It’s an odd crowd, in the Olympia Theatre tonight. A lot younger than the usual theatre crowd – in fact, the majority seem to be teenagers, dotted with geeky-looking types, the alternative crowd, and the occasional bemused parent. In other words, it’s a perfect cross-section of the fans that have lifted Welcome To Night Vale from fringe obscurity to a consistent place in the Top 10 of the iTunes podcast chart. And yet, it’s a success that has left it almost invisible to anyone outside of its fans. Most of these people in the theatre seem to know each other. They’re wearing clothing adorned with slogans from the show. Some are official, such as the purple Sheriff’s Secret Police hoodies emblazoned with a seven-pointed star combined with a crescent moon. Others are homemade, but no less enthusiastically worn. Two separate groups of people have brought recreations in cotton wool and coloured lights of the “Glow Cloud”, a sentient cloud with mind-control powers that features in the show. They’re an enthusiastic crowd – the five minute warning for the show starting is greeted with cheers. What is it about a comedy/horror podcast that can inspire this level of engagement – that can sell out most of a European tour?
The premise of the show, as explained by show creator and co-writer Joseph Fink, is simple. “A town in the desert where all conspiracy theories are real.” Black helicopters flit about the sky (competing with dark blue helicopters, and helicopters decorated with images of birds of prey). The town council have reigned for centuries, through a regime of chanting and sacrifice in bloodstone circles. Yet the genius lies in making this the mundane normality for the town’s residents. The Glow Cloud comes to town, controlling minds and raining down animal corpses – and then joins the school board. A dog park opens in town, but citizens are immediately warned that neither they, nor their dogs, are permitted to enter the dog park. Layer upon layer of mythology builds up over the successive twice-monthly episodes. In a way, it’s this mythology that is key to the show’s appeal – like other obscure internet success stories , it has enough arcane knowledge to make its fans feel special, while attracting enough to create a vibrant online community bound by this knowledge. But it never requires this knowledge from the viewers – the reference is, in the tradition of the best comedy, always the setup for a joke, rather than the punch line. From this town is broadcast “Welcome to Night Vale”, a local radio roundup show just like any other, hosted by Cecil Gershwin Palmer (played by Cecil Baldwin, a previously obscure actor whose incredible delivery has been one of the main strengths of the show).
The show premiered on June 15, 2012. For the first year it remained mostly unknown – drifting around on the edges of Weird Twitter  (with the show’s somewhat surreal twitter feed fitting right into that subculture), occasionally getting a signal boost from random celebrities who tuned into the show and became fans. In July 2013 the show finally burst onto the popular consciousness. Two things combined to precipitate this event. The first was the show being featured on the the front page of Something Awful. Fink had written for the site since 2006, and site editor Zack Parsons had co-written one episode of the show. However this was only after the show had begun to take off. The main factor was Tumblr – the week beginning July 5 2013 saw “20,000-plus posts about Night Vale, with 183,000-plus individual blogs participating in the conversation, and 680,000-plus notes”. The organization of Tumblr – with fans of particular shows following fellow fans – saw knowledge of the podcast spread like wildfire among like-minded individuals. Jeff Cranor (the producer and other co-writer of the show) points to “Hannibal” as a prime example of a show with an existing fanbase on Tumblr acting as a catalyst for the spread. In the first year of the show’s existence, it had seen a total of 150,000 downloads from iTunes. By July, it was seeing that many downloads a week.
The growing popularity of the show (and the increased income from merchandising and donations) let the writers add the occasional high profile guest star to the mix. Mara Wilson (star of Matilda and Mrs. Doubtfire) and Jackson Publick (voice actor from The Tick and Venture Bros) appeared as rival mayoral candidates “The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home” and “Hiram McDaniels” (motto: “I’m literally a five-headed dragon. Who cares?”). Other recurring guests included Jasika Nikole (no stranger to the odd, she played Astrid in “Fringe”) and Molly Quinn (Alexis Castle from “Castle”). Finally in October 2013 Fink and Cranor decided to take the show on live tours – which takes us back to the Olympia Theatre.
The show begins with an introduction from Meg Bashwiner, traditional voice of the show’s outro (as well as playing the occasional one-off role in the show itself). Her brief, somewhat surreal, introduction to the show sets the tone for the evening – it’s funny. Very funny. (Night Vale is often funny, but the live shows tend to emphasise this aspect – perhaps to pull in the non-fan parents, several of who were left in stitches by Meg). The show continues with a series of songs from Mary Epworth, a prelude to the main event. Mary’s main role is going to be to provide “The Weather”, a musical interlude near the end of the show where the main conflict will traditionally be resolved off-screen. (She originally did this in the first show of July 2013, just as the show was beginning to break into the big time. As the show has become more popular, competition for the Weather slot has become fierce.) Her last song is “about deer”, prompting a cheer from the crowd. (Deer have a place in the Night Vale mythos, of course). She leaves (after some friendly chatter with the boisterous Dublin crowd) and Cecil takes the stage.
Over the next hour and a half, we are drawn into a surreal world of insectile librarians and imminent danger, interspersed with lightly surreal moments such as a vaguely threatening horoscopes section, and a weekly community calendar. (Highlight of the latter: “Monday wants you to know that you don’t hate it. You hate yourself, for failing to adjust to the reality of becoming a working adult.”) The show lacks the large cast of some of the American shows – both Cranor and Fink appear on stage in guest starring roles, along with Bashwiner – and features a level of audience interaction that, frankly, shows some daring. In the end, of course, the conflict is resolved over the course of The Weather (with Epworth reprising Long Gone, her Weather from her original episode ) and Cecil reappears to deliver his closing monologue. Fear, he tells us, is something to know, and something to have, but not something to carry around with us. We were afraid of the librarian, but now that fear can be put away back on the shelf – like an errant library book. Bolstered by his words, we leave the theatre, going out into the night that seems less harsh, and more welcoming. Carrying a little bit of Night Vale, the town at peace with its own darkness, home with us.
If you want to listen to Welcome To Night Vale yourself, the podcast is available on Podbay and iTunes. Previous live shows are available for pay-what-you-want on Bandcamp, and details of their forthcoming European dates are here.
 For example, Homestuck, an occasionally animated comic strip with an immense mythology that has developed an almost insanely devoted fanbase online but has virtually no “mainstream” coverage.
 My favourite episode, incidentally.