Every episode of My Brother, My Brother, and Me begins with the same disclaimer: “The McElroy brothers are not experts, and their advice should never be followed.” The podcast’s hundreds of thousands of fans listen to everything the McElroy brothers say—except that.
A few months ago, a member of the “My Brother, My Brother and Me Appreciation Group” on Facebook asked, “I have a question for my fellow MBMBaMbinos. What piece or pieces of McElroy advice have you taken to heart, if any?”
Don’t take naps for over 30 minutes.
If you ask for spinach before lettuce at Subway they give you a lettuce-sized amount of spinach.
You can’t eat ironically.
My Brother, My Brother, and Me, which is abbreviated MBMBaM, which is pronounced “muh-BIM-bam,” is a comedy/advice podcast hosted by Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy. Every week, for a bit under an hour, the brothers help listeners with quandaries like “I came across my friend’s fiancé’s dating profile on Tinder,” “The CEO of my company thinks ‘memes’ is the hip young term for graphics,” and “I have to make a penis cake for my sister’s bachelorette party. What type of penis should I make?” They also answer questions from Yahoo Answers—for example, “How to make your parents think you found a lizard even though you bought it online?”—though “answer” is a bit looser here. In all cases, answering the questions is a pretense for spiraling out to absurd far-reaches of comedy.
The phrase “comedy podcast” usually calls to mind two or three white dudes shooting the shit into microphones—a form that, to be fair, can be hilarious, but did reach market saturation around 2009. But by virtue of its format and its founders, MBMBaM transcends the genre. It’s a regular in the iTunes top podcast charts and year-end best-ofs. MBMBaM live shows around the country sell out within days or sometimes hours, not just in comedy clubs but in 500 seat theaters. Their fans aren’t just numerous, but passionate, too, and you can count among them paragons of mega-earnest creative expression Elizabeth Gilbert and Lin-Manuel Miranda. The latter has used the aforementioned Facebook group for his own absurdly good-hearted trolling of the McElroys and their fans, dropping MBMBaM Easter eggs into almost every television appearance of 2016. (Except Drunk History, when he was, presumably, too drunk.)
Now, almost seven years and about 350 episodes in, MBMBaM is coming to the screen, as a six-episode series on NBC’s streaming comedy platform, Seeso. The podcast continues to be one of the funniest, most good-hearted, and most inclusive podcasts on the internet’s metaphorical airwaves. It just happens to be made by three white dudes from West Virginia. They don’t get a cookie for that, but they don’t want one, anyway. They just want us to listen.
Never assume gender or sexual orientation unless it’s stated.
Don’t try to pick up, flirt with, or ask out anyone at their job—because they can’t leave or run away from your whack ass game.
You gotta risk it for the biscuit.
No one can pin down the idea’s origins. Travis, the middle brother, recalls the advice component being eldest brother Justin’s idea. “I remember him saying, ‘I don’t think anyone’s doing an advice podcast, we should do that,’” he told me. “But it really came from an excuse for us to stay in touch with each other.”
Griffin had just finished college. Travis had been languishing at home for a few years in dead-end retail jobs (which he quickly qualifies: there’s nothing wrong with working at Best Buy, but for him it came out of deep aimlessness and malaise).
One day, Travis asked Griffin what he was going to do after college. “He said, ‘Well right now I’m just kinda waiting for someone to look at me and say, Hey I’m moving to blank, do you wanna move with me?’ And I said, ‘I’m gonna move to Cincinnati, you wanna move with me?’ and he said yeah.”
The brothers had always been close—Justin and Griffin even went to college at Marshall University in their own hometown of Huntington, West Virginia. When Griffin and Travis moved to Cincinnati, a few hours away, Justin says, “It was weird to have them in a different place.” At the time, Justin was a writer for Joystiq, AOL’s video games blog. He co-hosted their podcast, which Griffin had guest-hosted. (Griffin was also writing for Joystiq as a student at Marshall and continued to do so when he finished school—he is the rare blessed person who graduated from college in 2008 straight into a full-time job. The two now write and produce videos for Polygon.) A podcast was a project the brothers could work on together, long-distance. Justin told me, “Advice was something we picked as a general interest thing that we could all weigh in on. We’re all blowhards, anyway, and we could bloviate about telling people how to live their lives.”
