Yes, of course the title is clickbait but it’s clickbait with a good purpose. That said, I do believe in the title. I liked The Force Awakens, I was rather impressed by the Clone Wars TV Show and there have been some fun video games. But none of them have captured joy, cleverness and emotional weight that the Campaign podcast has brought to the world.
Campaign is a story that has gone on for 76 main episodes. It uses the mechanics of the role playing game Edge of the Empire. I remain rather new when it comes to RPGs, but from what I’ve seen from the little I’ve played and what I’ve observed through Campaign—it’s a system that is run on imagination and empathy.
The imagination for Campaign was clear from the get-go. The podcast begins with a ship on the run. They successfully have managed to steal the Death Star (aka “Murderball”) plans and now they need to figure out how to travel safely. The captain of the ship is a human named Tryst Valentine—a horny ridiculous smuggler who should be easy to outsmart, but he just talks so damn fast. The medic is a former Clone Trooper named Bacta who sounds a lot like Jason Statham, yet that doesn’t encourage people to listen to his plans. Then there’s a Rodian named Leenik Geelo who can tell you the plot of every romance book he has on the ship, but can’t seem to remember they’re supposed to be using code names.
They are also joined by a five-year old with Force sensitivity named Tamlin who is left on the ship so often that he somehow starts a private eye business. Then there’s Lyntel’luroon (or Lyn) a mysterious Twi’lek that is often very practical but also very coy when it comes to her romantic history with a rock group.
These five characters have traveled from dangerous terrain to dangerous terrain, shooting or pissing off everybody in their way. They are played by John Patrick Coan, James D’Amato, Johnny O’Mara, Kat Kuhl and Kat Kuhl. They are the ones to propel the story. Sometimes through Kuhl’s ingenious game-mastering and sometimes because a throwaway joke is now going to be the source of a year’s adventure.
Coan, D’Amato and O’Mara are all Chicago comedians who perform in a variety of improv clubs in the city. The medium of podcasting has been wonderful for improv comedians because it is an extension of the artform. Improv comedians just need a stage; podcasters just need a microphone. Yes, of course other equipment is necessary like editing software but when the Campaign team has a space-battle, they don’t need to budget for that. It’s the magic of what they say and what they describe.
While great podcasts like Comedy Bang Bang and Hello from the Magic Tavern have hilariously intricate mythologies based on improvised bits, Campaign feels different. Yes, there are silly running jokes like how Bacta is a black widow but so much of their comedy becomes intertwined in Star Wars in a unique way.
In Episode 45, the gang lands on the planet Phindar and they realize there is a convention in town. Kuhl asks the guys what kind of convention is there. After she dismisses their initial world-breaking concept of it being a convention that happens to be their disguise, it is now a bounty hunter convention. It is amusingly named BHIKKE (Bounty Hunters Intergalactic Killing & Kidnapping Exposition) and there are rules about what bounty hunters can and can’t do during BHIKKE week. It’s hilarious to hear the four of them to come up with what’s happening. It’s silly but then it becomes canon. The rules of improv say that you say “yes and” and that’s how RPGs seems to work as well.
But something happens as they continue to tell their story. I am not a Star Wars scholar, but now BHIKKE is part of the universe for me. BHIKKE is no longer treated as a joke, but a part of the mythology that is as real as Dagobah or a lightsaber. When I saw Rogue One and they said that the Empire was mining for Kaiburr crystals, I didn’t imagine a glowing rock, but I imagined a rock group full of revolutionaries called the Kaiburr Crystals from Campaign.
This is where the empathy element comes into play. As an observer of the RPG story playing out, I can’t help but notice that there is a special connection that each performer has to their character. As Kuhl (and sometimes D’Amato) expands the story into new directions full of variables, the cast is not just looking at what path would be the most entertaining. They are living in these characters and they feel protective of exactly what Tryst, Bacta, Leenik and Lyn would do in these situations.
