This past Thursday night was odd. I attended a performance of my city’s local orchestra and the audience was rather varied. I saw women dressed in full length velvet skirts and gorgeous dresses, along with young guys in t-shirts and jeans.
I can only imagine that it was due to the guest artist: writer, producer, actor and singer Seth MacFarlane.
Creator of The Family Guy, American Dad and The Cleveland Show, as well as writer and producer for Ted, Ted 2, and A Million Ways to Die in the West (among other projects), Seth is also a Grammy-nominated singer for his album Music is Better Than Words.
If you have watched any of MacFarlane’s shows and movies, you know that he incorporates songs in the style of classic show tunes. The songs are similar to those performed by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr (collectively known as the “Rat Pack”), among others. The “crooner” style was smooth, suave and sexy.
And truly, seeing Seth MacFarlane perform classics from the 1930s and 1940s was all of that. Interspersed with mildly off color jokes, and the voices of Stewie and Quagmire, the songs MacFarlane chose brought me back a time when art was much simpler.
That got me thinking about how else Hollywood has helped the old become new again; in particular, two podcasts that have been steadily gaining a cult following from fans and artists alike. Both use the format of radio shows in the 1940s, one focusing on comedy, the other on comedic horror.
Thrilling Adventure Hour (TAH), written by Ben Acker and Ben Blacker, is a live show where the actors simply read their scripts into microphones in order to simulate the production of an old time radio program. There are short episodes of recurring characters (the programming), and parody commercials between the segments.
Started in 2005, TAH has regular episodes with a variety of characters. “Sparks Nevada: Marshal on Mars” is a Space Western with players Marc Evan Jackson (22 Jump Street, Reno 911!, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, in addition to numerous other projects) and Mark Gagliardi (Drunk History) lend their voices as Sparks Nevada and Croach the Tracker, a hilariously sober native Martian who supports Sparks. Frank and Sadie Doyle (Paul F. Tompkins of Mr. Show and There Will Be Blood, and Paget Brewster of Criminal Minds) are a high society couple who solve paranormal mysteries when they aren’t enjoying martinis at any time of day in “Beyond Belief.” Other segments include “The Adventures of Captain Laserbeam,” who is aided by a group of teens known as the Adventurekateers, and “Philip Fathom, Deep Sea Detective,” which has so many puns and alliteration in the title that it just makes me giggle without even having to listen to the segment.
The TAH podcasts are available through Nerdist.com, and have spawned comic books, panels at San Diego Comic Con, live shows at the convention as of 2014, and celebrity fans who participate in the shows as guest stars, including Danica McKellar (The Wonder Years), Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Castle), Karen Gillan (Doctor Who), and Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother), among many others.
If satire of the Leave it to Beaver era of programming isn’t your thing, try the Welcome to Night Vale (WtN) podcast instead. Started in 2012 by Joseph Funk and Jeffrey Cranor, WtN simulates a radio station that documents the strange happenings in the town of Night Vale, with fictional host Cecil Gershwin Palmer. Played by newcomer Cecil Baldwin, this creepy podcast is like listening to NPR with a Clive Barker twist. When the laughter comes, it is the kind with that nervous edge. The episodes have a particularly absurdist quality when Cecil discusses conspiracy theories and alien invasions in Night Vale with an eerily calm demeanor.
Welcome to Night Vale did a crossover performance with Thrilling Adventure Hour at the 2014 San Diego Comic Con, is branching out into a novel, and has featured guest stars including Jackson Publick and James Urbaniak (both of Venture Brothers fame), and Wil Wheaton (Star Trek: The Next Generation, w00tstock, and various other geek culture projects). The podcasts are available on iTunes.
The main element all of these programs have in common? Music. Welcome to Night Vale presents the weather through a song in each episode, while Thrilling Adventure Hour uses song within the programs or during the parody commercials. And of course MacFarlane incorporates music into all of his works, both through the live performance I saw this week and his shows and movies. This commitment to the classic elements of music and theatre is what make these performances work. The serious and earnest nature of the songs, as well as the purity of the story that comes from the restriction of a radio show format serves to highlight the comedy even more. These formats transcend the decades.
If you haven’t already, go listen to Seth MacFarlane sing a classic Sinatra tune, be enthralled with the adventures of Captain Laserbeam, and shudder at the antics of Tamika Flynn, child anarchist known for her berserker violence and rebellion against the Summer Reading Program in Night Vale.
Take a moment for timelessness.