Griffin was just 22 when the podcast started—a baby in terms of life experience. Why advice? “Cause it’s a funny idea for a comedy show of just, like, three people who don’t know anything. Like what if Dear Abby was a goober?”
When I talked to Jesse Thorn, proprietor of Maximum Fun, the podcast network MBMBaM joined about 40 episodes in, I asked him if the brothers were serious about giving advice. He said, “They will deny that to this day. But realistically, they are three really decent, moral, caring guys who want to help people if they get the opportunity to do so.” As to Griffin’s claim that they were in no position to offer advice? Jesse laughed. “Just because they’ve never visited a teen sex club or something doesn’t mean that they didn’t have anything to contribute to the world.”
The advice, from the start, was earnest and sincere—not a goof but the glue that held the goofs together. Yet Griffin and his brothers express discomfort with the idea of people going back and listening to early episodes, as completists and longtime fans who are writing magazine articles are prone to do. He said, “There’s no part of me that can listen to that old stuff and not think, ‘God, I was so mean spirited.’ To say those things and to not even think about it? It’s ignorant but it’s also just shitty.”
Justin told me, “I think we’ve always tried to be [inclusive], it’s just early on we didn’t necessarily have the tools or the understanding of how to be that way. I think mainly that’s because we grew up around people like us. So that was our default. But that expanded. ‘People like us’ has gotten a lot broader since we’ve had a much broader audience.”
The turning point was furries. It was around episode 30, not even in response to a listener’s letter, but to a Yahoo Answers question from a thirteen-year-old furry wondering about coming out to his family. The brothers’ comedy comes from escalation, each taking the previous joke farther and to sillier lengths. In this case, the joke—the “joke”—was about how freaked out and disturbed they were by furries.
The next episode, in the middle of answering another question—from a listener afraid of being made fun of for being in their school play—Justin segued into an apology. “Like, if you look at us. Last week we talked a lot of yay about furries, but to cover up the fact that we are all right now, as we record the show, wearing furry costumes.” Griffin said, “I’m a lynx.” Travis: “I’m a sexy cow.” And Justin? “I’m an apologetic tiger, because I feel bad to our furry friends.” Griffin chimed in, “I feel wicked bad!” He continued, “Let’s put this question on pause, cause we need to address this. I think that hatred comes from fear, and fear comes from misunderstanding.” And the brothers owned up to misunderstanding furries, and thanked the listeners who’d written in to set them straight.
As Justin told me, “Afterwards, we got these tweets from people who were like, ‘Hey, I’m a furry, and I like your show, and that sucked.’ I don’t know who we thought was listening, but we certainly didn’t think furries were, ‘cause we didn’t know any growing up. Once we realized that we hurt these people, we felt like garbage about it. So we were like, let’s make the decision to learn, and talk to these people, and celebrate them and become wildly pro-furry. What we realized is, isn’t it also a lot funnier to be wildly pro-furry. I think it’s funnier to be really into everything, permissive of everything.”
It’s not that they’re pretending to be pro-furry because being pro-furry is silly. The McElroys decided—and the success of MBMBaM proves—that actually being enthusiastic about everything opens the door to better comedy. Justin: “We realized it was a lot funnier than saying no all the time. It dovetails with basic improv rules. So we just started saying yes to fucking everything. You cannot trip us out any more!”
That enthusiasm—saying yes to fucking everything—is funnier, and it comes with a kind of giddiness, like in the face of adventure. It emphasizes the joy that the brothers take in making each other laugh, which is the contagious heart of the show. But Justin also takes for granted his and his brothers’ humility and openness.
Jesse Thorn said, “When [you] do something that makes people feel bad—most people’s including my reaction is a defensive one. That’s just the reality of being a performer and a comedian, you want to defend your territory because you’re putting yourself out there. But their first reaction is always to say, ‘Okay, thank you all. I’ll try and understand how to do better next time.’”
On the one hand, Justin’s right when he says, “It shouldn’t be that big of a deal. It’s confusing to me that it is, it’s literally the least I can do.” On the other hand, among not only comedians but also all creators of entertainment or art, this radical openness to criticism is just that: radical.
