Los Angeles can be an opaque city. It’s a place made of suburbs, connected by not entirely useful highways that occasionally impede more than they convey. It’s hard to build a city without a focal point — historically, a port on a river — and consequently, LA feels like a patchwork place. But the truth of it is, the City of Angels is an inherently tribal city and it will never feel like home until you find your people.
For 10 years, The Thrilling Adventure Hour has been LA’s nerdiest tribe. Created and written by Ben Acker and Ben Blacker, The Thrilling Adventure Hour is, as they like to call it, a stage show in the style of old-time radio. Actors stand on a stage, in front of mics on stands, and perform while holding their scripts in their hands, accompanied by a live orchestra. This is how the Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre produced The War of the Worlds, and if it’s good enough for the Big Man, it was good enough for The Bens.
Once a month, a core group of performers — The WorkJuice Players, which includes Paul F. Tompkins (No, You Shut Up), Paget Brewster (Community), Busy Philipps (Cougar Town), Joshua Malina (Scandal), Marc Evan Jackson (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Craig Cackowski (Community), Hal Lublin (The Wil Wheaton Project), Mark Gagliardi (Drunk History), Annie Savage (Conan), Autumn Reeser (The Whispers) and Janet Varney (The Legend of Korra) — gather at the Largo theater and put on a genre-loving, comedy-adoring show. More often than not, they’re joined by a handful of guest stars, actors who relish getting to “put on a play in a barn” without having to memorize any lines: people like Nathan Fillion, Patton Oswalt, Alison Brie, J.K. Simmons, Jon Hamm, Neil Patrick Harris, Emily Blunt, Keegan Michael-Key, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, among others.
And a couple of months ago, on April 11, 2015, that all came to an end. Blacker and Acker are pulling the plug on the monthly shows that have become a Nerd Institution. They did a couple of shows in Australia at the end of May, but this will be the first month that the Largo at the Coronet theater won’t be filled with the music of The Andy Paley Orchestra introducing the adventures of Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars; or Frank and Sadie Doyle, the steadily intoxicated married couple that sees ghosts; or Colonel Tick-Tock or Amelia Earhart or Philip Fathom or the Algonquin Four.
When I first came to Los Angeles in 2011, I was without a tribe. My family was still back on the East Coast, what few friends I had had their own lives to negotiate, and I was starting a new job with new faces. The Thrilling Adventure Hour became my tribe. They were my people when I had none. So when I heard they were closing up shop I decided to embed myself behind the scenes for the show’s last two episodes: their 10th anniversary show on March 4th and their final show on April 11th. Respect must be paid.
“I’m absolutely in denial,” says Paget Brewster. “I think you guys are gonna change your minds. I think in six months you guys are gonna be like, ‘It sure would be fun to do something…a special! Surprise!’”
A few hours before the 10th anniversary show, the Workjuice Players — named for the fictional brand of coffee hawked in the fake ads that separate segments of the Thrilling Adventure Hour’s hour — gather in the Little Room at Largo, most famous for hosting Sarah Silverman’s HBO special We Are Miracles, to record a 10th anniversary podcast. No one’s crying yet — the tears will come later. Instead, they all trace the history of the show and their history with it.
The Thrilling Adventure Hour began with a script that Acker and Blacker — who met at Syracuse University — wrote, inspired by an actual town on an actual map: Sparks, Nevada. For them, Sparks Nevada was a Western-style marshal on Mars. They gathered some friends for a reading of said script — including Gagliardi and Tompkins — and realized that they had something special and decided to, well, put on a show. First, it was at a place in LA called M Bar, a tiny spot on Vine, where Thrilling lasted five years. Then they moved to the 280-seat Largo in March 2010. And now they’re calling it quits.
Mark Evan Jackson rolled up to the podcast late, but wearing a tuxedo, which makes him the definition of fashionably late. “There’s nothing else that I’ve cleared more room for in my life than this show,” he says.
At the time, most of them haven’t really come to grips with how the absence of the show in their lives will strike them. As Hal Lublin put it, “At some point I’ll look at my calendar and see that the show’s not on there anymore and be like, ‘Huh. Um. What do I even do on a Saturday night? Oh, that’s right, spend time with my wife.’”
Backstage at the 10th Anniversary show, while not a somber affair, is a comparatively sedate one. Acker and Blacker very much wanted it to be a family gathering — there were none of the shiny guest stars, none of the chaos that can make backstage at the Largo such an endearingly madcap place. Aaron Ginsburg, who has directed the show since its fifth episode, is rehearsing blocking and timing with the Workjuice Players. Watching people for whom being funny is a vocation do their jobs is always fascinating. Sometimes, it can be downright clinical. As much as it looks organic and natural, making comedy is a bit like baking: The measurements need to be exactly right or it just tastes wrong.
Ginsberg: “Busy, would you go to the Five Mic?”
Philips: “I would! I love it!”
Tompkins: “It’s my favorite onstage neighborhood.”
