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Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

Inside 'The Thrilling Adventure Hour' Podcast with Ben Acker and Ben Blacker


The LA-based monthly short-form comedy and variety show The Thrilling Adventure Hour is entering its ninth year in March, and as a self-proclaimed “new-time podcast in the style of old-time radio,” the show is ever-gaining in popularity and expanding into media beyond its live show roots. Last fall, creators Ben Acker and Ben Blacker released a graphic novel adaptation of the show, bringing their idiosyncratic sensibility that regularly mixes vaudeville humor, the tropes of old genre serials, arch wordplay, and catchphrase humor all wrapped in good-natured whimsy to the page and realizing characters like Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars and the time-traveling, Nazi butt-kicking Amelia Earhart in a new form. Thrilling Adventure Hour’s talented group of regular performers includes Paul F. Tompkins, Paget Brewster, Marc Evan Jackson, Busy Philipps, James Urbaniak, and John DiMaggio, and the show frequently draws talented guests like Nathan Fillion, John Hodgman, and Linda Cardellini.

I was able to talk to Thrilling Adventure Hour creators Ben Acker and Ben Blacker each via phone, and we discussed the show’s unique voice, collaborating with Welcome to Night Vale, and how they’re growing the Thrilling Adventure Hour world.

How did you two meet, and when did you decide to write together?

Ben Acker: We both went to Syracuse University, and we were both transferring into the film program from other departments in the school. So we met on a line to get our curricula for that department, and we became friends. It turns out that we had had mutual friends who had been meaning to introduce us for about a semester, so we very quickly became friends and spent the remainder of our college time together in the coffee shop on campus playing card games with grad students. And then [Blacker] transferred out to Emerson where they taught him how to write TV. So he finished up his college career there, and I finished at Syracuse then moved out to Los Angeles where I had the opportunity to show people TV scripts and no knowledge of how to write them. So I asked Ben for help and guidance and we started writing together right after we had graduated.

It was way better writing together than writing separately or writing with other people with whom we'd written. It just clicked. We wrote, I want to say, 10 Buffy specs in like four hours, exaggeration being what it is. So after we realized we had a complementary skill set and enjoyed writing together and shared a sensibility, I went back to LA and showed people scripts and they asked for more scripts. Ben moved to LA, and we tried a career in the early '00s and then tried again earnestly a couple years later when we started The Thrilling Adventure Hour.

How do your sensibilities complement each other, and how do your approaches differ?

Acker: Well, we have grown since over a decade ago, and we are each now able to do anything in the world. But we still enjoy working together and breaking story together. We're not joke guys; we're character guys. We figure out story in terms of character, or at least we think we do. We try to; we aspire to. It's what we respond to. So the punchlines tend to go in eventually, but the character stuff is how we attack breaking the story, and if that stuff tracks and holds, then we know we've got a story we can tell.

Ben Blacker: For the most part, we find the same things funny. We are interested in generally the same things in fiction, which is for the most part, relationships rather than theme. But I think where we differ is Ben is very good at metaphor and very good at big ideas, and if it were up to me, I would just have two characters in a room talking to each other, working out their problems, or getting into problems. You can tell which episodes are mine because they don't leave the central location. I tend to write a bottle episode without intending to write a bottle episode. In episodes of Thrilling Adventure Hour that I do, it's generally Sparks and Croach and maybe Red in a room, and then a couple of villains come in and everybody has their point of view, and those points of view are conflicting, and that's what's interesting. Same thing with "Beyond Belief." The ones that I write the first draft of, they hardly ever leave their apartment.

Acker: Nearly all episodes of "Beyond Belief" are bottle episodes. I write those ones too. Come on. I guess the main difference is that in mine, they might go from one side of the living room to the other. Or maybe they start in the bedroom. The more important point is, we're not keeping score. We don't think in terms of an Acker episode or a Blacker episode. Or I didn't think we did.

What did you like growing up, and what were you seeing or reading that influenced you when you began the show?

Acker: Buffy was big. Let the genre stuff be a metaphor for a character story. We watched that at a formative time. We loved Sorkin. I remember where I was and what I was doing when I saw my first episode of Sports Night. It's a comedy but unlike everything else on TV at the time. It wasn't just characters' first time going to the DMV or something; it was really well-formed characters who could speak to anything but their emotional life. So it was interesting to see these articulate characters who couldn't say the three words that mattered most to each other but still managed to express that thing. Comedy done intelligently was inspiring to see on a sitcom.

