For more than five years, Thrilling Adventure Hour has been bringing L.A. a dose of “old-time radio.” Well, sort of. Created by writers Ben Acker and Ben Blacker, Thrilling Adventure Hour is actually a stage show done in the style of radio. In other words, you're watching actors on stage in front of microphones as though they were in a studio. The hour is divided into segments, filled with short, sometimes serialized, programs filled with science-fiction, mystery and lots of comedy.
Thrilling Adventure Hour is comedy theater for geeks. The show regularly draws a Comic-Con-worthy selection of guest stars, like Nathan Fillion and Chris Hardwick, both of whom will be appearing at Saturday and Sunday night's shows at Largo. Regular cast members include the likes of John DiMaggio (Futurama), James Urbaniak (The Venture Bros.) and Samm Levine (Inglourious Basterds, Freaks and Geeks).
Then there are the stories, which turn genres on their head. When we caught Thrilling Adventure Hour earlier this fall, we were taken by the show's oldest segments, “Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars” and “Beyond Belief.” The former is a space western comedy revolving around the misadventures of its titular character. The latter is a romantic, supernatural mystery involving a sharp-witted, cocktail-loving couple.
We recently caught up with Acker and Blacker to talk Thrilling Adventure Hour.
How did Thrilling Adventure Hour begin?
Ben Blacker: The show came out of a feature script that we had written. We wrote a movie called Sparks Nevada Marshal on Mars and it was the first feature that we had written. We got a bunch of actors together. Ben had been working with Paul Tompkins on his Largo show and had gone from Second City, so we picked a bunch of actors, Paul and Dave (Gruber) Allen, Mark Gagliardi and sat in my living room and had them read the script aloud to us. We had never really heard our stuff delivered quite like that, hadn't seen what these actors could bring to the parts. We were just floored. We said, there must be a way we can exploit these people as well as keep ourselves on a regular writing schedule, put stuff on its feet in front of an audience and really learn how to write for an audience.
Ben Acker: And the idea of the radio conceit meant that we weren't asking too much of actors in terms of favors because they didn't have to memorize anything. They could hold the scripts in their hands and we get to play in a bunch of different worlds. That's one of the things we like to do, create the worlds.
How has 'Sparks Nevada' evolved over the years?
BB: The part changed significantly between the initial feature that we wrote and bringing Marc Evan Jackson on board. That was the first big change.Where we always saw Sparks as sort of an idealized hero…
BA: We went from writing a comic western hero to a flawed western hero with the casting of Marc Evan Jackson.
BB: Jackson brought so much of the ego that is part of Sparks, the blind confidence that is part of Sparks, which is all such fun stuff to play with.
BA: It became a collaboration with Marc about the character. In the five years of writing it, it's the one that we get to write long arcs for because we get to really screw with the character. He's the marshal on Mars, well, let's get him fired. He's no longer the marshal, let's take him off Mars, let's put him on the moon.
BB: His only steady relationship is with his faithful Martian companion, let's split them up, let's get a girl between them.
What about “Beyond Belief”?
BB: “Beyond Belief” was an old idea.
BA: “Beyond Belief,” we tried to do serialized things for that piece of the show and we landed on it being much better contained. It's a nice end to the show. To have it be continued wasn't the thing.
BB: When did we figure out how to write “Beyond Belief”? It took a long time.
BA: I don't know.
BB: The idea for “Beyond Belief,” which is these two fast-talking married mediums and the way they see the world and the way they see the monsters that surround them, which are just basically regular people with regular flaws, but that makes them sort of monstrous, in addition to being physically monsters, was always there. Figuring out how to write it and how best to serve Paul Tompkins and Paget Brewster [who play lead characters Frank and Sadie], who can read any line in there funny, took a little time.
BA: How to invest the characters who only really care about each other and booze in the stories…it took maturing them just enough to get them interested in saving someone.
Was it influenced by The Thin Man?
