One of iTunes' most popular comedy podcast at the moment is decidedly old-fashioned.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And now coming to you from Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, America, it's the nation's favorite new-time podcast in the style of old-time radio, "The Thrilling Adventure Hour."

CORNISH: The show is recorded once a month in front of a live audience. NPR's Neda Ulaby recently caught a taping at a Hollywood nightclub.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: "The Thrilling Adventure Hour" proudly calls itself fake radio. It's less an homage to old-time radio and more of a clever update. So one of its heroes is a kind of mash-up Buck Rodgers and the Lone Ranger named Sparks Nevada, Marshall of Mars.


MARC EVAN JACKSON: (as Sparks Nevada) Howdy, folks, and welcome to Mars. You can have a lot of fun on the red planet, but a fellow has got to be careful, too - dangers lurking over every space mesa and planetary plateau.

ULABY: "The Thrilling Adventure Hour" is filled with original songs and special effects, like when Sparks and a cyborg break into the mainframe of a spaceship.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) OK. Enter the password.

(as character) 1-2-1-9-2-8-0-4.

(as character) Type it into the keyword on my forearm.

ULABY: And he fights off evil aliens like the fearsome baddies the Murder Men.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) How close are we to that pod, captain?

JACKSON: (as character) Not as close as the Murder Men are to us.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) They're through.

(as character) Murder, murder, murder.

ULABY: "The Thrilling Adventure Hour" was created eight years ago by a pair of friends - Ben Blacker and Ben Acker - for real. They met standing in a line in college.

BEN BLACKER: Ben heard me say my name.

BEN ACKER: And I said that is a lot like my name, and he said, oh, you're a dope.

ULABY: The Bens studied film and scriptwriting. During Ben Acker's senior year, he was driving around and heard a drama on the radio. He was completely inspired.

ACKER: Wherever they're doing this, I'm going to go there. I'm going to sit here. I'm going to find out where that is. I'm going to help with this because this is great. And at the end, they said that was a rebroadcast of a 1950 episode of "The Shadow." And I was like, oh, well, now, I don't know what I'll do.

ULABY: Acker and Blacker went to Hollywood to become TV writers. They wrote "Sparks Nevada" as a movie and got a bunch of their actor friends to read the script together. They had so much fun they decided to keep it going as a pseudo radio show. First live and starting about five years ago as a podcast, too, with a growing fan base.

MARK WALLACE: It's an old-fashioned variety show for the nerd herd, for the geeks among us.

ULABY: Mark Wallace is heading into the nightclub where "The Thrilling Adventure Hour" is staged every month. He's seen the show live 10 times. He's here with a herd of guys who, like him, work for the space program.

WALLACE: I'm an interplanetary travel agent, basically. I figure out how to get spacecraft from point A and to point B in the solar system and then what to do with them when they get there.

ULABY: Wallace says the space program people are especially partial to Sparks Nevada, Marshal of Mars.

WALLACE: They made a joke about, you know, hyper cattle. I started laughing really hard because, you know, we're looking for methane on Mars, which is what cows produce. And, you know...


WALLACE: was just brilliant, and it's hilarious.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Oh, the hyper cattle is humming and the Margins' savage drumming are as beautiful as comet bugs in jars.

ULABY: This is a crowd also lured by frequent guest stars from such shows as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Firefly." This show featured Jorge Garcia from "Lost" in an episode with two recurring characters, a pair of high society, married mediums named Frank and Sadie Doyle.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) It's the thin man with ghosts.

(as character) Meet Frank and Sadie Doyle, toast of the upper crust.

ULABY: They're not just supernatural sleuths. They're martini swilling millionaires, happy to provide a very bloody Mary to Garcia as a visiting vampire.


PAUL F. TOMPKINS: (as Frank Doyle) Ah, this is the stuff.

PAGET BREWSTER: (as Sadie Doyle) On that topic, let us adjourn to the living room. No offense.

ULABY: Garcia says guesting on "The Thrilling Adventure Hour" is a cinch. You don't have to learn lines. Everyone uses a script. And that old-time aesthetic means wearing a suit on stage. It's fun to dress up to be on fake radio.

JORGE GARCIA: Well, I love the way it harkens back to a different time when they did this, did shows like having to put on the jacket and the ties and just kind of like actors back then acted for radio.

ULABY: Another key point of authenticity is the total lack of swearing. That's a point of pride for writers Ben Acker and Ben Blacker. Still, Acker says he occasionally has to reassure a parent wondering if an episode is really family friendly.

ACKER: It is, but we're going to kill a robot and a Martian, and there's going to be, yeah, a vampire-on-vampire crime and drinking. So, like, it's family friendly if you're OK with all that stuff.

ULABY: Enough to make "The Thrilling Adventure Hour" almost as popular on iTunes as its competitor "Prairie Home Companion."

ACKER: We used to try and start a beef with "Prairie Home Companion," like an East Coast-West Coast rapper feud to get us on the map. We would call those guys out...

BLACKER: (Unintelligible) West Coast, no coats.


ACKER: Yeah, that's right. That guy got no coats.

ULABY: Lake Woebegone, you're on notice. "The Thrilling Adventure Hour" recently branched out with some live shows in Brooklyn. This year brings new platforms: a graphic novel, Web series and a concert film.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (as characters) (Singing) When there's varmints need a-catching and youngin's need a saving, on my rocket steed I race across the stars. For I've sworn by the burs of my astro-spurs to right the outlaw wrongs on Mars. Yes, he rights the outlaw wrongs on Mars. Oh, the hyper-cattle is humming and the Margins' savage drumming are as beautiful as comet bugs in jars.


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