I like Spaghetti Westerns, and Blacker likes High Noon. All the Whedon stuff and Marvel stuff and DC stuff. Obviously, the Thin Man movies. Double Indemnity. We love old noir. We had a bit in the first bunch of shows that was Hollywood noir. So it was a space western and screwball drunks with ghostbusting because Ghostbusters was one of our favorite moves, then in the middle was intended to be a Hollywood noir story for the first probably year and change of the show. From there, we sort of ventured out and started ourselves with silliness in the middle bit, and that led to "Colonel Tick-Tock" and "Captain Laserbeam," and eventually "Amelia Earhart." We just did "Algonquin Four" as its own solo middle segment. We love building worlds, really, and then playing in the worlds and seeing those connections, and how we can ultimately grow characters through weird genre trappings as well as personal stuff for them.

Working with influences your audience may not share, do you ever fear that the audience won’t get a joke?

Acker: We always try desperately to make everything accessible to someone whose first show it is. Sometimes, we succeed better than other times. But our goal is that if there's a joke that is a reference to continuity or whatever, it still reads as a joke even if you don't have that continuity. It should work on its own your first time seeing it. And then if you care to learn more about the show, things can resonate more with you. Ideally, you feel like you're jumping in on a thing and can learn more as opposed to it being an exclusive thing that it's too late for you, and you haven't been initiated. No, it's, "Welcome to this thing. We've made it for you. Come in. Whenever you find it, you're welcome here. And there's a rich back catalogue for you to look through at your leisure. But don't feel obligated.”

That pretty much describes how I listened. I started with "Beyond Belief," listened to every one in the back catalogue then branched into the other segments.

Acker: I love it. Yeah, "Beyond Belief" tends to be a new audience's favorite piece because it stands alone so much, and it’s full of the affection for the characters, and it has a beginning, middle, and end, not to undersell the goddamned full on charm of Paul [F. Tompkins] and Paget [Brewster]. Once people start coming to more episodes, they get into the "Sparks Nevada" story and want to see where it goes and become invested — despite themselves — in a space cowboy and his pals.

You often create interesting challenges for yourself. You’ve done musical episodes and a segment of "Moonshine Holler" entirely in iambic pentameter. Where did that one come from? How difficult was that particular one to write?

Blacker: It was easier than I thought it would be. I used to be a high school English teacher and so I read Macbeth many many times, and I have read Midsummer Night's Dream many many times, and I've read Much Ado About Nothing many many times. I'd only read Hamlet once, so I actually went back and read some, and that episode was based on Hamlet. So that's why the language wasn't terribly difficult because I had sort of that ingrained after reading those plays. The story itself was originally going to go in the graphic novel. Ben and I broke the whole story together and thought, “Wouldn't it be cool to do this in iambic pentameter?” And then our editor said, “You will never be able to do that.” There was a huge time crunch on the graphic novel. “You'll never finish that in time. I'd love if you could do it, but it might not be for this book.” So we put it aside, but we had it all broken for the most part, and that's why the "Moonshine Holler" that's in the graphic novel is the only story that's based on an existing podcast because we wound up having to substitute that out, and I'm thrilled we did. It came out beautifully.

We had it all broken and I was teaching this course in Italy for two weeks, which gave me a lot of time because I couldn't be answering emails all day. I was there with a bunch of really good TV writers and screenwriters who were learning the craft, and it was getting me inspired, so I just sat down and did a bunch of pages a day and it just started coming out. The big part of it is having an outline that's already solid, and Ben and I had that. And we already know the characters. So a lot of the heavy lifting was done, and then it was just about finding the Hamlet of it and finding the fun, witty Shakespeare jokes. It's a very nerdy piece of the show.

Acker: My hat's off to Blacker. I picked the right writing partner. The first draft Blacker sent to me was in iambic pentameter, and I didn't want to mess it up. I realized that he had a fantastic grasp on how to do that, so I circled a couple things that needed punching up or weren't clear or whatever, and he fixed them in iambic pentameter. As we always do, we broke the story together, and then whoever feels that they have a better grasp on the first draft took the first draft, and very little polish needs applying after that first draft. It just turned out that, man, he iambic'd the hell out of that pentameter.

Do you have other experiments in genre and form you’re looking to try in the future?

Acker: I don't think we have a bucket list of things like that, but the second "Jumbo" story we did — "Jumbo the Elephant Saves Easter" — and the Christmas episode that just came out on the podcast that we did last year, both of those were told in rhymes that were particularly fun to write and I think we'd do it again if the right story presented itself to be told that way.

