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Interview: Cecil Baldwin shares Welcome to Night Vale’s origin story and talks inclusivity in comics and podcasts

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It’s been three years since the Welcome to Night Vale podcast debuted, bringing it’s odd mix of comedy, horror and paranormal serialized storytelling to listeners under the guise of a small-town public radio news broadcast. The show, created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, managed within a year to rise to the number two spot on the iTunes top ten podcast list. The podcast’s twitter account is nearing 290, 000 followers, and has attracted guest stars like Wil Wheaton and Molly Quinn.

Cecil Baldwin is the voice behind WTNV’s narrator, host and main character Cecil Gershwin Palmer, and appeared as a special guest at Flame Con in June — along with Dylan Marron who voices Cecil’s love interest Carlos. We sat down with Cecil and talked about WTNV’s origins,  it’s explosive popularity and how serialized storytelling can expand representation of LGBTQ characters, be it comic books or podcast dramas.

How’d you get involved with the Night Vale crew to begin with?

I work for a theatre company called the New York Neo Futurists, and we’re all writers and performers and I wrote a monologue about how people have always told me I have this radio voice, like ever since I was a kid, but I couldn’t seem to break into the business of voice over work.

It’s very tough.

Yeah like there’s a million people out there and they all want the same job. So I was like, “okay, if no one is going to hire me to do this, I’m just going to give it away for free.” And so at the end of the show I would record somebody’s outgoing voicemail message. As like a gift.

That’s very NPR of you.

Exactly, yeah. But a friend of mine saw the monologue, and was a writer and was trying to get his stuff published and was like, “I’m going to do something totally new, and do a podcast of my writing,” and he was like “do you want to record it for me? Because it’s a radio announcer in the style of NPR.” And it just kind of took off from there.

It’s all very incestuous with the Neo Futurists, one of the co-writers of Night Vale is a Neo, Meg Bashwiner, Joseph Fink’s girlfriend, is a Neo, I was Neo, so we’re all in the same theatre company. And Joseph Fink, who kinda created the idea, would just come to the show a lot. So we all kind of knew each other. But then it just kind of happened that we all started this project together.

Did you know from the beginning that Cecil would be a gay character?

I didn’t at all. It took us a while to kind of figure out who this character was, myself, included. You know it was kind of a very generic, NPR host thing. It wasn’t really a character. And then as the plot developed around episode four or five, they were like, “okay we kind of know what we’re going toward.” And then, a little bit later, the sort of relationship between Carlos and Cecil actually became fleshed out, and they were like “oh, this is an adult, gay relationship.” And that was kind of when tumblr and twitter exploded.

So it was almost like fan reaction to the suggestion helped inform the development?

Exactly. It really kind of grew organically, we did not set out to be like, “we need to do something that will appeal to this market or that market,” we just kind of made something that we thought was interesting. And, you know, I read the description for Carlos and thought “oh this sounds perfect, I would totally geek out if I met a tall, handsome scientist.” So I just kind of…

You sort of ran with it.

Yeah, I ran with it.

Because it could just be a throwaway joke, “oh his hair is so perfect.” Another weird thing in a long line of weird things. But you felt it.

Yeah! And then the writers kind of went, “this could be brilliant.” And so then it was all about the first date, the nervousness of asking somebody out —

Amidst, you know, Cthulhu taking over the world.

Yeah, the crazy things, yeah.

Did you have any idea early on that the show had the potential to develop this insane cult following?

I didn’t. I mean, we’re essentially doing old time radio drama. We’re doing stuff that our grandparents, our great-grandparents, listened to.

Like The Shadow

The Shadow! All that, like Orson Welles, War of the Worlds…it’s fascinating to see a generation that’s even younger than me pick up on that and all of a sudden it’s cool again? What’s fascinating for me is when I meet fans and especially the families of fans. You know, the sort of teen and early 20s *and* their parents. And they both enjoy the show coming from very different contexts. The teens and 20-somethings and 30s go after the LGBTQ representation, and the sincerity of the podcast.

That’s true, it’s very earnest.

