Matt Young, Arnie Niekamp, and Adal Rifai (Photo: Danielle Scruggs)
There are relatively few weekly podcasts that beg to be listened to in sequential order, especially after producing some 120 episodes, but Hello From The Magic Tavern is firmly in that exclusive club. Now in its third year running, Earwolf’s entirely improvised meta-contextual fantasy comedy earns a spot in that club not just for its high concept but the even more interesting central rule at the heart of it: that everything spoken on the show immediately becomes part of the its canon. In doing so, each successive episode continues to build the world of the show, often bearing fruit in surprising and hilarious ways down the line.
If you aren’t already familiar with Magic Tavern, here’s the basics: Chicago comedian and podcaster Arnie Niekamp one day falls through a transdimensional portal behind a Burger King, ending up in a Narnia-like realm of adventure called Foon. While trapped in the rift Niekamp sets up an interview show at the show’s titular tavern, The Vermillion Minotaur, chatting with all manner of magical creatures every week. Niekamp is joined each week by regular co-hosts Chunt, a pun-obsessed shapeshifter usually in the form of a badger (played by Adal Rifai) and Usidore, a shambolic and blustery old wizard (played by Matt Young).
Over the course of their run, the gang have been visited by a host of estimable guest stars including Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! host Peter Sagal, wrestler Colt Cabana, actress Felicia Day, authors Cory Doctorow and Patrick Rothfuss, as well as many more.
I recently had a chance to catch up with Arnie, Adal, and Matt to discuss their favorite episodes of the show and it was a blast. Whether you’re longtime listener or you’re just now thinking about getting started on the show, there is a lot to enjoy within.
Constant Listener: I recently saw that the show was something like third overall in Earwolf program downloads last year. How did that feel?
Matt Young: It does seem like we are doing well for Earwolf which is very exciting. I feel lucky to be part of something that I was such a big fan of prior to being on the network.
Arnie Niekamp: I did see that on Reddit, and the metrics they pulled seemed not wildly wrong from what I could tell. But also, who knows how many of those shows have huge listenership on Howl. It’s hard to really have much sense of perspective size-wise, but we do seem to have a big enthusiastic audience and we’re still growing rapidly.
Adal Rifai: As long as we’re beating Hollywood Handbook. They are our enemies
Arnie: Oh no.
Matt: No! I love those guys! That show is the best!
Arnie: Can we pick enemies that are less smart and funny?
CL: I really enjoyed hearing [Gimlet Media co-founder] Alex Blumberg continually bringing up your show on their live episode [Hollywood Handbook #136—Alex Blumberg, Our Live Helper at Being the Best Podcast at the Live Show].
Arnie: Adal and I were in the audience at the Podcast Movement conference last summer, watching Alex Blumberg give a speech and when he started talking about Magic Tavern and played a clip of Usdiore’s name, it was very surreal.
At one point he said, “Wait, are those guys here by any chance,” and we said, “Yes! Yes we are!” He mostly seemed disappointed that Matt wasn’t there. But we are starting to get to a place where people we admire have not only heard of the show but actually like it.
CL: It has got to be such a tonic to learn that you’ve arrived, when you have these luminaries who are excited to interact with you as well.
Arnie: When Mike Doughty wrote a song for our show… I could hardly believe it, because I was a huge Soul Coughing fan. And in his email he was like, “First of all, I’m still catching up so whatever you do…no spoilers!”
Matt: We are very lucky. The fact that Felicia Day tweeted about us at one point put me over the moon. To actually meet her and have her play a character we had been building up was incredible. She is very talented and was generous to help us out. And to have her immediately start throwing out references and deep cuts on the show was pretty great.
Adal: Still waiting on Lin Manuel Miranda to listen. Then I can stop and move abroad.
I chose Episode 16—Spintax The Green.
I love having other wizards on the show in general and seeing what their take on the archetype is, like Felicia Day, and having Charlie McCrackin want to be this character that we had built up as a bit of rival for Usidore was really gratifying.
CL: It was such an important thing for the show to do, deepening Usidore’s backstory
Matt: We had created a nugget of something that he took and blew up into this totally different kind of dissection of a fantasy trope that we hadn’t done yet. We got to see [Usidore and Spintax] as real people and rivals who happen to have these powers. I’ve always thought Usidore shouldn’t be an incompetent wizard, but a powerful wizard who is an incompetent person, so to give him a person who can go toe to toe and fill in the bits of Usidore that Usidore doesn’t want to reveal is really powerful. And Charlie is funny. Really, really funny. Arnie didn’t he reach out to you to play that role?