While Ginsburg adjusts jokes by fractions of seconds, the Andy Paley Orchestra goes through the new music for the episode. (All of the songs are original, written by Paley, Acker and Blacker, and ably performed by Paley’s four-piece-with-occasional-guests band.) “The hours leading up to the show always reminded me of a Busby Berkley movie like Footlight Parade,” says Paley. “Everyone’s doing their absolute best to put it together; everyone wants it to be tight. There’s pressure — last minute rewrites, additions, changes, editing — it all has to be done in a matter of minutes….and then the band hits the fanfare and we’re off and running. I’ll miss all of that.”
For those not rehearsing on the stage, the time before a show is filled with idle chit-chat and what Brewster calls “mug wine.” The female players tend to prefer their alcohol with a cork, while the fellas tend towards scotch (Jackson brought a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue).
“This is my family,” says Busy Philipps. “The camaraderie of hanging out backstage waiting to go on, catching up with gossip on people’s lives… It’s show people. It’s the magic of show people.”
Before the curtain rises, the cast huddles together like a scene out of [Almost Famous]. Even 10 years in, they still get the jitters. And when the Sparks Nevada theme music starts to play, a few tears are wiped from cheeks.
Brewster and Tompkins are the core of Beyond Belief, the final installment of each Thrilling Adventure Hour. As such, they’re cooling their heels in their dressing rooms (okay, there are only two dressing rooms: one for the he-types and another for the shes) like a mother and father who don’t want to acknowledge what’s happening with their kids. Paget gives me a mug full of wine. She is wearing a full-on ballroom gown and is very hard to look at in the way that people on television can be hard to look at — as if your pupils are having a hard time adjusting to the radiance.
When it is finally time for the show to wrap up, after Paul and Paget have vanquished their last supernatural threat, Acker and Blacker present all of their players with custom-built puppets of each of their characters — including one for actress Janet Varney, who had been a “special guest star” until her promotion this very night. And then they all sing “The Rainbow Connection” — which is both longer than you remember it to be and the saddest song ever first sung by a frog.
The Final Largo Show, on April 11, is a much grander shindig. There’s a score guest stars — includng Molly Quinn (Castle), Joshua Malina (Scandal), John Hodgeman, David Anders (iZombie), James Urbaniak (The Venture Bros.), Timothy Omundson (Psych), Nick Wechsler (Revenge), Natalie Morales (Parks and Recreation), Melanie Lynsky (Togetherness) and Matt Jones (Mom) — on the roster, as well as some others in the wings. Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Bill Corbett is in the house, as are musicians Paul and Storm and Kate Micucci and Riki Lindhome (Garfunkel and Oates). Looper director Rian Johnson has a lightsaber clipped to his belt in honor of the Star Wars flicks he’s directing after JJ Abrams’. The WorkJuice Players are all in formal wear — Tompkins is in full-on Scottish Highland regalia, as if he broke into Sean Connery’s Sunday’s Finest closet.
I’m playing a game with the people that I run into: Who is gonna cry first?
Joshua Malina: “I think a lot of the men are gonna cry. I’m gonna say Marc Evan Jackson. I will not be crying, and here’s why. I don’t think I’ve earned it. It’s a 10-year thing that I jumped on in year seven or eight. This exact same thing happened to me on The West Wing, which ran for seven years but I joined in the fourth season, and then, come the end of it, I might have cried over the end of my income. So there were a lot of tears and stuff and they looked at me and, like, I’m sorry, I can’t work it up. It’s just not there. And in a sense I don’t feel that I’ve earned it. So it’s a little bit of the same here. These guys have been together for ten years. I glommed on. That’s my thing. I don’t add value to anything or help anything succeed, but once it’s succeeding I try desperately to jump on.”
Lublin: “Part of me thinks Paget is gonna cry first. But she doesn’t have to be on stage until later in the show, so she’s got time. Maybe Marc Evan Jackson. I’m gonna go Marc Evan Jackson. Why not?”
Philipps: “Weirdly, Janet Varney. I feel like that’s outside the odds, but I could see her going. Gags [Mark Gagliardi] and I always cry. We cry together. We cry on stage. It’s weird.”
Paget explained to me that before every performance of their Beyond Belief, when they’re standing on the stage before the curtain rises, as Hal Lublin begins his “It’s time to send the little ones to Dreamland…” narration, they pinch each other on the arm. Just a little “good luck” thing. They’ve done it every show since the first show. And now it’s the last show.
Paget is crying a little.
By the time the show ends proper, with the entire cast singing the WorkJuice Anthem there’s not a dry eye in the house.
Now, despite all of this, The Thrilling Adventure isn’t gone, not completely. The cast will be convening to record new installments for their podcast, which already boasts some 250-plus episodes. Acker and Blacker are writing ongoing Thrilling Adventure Hour comic books through Image. And there could be one-off performances around the country (New York is a whistle stop, and they’ve been known to appear at the San Diego Comic-Con and Chicago’s C2E2 convention). Should you be hungry for a Thrilling fix, you won’t have to search too far.
But that thing that first drew audiences, that thing that helped form a nexus for LA’s nerdiest tribe — the monthly live show — is no more.
“I always knew that every month I would see all these people that I loved,” says Tompkins. “And I didn’t have to plan it, I didn’t have to do anything to make it happen, it would just always happen.”
And now it won’t.
Marc Bernardin is the Deputy Editor of Playboy.com. He once moderated a panel for The Thrilling Adventure Hour and almost did not fall off the stage.