"Tales from the Black Lagoon" is different from what we normally do in that it’s presentational. It's a character narrating to the audience and then jumping in the scenes. That was an interesting, different form to play in than what we usually do. We don't have a list, but are always thinking of different ways to tell the story. We get to play a little fast and loose whenever Pterodactyl Jones visits Frank and Sadie [of "Beyond Belief"], and we get to have flashbacks in there that we get to poke holes in because their story is told to people so we get to jump in and out of time with that. And sometimes, we get lofty ambitions in a "Tick -Tock" story, or in "Amelia Earhart" where we talk about how we can play with time travel stuff. And we're about to do a thing with Welcome to Night Vale, so we’re figuring out how to weave those two worlds together in exciting ways.

The March 29th show with Welcome to Night Vale in Seattle, how did that come about, and do you have a sense of what that collaboration is going to look like?

Blacker: We love Night Vale. We were early adopters to it. I will totally stake that claim. We met them during one of our New York trips and really hit it off. Joseph [Fink] and Jeffrey [Cranor] are great guys with terrific storytelling chops, and Cecil [Baldwin] is a joy to write for. We got to do that in our New York show, and he’s also just a really nice guy.

We're excited about the collaboration. It's coming together slowly as Night Vale is currently on a West Coast tour, and when they were in LA, we were in San Francisco, so we didn't get to hang out and come up with our stuff. But we all have a pretty good idea of what we want that one massive crossover show to look like. It’s just about sitting down and hammering out the details of it. But the whole weekend is going to be so much fun being co-branded with them. We have some fun stuff in mind and it will be recorded, we know that, but I think none of us are going to podcast it until at least the end of 2014, if not 2015.

How involved have your performers been, especially after this many years, in the direction of their characters or the stories you tell?

Acker: I feel like we see what they do and write towards that, or completely against it. The affection between Paul and Paget has always been there, but it's grown as they've embodied these characters. To write to that and be aware of it and to drive story in other directions when they don't have each other in the story due to actor availability and see where that gets us as well as their relationship between Marc [Evan Jackson] and Mark [Gagliardi] playing Sparks and Croach, and Busy [Philipps] as Red Plains Rider. She was a character that was going to be in for a couple episodes and then not be around so much, and nobody wanted to get rid of Busy. The dynamic of the three of them is a joy to watch and a joy to write. Everybody comes to play, and they work hard at their play, so they inspire us in all sorts of ways every time we sit down to write. "What haven't we seen this guy do? Let’s make him do it."

Where do you find inspiration for new ways to explore characters and worlds you’ve worked in for years?

Acker: We started opening up the show a couple of Christmases ago. Our friend, Ed Brubaker, who's arguably one of the top comic writers writing right now, had an idea for "Beyond Belief," and it was something that we had in our heads to write. Another thing the show could teach us is how to collaborate with other writers, so we act as showrunners, and have now — for holiday episodes mainly — other writers writing pieces of show.

We did a Valentine's Day "Beyond Belief" where Glen David Gold, one of my favorite novelists in the goddamned world, wrote this episode where Bacchus and Freya were jealous of the love that Frank and Sadie had for each other, and it opened up a whole new thing for me in conceiving the show in that after all this time, I hadn't considered that Frank and Sadie's love could be a source of story. And we were going to write that first Basil Valentine's story where that's the guy that Sadie married instead of Frank because Frank didn't exist. And then seeing that Valentine's Day story that Glen gave us was like, “I don't think Sadie would get married even if Frank wasn't here. She'd know it, she'd feel it.” And I feel like that gave such dimension to that relationship, the relationship of Sadie and Basil, but also the relationship of Sadie and Frank that it's that epic; that if he didn't exist, she'd miss him. I don't know, it was neat to be shown an aspect of the show that I had only subconsciously thought about.

Blacker: It kind of felt the same as bringing in a guest director like Rian Johnson to see what he does with this foundation that we've laid. Or even a guest star. What happens when you bring an actor to it that elevates the material, which most of them do. So after Ed kind of broke in on it, it was like, “Wow, who else would like to see write an episode?” And Glen David Gold was high on that list, and Doug Petrie, going to the TV guys was a no brainer. We created a little writers' room, and for those guest-written ones, we treat ourselves as the showrunners, and it’s the guest writers' job to turn in a really great draft which they always do, and it has too much stuff in it that is so great that it becomes a 40-page "Beyond Belief" or whatever.

And then as the showrunners, it's our job to kind of hone it down and make sure everything is in our voice, and make sure its in line with what we're doing. Matt Debenham, who wrote one of the Halloween episodes last year, we actually ended up running it not on Halloween, but Matt is is a terrific prose writer, and we approached him about doing this because we love his writing, we think he's a great guy, and he turned in what has to be one of the best first drafts I've ever read in TV, in any media. It was funny, he got the characters, and then because of the dictates of the show, we wound up getting Bradley Whitford for this episode, and so we hated to rewrite Matt, but that's the showrunner's job. So we rewrote one of the characters for Brad and changed things up a little bit, but theres still so much of Matt in that script, which makes us really happy because we loved the script we got from him.