On one episode that came out while I was writing this piece, the brothers took a question about whether or not to correct someone who repeatedly gets your name wrong. Justin’s a firm believer in not correcting people unless you really, truly have to, and so in this case, he said, what does it matter if someone calls him Justin or Jared? Let them be, don’t correct them.
That evening, twelve hours after the episode came out, he tweeted:
Hey. I joked on MBMBaM today about how unimportant I think names are and how I don’t mind being called the wrong name etc. I’ve since been reminded that for trans and non-binary folks, names are an important part of identity. If that bit bummed you out, I’m really sorry. We try really hard to be inclusive, but we’re limited by life experience and sometimes we sound like dunces. Thanks to those who reached out. Reminder: Keeping an open, humble heart to people who live different lives is the lowest bar we as humans have to clear.
Maybe it shouldn’t matter that this was three weeks before the election, but it does. Justin doesn’t have political power, but he’s a straight white dude with a big audience, and he’s saying, Your life and your experience matter. MBMBaM is almost never explicitly political, but—sad as this may be—in late 2016, inclusive compassion became a political act.
At the end of last year, MBMBaM earned the superlative “Most likely to lift your spirits” on AVClub’s list of best podcasts, calling the show “a beacon of light” in a rough year. The praise went on:
The show is a prime example of their unwavering charm and never fails to put you in a good mood. Take, for example, an episode like “Coyotes Ate Our Dad,” in which the three plot out a movie about a coyote named Kyle who just wants to be a father, or “Which One Vapes?” where they create the best game ever and bring with them their infectious joy.
The brothers did as much for listeners by acknowledging the shitty world as by offering escape. Even in their escape-offers they acknowledged, Yeah, something awful is going on. There was the episode called “The Anxiety-Free Cruise,” which is pretty self-explanatory once you know it aired November 7, 2016. In last June’s “Here Comes Ray Donovan,” the brothers dealt with a dearth of goof-ready news—Griffin lamented that they couldn’t open the show with topical humor because “all the topics, they suck ass”—by embracing the one apparently happy headline: the return of Liev Schriber’s Showtime series, Ray Donovan, for season four. In the brothers’ hands, “Ray Donovan is a fixer” morphed quickly into “Ray Donovan is a handyman/plumber,” which made my subsequent first encounter with a real Roy Donovan poster really confusing. They didn’t enumerate the bad news last summer or the autumn anxiety that needed to be escaped, but the brothers said, We see it, too. For listeners not immersed in a liberal community (online or in real life), this was powerful. If your family or friends or town were like Hey things are fine, the brothers offered reassurance: “We get it, we feel that way too.”
This is all subtext, though. As Griffin reminded me, “It’s labeled in iTunes as a comedy show. It’s not in the self-help section.” However much or little the McElroys felt qualified to give advice, I don’t think they ever doubted it would be funny. When the podcast started, the brothers had between them not one improv class or stand-up set. They did, however, grow up doing community theater in Huntington. Justin and Travis were then acting/directing majors in college; Griffin majored in broadcast journalism. (“I had empirical proof that if I did this, two other older versions of me had not been successful with it, and so I went in a different direction.”) But JD Amato, who directs the Seeso show, told me, “It’s almost like outsider comedy art. The McElroys have built their brand of comedy from the ground up.” That building did not happen in a vacuum, and they brothers are not exactly untaught. Their training ground was the dinner table; their coach was their dad.
Clint McElroy told me, “I always compared it to Doc Savage. You know how Doc Savage was raised by his father to become this superhuman through exercise and study?” I can’t say I did know that—I whispered, “Is this a comic books thing?”—but my reference-point was Sydney Bristow on Alias, so to each their own. Clint says his own father was “the funniest person I ever met in my whole life.” He died when Clint was ten, but their bonding over TV and movies was something Clint cultivated with his own sons. “I really wanted them to share all different kinds of humor. Marx brothers, Jonathan Winters.” Griffin adds Saturday Night Live, The Kids in the Hall, and Second City. He said, “Our family had this institutional love of goofs.”