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 TheGeekiary.com. ) 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.
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.