Arnie: Usidore mentioned Spintax in passing a few times in the show as a rival, and it just caught on as this funny, unseen character. I actually reached out to Charlie McCrackin fairly early on about doing something on the show because he’s so great, and he said, “I want to be Spintax!” We held off for a while because it was fun to build him up for a character before having him show up. It’s funny now to see that that’s episode 16 because in my memory we built it up for a long time. But now that we’re at episode 100, it’s funny to think of how long those first 16 episodes felt.
CL: Had you ever improvised with Charlie when he was living in Chicago?
Matt: Yes! Arnie and I did a few shows on our old Harold [improv] team with Charlie’s famous improv team, The Reckoning, when we were both new-ish teams. Then Charlie and I were in the first incarnation of Improvised Star Trek together before that show became a podcast. I played the Captain and Charlie was a sentient gas cloud who didn’t understand human anatomy and was the ship’s doctor.
Arnie: Charlie was on an episode of my old podcast Mystery Cove, which is actually more high concept even than Magic Tavern, and probably not worth going into here.
Matt: As a side note, I also love how other wizards’ lists of wizard titles have become a bit on the show. When Spintax said Nickelback Silverchair was his dwarven name, I definitely lost my shit.
Adal: I loved that he won the Wizard’s Choice Awards. That made me immediately want to see that as an episode, just a night of the Wizard Choice Awards.
Matt: It’s a great opportunity to make weird jokes that tell you a lot about the world.
Arnie: Charlie is my favorite kind of guest because he just comes in and wildly invents without fear. It helps that he really loved and knew the show already, but he was willing to create big things in the world, stuff that still looms large in the canon of the show. That’s so much more fun that guests being too cautious and it just turns into, “Okay, well… what kind of fork does a centaur use then?”
CL: That’s the great thing about the show, since everything spoken aloud becomes canon you are constantly growing the world and every offhand comment can become its own episode. Like the character Can The Wizard coming off of line in a letter that didn’t address Usidore by name.
Matt: Yeah, I love that Can the Wizard discovery.
Arnie: That to me, the Can thing, is what makes improv great. It’s not just, can we come up with the funniest line, or sound more naturalistic, but when you get to a weird place usually because of an accident. Someone wrote in a letter that said “can the wizard…” and that’s led to a chain reaction in show that created a character that is very central and has spawned lots of crazy theories about the central mysteries of the show.
Matt: I wouldn’t call Can central. Tertiary.
Arnie: He looms large!
Adal: Can being born is the worst thing to happen to the show
Arnie: I’m just glad to play two characters that everyone hates.
Adal: Arnie keeps trying to sell Earwolf a Can spin-off.
So my pick is actually one episode prior to Matt’s, Episode 15—Transdimensional Deliveryman with Joey Romaine.
Arnie: What we’re saying is, you can listen to the first 16 episodes and then stop.
Matt: Episodes 15 and 16 make for a great cross-section of the show just in terms of how different they are.
CL: This was the episode that was done to promote the show’s new T-shirt line with Ann Arbor Tees, right?
Arnie: I liked the idea of having a physical connection to Earth, that could maybe eventually deliver packages, but was impossible to get anything useful out of. So we asked Joey who is a delight… but also impossible to get anything useful out of.
Adal: The combination of Joey just being the funniest human I’ve ever met and the behind the scenes of the recording made it one of my favorite things of all time
CL: What happened behind the scenes while recording this episode?.
Adal: So Joey came in to record at like 8:30pm and immediately apologized because he had a hard out at 9pm.So we rush to record and there’s these small things going on where Joey is like kind of nervous and didn’t know what his name should be. So Arnie says, “Just be named Joey” and Joey lights up and is like, “Yes, of course! Amazing!” But then as soon as we started he was like, “Yeah my name is Don.” We eventually try and find an out for him [to leave] while improvising, saying things like “Welp, thanks for stopping by! I’m sure you have to go Don!” and Joey just kind of refuses to leave. His character says, “No guys! I can stay! I have all the time in the world.” Eventually we stop recording and are asking him, “Wait, don’t you need to go?” and he’s panicking and says, “Oh my god yeah, if we could wrap this up please that would be great.” So we start recording again and the same thing happens: we give him an out and he won’t take it, he wants to stick around.
