12:23 pm Sep. 28, 2012
This Sunday, Thrilling Adventure Hour, a stage production that owes as much to old-time radio as to the influence of Star Wars and spaghetti westerns, will make its East Coast debut.
A cult hit in Los Angeles, the show features a Who's Who of young comedians—including Paul F. Tompkins, Busy Phillips, Nathan Fillion, Linda Cardellini, Paget Brewster, John Hodgman, and many others—as well as some who should be far better known, such as Marc Evan Jackson, who wields his basso profundo voice like a broadsword. The New York engagement will be limited—only two shows on Sept. 30 at The Bell House (at 7:30 and 10 p.m.)—but it's considered a test run for the show's possible expansion. Staged monthly in L.A., Thrilling Adventure Hour is a resolutely local production—some hardcore fans attend every show—but by posting each performance as a podcast, the show has built up a global following.
In the burgeoning world of comedy podcasts, Thrilling Adventure Hour may be unique in the affection that fellow comedians have for it. Perhaps that's because of its throwback style, more in tune with old radio plays or early TV's variety shows than with today's more common comedy-podcast premise: the chat show. While the show has a large repertory company, the producers still find themselves besieged by requests from other comedians and actors.
“We have a surplus of talent,” co-creator Ben Acker told me when we spoke on the phone two weeks ago. “It's a problem I'm not going to complain about.”
The Thrilling Adventure Hour is the creation of two men with nearly identical names: Ben Acker and Ben Blacker. They started the show in 2005, making their home at Los Angeles' M Bar, a small supper club, before moving on, two years ago, to Largo at the Coronet, a larger venue known for its brilliantly eclectic slate of programming, including a monthly (formerly weekly) showcase by musician (and Kanye West producer) Jon Brion.
Largo provides a bigger venue and a degree of prestige, Acker said, adding, “There's a relationship between performers and audience there that feels unique to that place.”
It's the kind of venue where performers and attendees (some of them celebrities) tend to hang out in the courtyard after a show, mingling casually. After a Tenacious D show on frontman Jack Black's birthday, cupcakes were served to the audience, who that night included Jason Segel and Tim Robbins. It's also where comedian Tig Naro announced, on stage, that she had stage 2 breast cancer.
The Thrilling Adventure Hour has two recurring segments, “Beyond Belief” and “Sparks Nevada,” a sci-fi western set on Mars; other storylines, such as one about Amelia Earhart fighting Nazis, appear periodically. The tone is loose and silly, but the writing snaps, and the songs, composed by Andy Paley with input from Acker and Blacker, are exceedingly well done. Given the serialized nature of the show, and the fact that it's put on every week, its enduring quality is all the more impressive. In fact, it arguably has improved.
“The storytelling got way more refined,” Paul F. Tompkins told me by phone a couple of weeks ago.
Tompkins plays Frank Doyle in the “Beyond Belief” segment. He and his wife Sadie (Criminal Minds' Paget Brewster) are crime-solving mediums who chatter in mid-Atlantic accents and mingle with other sophisticates. There's a roaring '20s verve about them—cocktails and bon mots are in ready supply—but they're also goofy and bumbling, solving mysteries despite themselves.
Tompkins was one of the earliest supporters of the show. He met Acker when the latter was a doorman at Largo—“he's a gentle giant,” Tompkins said—and eventually asked him to do some writing for his own stage show, The Paul F. Tompkins Show.
“I've been on board ever since,” Tompkins said.
Although Adventure Hour is humming along now, it's taken some time and persistence for Acker and Blacker to get there. Following the classic Hollywood trope, they more than once have been on the verge of screenwriting success, only to have their plans stymied. As Acker described it, they had an “almost career” in 2000.
When their projects dried up, Blacker returned to Boston to be a teacher. Acker stayed in Los Angeles, attending classes at Second City, and later taught there. It's also where he met many of the performers who would become cast members in his show. Eventually, Blacker returned and the two began working together again. They wrote a feature version of “Sparks Nevada.” When doing a live reading of the script, they asked themselves, “How can we make this a regular occurrence?” and soon landed on the idea of a radio show.
The show has led to other writing opportunities, including for the show “Supernatural” and the Nickelodeon program “Supah Ninjas.”
When we spoke, Acker indicated that something bigger was on the way but was barred by a non-disclosure agreement from saying more.
“We're starting to dip our toe into other media,” he said. “We're about to announce some exciting things.”
Whether that means a TV adaptation of Thrilling Adventure Hour (a permanent New York production seems possible too) or something else entirely, the show itself is sure to continue. When I asked if he and Blacker had ever thought about moving on to something else, if the grind of monthly productions was perhaps too much, Acker was unequivocal.
“Padget Brewster will murder us and hide the bodies,” he deadpanned. “We're not allowed.
“Also, we love it so much. It's still the most fun, it's the work that doesn't feel like work, and it's the show that we most want to see in the world. Working with all the people that we work with—there's no end in sight.”
More by this author:
- Edwidge Danticat and Salman Rushdie share stories of violence and fear, well-leavened with humor
- On stage, the pleasant 'purple-state' feminism of Amy Poehler