It’s always exciting to see something that really awakens the potential of the medium in which it’s made. When you watch a Kubrick film you really see a talented artist not merely attempting to ape the narrative conventions and success of a medium such as literature, but fully realising the underlying potential that exists in all the wondrous resources and avenues that exist in cinema.
In the medium of podcasting I encountered one such work recently, and it happens to involve a portal behind a Burger King that leads to a world of wizards, changelings and high fantasy hi-jinks and hilarity.
‘Hello from the Magic Tavern’ is closing in on its hundredth episode now as it unfurls the story of Arnie, a hapless man who accidentally bumbles his way into the fantastical world of Foon and who, on a weak wi-fi signal, broadcasts a weekly conversation with various creatures and adventurers from the Vermillion Minotaur tavern. Arnie is assisted by trance-prone wizard Usidore and shapeshifter Chunt who act as co-hosts and translators of Foon’s fantastic elements for Arnie’s slightly bemused Chicago sensibility.
When a podcast like this comes along it gives you a sudden awareness of just how much the medium can be stretched to its limit and play to its natural strengths, and also how very rarely even the best and most popular podcasts do so. While the proliferation of true crime and storytelling podcasts that huddle around the tent-pole of Serial are often compelling and powerful, they only use podcasting’s “theatre of the mind” faculty to very limited effect.
Were one to try to organise a primetime television series about the talking plants and Goblin Queens of Foon it would require a pretty extensive special effects team, an armoury of prosthetics, software and animatronics, as well as an enormous cast of extras to give this fantastical world a warm, bustling quality that the Magic Tavern achieves with a few microphones. One of podcasting’s greatest advantages is its ability to do less with more, and to use everything from pauses in conversation to ambient noise to kind of paint a picture using sonic absence as its brush. Where a more visual medium might need to shove a bunch of stimuli into your face to give you the impression of a pre-existing world full of strange supernatural entities, The Magic Tavern accomplishes this in a cheap and limited way through a restrained sound design that feels both intimate and expansive.
Of course the format of the podcast is another stroke of genius on the part of its creators. In terms of telling these traditional high fantasy stories of witches and shapeshifters in a podcast format, your options are pretty limited. Intense and fantastical action tends not to be something that the medium handles terribly well. Zombie audio drama “We’re Alive” was an early attempt at taking the pulse-pounding action of a miniseries onto the airwaves and, although it made an admirable effort, its sound design often shambled and shuffled in a way that mirrored its undead subjects. Instead of attempting to overly dramatise the many epics and sagas that permeate the world of Foon, the Magic Tavern instead decides to fall back on a great podcasting convention and twist it just enough to suit their ends. The whole show (built on a cast of improv comics) has a loose and improvisational feel to it, meaning it often has more in common with mainstream comedy podcasts like the Joe Rogan Experience or Comedy Bang Bang than the kind of supernatural audio drama (a la Welcome to Nightvale) it would seem to more superficially resemble.
This stylistic choice affords the podcast many opportunities that mightn’t otherwise be available. Its main character Arnie is able to play the bemused straight man and offer the audience a window into the world and it seems at times almost as though we’re watching David Letterman react to Andy Kaufman, except if the avant-garde comedian happened to have magical powers or extraordinary swordsmanship skills. As well as this the podcast has an innate understanding of the double-edged sword that is the whole High Fantasy genre, a rollicking and popular medium that manages to be simultaneously totally sweeping and epic and also completely ridiculous. The podcast’s tongue-in-cheek tone can take advantage of this, building an intricate and fascinating lore through laughs and turning running jokes into legitimate plotlines or moments of intense character exploration.
When I listen to a podcast like Hello From the Magic Tavern, I’m overjoyed to get the sense that it’s the kind of work made by people who have a deep and abiding affection for the medium and a true appreciation of its strengths and potential. I get a feeling deep in my gut akin to the one that film lovers got when they first encountered the films of New Hollywood; from people like Spielberg, Lucas, Altman, Coppola and the like. Here were people who loved film so much they wanted to stretch the medium and truly see what it could do, mixing a pastiche of popular style and obscure reference in with their own artistic sensibility. If Hello From the Magic Tavern is what the future of podcasting looks like, it is a bright one indeed.