Cecil Gershwin Palmer is perhaps the most recognized voice in all of Night Vale, the fictional desert town where all conspiracy theories are real. And Cecil Baldwin, the real-life actor behind him, has become perhaps been one of the most recognized voices in podcasting since 2013, when Welcome to Night Vale went from a small project produced by a few friends to the most downloaded podcast in the world.
Baldwin notes that he is sometimes recognized for his voice. “It’s so funny being noted for your voice and not your face or body,” he says. “It’s always whenever I’ll be in a restaurant, and the bartender will have his back turned. I’ll be like, ‘Hey, can I get a beer?’ And he’ll turn and be like, ‘I know that voice.'”
In Night Vale’s early days, Baldwin didn’t enjoy that sort of universal recognition. He recalls that from somewhere between the show’s first nine months and first year, the biweekly podcast was a labor of love with a small fanbase. “It really appealed to me as an artist,” he says. “Joseph [Fink] brought it up to me one day and said, ‘Hey, would you be interested in doing this? ’Cause you have this sort of throwback radio-announcer voice, and I’ve written this project as a pilot. We can put it on the Internet for free, people can download it for free.’ And I said, ‘Of course. I’d love to.'”
Baldwin remembers being very excited for the chance to work on a new project. “I’m a die-hard horror movie fan,” he adds, noting that he was drawn in by “the whole David Lynch, David Cronenberg, sort of Twin Peaks, Twilight Zone, H. P. Lovecraft aspect of Night Vale.” What was a relatively meager fanbase at first grew over the course of one summer, as he recalls, “where literally one person on Tumblr listened to a show in Australia, and then they told ten of their friends, and those ten friends told their friends.”
“It was definitely a shock,” he says. “I had just been fired from my restaurant job, and I had enough money in my savings account to last me a month.” As she show’s popularity skyrocketed, Baldwin started noticing features on websites like Wired. “And we thought, ‘Wow, I think we’ve really hit on something here.’ Then we pulled ahead of This American Life and I thought there might be a future in this, so I’ll hold off on getting another waiter job until we see what happens.”
“I’ve not waited any tables since.”
Baldwin fondly remembers developing his character: “It was a lot of fun, but I sort of realized as I was going that the the town of Night Vale is constantly under attack by denizens from an underground civilization or, you know, ancient gods that are trying to destroy everything. You know, whatever the sort of monster of the week is. It just made much more sense to give him a kind of positive optimistic outlook on life, in the face of all this horror and death and doom. It just made the character more interesting and the story more interesting—if your protagonist is someone who really, really loves this town even though crazy, weird things are always happening. I’m sure if I lived in Night Vale, I imagine my own personal reaction would be very different.”
“Cecil is not the only person living here,” he adds. “Like any of us, he has a sort of biased view of the town that he lives in, or at least a limited view.” The inclusion of other characters, along with guest actors to play them, highlighted Cecil’s occasional willful ignorance of the strange and dangerous nature of his town. “Kevin [Free] was the first official guest voice,” says Baldwin. “He was a chance to play with other actors that bring a different tone or different quality to the podcast but still have that sort of creepy, funny undertone.”
As the show’s following grew even more, the cast tried their hand at a live reading, first attempted at a book store in San Francisco. It was a simple setup, with show creator Joseph Finn running his iPod through the store’s sound system, and they weren’t expecting it to be huge. “And we got there and hundreds of people had showed up trying to get into one of these readings,” says Baldwin. “We were in new territory. We were coming from the world of off-Broadway theater where you’re begging your friends and family to come see you, and if you sell more than ten tickets, you did really good that night. And then here were hundreds of people coming to this event.”
“And we’re like, ‘Okay, now let’s try to a tour where we go to actual theaters,’ and then we did the West Coast tour. That went very well, and every year we’ve kind of put out a tour, and we try to tour it to as many places as we can while still keeping the lights on at the company.” Baldwin notes that the live shows have become a unique entry into the Night Vale canon and that every show is fun and unrepeatable.
“These live shows are definitely much more community events,” he says of the now-regular tours, “in that the writers are there and we have guest actors and musicians traveling with us. It’s a lot of fun, especially because we do one live show a year. Now we’re unveiling the brand-new show of 2017, which is called All Hail.”
Baldwin notes that All Hail will be true to the form established in Night Vale’s past tours. “We’ve created a show that is enjoyable for someone who’s listened to every single episode of the podcast, and also people who’ve never listened to the podcast at all,” he says. “We love playing with the idea of that theatricality—the idea that we’re all in one place and there’s no imaginary fourth wall between the performer and the audience.”
“We can see, you, but you can see us, so I think in All Hail we’re definitely pushing the envelope with a lot of how the audience can expect to be involved in the show,” he says, explaining that “audience participation” may not be the right term for what goes on at a live Night Vale show. “I hate the [phrase] ‘audience participation’ because an audience is already participating just by showing up, but we definitely kind of push the boundaries in terms of how involved they are in the performance.”
Welcome to Night Vale is live at the Pantages Theater in Minneapolis at 7:00 on Sunday, April 23, 2017. Learn more about the podcast, the live show, and the Night Vale books on the show’s website or follow them on Twitter.