I came to the horrible realization that I’d made the biggest mistake of my entire life shortly after moving halfway across the country for a girl. The relationship — when long distance — was light, and fun, and full of passion. But as soon as seeing each other became commonplace, I realized that the passion was gone, the fire had been extinguished, and I had, in fact, lost that lovin’ feeling.
It was 2010, I was 23, and I had no idea what I was going to do. I was too proud to ask my friends, too embarrassed to ask my parents, and too stubborn (or perhaps, immature) to actually have a rational conversation with the girl in question.
So I wrote to a podcast called My Brother, My Brother, and Me. In case you’re not familiar, it’s an advice show hosted by three brothers — Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy — and it is, by a generous margin, my favorite podcast of all time. It’s funny and insightful and addicting, but even more than that, it’s earnest and it’s inclusive, as proven by the response my question received way back in episode 40. I wrote:
I recently moved to a new city to be with my girlfriend (mistake?). At first it was difficult but now things are going well, and I’ve recently been hired on to do work at a really good job. However, she recently informed me that she is moving to a city an hour and a half away and said so nonchalantly, as if it had not been a consideration in the decision-making process. Is she packing her bags and moving away?
Griffin, the youngest brother, explained that the girl had given me the “Carmen Sandiego Slip,” whereas Justin, the oldest brother, offered solidarity by way of saying “that’s some cold shit.”
But then Travis, the middle brother, said “Here’s a little tough love. You might want to take a step back from the situation and take stock of the relationship because you might be too close to it and it might not be going as well as you think. It’s time to make a new home, an hour and a half away from your ex-girlfriend.”
It was hard to accept, but Travis was right. Make no mistake, My Brother, My Brother, and Me is a comedy podcast, each episode warning that the brother’s advice “should never be followed.” But I think a big reason the show is so successful, why its fans are so die-hard, is because Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy sincerely love their listeners.
It’s this sense of earnest inclusion that has made MBMBaM such a long-standing and beloved institution, with notable fans such as Elizabeth Gilbert and Lin-Manuel Miranda (who even included a joke from the podcast in the pages of Hamilton). The show is now a part of Maximum Fun — an independent podcast network founded by Jesse Thorn — and continues to be one of iTunes top comedy pods.
The brothers have also created several new and successful podcasts, which led Travis McElroy to move to L.A. I recently caught up with Travis to talk about finding your dream job, connecting with fans, and the importance of being earnest.
The Brothers McElroy
So, first things first, how did you get into podcasting? It’s not a career that most people even think about.
You know, it’s a weird story. I went to college and got my degree in theater at the University of Oklahoma. And while I was there one of the classes I took was a mock audition, kind of a prep for “professional life” class. And one of the mock auditions we did was a voice over, and I did not prepare for it. The teacher asked why I didn’t do the work and I was like “Oh, I have a weird voice, no one is ever going to pay me to talk. If I ever get famous it’s going to be because I’m very expressive, and I’m silly and I use my body in funny ways.”
Fast forward to a few years later, when Justin and Griffin — my brothers — were working with a video game website, and they were doing a video game podcast. Griffin and I had just moved in together in Cincinnati and Justin was like, “Hey I miss you guys, let’s do a podcast, as an excuse to talk once a week.”
We talked for a while about what the format would be, what the show would be called, all that stuff, but when we started there was no expectation to it whatsoever. I was recording with a 10 dollar combo headset from Walmart, and Griffin was using a microphone from Rock Band, and even though Griff and I were in the same apartment we recorded in separate rooms. One because Justin wasn’t there and two because that’s where our computers were and we didn’t know any better.
You’re talking about My Brother, My Brother, and Me, right? That show took off pretty quickly. Why do you think that is?
There’ve been a lot of different opinions on why people like the show and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I think what it is, is the personalities that we bring to it are open and inviting in a way that people think of us as friends, and I think that’s the biggest positive of podcasting, that it’s a very personal experience. It’s not like radio, that you know is being broadcast live.
My dad was a radio DJ and still is, so that’s kind of how we got our start. But I think podcasting is a very personal evolution of radio. So people seemed to enjoy it. So then we started, after about 30 episodes, we got picked up by the Maximum Fun network, which was a huge boost and very exciting.
All three of us are big fans of Jordan Jesse Go, it was a big influence on My Brother, My Brother, and Me. And over time, more and more people started to find the show, and enjoy it, and after a certain point, I saw that there was a potential for it to become a full-time gig. And up until that point, for a long time, I was not trying to be a professional podcaster. It was fun, I got to talk to my brothers and people seemed to like it…And then I realized “I love this.”
I get to entertain people, but I get to entertain them like I’m at a party, surrounded by friends, and telling a really funny story. Which is something that I was doing that I love. And I thought, “Oh this is it, this is the chance to entertain that I’ve been looking for my entire life,” and I didn’t know it until I started doing it.