BB: We do gravitate to those kind of movies, I mean, His Girl Friday is sort of the ideal version of The Thin Man, those Thin Man movies don't hold up as well as you want them to, although the second one is great. Those kinds of movies where it's about the smartest person in the room dealing with people who aren't the smartest in the room or a fast-talking pair who really love each other, yeah, that influences us. It's not the moonlighting thing.
BA: Revisiting this in doing the show, realizing that a lot of those movies spent a lot of time with Nick trying to keep Nora out of the mystery, it's such a pleasure to be able to have Sadie protect Frank more than the other way around. Those gender roles are defunct when we get play with two adventurers who see each other as equals and get to play that love story in a contemporary way in a timeless setting.
There's a lot going on in Thrilling Adventure Hour, like with “Sparks Nevada”– is it the future or is it the past, it's got this old west thing, but then there are giant robots– and then it's like a radio show, but you're watching it. Did all the layers come naturally?
BA: I was writing “Sparks Nevada” for the first six months like it was an alternate history that sci-fi had happened in the train age of America.
BB: And I hate that.
BA: But then it was like the story is better if it takes place in the future, but we haven't made it explicit. So now it's all in the future, it's whatever serves the story better.
Frank and Sadie takes place, whenever we describe it, it's an undisclosed era of history. They met the ghost of Kennedy, who should not be around yet.
BB: If it was The Thin Man, they could not meet the ghost of Kennedy.
BA: All the contradictory things of the show, ideally, they're engaging for the audience.
It's like time is irrelevant?
BA: That's better.
BB: We do purposely place everything outside of time. We don't want anyone to pin down, this is when this happens,unless that is what the story is about, because it ultimately doesn't matter.
We use the cultural touchstones that we want for the episode and by the next episode, those don't matter anymore. It's like a Loony Tunes cartoon.
What do you remember about your first show?
BA: A lot of friends came out…
BB: We had a nice full house. M Bar [the show's former home] is a 100 seat theater.
BA: We didn't have a band doing the music and we didn't have a sound effects man. I made two CDs. The person in the sound booth wasn't really paid enough to care about the show. So, what I remember most about the first couple shows, before we got the sound effects man, is being scared every time I knew we had a sound cue. The first episode, we had probably 90 sound cues. The second episode, we had like 30.
BB: Which is what we stick closer to now. Even with these great sound guys– Joel Spence and Michael Sinterniklaas and everyone who has stepped in– there is still always that little fear when something technical has to happen. The first show was so different.
BA: We also aspired to create an atmosphere of old time storytelling as opposed to going for punchlines and so it was a quiet room, which is terrifying for a live show.
BB: They were engaged.
BA: But you can't prove it. They can tell you all they want, but it's not provable, so we gravitated fast towards this has to also be funny in order to know that it's working.
A lot of the actors in the show have appeared in series and films that have huge cult followings, does that bring in an audience for Thrilling Adventure Hour that might not normally go to this kind of show?
BA: When we got Levine and Danny Strong and DiMaggio came into the cast at the same time, although Samm had done it earlier, we got what we called a geekquinox, between these guys' cult shows, if you are a nerdy fan of something, you are going to love someone in our show. Odds are, more than one thing.
BB: Then we got James [Urbaniak], trying to bring in Wil Wheaton, but even before that, Nathan Fillion was the apex of that.
BA: Nathan Fillion fans didn't know they were fans of our show until they came to see the show because of Fillion. The show is as for them as anything can be. We're playing with the same stuff that Joss Whedon is playing with in a direct way.
BB: Ben and I, we sort of discovered that we both did this as kids, we didn't know each other as kids, we would sit in our respective rooms for hours and hours in our youth and play with action figures and make Darth Vader fight Spider-Man. That would never happen except in our imagination and we're sort of getting to do that same thing now, where we're moving characters across the boards where we can have Michael Hogan from Battlestar and Juliet Landau from Buffy, Tom Lenk from Buffy, whatever it is, and make them bump into each other.
We are as big fans of everyone in our show as the people who come to the show.
Would you ever do Thrilling Adventure Hour at Comic-Con?
BB: We would love to.
BA: That would be super. Half the cast is there anyway.