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Interview: Thrilling Adventure Hour’s Ben Blacker And Mark Gagliardi

By Marielle Shaw in Arts & Entertainment on May 2, 2014 9:03PM

Thrilling Adventure Hour cast for the Chicago performance at DePaul's Merle Reskin Theatre. Photo: Marielle Shaw for Chicagoist

Had you not been close enough to McCormick Place this weekend to notice Batmen, Wonder Women, Daleks and Predators prowling the streets, we’re sure you still knew that C2E2 was in town. And while the con has been going on for a few years now, there were some firsts, including the appearance of LA’s Workjuice players, presenting Thrilling Adventure Hour panels and a live show at DePaul’s own Merle Reskin Theatre last Saturday night.

The Thrilling Adventure Hour is a stage show in the style of old time radio which has also gained popularity for its podcasts. The show features the humor of creators Ben Acker and Ben Blacker and frequently has amazing celebrity guests. The Chicago show featured Rider Strong, Molly Quinn, Janet Varney, Timothy Omundson, Richard Speight Jr., Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett. Saturday’s show featured 3 popular segments- Sparks Nevada, Moonshine Holler, and Colonel Tick-Tock.

The show was fantastic from beginning to end, and the crowd was incredibly enthusiastic. Some highlights included Hal Lublin and Rider Strong’s Patriot Brand cigarette ad, the night’s Moonshine Holler, which was done entirely (and impressively) in iambic pentameter, and an unintended but humorous early exit for Molly Quinn. Though the podcast is wonderful, it was great to see the show live and witness the interaction between the actors and with the audience.

We got to sit down and talk with one of the show's creators, Ben Blacker, and DePaul alum and Workjuice player Mark Gagliardi (and for a minute or two, Molly Quinn), and chat about the show, C2E2, the city, and outlaw food trucks. We hope you enjoy the chat as much as we did.

CHICAGOIST: So it’s nice to meet you both, and Mark, Happy Birthday again. (Mark Gagliardi celebrated his birthday on the night of the show at DePaul). I’ve got a lot of questions for you both so I’ll just jump right in. You’ve been at C2E2 all weekend at this point. What’s been your favorite thing about it so far?



C: Yeah, there’s been some amazing cosplay.

GAGLIARDI: Cosplay is always my favorite thing about comic cons. I love it. It’s so much fun. When I see deep, deep cuts from a thing I love, nothing makes me happier.

C: What would you like to see at C2E2, as it’s only a few years old at this point?

GAGLIARDI: I love it, I’m having a good time. I think the convention floor is perfectly sized. It’s perfectly manageable to walk around and see things and do stuff.

BLACKER: Well it’s also the perfect sized space. You know, a lot of these cons are just crammed. But like everything in Chicago, the convention center is a little bigger than everything everywhere else, and so it’s actually a great space.

GAGLIARDI: If I could say, if there’s anything I would like to add- that I’d like to see added to C2E2—food trucks.

ALL: Ohhhhh. Right? Oh yeah. That’d be great.

GAGLIARDI: Because you have this whole big courtyard out here, fill that up with food trucks.

BLACKER: That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard.

C: And it’s only recently that they’ve been around.

GAGLIARDI: Are they in Chicago now? Cuz I know in Seattle they were illegal and everybody was like “This food truck thing is happening, but they can’t do the licensing for it.”

C: Yeah it was the same thing in Chicago. It’s only recently that food trucks have even been allowed.

BLACKER: When food trucks are outlawed….

GAGLIARDI: Ridiculous.

C: What was your favorite moment from last night’s show?

BLACKER: Oh there were so many!

GAGLIARDI: Molly’s exit.

Mark Gagliardi and Rider Strong in the Thrilling Adventure Hour live show. Photo by Marielle Shaw.
C: We actually really got a kick out of that. (at the DePaul show, Molly Quinn had the audience in tears laughing due to an improvised exit and subsequent return during Moonshine Holler)

BLACKER: Molly, you just have to read 3 lines ahead in the script!

MOLLY QUINN: Well I wrote in highlighter “Leaving” really big!

GAGLIARDI: yeah, she wrote “Leave” on her script…

QUINN: It’s like, my eyes when the sound effect came on…

BLACKER: I know, because it was Janet Varney’s exit sound effect.

QUINN: Yeah, and I was like…

BLACKER: The funniest thing, for us about that, was I was standing right backstage, and Mark was standing, like, right behind the curtain. Molly came out, Mark grabbed her, and went ‘You have four more lines!!’ and turned her right around…it was so funny!

GAGLIARDI: Yeah, that was fun.

BLACKER: It was pretty enjoyable. We had done that Sparks before, we had done that Moonshine before, both of them a couple of times. And this is to be the last gasp of both. And it felt as fresh as if we were doing it for the first time. Which was really interesting. It’s not surprising- all of the actors are so talented. But even just standing backstage listening to it, it felt like I had never heard it before, because we changed up some of the parts and we punched it up a little bit. But these guys made it seem fresh.

GAGLIARDI: With the episode of Moonshine Holler, that’s written in iambic pentameter.

BLACKER: You’re welcome.

GAGLIARDI: Yeah, because you’re a jerk. Because we’d already done that one a couple of times, and found the rhythm of it, so this time reading it, you know more what you’re saying and it’s easier to not focus so much on it as it was to focus on what I’m actually saying. So the storytelling was easier on that one.

BLACKER: And the secret of that is we actually wrote the part of Lillian on that one for Janet Varney...We did it in some other cities when she just wasn’t available, so to finally have her do it was just so exciting. She’s brilliant. There’s nothing she can’t do. We’re thrilled that she comes and does our dumb show.

C: Are you guys planning to travel some more for the show?

