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Double Bill: The Vinyl Cafe and Welcome to Night Vale

Under the heading of unusual grieving processes, there’s how I seem to be dealing with the recent loss of a Canadian cultural icon.

Since I was a kid, one of the fixtures at CBC Radio has been the Vinyl Cafe with Stuart McLean. It was a radio variety show featuring musical artists and McLean’s specialty of humourous and introspective stories, both anecdotes and fiction. If you’re American, it’s roughly analagous to Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion – in fact, the first time I heard the Vinyl Cafe, I actually thought it was Garrison Keillor.

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McLean died at the age of 68 in February, as the mass extinction of great celebrities of 2016 continues to bleed over into the new year. The Vinyl Cafe was frequently recorded in live performances in venues all over Canada. When I was in university we made a semi-regular thing of going to see the Vinyl Cafe Christmas Tour show at University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall. I count myself lucky to have once met McLean in the grocery store and expressed my enjoyment of his shows while I had the chance.

And, coincidentally, I decided to finally get into something a lot of friends of mine follow, and which, it turns out, is somewhat the Vinyl Cafe or Prairie Home Companion’s mirror universe twin: the podcast Welcome to Night Vale.

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Stuart McLean used his show, in part, as a platform to exhibit Canadian musical talent. I remember one broadcast that featured the famous Jeff Healey Band as well as Molly Johnson in particular. During some of the Christmas shows he reliably had the jazz singer Lisa Lindo and the pianist John Sheard – his sometime musical director – in tow, and he once exhibited a then-twelve-year-old master bass guitarist named Jimmy Bowskill and promptly knocked our collective socks off.

Interspersed with the music would be stories, and this is where the Vinyl Cafe and McLean himself really shone. The stories were often ones from McLean’s own experiences, and some episodes – studio ones mostly, as far as I remember – were dedicated to stories sent in from around Canada by listeners about experiences they’d had of one kind or another. But the heart and soul of the Vinyl Cafe for me and a lot of people were the fictional stories McLean wrote featuring Dave and Morley, a married couple in middle-class Toronto, their children, their neighbours and their madcap adventures.

Dave is a record store owner who is the most hilariously neurotic person you could ask for, getting into farcical misadventures alongside his long-suffering wife and bemused children. The most famous one is the story of the frantic, insane lengths he goes to in order to cook the Christmas turkey at the very last minute. My favourite one is when they’re attending the neighbourhood Christmas party and Dave mixes up the adult (rum-laced) eggnog bowl and the kids’ bowl. Wackiness ensues. McLean’s Mr. Rogers-esque voice, deadpan delivery and impeccable comic timing mean that I’ve seldom laughed at anything so hard in my life. I put on the Vinyl Cafe Stories podcast the other day (I’ve only recently begun to actually understand what a podcast is), listened to the story of Dave’s son Sam secretly turning the yard into a water park for his friends and nearly fell off my chair. It says a lot about the show’s long standing and distinctive style that McLean’s live audience would sometimes start laughing well before the punch line, prompting him to remark, “don’t get ahead of me now.”

Welcome to Night Vale has something of the variety-show outfit, although it has an entirely fictionalized frame. Rather than being a radio show where stories are told, the radio show is the story.

Night Vale is an isolated desert community in the American southwest somewhere, and the podcast features its community radio broadcaster Cecil reporting on the latest goings-on; community events, municipal politics, civic affairs, local business advertisements.

Things like: the appearance of a forest that whispers at passers-by, reminders to take cover before the Street Cleaners’ prophesied return, festivals with compulsory attedance, and the election of a sentient luminescent gas cloud to the School Board (All Hail the Mighty Glow Cloud!).

Night Vale is built of very Lovecraftian materials with a dollop of internet conspiracy theories. A Vague But Menacing Government Agency is well-known around town, there are sinister hooded figures everyone tries to ignore, a piece of civic statuary known as the Shape, which reacts badly if people take too much notice of it, and regular implications that the town itself doesn’t exist in quite the same reality as the rest of the world. It’s a little like something out of the Laundry Files crossed with Sunnydale from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

It’s quite creepy, the creepiness of something just out of sight, there but not there. But to the people of Night Vale, this is just everyday life, and they regard it with such relaxed disinterest that it’s hilarious! As with McLean, Cecil (played by actor Cecil Baldwin) sells a lot of the comedy by deadpan delivery, often of things that are so completely out of nowhere that you can’t help but laugh. The Community Calendar segment is particularly good for this sort of thing, with things like Tuesday being “hornet-free dining at the Olive Garden” or “Monday has been rescheduled to Wednesday, and Wednesday has been doubled.” The wordplay of the opening segment and the ‘today’s proverb’ in the closing segment are also entertainingly random while sometimes having hidden depths.

