- Illustration: Anna Grace Nolin; photo: Danielle scruggs
- From left: Matt Young, Arnie Niekamp, and Adal Rifai
In March 2015, Arnie Niekamp fell through a magical portal behind the Burger King on Irving Park and Clark and found himself in the enchanting land of Foon. Much like Narnia or Middle Earth, Foon is full of elves, dwarves, monsters, royalty, sorcery, and talking animals. Niekamp posted up in the Vermilion Minotaur, a tavern in the town of Hogsface. By chance he had some podcasting equipment with him when he encountered the portal, and thanks to a slight Wi-Fi signal he's still getting from the Burger King, Niekamp is uploading a weekly podcast, Hello From the Magic Tavern, to introduce the people of earth to the world of Foon.
Niekamp cohosts the show with Usidore, a wizard, and Chunt, a shape-shifter who takes the form of any creature he has sex with. (He's currently, and most frequently, a badger). Hogsface is a popular stop for travelers, so Niekamp, Usidore, and Chunt are joined by a special Foonish guest—so far they've had wizards, trolls, wedding planners, ghosts, eagles, mailmen, and vampires, to name a few—and for about 30 minutes they talk about Foonish life, work, quests, romance, cuisine, and buttholes (buttholes, specifically how many you have, are a big topic in Foon).
Of course, as an announcer says at the beginning of every episode, Hello From the Magic Tavern is not real. Well, the podcast is real, but it's recorded in a sound studio in Goose Island, not in a fantasy land. The fictional Niekamp, Usidore, and Chunt are played by veteran improv comedians Arnie Niekamp, who's 40, Matt Young, 41, and Adal Rifai, 33, respectively. Apart from the premise and character backgrounds, everything is completely improvised.
One of the by-products of this format is that anything made up on the show immediately becomes part of the inexorably burgeoning history and tradition of Foon. At this point, Foon is a weird and wonderful place where "Wi-Fi" stands for "witches' fight"; "open mike night" is when a guy named Mike turns his body inside out and does stand-up comedy; Chunt organizes a blood drive to feed vampires called, Chunt for the Red October; people who die while hungry turn into "hunger ghosts" who are hungry for eternity; there's a popular fantasy role-playing game called "Offices & Bosses"; and everyone's favorite delicacy is a raw potato rolled in spices.
Hello From the Magic Tavern debuted a little more than a year ago on March 5, 2015. The podcast first became a hit in the Chicago improv community and grew steadily as guests of the show introduced it to their fans. In June 2015 Hello From the Magic Tavern was written up in Buzzfeed, then Huffington Post in July. Cards Against Humanity cocreator Max Temkin wrote about it on his blog in November, which got Cory Doctorow's attention at BoingBoing. In December, both iTunes and the Guardian named it one of the best new podcasts of 2015. There's even been outside interest in turning Hello From the Magic Tavern into a book and animated series, options that the hosts are considering.
But the most significant development is that Hello From the Magic Tavern was just signed by Earwolf, a major podcasting network that produces Comedy Bang! Bang!, How Did This Get Made?, and Spontaneation With Paul F. Tompkins, a few of the most popular comedy podcasts in the world. Besides supplying bigger sponsors and more money, joining Earwolf will give the trio access to guests from the network's stable of comedians, the opportunity of guesting on other Earwolf shows, and the possibility of taking a live show on tour. In other words, in one year Hello From the Magic Tavern grew from three friends' fun side project into a very big deal.
- Anna Grace Nolin
Niekamp moved to Chicago in 2001 to pursue comedy. He realized that long-form improv was what he wanted to do with his life after seeing a live performance by the original cast of Upright Citizens Brigade (including Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, and Matt Walsh), a moment he concedes "seems melodramatic, but was kind of life-changing." Young had been in Chicago since 1997 pursuing acting when he felt a similar calling on a 2001 trip to New York. After trying and failing to get tickets to Late Night With Conan O'Brien, he found himself watching Saturday Night Live reruns in the gift shop of 30 Rockefeller Plaza; he signed up for improv classes the day he got back. Niekamp and Young both started taking classes and performing on teams at Chicago's ImprovOlympic and Second City at about the same time, and in 2003 both became part of the original cast of Whirled News Tonight, iO's long-running news-satire show.