Arnie: He’s pure chaos, but funny.
Adal: It was maybe the most I’ve laughed in my life. I can listen to that episode 100 times and still laugh at the humor in it and just thinking about that night.
CL: That is phenomenal.
Adal: He’s also just such an engine. You kind of hold onto the reins and let him race you toward the canyon edge.
Arnie: As the person who was trying to keep things at least a little on the rails, I was losing my mind. At one point I think I literally threw my headphones off my head, I couldn’t handle the anxiety that he was going to be late for something. But maybe that’s an issue I need to explore about myself.
Adal: I also love the immediate tension between him and Usidore.
Matt: Also, part of the reason he wouldn’t leave was he felt like he wasn’t doing a good enough job (and he was amazing).
Matt: Yes, I’m not sure why that happened. I think I just made a dumb joke about him having the same job as a bird and then he talked shit about birds and Usidore wouldn’t allow that.
Adal: Oh also, the only non-improvised part was that Joey had to say the name of the company the package [his character was delivering] was from, like that’s about all he was told, and it comes to the point where he delivers that package and Arnie says, “who is it from?” and Joey’s like, “I don’t know man, I can’t really tell.” He has such a vaudevillian energy, like I feel if he was born 70 years ago, we would all know his name and work today.
CL: I’m laughing just remembering that. It’s such a prototypical Joey Romaine moment.
Matt: He’s pure Marx Brothers.
Adal: Quick side story: he called me a few months ago and was like “Dude! I just auditioned for this HBO thing!” I told him congratulations and he’s like, “No man! that’s not the cool part. As I was leaving the casting director was like, I hate to bother you….but are you Don the Transdimensional Delivery Man?” and asked for a picture with him and told him that her husband was going to freak out that she met him.
CL: Oh my goodness. That is absolute gold.
Arnie: I’ve heard that Brooke Breit, who plays Flower, got called in for an audition for something where they were looking for a “Flower type.”
CL: Have you had other examples of the show sort of growing into the public consciousness that surprise you?
Arnie: People keep writing Yelp reviews for the Burger King that we reference in the show, with these elaborate in-jokes. I guess Yelp keeps taking them down but people keep putting them back up again. Also, I’ve seen the Vermillion Minotaur get added to Google Maps more than once.
Matt: I feel like more and more people tell me that they know someone who tells them about the show. And the person telling them about the show doesn’t realize that this person knows me or is my friend. That always surprises me, but it’s cool. That somehow it’s growing on its own.
Matt: I was at a birthday party for a friends kid and there are a bunch of adults there with their kids. I don’t know any of these adults (I don’t have kids), but one couple comes up to me and were excited to me meet because they listen to the show. They were surprised that I was there.
Arnie: You can measure the level of growth by how moderately annoyed people you work with get about their friends asking what it’s like to work with you.
My favorite episode is Episode 59—Dr Ward.
CL: That is perhaps the single most controversial episode of the show.
Arnie: From nearly the beginning we knew we wanted to do an episode where we played with the genre trope of “all this fantastic stuff isn’t really happening the hero is in a mental hospital.” So we asked Shane Wilson to be the doctor, and talked just a little bit about how we wanted to end up with him being some kind of monster that was making me think I was crazy so that he could learn how dimensional travel works and then we just jumped off the ledge and improvised it.
Matt: It’s pretty amazing how written it sounds considering it is improvised.
Adal: that’s a funny one to listen to because it’s 99% improvised but it comes off as almost scripted
Arnie: And I’m really proud of that episode and it shows what we’re capable of at a higher level of difficulty. It bounces back and forth between the fantasy world and the “real world” and even before we added the sound effects later, you could track the fast switches and we all followed each other’s lead really well.
Arnie: But by that point we had also accumulated so much detail about the world, so there was so much stuff to play with and subvert.
CL: Would you say that there is a particular facet of your improv training that helped you to navigate such a complex scenario?
Adal: I think at that point it’s all about trust
Arnie: It’s much more like what doing a live long form improv show is like. Things can get very fluid as to where you are and when you are. Things jump around. And you just have to listen and follow the lead of the other people, and when you make a big change, do something that keys everyone in. You build an internal language for the game of that show. It helps that everyone sort of knew what their game in that episode was.
