Once upon a time, Arnie Niekamp was sucked into a portal behind a Burger King in Chicago and ended up in a mysterious world called Foon. As he explains in the opening of each episode of Hello From the Magic Tavern, he can still podcast from this strange alternate universe, and after a couple episodes, you’ll be sucked in too.
Niekamp is joined by shape-shifting badger Chunt (Adal Rifai) and quest-obsessed wizard Usidore (Matt Young), who announces his full name during every episode, plus a rotating cast of characters who inhabit Foon and, more specifically, the local “magic tavern,” the Vermilion Minotaur. In Foon, seasons include one called “blunder,” goblins have very active sex lives, hunger ghosts roam for eternity looking for scraps, and having two buttholes is not uncommon. There are some Earth-like similarities, though: Wedding planners exist, as do funerals.
Oh, and the show is entirely improvised.
For a podcast this layered, the connective tissue has to be strong, or else it’s going to be a mess. HFTMT succeeds in large part due to the improvisational talents of Niekamp, Rifai, and Young, who have been performing together in Chicago for more than a decade. Sure, they step on one another’s toes from time to time, but they also know each other’s strengths and weaknesses—when to save and when to step back. Niekamp had done podcasts before HFTMT with Chicago followings, but nothing really stuck.
“It sort of seems like to get any kind of attention these days, you have to do something sort of high-concept or a little more niche,” he told the Daily Dot. “At the same time, I love high-concept stuff and I love storytelling and basically I just pitched the idea to Matt and Adal. … I wanted to [make] what I love about podcasts, which is a laid-back chat show, and introduce a really weird story.”
Podcasts like Welcome to Night Vale and Limetown point to the success of a high-concept, alternate-reality-building approach. Though improv is its foundation, HFTMT wasn’t a stage show first; it was designed to exist as a podcast. Niekamp says they did a couple “test episodes” to ensure they would be able to pull it off, which ended up as HFTMT’s first two episodes.
Much like The Best Show’s Tom Scharpling, Niekamp’s role is to keep order among the chaos and character-building, to be the curious-yet-cautious guide to Foon. Rifai and Young are part of the main cast, but each week sees other Chicago improv performers stepping into the rift to embody a resident: Krom the Barbarian, Spintax the Green, Spurt the Elder, and Pimbly Nimblebottom, to name just a few.
“My role is to sort of be the ringleader, to keep things in order,” Niekamp said. “I’m sort of the audience surrogate, and so my job is to try to have as honest of a reaction as I can to everything that’s happening.” Niekamp adds that they’re often “juggling several different [improv] games at the same time, so usually the main game is that I’m trying to keep order and they’re trying to invent a lot of crazy stuff.
“Within that, I try to find the little things for myself to do, to make my character less of just a straight interviewer. My quote-unquote ‘character’ has his own quirks; he’s a little too obsessed with the podcast, beyond reason. Like, why would someone in this magical world really be that invested in doing a podcast?”
The fans, however, have become very invested. Hello From the Magic Tavern debuted in March, and since then a strong fandom has sprung up around the show, especially on Reddit and Tumblr. Niekamp relates that if they contradict or repeat themselves in a storyline, they’ll get emails about it, at the very real email address [email protected], which has become a recurring bit on the show. They often have to consult the fan-made Wiki page to remember certain references, and both Chunt and Usidore have their own Twitter accounts, even though Twitter ostensibly doesn’t exist in Foon.
“I love the idea of the audience really being able to participate in the show,” Niekamp said. “And ask questions and suggest things that fundamentally become a part of the world of the show. That just seems like a kind of natural outgrowth of the improv we’re trying to do.”
More than 37 episodes in, HFTMT has developed a fanbase that returns every week, but Niekamp says they’ve resisted—at least for now—the idea of having “seasons.”
“One of the things I love about podcasts is they’re just kind of always there for you every week,” he said. “And I also worry that when you take time off, what percentage of your audience do you lose? Also, I sort of love the purporting-to-be-real quality, even though it says it’s not real.
“We try to find ways to have the show bleed into the real world. Someone wrote a Yelp review of the Burger King we mention in the show, with a lot of references to Foon, and I think that’s hilarious. …[It’s] giving you at least a small percentage of an open door to thinking, ‘You know, this could be real. This is happening in real time.’”
Illustration by Max Fleishman