Rifai moved to Chicago in 2005 to pursue acting, but when a teacher at Second City saw his college theater department's annual showcase, she offered him a scholarship to take improv classes. After performing in a few shows and teams at iO, he too joined the cast of Whirled News Tonight in 2008. The three have been good friends (Niekamp and Young were even roommates for a few years) and frequent collaborators ever since.
"They've been working together for so many years," says iO director Charna Halpern. "They probably thought, 'We really work well together, we're all a little warped—let's do this crazy project.'"
Niekamp came up with the idea for Magic Tavern in 2014. "I have this bad habit of constantly thinking of new ideas for podcasts, and they became more and more high concept . . . and weirder, which I like," he says. "I wanted to do a podcast where I played myself in a fantasy world, and to keep myself as the outsider character but still actually build a world that has some kind of coherent structure to it. I needed characters that were there every week that knew more about the world than I did."
That fall, Niekamp pitched the show to the Chicago Podcast Coop, a project Temkin set up at Cards Against Humanity that provides local podcasts with sponsors and the use of a professional recording studio. Temkin (who has a recurring role on the podcast as a Burger King drive-through attendant) recalls, "When Arnie first pitched the show to me, I thought to myself, 'This is way too high-concept. It's too smart for the public, and it's never going to find an audience.' But one of the fun things about the podcast co-op is that it's a nonprofit model. We don't care if a show ever finds an audience, it's just a way for us to be a good patron of art that we like and help support comedians. So even though I had my reservations, I was like, 'Sounds great, I can't wait to hear it.' I'm so happy that my first instinct was wrong."
By day, Niekamp works as a game designer at Jackbox Games, and he recruited his coworkers and fellow designers Evan Jacover and Ryan DiGiorgi as the show's producers. They record, edit, and upload each episode with occasional help from Chris Rathjen (who also plays Foonish baron Ragoon).
Niekamp says he thought of Rifai and Young for the podcast because of their opposite energies. That polarity is amplified by their character choices, and can be heard from the first moments of the inaugural episode. After Niekamp's opening, Usidore introduces himself by his full name, which is: Usidore, Wizard of the 12th Realm of Ephysiyies, Master of Light and Shadow, Manipulator of Magical Delights, Devourer of Chaos, Champion of the Great Halls of Terr'akkas; the elves know me as Fi'ang Yalok, the dwarves know me as Zoenen Hoogstandjes, known in the Northeast as Gaismunēnas Meistar . . . and there may be other secret names you do not know yet!"
"And I'm Chunt," adds Rifai.
Usidore recites his entire name at the beginning of every episode, which Niekamp says is "the running joke" in a podcast replete with them. Young had spent a few hours typing things on Google Translate like "son of light" so he could find "magical-sounding names and then bastardize them." He says that after the first episode he "never expected to say any of those titles again, but then immediately Arnie said, 'What was that name again?' and then I was like, 'Well, that's a thing now, I always have to say the whole name."
With Arnie as the fish out of water, Young knew that the show needed a character who could help steer the world building: "I definitely had this idea that I wanted to be somebody who had a lot of knowledge." Since Arnie doesn't know anything about Foon, "I can just choose to be like, 'Yeah, that's correct, this totally crazy thing totally exists in this world.'"
Not that Usidore is just there for exposition. "He's shitty Gandalf," Young says of Usidore. "He's the guy on the bridge saying you shall not pass, but he's always operating in that mode when he doesn't need to be, which is really off-putting and weird. I think I have a natural inclination to kind of play blustery buffoons."
Chunt, on the other hand, brings no bluster. He speaks in an oddly mellifluous deadpan and often reacts indifferently, whereas Usidore often overreacts. Usidore's dream is to go on a quest to defeat the Dark Lord, Chunt's is to open a restaurant.
"They're definitely different types," Halpern says. "Adal's very introspective and he kind of sneaks up on you, and Matt will be as wild and crazy as possible, but he's so intelligent too."