The greatest evidence of that is that each character isn’t a constant joke machine. Leenik is the greatest example of this. At the beginning, Leenik was very silly as he continuously focused all of his attention on the wild wolf they bring on board instead of any of their missions. With every new character element—obsession with romance novels, unnecessary eye-patches—O’Mara ties it all together into one consistent character. O’Mara’s examination of these comedic elements leads to some darker places. There is one moment that still shocks me as if it was an amazing moment from Mad Men or Breaking Bad and I’m annoyed I wasn’t caught up at the time because I met O’Mara at a bar and I could have asked him “What the fuck?!?” Sorry, off track.
While Leenik is perhaps the most extreme example, the whole cast knows each character beyond potential punchlines. Tryst’s relationships with his sisters is always curious to explore, Bacta’s experience as a soldier is never taken for granted (except by his shipmates), and Lyn holds so much moral quandaries as she does not have the devious upbringing as the rest of the ship and yet she is more willing to lie about her agenda.
When the game relies on the role of the colorful dice to determine if every move is a success or failure, these characters are always being forced to come up with new situations and in result, they all become richer. Not literally; they never seem to have enough credits.
As I wrap up this totally normal sized article about a podcast, I do want to highlight all of the performers again. John Patrick Coan as Tryst has a level of speedy wit that I sometimes can’t comprehend. Early on in the show, it was joked that the ship isn’t certain that Tryst can’t read. Kuhl tried to stop it because such a thing would be ridiculous. Yet, Coan not only has kept it up, he has kept it up in such a convincing way that it’s actually believable that Tryst has hidden this for decades. It’s a whirlwind as he fast-talks his way out of the most logical situation. Then when Coan slows down, it has incredible results. It was a moment of brilliance when Tryst checks in on the man taking care of Tamblin—who just spend the past few episodes being dragged on a dangerous detective case. It was a beautiful moment as pauses and says, “You know he’s five. You got this, right?”
James D’Amato also has another podcast on their network called One Shot. There he plays new and awesome games with a rotating set of guests. As Bacta, he is a quasi-straight man to Tryst’s and Leenik’s insanity. Yet D’Amato does such a great job of playing a man who thinks he’s saner than he probably is. D’Amato does really great kernels of hints about how unstable Bacta really is, but he’s able to do that while also including the best use of the game. In their bonkers episodes when they’re just de-briefing each other or coming up with a plan, D’Amato has vast trove of ideas of what they can do. While I do love Leenik’s bizarre tangent plans like “Rob a bank!” D’Amato provides the most complex ideas for every character to bounce off.
I’ve already said a bit about Johnny O’Mara but I’ll say a little more. It’s one thing to bring sadder and darker elements to a character, but it’s something else to maintain a consistent amount of laughs while it’s all happening. To try to write around direct spoilers, Leenik may not have all of his limbs after a certain episode. Much like Buster in Arrested Development, O’Mara took that battle consequence and spun gold out of it. They can be small reminders like how simple tasks are now annoyingly difficult or it could just be Leenik wanting more attention in the conversation. It’s a balance that I still don’t fully understand, but dammit I keep laughing as Leenik says that he should be the next ruler of the galaxy because he’s a rather happy murderer.
Then it all comes down to Kat Kuhl. Aside from being really funny as Lyn and Tamblin and so many other people on other planets, Kuhl is the genius that makes it all work. She’s the game-master so she is the god that determines the fate of these characters and their half-assed schemes. Sometimes she delights in throwing a wrench into a plan, but there’s one flashback episode where she was actively apologizing for how well she was raising hell.
But a gamemaster isn’t the antagonist of the game. Kuhl is at the benefit of the best story. She is part of the collaboration to make the greatest product. This has led to some fantastic plot twists and some really wonderful arcs for side characters. Also she provides adorable noir voice-over from a five-year old wanting disgusting ice cream.
BUT even more than that, Kuhl is responsible for editing this darn thing. I’ve heard that every hour of Campaign has often double that in footage. The fact that every episode is so tight in its pacing and storytelling is a feat onto itself. The reason this show has such a strong library and lives on as this incredible product is because of her. “Kuhl” should be a word that means cooler than “cool.”
So returning to the blatantly clickbaiting headline, why is this better than so many other great Star Wars things? Because I care about this show in a way that evokes the love of adventure and excitement of characters in a way that reminds me of the original film. Except this has way more bottles of stolen wine.