“On a larger scale I think it’s something future generations can look back on and go, this was the next step in the evolution of the LGBT+ story.”
“It’s all the news from back home, except it’s from the weirdest home you’ve ever heard of,” says Cecil Baldwin of the wildly successful podcast, Welcome to Night Vale, which he narrates as his alter ego, local radio show host, Cecil Palmer. Set in the town of Night Vale, a place populated by a cornucopia of weird residents and where strange and creepy events are the norm, since its debut in 2012, Welcome to Night Vale has become a global cult phenomenon, gathering a vast following that counts legions of LGBT’s in its ranks. That’s not least because Cecil Palmer is gay and in love with a blow-in scientist, Carlos, who tries to make sense of the stranger things that happen in the tight-knit town. Baldwin himself is also gay, and the queer sensibility he brings to the show is its beating heart. We catch up with him as he gears up for a live performance of Welcome to Night Vale at the Dublin Podcast Festival this month.
Hi, Cecil! Tell us how you got involved with Welcome to Night Vale?
I was working in theatre in New York and the guy who came up with the idea, Joseph Fink, saw a show that I was in. He had come up with an idea for a podcast that would get his name out there, but not being an actor needed someone to read it. He called me and said, ‘I have this idea. It’s very Stephen King meets David Lynch meets David Cronenberg’. Being a lover off all those things, I said, ‘Sure, yeah, I’ll take a look at it’. I recorded the pilot episode with him and we just kept making it. There was no audition process; it was more organic than that.
How involved in the creative process are you?
I had the complete box set of Twin Peaks when I was 17 years old, so it’s definitely a world that I’m used to. I knew Joseph and his co-writer Jeffery Cranor very well and had worked in the same theatre company as Jeffery, so I kind of knew how their voices sounded. If another actor had been given this material and didn’t know them, I don’t think they would have found it as funny. It’s a very odd, dark sense of humor, and I knew where the funny parts were.
Was the decision from the outset to make Cecil queer?
Not at all, actually. In the very first episode this character Carlos, the scientist, appears and he’s a generic foil for the town of Night Vale. He’s the outsider, the scientist who’s trying to make this irrational town make sense. The description of him I read out is that he has beautiful hair and beautiful teeth, and my character seems a bit obsessed with him, but it’s not clear whether he’s obsessed with Carlos because he’s an outsider.
Being a gay actor, there’s always a little part of me that’s looking for coded LGBT references. Being a gay human, I am used to watching movies and searching for homoerotic subtexts in everything because for years and years all we had was subtext, there was no text.
My gay senses were tingling every time the Carlos character would appear, so I just started playing the subtext. Eventually the writers caught on, and they started writing it as a gay relationship.
Welcome to Night Vale is influenced by TV shows like Twin Peaks and Stephen King film adaptations, so tell me about the different things you can do with the podcast medium.
I think there’s something really great about podcasting, especially if you’re writing or creating sci-fi or horror or fantasy, just because you can build whatever world you want. You don’t have to worry about special effects; you can create them in the mind of your listener. You don’t have to have a giant budget.
The other element of Welcome to Night Vale, of course, is that it’s constantly commenting on life and the world around us.
There’s a definite streak of satire in it, in that it uses a fictional town with completely ridiculous, crazy concepts and situations to talk about things that are literally ripped from the headlines. It’s not the first and it’s won’t be the last. Gulliver’s Travels was satire. We look at them as cute and fun and imaginative, but we forget they were talking about actual situations and individuals in the society at the time.
Night Vale is something of the same. It has seen the election of Donald Trump, it has seen and commented on the National Rifle Association (NRA), it has seen the first months of Trump’s presidency. All of it is in the writing, but it’s taken to a place where it doesn’t specifically put its finger on it. It’s wrapped up in the fiction and I think it makes people look at the world they live in a little bit differently.
“In a weird way I think it’s comforting to our listeners, because all you have to do is turn on the news and it seems like a topsy-turvy world.”
Looking at the Trump presidency from over here, it’s almost as if America is a fictional world at the moment. What’s happening there is unprecedented and it’s a changing story every day.
We always said that Night Vale is a town where every conspiracy theory you’ve ever heard is not only true, but is also treated as commonplace. It’s a place where things are terrifying and strange, but also where the terrifying and strange are completely normal. In a weird way I think it’s comforting to our listeners, because all you have to do is turn on the news and it seems like a topsy-turvy world, where we have a reality TV star as our president who is trying to push an agenda that he’s actually not pushing.
At the end of the day, my character in Night Vale loves his town, and he has a reason to love it, but he recognises that it’s totally crazy. Every week, he’s like, ‘this is the worst thing ever to happen to Night Vale,’ yet every week he somehow makes it through and continues to live there. I think people might take heart in that.
Do you think the fact that there’s a gay relationship at the heart of Welcome to Night Vale effects positive change in any way?
I regularly meet fans who are LGBT+ I’m told that Night Vale helped them come out of the closet to their parents, or helped them come to terms with being gay. They recognise that here is a character who is gay, but it’s not a big deal, it just is. It’s inspiring to them.
On a larger scale I think it’s something future generations can look back on and go, this was the next step in the evolution of the LGBT story. This is what they were listening to, what they were reading, and this is what will inspire them to go write the next book, or do the next thing.
Last year you spoke for the first time about your HIV diagnoses. Can you talk about the lead-up to that decision, what it meant to you to speak publically about it, and what you wanted to do by speaking out?
I’ve been HIV positive for ten years. My friends knew and my family knew, and it was not a big deal at all, after the initial shock of it. The people who are into Night Vale are often younger than college age, and they are often LGBT. They’re a generation who don’t understand what the Aids crisis was; it’s something they hadn’t even thought about because in their minds HIV/Aids has gone.
There are people who live in countries where they would rather die from Aids than walk into a health clinic, for fear of the shame of being seen walking into a health clinic. That sounds very extreme, but I just got back from Portugal where I was doing outreach work and I met a man who was on his deathbed, who almost died of Aids because he wouldn’t get tested, and that’s because of the homophobia that’s racked up around it.
It’s stories like this that made me understand that I’m very lucky, in the fact that I’m a performer and I have fans who love what I do and are very supportive, and it just seemed like this was some good that I could do, that I could give back to the community.
Tell me about the live show All Hail: Welcome to Night Vale, how does it look and play out?
It’s the fifth official live show and it’s written to be enjoyed by people who have listened to every single episode and people who have listened to no episodes. It exists outside the plotline of Welcome to Night Vale and it’s made for people who love the show, don’t know it, or know it a little. We have live music, and it’s very classic golden age of radio, like a variety show.
It’s been five very successful years, how has Night Vale changed your life?
I’m certainly getting a chance to do a lot more than I did before. I’m also getting the chance to meet a lot of really great artists all over the world and have a chance to talk to them and expand my own horizons about the art that I’m making. It’s been a blessing and a lot of hard work, and it’s something that I feel very proud of.
Last but not least, Cecil, apart from your own character, who is your favourite on the show?
It’s got to be Khoshekh, the cat who lives in the men’s bathroom at the radio station, floating in mid air. I love that guy!
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