Young and Rifai's opposite approaches to their characters are key to the tone of the show. Usidore brings in classic genre elements, and Chunt subverts that. "I knew Arnie was going to be himself, and I knew Matt was going to be really big and broad and have this wonderful booming voice and these fantastical elements to him," Rifai says. "So I think it was a conscious effort to find the middle ground, and be like, I am fantastical, but I'll talk like I'm a casual bro or dude, to sort of balance that out."
The guests on Magic Tavern are all played by other improv comedians with whom one or all of the hosts have performed before, mostly at iO. The visitors tend to take either Usidore or Chunt's route. Those who follow Usidore's lead—such as D'athaniel Quen'yarvin, an Elvish archer (Tim Ryder); Spurt the Elder, a poet (Andy Carey); and Tannakin the Pinglet, a flying "micro pig" (Sarah Fineout)—embrace fantasy signifiers and are inclined to adopt a mock voice and act like extras in a Shakespeare play. Those who take after Chunt—such as Flower, an unhappy, profane flower (Brooke Breit); Don, the transdimensional deliveryman (Joey Romaine); and Peter Smith, the first Jew in Foon (Daniel Strauss)—seem more like everyday people who just happen to operate in a magical world.
"They'll definitely skew toward one end," Rifai says. "Either Matt or I are able to immediately recognize which of those choices they've made and sort of help them out. The more casual, they tend to know me; the more fantastical, they tend to know Matt. I think they want a partner in crime."
One guest who notably took the fantastical route was Charlie McCrackin, who played Spintax the Green. The character had been mentioned in an early episode as a rival of Usidore's, so McCrackin, who had a thorough knowledge of the previous 15 episodes, e-mailed Niekamp to ask if he could play him. From the moment McCrackin asks "Do you remember when we lived in the Halls of Terr'akkas?," the episode becomes an exercise in embarrassing Usidore—revealing that Spintax and Usidore were former roommates, that Spintax is generally both a better and better-known wizard, and that he once dated a girl, Jyn'Leeviyah, with whom Usidore was, and still is, in love.
"It's the first time you get to see Usidore exposed a little bit," Young says. The episode shifted how Arnie and Chunt regarded Usidore from then on. Niekamp says Spintax's first appearance is his favorite episode. "It did all the great things. He created a lot of cool things for his character, but it also affected all the other characters in really interesting ways."
But a great episode isn't contingent upon the guest being so well versed in the show, as evidenced by episode 41, "Skeleton," in which TJ Jagodowski (of iO's legendary weekly show TJ & Dave) plays Clacks the Skeleton. Jagodowski knew less about the world of Foon than many guests.
"Their world is pretty intact, they've been living in it for a year now," Jagodowski says. "You can choose to either be intimidated by their experience, or you can choose to look at it as, 'Oh my gosh, they're so comfortable here.' You have a bigger safety net to work with. They just made me feel like there's really nothing you can do to throw them. They've gotten used to this temperature of the water, so I could just fall into their experience."
"Officially I'm the working class of the undead," Jagodowski's skeleton says of his job as low-level security in a dungeon, and most of the humor in the episode comes from the three cohosts peppering him with questions about his backstory and daily life, ending with Clacks offering to boost Arnie's confidence by letting him win a dungeon fight: "I'll take a dive, baby!"
"I imagine a skeleton that works in a dungeon is just so thrilled to be around the living," Jagodowski says. "It was a point of view I could play of just being so happy to be invited. It's like if the Carson show invited up some tiny stand-up comic, he'd just be so thrilled to be there."
Niekamp asks upcoming guests to pitch him three character ideas, "but to keep them very short. A talking flower who's really angry, an elf who hates trees, a bridge troll who's just really into his bridge. We don't really want them to tell us much more besides that because it's good to be surprised."
Regardless of how much the guests know about the podcast, Rifai says, "I really enjoy when someone comes in and has a great idea of the character and the point of view, who's just going to exist and react." Niekamp, Rifai, and Young are eager to let the guests impose themselves on the world of Foon, making up new holidays, regions, customs, histories, and sometimes adding to one of the host's past or a future story line. For this reason, the hosts are careful not to think too far ahead for their characters or have any preconceptions about where the story should go.