Adal: Like we get humor in there but we knew that we had to navigate this idea to have depth and heart and not just bits—I can’t believe I’m saying that—so just fully trusting each other to lead us moment to moment.
CL: That episode really is quite the achievement, because in many ways it wouldn’t have worked without the patient world-building of the 58 episodes preceding it. It makes the show that much more sublime because a regular improv show has a maximum callback depth of say 30 minutes, instead of 50+ hours in your case.
Arnie: I also like that the episode is sad. I think we’d earned the opportunity to explore what was sad about escaping reality, and delusion or not, what’s sad about Arnie’s predicament. I’ve said this before but every passing day with my daughter I feel more and more sorry for the fictional version of myself that’s missing that. As silly as the show is, we also want it to have some emotional depth, and I think serialized stories especially can hold things that seem contradictory, silliness and sadness, really dumb jokes and really smart jokes.
Adal: I think it’s sad that one day your baby will grow up and realize her dad is Can the Wizard. What a sad, sad moment that will be
Arnie: But also, yes, many people hate that episode. They hate the mere suggestion that it’s not real. It’s like a slap in the face to their loving suspension of disbelief.
Adal: There was many a tweet that was like “Welp! I guess it’s all fake! Not going to listen anymore.”
CL: You have, from a very early moment in the show’s run, played with the idea of reality and the layers of truth, whether it be that the characters are active on social media, or every episode opening with your announcer, the Mysterious Man, who actively attempts to dissuade listeners from believing that the show is in any way real.
Matt: Yeah, I think the first time you get an episode with the Mysterious Man it is kind of mind-blowing. It’s pretty early on too [Ed. Note: Episode 10—Homesick). So there is always this baked in [element], that we can jump around and tell other kinds of stories.
Arnie: I’m really drawn to how something can be not real and real at the same time. That’s why I love improv, because when you see a live improv show, especially one without any props or costumes, it could not be any more blatant that it’s not real, but you also get sucked into believing in it. And the fact that it’s both is what’s interesting.
I really love Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried where he tells fictional stories about his time in Vietnam but then also tells true stories about what he changed in the stories and why, to get to some truth or just to protect himself emotionally. Like, to tell a story that was hard, [O’Brien] had to make it about someone else. I like those layers. But I also know that all sounds pretty pretentious when talking about the butthole podcast.
Matt: I think we should mention two episodes that we picked out as a group, just because they are both good places to check out the show if you haven’t yet: Episode 41—Skeleton, and Episode 96—Mic Check.
CL: Such good episodes.
Arnie: Skeleton with TJ Jagodowski is really just the perfect guest-focused episode. We really explore that character’s life.
CL: Right, like I remember how sweetly nuanced it is, like how at the end of episode Clax the skeleton casually reveals that he was gay before he died.
Arnie: I think TJ was realizing that about his character in that moment.
Adal: I think TJ has a bright future if he were to pursue improv.
CL: Mic Check was a revelation, honestly.
Matt: Speak on that.
CL: I think that there was a feeling that taking the show outside of the tavern would change its dynamic, but instead it was this great way to weave in all of these disparate characters that the audiences had been looking to hear from again.
Matt: Good, I think that’s what we hoped. It seems potentially strange to mix things up too much, but it’s important to not become stagnant.
Arnie: Honestly, we always intended to end that episode with Arnie getting the sword, and still being not a great hero but redeeming himself a little. And I started having that kind of heartfelt exchange with the skeleton and I think Matt couldn’t resist just bursting back in and saying, “Welp! I got the sword!” Because it was too perfect and funny not to.
CL: It happened so naturally. The audience in some way wouldn’t know what to do with Arnie having actually gotten the sword through some deus ex machina that worked in his favor, but one which works against him is kind of perfect.
Arnie: The show is at its best when we’re as surprised by what’s happening as the listener is.
Matt: Like the idea of fish mind control [Ed. note: see Episode 98—King Of The Badger]. I think I really surprised Arnie and Adal with that, and then we had this joyous run of exploring this silly, surprising idea. I surprised myself. I was backed into a corner and I had to confidently explain how a fish told me it was trapped in a tower. So, mind control.
Arnie: And now that we’ve started Season 2 it really does feel like time to explore the different things the show can do. We have had some very different episodes so far. And the show has been able to change while still retaining the central dynamic.