Feb 6, 2017
“When People Ask for Advice”: My Brother, My Brother, and Me Brings Their Good-Guy Podcast to TV
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.”
Griffin described an ongoing competition to make their dad laugh, and it’s easy to see the combination of charm, humor, and the desire to please people that Clint passed on to his sons. But Clint said the boys’ mom Leslie, who passed away in 2005, “probably should get more of the credit for the funny. We tried to have dinner together every night at home. And it was like a contest, them trying to throw the jokes, make everybody laugh. I laugh at everything. But if they could get their mom to laugh, that was the award of the night.”
When Clint describes the boys growing up, and it’s sounds a lot like the McElroys you hear today. “There was a definite pattern. Justin would make observations, make a joke. Travis would just try to overwhelm you with volume—okay what about this, what about that—and Griffin would just sit back—he would just watch, typical littlest brother, wait for his opportunity—and throw one thing out, and it’d be the funniest thing of the night.” When I told Clint it seemed like not much in that dynamic has changed, he pointed out, “Griffin has become more of a leader.”
That leadership is undeniable when it comes to The Adventure Zone, the fortnightly Dungeons & Dragons podcast the brothers do with their dad. It began as a “spin-off” episode of MBMBaM, a gap-filler between regular episodes when Justin’s daughter, Charlie, was born. What started as a goof became its own podcast, with Griffin as dungeon master and producer. Within a few episodes, the story spun off from the proscribed starter kit into Griffin’s original creation. Over the last two-plus years it’s evolved into as compelling and complex a narrative as any movie, novel, or television show I’ve encountered. It’s also where the McElroy commitment to inclusivity finds its clearest and most generous expression. The story has featured LGBTQ and nonbinary characters; Justin’s character, a daffy elfin wizard (and former celebrity chef) named Taako, wore a skirt for a recent desert adventure and has a budding romance with a handsome man who also happens to be Death.
The fan art community for The Adventure Zone is, to understate it, robust. And Taako is a perennial favorite—as a gawky dude in a skirt, as a chubby elf in a psychedelic wizard hat, as a flouncy Harajuku vision in hot pink and green. Yes, he’s fun to draw, but so are Travis’ brawny fighter, Magnus, and Clint’s “beach dwarf” cleric, Merle. But Taako holds a special place in the fandom. I think a big part of it is that he makes people feel seen. As Jesse Thorn put it, “The kind of humor that the McElroys do really really welcomes people who are worried about whether they’re welcome.”
(The Adventure Zone, Illustration by Mickey Quinn)
That welcoming spirit—a characteristic we rarely associate with adventurous comedy, to our great chagrin—is an inheritance from the boys’ mother, who embodied her Christian ideals in demonstrable ways. Justin said, “She really did take care of people and look out for people and give a shit. And taught us to do the same.”
Travis told me, “At no point being raised Southern Baptist white male in West Virginia was it ever okay to be mean to people.” It wasn’t until he left home for college in Oklahoma—studying theater—that he saw how he bucked a stereotype. “I didn’t even realize I was supposed to be raised judgmental and an asshole until I realized that that’s what people just assumed I would be.” The brothers joke on the show about their religious upbringing as a recipe for suppressed feelings and passive aggression, but obviously that’s not the case. Really, it made them extraordinarily polite.
We often think of politeness as entirely separate from social-justice inclusivity—“nice is different than good” and all that—but they’re really steps on the same path. Politeness is about making people comfortable, just as being a good hostess is about making people feel welcome. You take some good, polite boys and expose them to the idea that there are real people out there of every persuasion and orientation and fetish, and that all those people can hear when you’re mean to them and don’t like it, and what you get are the McElroys. As Jesse Thorn said, “I think they’ve really accepted the responsibility of the significance that their show has for the people who listen to it.”
Considering their upbringing—whatever baggage “straight white dudes from West Virginia” brings with it—Travis said, “I think we’re pretty cool and laid-back considering all of those things, but I would say we’ve learned more from our audience in doing an advice show than our audience is ever going to learn from us. Because for whatever reason, and I think it’s just because at least Justin and Griffin are very genuine people—I try to be—I think that our audience has seen that in us and thought, ‘Okay, I think they want to be better.’ For whatever reason, our audience has been very gentle in their corrections.”
Podcasts are an inherently intimate medium—a voice not just in our ears but in our head, because that’s where the sound locates itself when you listen on headphones. The hosts start to feel like your friends. The McElroy brothers escalate that feeling—it’s not a friendship you’re sitting in on, but family. Family that is witty and fast, determined to make them and you laugh, and—and this is not a trait all real families even offer!—genuinely concerned about not hurting your feelings.