What interesting things did Rian Johnson bring to the show when he’s directed?

Blacker: It was really interesting because Rian directed when our regular director Aaron Ginsburg was out of town for a couple months, and it was really interesting to see someone new come in because Aaron is phenomenal. He has a shorthand with the actors. They know and trust him. He comes in and there's very little to do, not to undersell what Aaron does, but at this point there's an understanding between him and the actors and us and he's moving pieces around very efficiently, and he's just really good at it.

For a new guy to come in and for him to be Rian, whom we first of all respect so much as a filmmaker. It cannot be an easy task, and Rian is a very serious guy, and what he wound up doing, besides bringing some amazing cast members to it —he was key to casting especially in the most recent episode he did in January 2013 with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt and John Krazinski — he worked with the actors in a way that we tend not to do anymore because of the existing relationship that we have. Rian really made them dig deep into their characters, and we're sitting there going, “These characters are ridiculous, they don't have depth!” But he and the actors found them. He and Joseph Gordon-Levitt really worked on the long monologue that Joe had and he made it something that Joe the actor was comfortable in doing. And the other thing is that there is very little in the way of visual in our show, but Rian really played up as much as he could with entrances and exits — a character dies and really makes hay of it. Rian did an ad in the show which he wrote which is really very funny, and he came up with the staging of it where Krazinski came out and offered him things, and Joe danced for him, and it was very fun. I think he had fun pushing at the medium a little bit.

There are plenty of fans that have never been to LA, never been to the show at Largo. What do you think podcast listeners are most missing out on, that they aren't even aware that they're missing out on when they listen?

Blacker: I don't think there's anything of which they're unaware they're missing out. For the most part, what I see on Twitter and Facebook is, “Oh man, I wish I could've seen what was going on during that laugh break,” where they couldn't stop laughing and had to hide their face behind the script. Because it's all in there in the podcast, and you can tell. The podcast really is a great approximation of the live show. I think what the podcast audience is not experiencing — and never can through the podcast — is the electricity of the live show. You walk into that room in Largo, or in the Bell House in New York or wherever, and there's this swell of emotion because, especially at Largo, these are fans who are coming back for the most part month after month after month. They are in on it, they are part of the community, they are the community. So there's this real electricity in the room that you just can't capture anywhere but in the live show. We hope the concert film conveys some of that, but even that is not going to get across the excitement of going to see what is, in essence, live theater.

Ben (Blacker), you also host the Nerdist Writers Panel podcast. What made you want to start that? And almost three years in, what keeps you excited about hosting it?

Blacker: Honestly, the reason I wanted to start it is the reason I still enjoy doing it, which is I wouldn't have started the Nerdist Writers Panel if it had already existed. I really wanted to hear working writers talking about the nuts and bolts of writing television as well as anything else. The goal was always to have novelists and comic book writers and feature writers and songwriters on there, so I've been able to do a little of that over the years. It didn't exist, so I forced it to exist. I knew enough TV writers that I could put together a month of panels, and Chris Hardwick was just about to open the Nerdist space, and he happened to be doing Thrilling Adventure that month, so we started talking about needing a space, and he said, “Why don't you use this?” It all kind of fell together, it was all happenstance. I keep doing it because I genuinely learn something new every time. Any writer I have on brings something valuable to the table, whether it's something that they put in a way that I haven't thought of before, or a different perspective on the process or on the business, or even on the specific thing on which that writer worked.

The more I get to do it, the better writer I become, the more thoughtful writer I become. Then the other side is I just love TV and I love comics, and I want to talk to people who make those things about how they make them. Getting to talk to Vince Gilligan a number of times during the run of Breaking Bad was so much fun and so exciting, and I'm really bummed that we didn't get to do an on-microphone a wrap-up of the series, but it was because we ran into each other in Austin during the film festival and we chatted then, and, I realized “I’m getting what I want out of what that conversation would be, and it feels redundant to do it on a microphone. Goddammit!” So when Better Call Saul starts, I'll chat with those guys again because they're a fantastic group of writers.

What other projects are you two working on, Thrilling Adventure Hour and not?

Blacker: We're working on a Dreamworks animated show for Netflix, and it's terrific fun. It's a great group of people, and Dreamworks is an awesome place to work. Then we're working on getting the "Beyond Belief" pilot off the ground. The idea is we're going to shoot some stuff and then shop it around with Paul and Paget. We hope someone bites because it's a thing we could do forever. We love writing that show, we could work with these actors for the next 15, 20 years and be very happy about it.

 

Photo credit: Maarten de Boer 

Joel Arnold is a writer and improviser living in New York.

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