BLACKER: Oh yeah. You bet we are. Our next trip is May 10th, we’re going to Town Hall in New York. No con, just a big show. Almost all of the core cast is coming. Then we have an amazing guest cast, which includes: Dick Cavett, broadcasting legend Dick Cavett. Zachary Levi, Scott Aukerman, Ira Glass…

GAGLIARDI: It’s his second time doing the show.

BLACKER: John Hodgman…it’s just a crazy list of people doing this show. Jonathon Coulton, Paul and Storm. It’s going to be so much fun. I think it’s the biggest cast we ever had. We have to try to find things for everyone to do. Paul and Storm might just run on in the middle and harmonize and run off. We even have surprise guests that we’re going to keep surprises. The full list, and the link for tickets, is on our website,

C: Thrilling Adventure Hour is so unique. What’s the hardest thing about writing for it versus TV, movies, or even theater?

BLACKER: I think honestly, we love doing it so much. We love writing for these actors, we love writing these pieces. The hardest thing is the pace of it. It’s just getting it done every month, and for 9 years, a new show. We’ve gotten up to the wire on occasion, especially recently. I mean, I guess we’re writing tv and we’re writing comics at the same time….

GAGLIARDI: It’s usually ‘down to the wire’, but you’re like ‘we are so slammed we are up to the wire.’

BLACKER: Yeah we go right up to it, and then…not over it. Yeah it’s definitely the pace of it. And y’know, because we’re not just writers of it, we’re also producers, we’re doing the casting and we’re figuring out rehearsals and stuff like that. The Thrilling Adventure empire is expanding, and we need to find more people to help with this so Ben and I can really concentrate on writing it. Cuz that’s the part we love.

C: Planning anything for the 10th anniversary?


GAGLIARDI: You’ve already written it, right, I’m sure…

BLACKER: We have some notions, actually.


BLACKER: I mean, that’ll be the last show for sure. …

GAGLIARDI: WHAT? How dare you!


C: NO!

BLACKER: No. I feel like we should all wear tuxes… It’s frightening how soon the tenth anniversary is. I mean, to think that we’ve been working, I mean, the core cast, we’ve been working together for nine years. I mean, we’ve been so lucky. We’ve really been lucky to have these people in our lives.

C: Mark, what was it like being back at DePaul last night?

GAGLIARDI: Very cool and very strange. Specifically I remember, walking out on stage, the Merle Reskin Stage, you can’t really see much of the house, but there’s that bleed of light from the stage, and I most vividly remembered the trim around the stage and the box seats around that theater. And there was a moment actually before we did the show, we’re backstage rehearsing. I went straight from the stage door, which is a door I’d walked through a thousand times. The curtain is down, we’re all on stage rehearsing the scenes, and then they said , ‘ok we’re gonna open up the curtains and do this for real on stage’. And they opened up the curtains and it was the first time I’d seen that house… so it went from standing on stage, and the curtains parted, and I’m looking at this theater I’d spent so much of my life in. It was such a weirdly framed- a perfectly framed version.

BLACKER: Like Wes Anderson made this moment for you. But you’ve had a pretty great homecoming…

GAGLIARDI: It was fun. About 8 members of my family came out. And several of my college friends came to the show last night.

C: What’s your favorite show from your time at DePaul?

GAGLIARDI: I did a show called Grimm Tales. It was based on story theater. Story theater was a concept by Paul Sills, the guy that created Second City. The idea was you’re not using a script like a play. Grimm Tales are written in third person. As an actor, I’m doing exactly 100% what the Grimm brothers wrote. So Hansel walks across the stage and says “Hansel left a trail of breadcrumbs.” So it’s very much, it’s for children, we did it as a children’s show. But we had no sets, we had no props on stage, we just had two tables of sound effect gadgets on the sides of the stage, and when we weren’t on stage we were playing with these sound effects toys and creating an atmosphere for the show. It was also directed by Rick Murphy, one of the most gifted directors I’ve ever worked with, and faculty of the school.

C: Any DePaul hangouts or Second City hangouts you guys would go to after shows?

GAGLIARDI: When I was at DePaul, we had a bar… I don’t even know if they still go there, we had this bar called Shoe’s Pub on Armitage, just down the street from the old theater school. We used to go down to this pub, and it was theater school kids…and bikers. And that was those were the only people who hung out at this bar. It was these two biker women who were the bartenders there, and it was a darts bar, they’d have dart tournaments. So the bikers would come in, but they had the headshots of all the seniors of the theater school hanging on the wall. So it was like they had a row of the theater shool kids, and then bikers. And that was our bar. And we hung out there, because a pitcher of Rolling Rock was 6 bucks. A pitcher!

C: Finally, what do you miss most about Chicago, and what don’t you miss?

GAGLIARDI: There’s a lot. As a city I miss…God there’s so much. I miss not driving. I hate driving. I miss Lincoln Park Zoo. We used to walk down Fullerton and just go to the zoo, any time. I miss Second City and just going and seeing the late night set. I miss good Italian beef sandwiches, though we just got a Portillo’s in LA.

BLACKER: It won’t be the same…

GAGLIARDI: No no it’s good! I’ve been there. It’s not exactly the same but it’s close. I mean, I miss my friends I grew up with and went to theater school with. I miss the Grant Park festivals every weekend. That was the best part of the summer. Yeah it’s just it’s such a beautiful, beautiful town. It’s such a welcoming place…sports are amazing here. I feel like, in Los Angeles, not to disparage LA, but it feels like, it doesn’t feel like everybody’s always on the same team. Chicago is a city that feels like, Sox or Cubs, so, even though you’ve got that, everybody feels like they’re on the Chicago team.