The brothers brought this ethic to their work on the MBMBaM TV show, too. There’s one question per episode, with the brothers spending most of the half-hour researching—“researching”—their answer. It feels like a cross between Going Deep with David Rees (aka one of the funniest and most empathetic TV shows in recent memory) and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, somehow, though that may mostly be in set design. With fewer listener voices, the relationships between the brothers expand to fill more of the show, but there’s a new character, too, one the McElroys wanted to make sure to do right by: the town of Huntington, West Virginia.
After moving to Cincinnati with Travis, Griffin moved to Chicago and then to Austin, where he met his wife, Rachel; they live there now with their brand new son, Henry. Travis and his wife Teresa moved to LA, where Travis started podcasting full-time, to return to Cincinnati in 2016 to raise their own baby, Bebe, closer to home. But Justin and his wife Sydnee, with their two-year-old daughter Charlie, live in Huntington.
Huntington’s an old railroad town, in the northwest corner of West Virginia—just across the Ohio River from Ohio and a ten-minute drive from the border with Kentucky, where the three states meet in an inverted Y. It’s a large town with a medium-sized university and a striking downtown of buildings from the turn of the twentieth century. There was never much question that the TV show would be set there, or if it was, it was cleared up early on. Justin said, “West Virginia gets stigmatized so frequently as sort of a redneck or hillbilly area, and that’s not to say it’s cosmopolitan or anything there, but there’s like a quality of people here and a quality just the area that we’re really proud of. And it’s really good. And it was really important to us to to show people that.”
And besides, it’s who the brothers are. The show’s director, JD, pointed out that part of what makes the brothers special in the comedy world, that sets them apart from other comedy groups, is that they grew up together. “So much of their comedic identity comes from their own personal history and their comfort with each other. And even in the context they refer to Huntington, they do it with such love but also with such familiarity that they can make the inside joke about a city that most people have not been to, and you still understand it. And you feel like you’re part of it, you feel like it’s the backdrop of who they are.”
And so it would be the backdrop of the TV show, too, but also much more. The brothers talk to the mayor, they talk to the police chief, they make frequent visits to their dad’s radio studio—he’s co-host of the WTCR morning show—and his home. On one episode, they shop for haunted artifacts in a thrift store; on another, they try—“try”—to work at a local restaurant, bakery, and hair bow boutique. And so Huntington isn’t just a setting, it’s a sort of Richard Scarry world of people-in-your-neighborhood.
The McElroys approached this with extra care because Huntington had been on TV once before—as the setting for Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. Justin, ever generous, said, “I don’t know his heart, he may have had the best of intentions. But at the end, the product that we ended up with was very much, like, not a great look for Huntington. As though it just hadn’t occurred to people in Huntington to eat well.”
The Huntington of the MBMBaM TV show is not flattened or diminished. We see glimpses of its streets and its people—mostly amused or slightly befuddled by their town’s strange sons—but it clearly extends beyond the edges of the screen, a town full of people living their lives while three brothers try to help their fans get jobs, get pet spiders, get rid of haunted dolls.
It’s goofy and joyful, and the realness of the advice is maybe not always entirely there. But you still always get the heart of the McElroy ethos. Be respectful; be enthusiastic about everything; if anyone’s going to be the butt of your joke it should be you.
I asked Griffin, who’s been making this podcast for basically his entire adult life, if giving advice for an hour every week had made him a wiser person. He said no. “Learning not to be shitty with comedy has made me grow as a person way way way way beyond podcasting and this career. Interacting with folks who care so much about this thing, and trying not to let them down or make them feel unwelcome? That has been a way that we’ve all grown.”
Yes, the McElroys will tell you what to do when your roommate won’t do dishes, or you tear your pants atwork, or a local goose is harassing you on your bike rides. But what they’re really offering is a way to live in the world. It’s a way that embraces joy and absurdity, and never chooses the mean joke over the kind one, even when mean is easier. It calls for humility and open-mindedness—a soul-deep “yes-and” that you can practice with every strange, wonderful person that you meet in the world.
A few last items from that Facebook group thread:
“That’s Fair.” It’s usually Travis that says it when he’s confronted with an opposing viewpoint that may even completely dismiss his. I’m working to add it to my vocabulary.
Wait to say I love you, showing it first instead. Say it when you just can’t keep it in any longer.
The only time we take people’s advice is when it’s justification for what we already want to do. When people ask for advice, what they want is someone to support them.
Photos by Andrew Spear and Julia Robinson.