Since its inception, Welcome to Night Vale has ballooned into a phenomenon including merchandise, spinoff podcasts, novels, and live shows featuring musical artists including Disparition, composer of the series’ theme song and incidental music.

That’s another overlap with the Vinyl Cafe: the guest musical artists in both the live shows and the podcasts – exhibited every episode when Cecil announces the weather forecast. The artists I’ve heard so far include everything from rock to country to rap and hip-hop style tunes.

Night Vale has its own cast of supporting characters as well: the various and usually short-lived radio station interns, plus intern Dana who goes on to greater things, Old Woman Josie and her friends who are definitely not angels all named Erika, John Peters the imaginary corn farmer (the corn is imaginary, not him) and Tamika Flynn the pre-teen bibliophile guerilla army leader. Among those who give voice to some of these characters are noted actors Jasika Nicole and Wil Wheaton.

And of course there’s Carlos. Dear, sweet Carlos with his beautiful hair. Or so Cecil reliably puts it. At various moments during his early broadcasts, Cecil occasionally stops to wax eloquent on his massive crush on the scientist whose team has come to study the assorted bizarrities of Night Vale, and who eventually finds something worth protecting in his beloved Cecil. It’s masterfully seamless. The fact that theirs is a gay relationship is not even once remarked upon, and is frankly adorable.

This is a subject that McLean, to the best of my knowledge, never included so casually. Of course, times were different, but diversity is not much of a priority. I was actually startled that one of the neighbours in ‘the Water Slide’ story was named Fatima. Creditably nothing was made of this, she was just another neighbourhood kid. There was also the story about comedically gaslighting a racist at the restaurant of Dave’s friend Kenny Wong, so McLean was perfectly willing to tackle social injustice, but it wasn’t a tacit part of the mission statement. Of couse, I may be selling the Vinyl Cafe a little short since I have by no means heard every episode.

I will say, though, that for all I’ve played up the comedy side of the Vinyl Cafe, McLean’s stories could be very solemn and thoughtful. Dave’s observations of his elderly neighbours in ‘the Fig Tree’ or their impromptu Christmas with a bitter old motel owner in Quebec especially capture this. Christmas really was McLean’s natural habitat, a time for togetherness, warm feelings and a good laugh.

Welcome to Night Vale is intentionally a bit more subversive and countercultural, with Cecil simply being gay, and occasionally expressing disgust for Native American cultural appropriation, among other things. There are some more solemn episodes, such as ‘the Carnival’ and especially ‘Remembrance Day’ which has some startlingly moving themes about war and intergenerational alienation. Denominational holidays like Christmas and Easter also just don’t factor in Night Vale – except Valentine’s Day, but that means something totally different there – and the cast is more obviously diverse.

The Vinyl Cafe stories acquired a certain continuity – Dave and Morley’s kids grow up in roughly real time, and of course people would occasionally needle Dave on the subject of turkeys. Night Vale takes it to another level in that sometimes some apparently random element in one episode can come up again as mission-critical a dozen or more episodes later. As for ‘real time’ I’m not convinced that concept applies in Night Vale.

I suppose the one drawback they both share is that, since they both have new musical guests in every performance, if you don’t happen to like the music being exhibited, you can find it getting in the way of the other elements. With Night Vale’s streaming format you can skip it, but it also makes for a pleasant surprise when you do like it. Oddly enough both of the songs I have really enjoyed and remembered from Night Vale seem to fall within the rap/hip-hop zone, a genre which is mostly utterly alien to me. While some great artists got exhibited on the Vinyl Cafe, I feel like the genres covered were pretty much jazz/rock/folk and not much else, but since those are the genres I generally prefer, that mostly suited me fine.

For all their vast differences, I find the Vinyl Cafe and Welcome to Night Vale evoke similar emotions through similar formats. I laugh at their deadpan humor and smile at the positive-feeling moments. The Vinyl Cafe made you love and laugh at the lives of ordinary people. Welcome to Night Vale takes the concept into a new generation by opening up the notion of ordinariness. I’ve grown fond of both sets of characters and both narrative voices. I don’t suppose the creators of Night Vale have heard of the Vinyl Cafe, but it’s nice to know that someone’s taken up the same sort of idea and keptĀ it alive. Or at least shamblingly undead. Meanwhile, I’ll keep an ear open for reruns and audiobooks of the Vinyl Cafe, for I know there to be a huge amount of it as yet unknown to me.

Good night, Night Vale, and so long for now, Mr. McLean.

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Posted by on March 23, 2017 in Podcast/Radio

 

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