Interviews: A Smashing Good Time With Thrilling Adventure Hour

If you’re in the mood for some audio fun the way they used to do it in the 40’s, with radio adventures but updated with slick and intelligent humor, there is no better way to spend your time than Thrilling Adventure Hour. 

Thrilling Adventure Hour is a live production and podcast of mini adventures featuring several Hollywood actors both known and not so known. Thrilling Adventure Hour (TAH) is the creation of Ben Blacker and Ben Acker, both comic and TV writers that have written for shows like Supernatural.  Sparks Nevada, one of the mainstays of TAH, is the tale of a cowboy transplanted to the planet Mars. The authoritative voice of Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars, is Marc Evan Jackson who spent a number of years in Detroit as part of  Second City and still regularly frequents the area. Marc is a familiar face on TV with parts on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Modern Family, Psych and many others. I had the opportunity to sit down with Ben Blacker and Marc Evan Jackson to talk about Thrilling Adventure Hour and the reasons for their passions behind it.

TMS: Tell me about the early days of Thrilling Adventure Hour

Ben : Well 50 years ago (laughs). Ben Acker and I wrote a feature script called Sparks Nevada Marshal on Mars around 10 years ago and we had a bunch of actors come in to read it out loud to see how it read. That reading was so much fun we thought there must be a way to get this in front of people right away. The show started about 6 months later and the guy in mind for Sparks Nevada was not available to do a monthly show. Ben saw Marc at a Second City show in Los Angeles and said this is the guy we want. I went and saw the show and thought this guy gets it. He can be dry and funny. In the beginning Sparks was a little different than he is now. ..

MEJ: Yes, he was terrible. (laughs) Sparks and I are completely different. I’m super sweatervesty and super bowtiey. So you don’t look at me and go “Space Cowboy,” you look at me and go “librarian.” But, vocally I can do it. I always saw Sparks as someone like John Wayne or maybe Gary Cooper. A legit hero.

Ben: Marc made the episodes really solid and defined the character more than anybody else. It’s more of a 50/50 collaboration now.

TMS:  One of my references to radio drama goes back to an episode of Kramer where everything goes wrong and is hilarious. Is that what it’s really like?

Ben:  That’s funny. You know that episode has always been in the back of my head.

MEJ: Well it’s definitely very chaotic. Our show is intentionally under rehearsed. Ninety percent of the people involved are working actor that have shows. Very busy people. Schedules are a nightmare, but we always pull it off.  People describe the Thrilling backstage like being at the backstage of the Muppet Show.

Ben:  I was reminded of a story of a show we did last year. A standard show at the Largo, but I realized at the end of it there’s this character that walks on for six lines that we forgot to cast. I looked at Mark Gagliardi who had the pages in his script and said “can you do this?” And a few minutes later he was on the stage killing it.

TMS:  I just listened to a recent episode that was co-written by Len Wein (Co-creator of Swamp Thing), how did that come about?

Ben: Len is a pal of ours.

MEJ: He comes to our show every month.

Ben: Len has worked on so many characters, Marvel and DC. He started coming to our shows and we had a comics podcast started so it was an easy ask to get him to be a guest writer. Ben and I are like the show runners breaking the story down. Len turned in a script that was so good and spot on, I was surprised we didn’t write it.

TMS:  With Sparks Nevada, how much is scripted and how much do you add?

MEJ: I do add things but it’s all part of the collaboration. First the writing is there. These guys put out amazing scripts. There is a mutual respect, if there’s a moment that I can highlight by going “Really?” then I do it. Something that doesn’t break the moment but adds to it. It’s organic and sometimes performing live the moment needs something like a laugh that will help a line. I add tons of “um’s” and “ur’s”.

Ben:  The way we write for Mark is different than the way we write for everyone else. We just write him the middle of lines, because we know he’s going to tack something on the beginning and end.  For everyone else we give them a full line.

TMS: Ben, with all the content, TAH seems very time consuming,  do you work on it 24/7?

Ben:  I wish we could. I wish it was our fulltime job but Ben and I have several  other projects that we’re working on. We have TV shows were writing and comic books. Ben and I will try and write around six TAH episodes in a sitting. We will look at who we have available for the cast. One of use will do an outline and pass it to the other to write. We have been doing it for so long we can get the script together pretty quickly. That said, I am always thinking of ideas for the show.

TMS: Is Sparks, Nevada Thrilling Adventure Hours most consistent character?

MEJ: I think I have only missed 3 episodes. But, everyone loves doing the show. I’ll fly in to LA just to be on the show and others will too. I don’t want anyone else doing Sparks.

One piece of evidence on how the show has grown is the first time I missed a show Twitter and Facebook went ballistic. Now, the show has grown.  Recently I missed a show and didn’t see anything on Twitter. Nothing. Nobody missed me. But, then they did have Joesph Gordon Levitt on that show.

TMS: Tell me a little bit about Largo where you perform most of the episodes. Do Hollywood actors hang out there and you pick them up for your show?

Ben: That would be nice, but no. Largo has a great reputation for theater and music. It’s a beautiful place and definitely home for us. It also adds a little bit of legitimacy. For getting cast, we think about who would fit the part and who we can work through to get to them. Seventy-five percent of the time we hear back they’d be interested and we work to make it happen. Ben and I are big fans of TV so we just talk about who we like and try and get them on the show.

MEJ: It’s such an easy ask. Ben and Ben will come to me and say you were in a commercial with this guy, do you think you could ask him to do the show? It’s not like setting up your goofy brother with a hot date. The quality is so good it’s easy. I was recently on Brooklyn Nine-Nine and immediately afterward we are putting together something Andy Samberg may end up doing. Hollywood is actually a small place you bump into people you know and work with all the time.

TMS: What do you think of the whole comic con experience?

Ben:  I have had some experience with cons. Years ago I went to the Supernatural panel in San Diego and hung out. Now it’s cool to be a part of it. We’re glad we have something to offer that this audience is into because we are this audience. Ben and I love comics and TV, we love Joss Whedon just like all of you guys love Joss. We’re glad we can fold ourselves into cons and introduce people to TAH.

TMS:  How did podcasting come about?

Ben:  We did the show about six years before podcasting it. Our idea was always to record it and put it out to a larger audience but we didn’t want to put out a shoddy recording. The big podcasts at the time were Mark Maron WTF, Never Not Funny and Nerdist just got going. It looked like there was room for a narrative and nobody was really doing it. When we moved to Largo it just made sense to start podcasting it. Then Chris Hardwicke (Nerdest) had done the show and enjoyed it. He thought it would fit into the Nerdist Network, which is a perfect place for us.

TMS: Tell about the Improv show at C2E2…

MEJ: We’ve never done that before. That was our first time ever. It was the essence of being in Chicago, the modern birthplace of improvisation. We thought it could be really fun and there’s no preparation. We all have background in improv. The second we got on stage we thought we should be doing this more often. It was really fun.

Ben:  We’ve been lucky on these road shows to get so much of the core cast and the guest stars love it too. We’ve been really lucky how invested our guest stars are in what we do.

TMS: What other project do you have coming up?

MEJ: Nothing specific, but I did shoot a pilot for Fox with Marcia Cross where we play husband and wife (Fatrick). I’m also in the sequel to 21 Jump Street, 22 Jump Street.

Ben: Ben and I are working on a Dreamworks show called Puss’n’Boots for Netflix. We are also taking over Thunderbolts for Marvel, our issue is coming out in June and we have some other comic stuff coming out that we can’t talk about quite yet. 

-Mikel OD Pfeiffer