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During the New York Comic Con last year, a friend told me that I had to go with him to the live recording of a podcast of improvisation and comedy. I was … skeptical, but I continued, while explaining 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 called Arnie Niekamp) is receiving food at Burger King when he suddenly falls through a portal into a magical world known as Foon. Fortunately, he has his podcasting equipment, and a weak Wi-Fi signal from said Burger King, and he decides to organize a weekly podcast with a wizard (played by Matt Young) called – and yes, this is really his name – "Usidore, Mage of the 12th Kingdom of Ephysiyies, Master of Light and Shadow, Manipulator of Magical Delights, Devourer of Chaos, Champion of the Great Halls of Terrikska The Elves know me as Fi & # 39; ang Yalok. Dwarves know me as Zoenen Hoogstandjes, and they also know me in the northeast as Gaismunēnas Meistar ", as well as a shapeshifter called Chunt (Adal Rifai), which often takes the shape of a badger.
Each week, Arnie and his friends interview a random resident of Foon. Since the show began in 2015, they have recorded more than 150 episodes, spanning two seasons and creating a rich and crazy world, made even more impressive by the fact that the show is almost completely improvised.
Listen to the program's website, Apple Podcasts, PlayerFM, Google Play, Soundcloud and Stitcher.
Image: Arnie Niekamp
Niekamp, who has been performing on Chicago's improvisational scene for at least a decade and a half, had experimented with some small podcast projects in recent years, none of which gained much steam. After a while, however, "I had somehow stopped doing podcasts because they are a lot of work for a person." But when my daughter was born, I realized that I really was not going to have time to act [improv] several times by night, like I did before, and maybe record a podcast was something more manageable. " And although his enthusiasm for podcasts had diminished, "the idea of Hello from the Magic Tavern simply would not go away."
Niekamp says he loves the serialized narrative potential that podcasting offers, specifically "taking a format that seems really established, like a chat and having stories that slip into it." His own interest in fantasy was revived with the resurgence of the genre in the mainstream, thanks to franchises such as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. "It's a genre that [holds] is so genuinely wonderful, but so genuinely stupid at times," which, he says, is exactly what makes it ripe for the potential of comedy.
Niekamp and his co-stars of Magic Tavern go to each episode without a script, but it's not totally free.
"We have a very established structure that really helps," explains Niekamp. "The style of the interview is very useful to contain improvisation, but it makes everything possible, so having a guest to focus on is something you can turn to."
When he introduced his cohesion to the idea of the podcast, all he told them was that his character would be a stranger to the world, while they would be native to him; Rifai and Young then came up with their own characters.
"Matt said he wanted to be a pompous magician, and Adal said it would be a shape-shifting change according to who he had sex with," says Niekamp. "That's our general philosophy of how we approach most episodes: the guests bring to the table what excites them the most."
The guests, who included people like Cory Doctorow, Felicia Day and, for the episode that my friend and I saw live in New York Comic Con, comedian Jordan Klepper, they put a couple of ideas to Niekamp, and they will develop the character slightly before recording the show. "That's it, some guests will prepare a background story, but most will not, so we sit down and improvise a lot, then we try our best to stay true to the consequences of that episode, if there's something that resonates."
These consequences accumulate to tell a broader general story. From the beginning, the Magic Tavern hosts have had an approximate idea for a myth; they knew from the beginning, for example, how the first season would end, and they usually know where the second season is going. Individual episodes simply end up pushing the story in that direction.
But Niekamp says they're still open to what happens episode by episode. "Some of our best program developments come from a weird phrasing, or from someone who makes mistakes and we have to make the mistake make sense." The name of the incredibly long sorcerer of Young, for example, was spawned during the first episode of the recording. . "Matt decided, last night [that] & # 39; attendees sometimes have long names & # 39 ;, so he was on Google Translate putting things at random, and came up with a long name, almost an incoherent style, Without waiting to say it more than once or twice, he did not share it with anyone beforehand, and during his presentation, he said this long name, and when I heard it, my honest reaction was: "What was that thing again?" ? & # 39; "Since then, Young has directed each episode. introducing himself by his full name. "He became a part of who his character is, it's so important to him that everyone listens to each one [part]."
The program has accumulated a large fan base over the past three years. The recording room we attended in October was full of guests who had clearly heard each episode, providing a room that was not only an attentive audience, but also one that played with the story itself. (It's based on a tavern, after all.) Niekamp pointed out that the combination of improvised comedy and the intimacy of the podcast format helps the program really work, but ultimately, it gained an audience because at bottom, it's a story about the friendship of three characters that develops in a fantastic world from week to week.