It’s very earnest, you know, we’re not going to sugar-coat anything. Life is horrible, and beautiful, you gotta learn to live with it, kid! But then I think 40s and above kind of remember those days where radio dramas and the Twilight Zone and Outer Limits and Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected were the way that stories were told, and they get that as well. And I also love all of those things, so it’s sort of like the perfect marriage.

So it’s been a surprise, but a really wonderful one.

Yeah, because when you’re into something really niche, it’s surprising when you find other people that are into that same thing.

So what drew you to participate in Flame Con?

Well, I was at NYCC last year and one of my friends was working the GeeksOUT booth. I just kinda stopped by to say hi. If I’m ever doing a Comic Con I literally will get on my phone and Google, you know, “NYCC 2014 gay,” in an effort to find whatever vendors are out there. And I’ve met some really cool artists that way. But it’s always like one or two in a huge sea of everything.

So I was chatting with my friends, stopped by their [GeeksOUT] booth, just kind of hanging out, and I got on their mailing list. And then when they started the Kickstarter for the Flame Con I was just like, “here, take my money, this is something that needs to happen.” And it got its funding and then they were like, “Do you actually want to come and do this?” And I was like: “Absolutely, if I would pay money to be here, you want me to just show up and hang out? Done. Done.”

I interviewed Joey Stern of GeeksOUT and asked him this same question: why do you think there’s a need for a specifically LGBTQ  friendly con, especially since you’ve said how you seek that out? What’s your perspective?

Well, it’s interesting. Besides the fact that there’s tons of LGBTQ people who are into this world, who don’t necessarily get a chance to be front and center. You know, like I said, there’s maybe one comic book centered on this. You’ve got a collective of kind of independent comic book artists that band together at one booth.

I think the geek culture is at a sort of crossroads right now: like Gamergate or the Sad Puppies with the Hugo awards. We’re really at this crossroads where these people who feel like they’ve been oppressed then have to pick on somebody else. They’ve been picked on their whole life, like: “Oh you’re a nerd, you’re a geek.” You’ve been picked on by the society at large so they in turn pick on people of color, women, gay and lesbians, transgender: it becomes this sort of pecking order.

You kick someone off the rung below you.

Right, exactly, so that way you’re not last in line. And this just proves that, like, there are over 1400 people here [that number climbed to 2,200 according to Flame Con organizers] just in New York and this is their first con. I think there’s such a huge presence that this deserves to be out front. You know, like we’re not giving up our place just because some horrible person with an online Reddit account decides to be an asshole.

Why do you feel comic books in particular appeal to the LGBTQ community? Are you a comic fan?

I am a comic fan, I usually go more after graphic novels. I’m not necessarily into the superhero or every week thing. I like storytelling of all different kinds: whether it’s theatre, or comics, I find it all fascinating — the different ways you can tell a specific story. I think because comics live in the mind of the author and the artist, it gives those people a chance to really create the environment that those stories are being told in.

If you were making a film or a TV show, it’s a little bit more on the nose. You have to find an actor and then marry yourself to that look and persona, whereas comics: the X-Men can look completely different depending on what story arc, or like the different incarnations of Batman. It gives them a bit more artistic freedom to stretch the boundaries of what stories they want to tell.

And that appeals to you?

That appeals to me and I think it appeals to a lot of queer kids out there. You’re not just going for the same tried and true: “Oh it’s a gay man’s story, so we need someone with six-pack abs and perfect hair…”

Except for Carlos. He can have perfect hair.

It’s fine, he’s totally fine.

He gets a pass.

But even the Carlos character is a little bit more…you know he’s a scientist. Which is something you don’t necessarily find in mainstream media. It just expands these stories a little bit and it gives those of us who are gay a chance to dive into them a little bit further and think, “Oh, I could live in this world,” rather than: “I feel slightly on the fringe of this world.” Or just completely excluded.

Follow Cecil Baldwin on twitter. Welcome to Night Vale airs new episodes on the 1st and 15th of every month and is releasing a novel based on the series in October 2015.

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