There are a ton of podcasts out there, but finding the right one can be difficult. In our new column Pod Hunters, we cover what we’ve been listening to that we can’t stop thinking about.
During last year’s New York Comic Con, a friend told me that I had to come with him to the live-taping of an improv-comedy podcast. I was ... skeptical, but went along, as he explained the premise behind the show, Hello from the Magic Tavern.
Essentially, it’s an epic fantasy story created by Chicago comedian Arnie Niekamp. In it, his character (also named Arnie Niekamp) is getting food at Burger King when he suddenly falls through a portal to a magical world known as Foon. Fortunately, he has his podcasting equipment, and a weak Wi-Fi signal from said Burger King, and decides to host a weekly podcast with a Wizard (played by Matt Young) named — and yes, this really is his name— “Usidore, Wizard of the 12th Realm of Ephysiyies, Master of Light and Shadow, Manipulator of Magical Delights, Devourer of Chaos, Champion of the Great Halls of Terr’akkas. The elves know me as Fi’ang Yalok. The dwarfs know me as Zoenen Hoogstandjes. And I am also known in the Northeast as Gaismunēnas Meistar,” as well as a shapeshifter named Chunt (Adal Rifai), who often takes the form of a badger.
Each week, Arnie and his friends interview a random resident of Foon. Since the show started in 2015, they’ve recorded more than 150 episodes, spanning two seasons and creating a rich, zany world—made all the more impressive by the fact that the show is almost entirely improvised.
Niekamp, who has been performing in the Chicago improv scene for at least a decade and a half, had experimented with a few small podcast projects over the years, none of which ever gained much steam. After a while, though, “I’d kind of sworn off doing podcasts because they’re just so much work for one person to do. But when my daughter was born, I realized that I wasn’t really going to have the time to perform [improv] multiple times a night, like I had before, and that maybe recording a podcast was a more manageable thing.” And though his podcast enthusiasm had waned, “the idea for Hello from the Magic Tavern just wouldn’t go away.”
Niekamp says he loves the serialized storytelling potential that podcasting offers, specifically “taking a format that seems really set, like a chat show, and having stories sort of creep into it.” His own interest in fantasy was rekindled with the resurgence of the genre in the mainstream, thanks to franchises like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. “It’s a genre that [holds] so much that is so genuinely wonderful, but so genuinely stupid at times”—which, he says, is exactly what makes it ripe for comedic potential.
Niekamp and his Magic Tavern costars go into each episode without a script, but it’s not entirely a free-for-all.
“We have a very set structure that really helps,” Niekamp explains. “The interview style is very helpful to both contain improv, but make anything possible, so having a guest to focus on is something that you can come back to.”
When he pitched his cohosts on the idea for the podcast, all he told them was that his character would be an outsider to the world, while they would be native to it; Rifai and Young then came up with their own characters.
“Matt said that he wanted to be a pompous wizard, and Adal said he’d be a shape-shifter who changed shape based on who he had sex with,” says Niekamp. “That’s our general philosophy of how we approach most episodes: guests bring what they’re most excited about to the table.”
The guests — which have included people like Cory Doctorow, Felicia Day, and, for the episode my friend and I watched live at New York Comic Con, comedian Jordan Klepper — pitch a couple of ideas to Niekamp, and they’ll lightly develop the character before taping the show. “That’s about it. Some guests will prepare a backstory, but most don’t, so we sit down and pretty fully improvise it. We then just try our best to stay true to the consequences of that episode, if there’s something that resonates.”
Those consequences do build up to tell a larger overall story. From the start, Magic Tavern’s hosts have had a rough idea for a myth arc; they knew early on, for example, how season one would end, and they generally know where season two is going. The individual episodes simply end up nudging the story in that direction.
But Niekamp says they still leave themselves open to whatever comes up episode to episode. “Some of our best developments of the show come out of a weird phrasing of a thing, or someone messing up and us having to make the mistake make sense.” Young’s insanely long wizard name, for example, was spawned during the first episode taping. “Matt decided, the night before, [that] ‘wizards have long names sometimes,’ so he was on Google Translate putting in random things, and came up with a long, almost gibberish-style name, never expecting to say it more than once or twice. He didn’t share it with anyone beforehand, and during his introduction, he said this long rambling name, and when I heard it, my honest reaction was, ‘What was that thing again?’” Since then, Young has led each episode introducing himself by his entire name. “It became such a part of who his character is—it’s so important to him that everyone hears every single [part].”
The show has amassed a major fanbase over the past three years. The room at the taping we attended in October was full of guests who had clearly listened to every episode, providing a room that was not only an attentive audience, but also one that played to the story itself. (It’s based in a tavern, after all.) Niekamp noted that the combination of improvised comedy and the intimacy of the podcast format helps make the show really work, but ultimately, it’s gained an audience because at its heart, it’s a story about the friendship of three characters that plays out in a fantastic world from week to week.