In the audio drama culture, there’s often a bit of a push back against comparisons to “old timey radio shows.” Many feel as though this bills audio drama incorrectly. The Unseen Hour, meanwhile, doesn’t see the comparison as a bad thing; instead, it leans into this idea, but also imbues the concept with a heavy dash of comedy, surrealism, and a twinge of horror.
The Unseen Hour is a horror comedy audio drama, recorded in front of a live audience. Each episode is a stand alone story. It might take place in an ancient Roman Legion, an abandoned space station, or an unassuming 1970s suburban kitchen – but it is always attended by a sense of looming dread… always surreal and always ridiculous. The same characters recur again and again, caught up in a churning cycle of apocalyptic chaos.
In execution, The Unseen Hour does feel like an old-timey radio show, but it also feels like several of its contemporaries while remaining unique. It’s got the Lovecraftian aesthetic and existential dread of Welcome to Night Vale (though really, it feels much closer to The Twilight Zone), the vintage feel and live format of The Thrilling Adventure Hour, the comedy of Wooden Overcoats, and the whimsy of The Oribiting Human Circus (of the Air). Still, though, The Unseen Hour feels wholly its own while paying homage to its contemporaries and its predecessors.
While the live format does help distinguish The Unseen Hour from other audio dramas, it also separates itself through the sheer commitment to its goofiness–and especially the moments when these two coincide. The show’s comedy is over-the-top, asking its actors to dive headfirst into ridiculous, broad, zany performances in front of the audience. Take, for instance, the recurring joke in each episode: there will be a lengthy title that, when read as an acronym, spells out “OOEEOOO”–which the actor then pronounces “ooh-wee-ooh,” or “ooh-wee-oo-ooh” if they’re feeling especially fanciful. Hearing the actors read silly moments like these always has payoff, but especially so when the actor breaks for just a moment, and the audience immediately catches on and reacts. The combination of silly humor and the audience’s reactions heightens the comedy and makes it so much more than what it would have been if produced like a standard pre-recorded audio drama.
The Unseen Hour also works as a bit of a variety show. While each episode has a specific standalone episode, they also incorporate a monologue, many of which are allowed a more literary, serious feeling. Many of them hit emotional resonance I wasn’t expecting among the rapidfire jokes and silly satire. Instead of sticking out or bogging down the humor, these monologues fit seamlessly with the show’s themes, even if in a way that is both more realistic and less on-the-nose: what speaks to existential dread more, for instance, than a romance doomed by little other unfortunate incompatibility? Instead of interrupting the comedy or feeling invasive on the rest of the show’s joy, they add nuance and depth that feels welcome and then leaves before it becomes too much.
It should be noted that The Unseen Hour also includes music in each episode, but I unfortunately do not know how to write on music other than saying, “Wowie wow, I sure did like that neato song!” (It should also be noted: I like every neato song The Unseen Hour has featured.)
When The Unseen Hour impresses me the least–a rarity–is when it banks too heavily on current events for its satire. An episode that banks heavily on Donald Trump’s general Twitter idiocy, for instance, seems a little too on-the-nose and easy for a show that otherwise weaves cleverly between its genre satires and broader social satire. This is, of course, personal preference; I’m simply not someone who finds direct references to most parts of pop culture or cultural events funny. What’s nice about The Unseen Hour is that not only is it broken up with the monologues and the music (and the occasional, always satisfactory “OOEEOOO”), but I can bet on the next episode to be right back up my alley. The episodic nature helps ensure that the listener can jump around without missing much, while the structure helps ensure that the listener will stick around even when the humor’s not quite hitting their particular funny bone.
The Unseen Hour feels akin to so many of the great media we’ve seen and heard recently, balancing its satire with its absurdism with its dread with its drama. It’s the kind of podcast you’ll listen to when looking for a somewhat quick fun listen (episodes clock in at just about half an hour) but then you’ll find you’ve accidentally spent three hours listening to several in a row. It’s as much a lovely escape as it is a comedic look at culture, society, and the genres we build. You’ll leave episodes feeling both a little more and less filled with dread.