Niekamp tells each guest before the taping not to worry about "breaking the world." "My job more than anything is just to set things up and then let everyone else fill it up with stuff," he says. "It's not so much that it becomes more complicated than that it becomes more fun. There's more stuff to pull from, more stuff to reference. You go toward the fun, basically."
This doesn't mean that the story has gotten overly complicated. "There's kind of not enough going on," says Niekamp. "It's kind of like Cheers, really. It's just people hanging out in a bar."
A lot of the lived-in feeling of Magic Tavern is due to Niekamp. "What's kind of invisible to most listeners is how great he is at being a host," Young says. Niekamp guides each episode: he prods Chunt and Usidore to move their stories along, or zeroes in on what is most interesting about the guests and what they are most excited to talk about. As a fish out of water in Foon, Niekamp is playing a less savvy version of himself, a person who is constantly surprised and generally delighted by the world he's found.
Niekamp's in-character relationships with Chunt and Usidore are the heart of the podcast. The fact that he treats the two of them—a bloviating wizard and a moody shape-shifter—with affection, even compassion, is crucial to the warm tone of the show. Without Niekamp Magic Tavern could too easily be a one-dimensional genre parody, but with him it's a welcoming world in which Chunt and Usidore have evolved into complex characters.
"Whenever I'm improvising at all I want to be funny," Young says. "Then once you hit that minimum requirement you can go a step beyond that. I always want there to be real stakes, and there's something vulnerable there." With Usidore that's meant the slow revelation, initiated in the Spintax episode, that he's not everything he claims to be. "I think people like Usidore because he is a humanized version of a familiar archetype. Wizards (especially in Tolkien) seem so inhuman and beyond mortals. To give frailties to that type of being is comforting, maybe. Also, everyone can relate to having the desire to accomplish something magnificent, yet never quite getting there."
While Usidore may have a love-hate relationship with himself, Chunt has a love-hate relationship with Niekamp. "Chunt does seem to have some deep-seated animosity toward my character," Niekamp says. "I think after years of me making fun of his accent in improv scenes, he's weirdly getting his revenge on me in this show."
Niekamp puts a lot of effort into appeasing Chunt, which the latter accepts or rejects at his discretion. "It is something I'm trying to think about as far as trying to flesh him out a little bit more," Rifai says. "We want to make sure that it's not just butting heads for ten years, that we find other subtleties and peaks and valleys for our relationship."
If anything, their squabbling adds to the impression that the listener is hanging out with three friends, probably because the trio's dynamic on the show is transplanted directly from the real world. "In real life that is absolutely our dynamic, but maybe at a four, and on the show it's like a ten," Rifai says. "Matt is the sweetest guy ever, and Arnie is as well, but maybe a little more sarcastic. When I get added into the mix I definitely give it back to Arnie twofold, and then Matt gets in on the fun."
"In my head I thought people would come to Arnie's rescue," Rifai says, but that has decidedly not been the case. Niekamp estimates that almost half of the e-mails the group gets are from listeners ganging up on him. The hosts understand that people just want to get in on the joke, but it also bums them all out. "I want people to feel like they're part of it, but I want people to think that Arnie's awesome," Young says.
But even if people love to hate Niekamp, they definitely love the show. Although they never expected it to be this successful, especially this quickly, the three principals behind Magic Tavern say they hope to keep going as long as it's fun for them and the listeners. "Right now in all of our lives, except for relationships and family, this is our top priority," Rifai says. "We want to put as much of our energy and time and passion into this as possible."
Young adds, "We have a lot of fun giving each other a hard time in real life, and I think that comes through in the podcast, but the thing you don't get as much in the podcast is how much we really do care about each other, and how important we all are to each other. I'm glad that this thing that people seem to like and has gotten some attention is with two people that I like so much." v
Correction: This article has been amended to reflect the correct spelling of Charna Halpern's name.