 which was sort of when [the podcast broke out in popularity]. So after that the three of us sat down and I remember Joseph and Jeffrey were like, “How are you doing with all this. Like is it weird that you do a Google search on your name and 99% of the responses are not about you as a person but the character you play and does that make you uncomfortable?” And I never, it never really bothered me.

I always kind of looked at it like – it’s kind of a strange example – but like a comedian who gets a TV show where they’re playing a fictional version of themselves, like Louis C.K. is a good example. It just seemed normal. Like well that’s my name and I’m playing a character that shares my name but it’s definitely a fictionalized version of that.

Obviously I don’t live in Night Vale… much to, I think, a lot of my fans’ chagrin. And I don’t have a third eye or tattoos on my sleeves. There is a definite separation between Cecil the character and Cecil the performer. And I think giving him a last name has only helped flesh out Cecil the character a little bit more.

As Jeffrey said we’re getting more into the backstory of Cecil and his sort of origin story if you will and that’s just serving to further the overarching story of Night Vale in general. So that way he’s not some sort of faceless narrator, it’s actually Cecil is becoming a more human character which just makes for a better story.

Jeffrey: I joked recently with Joseph when we were talking about the issue of naming and that I was going to write it first and I was going to make his last name Carlsberg.

Cecil: No. No. Wasn’t going to happen.

Does the way in which Cecil delivers the lines and what he does with the language affect the writing of the show?

Jeffrey: Definitely, I mean Cecil is a huge part of the show and while we write all of the words Cecil delivers them and that’s a huge part of what makes them sound so good. I think somebody asked Joseph once about like tips on writing and Joseph was like “Find a brilliant actor.” So it really does make a huge impact.

We don’t direct Cecil much if at all and what he comes up with kind of dictates what we do next. The Carlos character and that relationship and how it grew, a lot of it had to do with how I write things down to play with it as a writer to see how the character is fleshing out as I’m writing him and then Cecil performs it and you’re like yeah I hear this I hear more depth to this thing I just wrote, that Joseph just wrote. It sort of dictates where you want to go next as a creator. So yeah it’s a huge impact on us.

Cecil: For me, I get scripts from Joseph and Jeffrey and they’ve sort of given me this carte blanche model where I literally just record it and listen to it and then think, “Oh okay this is good what if I tried it like this?”

One of the important things kind of going back to Cecil being queer representative is performing the character in the most honest way possible. That includes giving him moments where he is filled with gravity, moments when he is just another geeky fangirl and moments when he is angry… and finding those moments. We’re all multifaceted human beings and inserting those into the script so that way he is not just a one note radio announcer and he is a complete human being.

That to me is really important, approaching the script Joseph and Jeffrey give me from a very honest and open place. And it’s a lot of fun, honestly, it’s just fun.

Art by kinomatika

Cecil, you recently recorded an audio version of an installment of The Bane Chronicles by Cassandra Clare and Maureen Johnson. Was that a different experience for you?

Cecil: That is probably my first professional audio book experience and it was amazing. I was contacted, Cassandra Clare and Maureen Johnson were fans of the show and through mutual contacts approached me to do this episode of The Bane Chronicles and of course I said yes that sounds amazing.

It’s very different from Night Vale, though, because it’s more what you would consider a traditional audio book with different characters and a third person narrative, but everyone involved in the taping was really supportive and really amazing. I hope the fans of The Bane Chronicles and that world appreciate and love it. I was like, “Okay I’m going to the very best job that I can.” And it was really fun.

Jeffrey: I told Cecil I’m very jealous because I’ve been following Maureen Johnson on Twitter for so long that I really enjoy the heck out of her and so Cecil is the first and only out of all of us to meet Maureen.

Jeffrey, can you tell us about the Night Vale book that you guys are working on?

Jeffrey: Yeah, you know it’s so difficult because we have people involved that we’re trying to talk to like publishers of the book. We have Common Place which is the company that oversaw the creation of Night Vale which is basically Joseph and I.

I think Night Vale grew past what that company is able to support. We’re in the process of talking to publishers and people who can help us with the book project and planning the best avenue and the best book we can put forward, whether it ends up being prose or graphic novel or picture pop- up book, maybe we’re just going to spray paint our book on the side of a wall in New York.

That’s kind of where we are; unfortunately I don’t have a lot of details on what we will or won’t be putting out. There’s a lot we want to do, we’re writers and we want to do this all the time and we want to– number one, keep making the podcast and then number two, keep writing things. We love the world of Night Vale, of course, so we want to keep writing for Night Vale in different ways and finding different ways of fleshing out the universe. So if you know somebody in HBO who wants to do a mini-series, let us know!

Welcome to Night Vale releases new podcast episodes roughly twice a month. The next episode is scheduled to be released tomorrow and can be downloaded from iTunes.

Information on Welcome to Night Vale live shows can be found here.