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'The Thrilling Adventure Hour': L.A.'s Geekiest Cult Theater Experience

How a labor of love about an old-fashioned radio show with guest stars like Nathan Fillion and Neil Patrick Harris built an Internet-fueled fandom (which includes "Buffy," "Lost" and "Fringe" alums).

Backstage at a performance of The Thrilling Adventure Hour is a bit like a circus. On a boat. That’s on fire. There is the cacophony coming through the velvet curtain from the stage at Largo at the Coronet, a charmingly old-school 280-seat theater in West Hollywood, as the four-piece Andy Paley Orchestra rehearses. There are guest stars -- such as Parenthood’s Jason Ritter, Southland’s Ben McKenzie and Key & Peele’s Keegan Michael Key -- rereading their lines with the desperate studiousness of medical students on cadaver day. The show’s creators, TV writers Ben Acker and Ben Blacker, have the thousand-yard stare that comes with stitching together a live show once a month for the past eight years. And the director, TV writer-producer Aaron Ginsburg, who tugs sharply on the vest of his three-piece suit like a naval officer who wants to look sharp before combat, glances around at the motley crew and mock pleads, “Just make us look cool.”

A sci-fi stage show in the style of old-time radio is how Acker and Blacker describe The Thrilling Adventure Hour. Actors, dressed to the nines in suits and gowns, get onstage and perform in front of microphones working from scripts they’re still holding in their hands, like the Mercury Theatre of old. Except this show is all about comedy of the geekiest variety. Every genre-laden hourlong show is divided into three segments. Some are ongoing serials -- like the space Western Sparks Nevada: Marshall on Mars and Beyond Belief, which is basically Nick and Nora Charles’ drunken adventures with the supernatural -- while others are whatever fresh madness tickles Acker and Blacker at the moment. (A recent show introduced the Algonquin Four; basically, Dorothy Parker’s coterie if they’d been bombarded with space radiation and turned into superheroic freaks, a la the Fantastic Four.) Each of those segments is punctuated by live advertisements for Adventure Hour’s retro-fictional sponsors, WorkJuice Coffee and Patriot Brand Cigarettes.

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For Acker and Blacker, they do it because they love it — as do such industry fans as Once Upon a Time producer Jane Espenson, Lost co-star Jorge Garcia, Castle ingenue Molly O’Quinn and Fringe co-executive producer David Fury, all of whom have tweeted their support. Even though the show’s creators sell out every monthly performance, their homespun enterprise only breaks even, and they’re turning to Kickstarter to build for the future, to fund graphic novels, a web series and a concert film. But Adventure Hour’s beginnings were rather humble.

“I think it was just going to be a one-off, ‘Hey, we wrote this thing,’ ” says Criminal MindsPaget Brewster, who, with actor-comedian Paul F. Tompkins, have been part of Adventure Hour since its start and form the candy center of the WorkJuice Players, the core group of actors who perform at every show — which includes Community’s Craig Cackowski, Hal Lublin, Annie Savage, Mark Gagliardi, Marc Evan Jackson, James Urbaniak and the most recent addition, Cougar Town’s Busy Philipps. “And then they wrote another,” continues Brewster, “and then it just became a monthly thing.”

Acker and Blacker -- they met in line at a Syracuse University registrar; “Hey, your name sounds like my name,” recalls Acker -- almost seem like a cartoon version of writing partners. Blacker is thin and wiry, while Acker is a giant bear of a guy. One of the first things they wrote together was inspired by an idle perusing of an atlas. “I saw there was one town called Sparks, Nevada,” says Acker. “I knew that was going to be our action hero. We were just so taken with Sparks that we wrote a feature.” They held a live reading of their Sparks Nevada script in Blacker’s living room with some friends (including Brewster and Tompkins), and it all just clicked.

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“The writing is absolutely incredible. It is unique, smart and surprising. I just fell in love with the world,” says Ginsburg, a writer-producer on NBC’s Do No Harm who joined the Bens a couple of years after they got Adventure Hour up and running in 2004. “Also, this was a fantastic way to do theater in Los Angeles. We could get a full house by only doing one show a month -- and really focus on the performances.”

Being in Los Angeles also allows them to recruit a staggering array of guest stars -- including Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion, Ed Helms, Christopher Meloni, Colin Hanks, Patton Oswalt, Josh Malina and Alison Brie -- who relish the ragtag vibe of the whole enterprise.

When Fillion agreed to play along two years ago, Adventure Hour turned a corner. “We knew that a Nathan Fillion audience would love our show,” says Blacker. “Our sales had been fine until then, but when Nathan tweeted that he was doing the show … there was a line around the block. We could have sold three auditoriums. And those people continued to come back to the show even when Nathan wasn’t in it. They are nerds like we are nerds.”

Says Fillion, who was turned on to Adventure Hour by his Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog co-star Harris: “They always act as though I’m doing them a favor. But to be included in a group of incredibly talented actors in those kinds of circumstances. … When they ask you to come and join them, it’s a big deal. And I’m always honored. Thank God the deck is stacked in my favor, being in the Whedonverse and being on Castle. The crowd is always very excited -- and very forgiving.”

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ER’s Linda Cardellini is sprinting back and forth backstage. Ginsburg is calling her for a last-minute blocking adjustment, but she keeps forgetting something in the ladies’ dressing room. “The boys, I think, have scotch in their room,” says Brewster, as she happily sips Chardonnay from a coffee mug. “We have tequila and red wine in ours.” Adventure Hour rookie Mackenzie huddles in the corner, focusing on his lines (“Man, this script is so fast,” he laments), as a delivery guy brings in a small tower of pizza. For actors who spend so much time sitting in trailers, waiting to say their half-dozen lines before another setup, this type of mania almost feels like a playdate. “It’s backstage at The Muppet Show,” says Blacker, “where Aaron is the Kermit. And you know, one of us is running up to him, going, ‘Ah, Busy can’t find her shoes.’ ”

Acker and Blacker occasionally take Adventure Hour on the road -- they took the cast to the East Coast in September for a pair of sold-out shows in Brooklyn -- and recently launched a Kickstarter campaign, calling on their ad hoc celebrity family to spread the word via Twitter. And while everyone involved would love to see the Little Show That Could grow into a Massive Multimedia Monster, no one wants to give up that thing that makes the experience so special.

“When Paul and I are standing behind the curtain, we look at each other and we wink, or we touch each other’s arms,” says Brewster. “When Hal starts saying the intro to Beyond Belief -- ‘And now it’s time to put the little ones to bed …’ -- and the crowd goes bananas. To have people so happy to see you … like, we’re all damaged, insecure, be it from a broken home or childhood ugliness or whatever. We all need a room of 250 strangers to go, ‘Oh, you are my favorite thing to see right now!’ This is why we all got into acting. We’re putting on a show in a barn.”

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