And then we started to develop new podcasts and new projects because there are so many topics that I thought were interesting, that I would want to hear a podcast about, so I started doing more and more shows.
So would you say podcasting is your dream job? Or, at least, that it has become your dream job?
I would say that, like most people, if you had asked me before I started podcasting to describe my dream job, I would have described what podcasting was but without putting a label on it. I wanted to make people laugh, I wanted to make people think, I wanted to be myself more than I wanted to play characters. I wanted to make my own hours, I wanted to have a lot of autonomy. And all of that stuff is what podcasting represents to me.
Man, if you had asked me like, six years ago when I started, I didn’t even know — and I would say that most people don’t — that podcasting could be a job. I remember having a conversation with my best friend, and co-host of Trends Like These, Brent Black, in like 2009, saying “so when are you going to get a real job? YouTube, how long can that last? You need to get real work. No one makes a living on the internet!”
And now I do. And I didn’t even know it was a thing.
It’s making me really happy. But I’ll say that it’s not easy, it’s a lot of work…it’s recording, editing, working on audience growth, connecting or answering emails, networking, it’s fun but if I didn’t like it it wouldn’t be fun…it’s very hard work.
It seems like this all developed for you in the early days of My Brother, My Brother, and Me. More so than Griffin or Travis you seem to be the marketer for that show.
And I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that I have never shied away from self-promotion. One of my show business heroes is Harry Houdini, so I am all about the idea of standing in the public eye. Not that it’s completely selfish — because it’s my job, and it pays my bills — but I produce a product that I think is good and I think is entertaining so I want to make sure that as many people know about it as possible because I think they’d like it. As narcissistic as this statement is going to be: I really like the product that I make, and I want to tell my friends about it.
So why did you move to L.A.? Podcasting is something that, in theory, you can do from anywhere.
I was nearing 30, I had just turned 29, and my wife and I had just gotten married. And I had been working with the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company for about five years and I loved it, they do great work, and I had been their tech director. It was exhausting labor. It was not uncommon for me to work an 80 to 100 hour week, sleeping a few hours a night. And I just wasn’t happy.
My wife and I had been having a lot of little conversations and we finally had one big conversation and she asked me what would make me happy. And I realized it was podcasting, it’s my favorite thing that I do, I love MBMBaM, and I just want to do that all the time.
The beauty of podcasting, and also the frustrating thing about it, is that you can do it from anywhere. I could have stayed in Cincinnati and continued doing MBMBAM, but there’s so little chance to advertise and to get the word out and so many podcasts record here in L.A., so if you want to guest on people’s podcast you’ve gotta be here to do it.
And not only that, I wanted to move to L.A. It was a dream I had for a long, long time, and I knew that if I didn’t do it before I was 40 or 50 it would be a much harder row to hoe.
That makes a lot of sense, and if you want to be an entertainer, if that’s such a big part of who you are, then L.A. is the place to be.
And there’s always that feeling of “I have the opportunity to do this thing, and there’s nothing holding me back.” So we did it.
So when you got to L.A. did you become full time with the MaxFun network?
I’m paid through donors, through MaxFun supporters. It’s not really a salaried full-time position. Most of my shows are on MaxFun but I don’t work for MaxFun, I work for myself from home. We pretty much have free reign to do whatever we want. We joke about how Jesse [Thorn] is our boss and MaxFun is our boss, but you know, they host our shows, and it’s a network and a community more than anything.
It’s a community more than it is an office. The beauty of it is that today if I wanted to start three new podcasts I could. I don’t need approval, I don’t need to pitch it, I can just start doing it. That said I do love MaxFun, there’s a reason we have six shows on the network at this point. It’s a wonderful community, very supportive, and we love the shows that are on it.
And the shows that are on MaxFun, they’re very grassroots, very for the people…It’s a very cultivated audience and a very cultivated network that I find very appealing.
What makes a MaxFun show a MaxFun show?
I think that there is a certain amount of earnestness and inclusivity that are the two things that define MaxFun. One of the things that drew us to the network was the un-ironic enthusiasm, in a way I think there’s a certain sense of detachment in the entertainment industry, especially on the internet, and I think I’m drawn to the shows that are defined by “we care about the things that we do,” even when we’re being sarcastic.
I care about our audience, we care about our audience, MaxFun cares about their audience. And that’s why we treat them with respect.
When you look on the MaxFun Facebook page, everyone is treated like equals. We’re all talking to each other and sharing ideas.
Every time I hear other people who make content on the internet talk about how mean the internet can be and how scary it can be, I just think about how blessed I am that MaxFun has the audience that it has. Every day I’m met with support and, in many ways, love, that MaxFun listeners are just a really supportive, earnest, wonderful community.
Was that something that you experience right away? The internet is a cold, dark place…was your audience always so welcoming?
Even before we were on MaxFun, before we got on the network people on the forums were saying “Jesse, Jesse, Jesse, you have to check out MBMBaM.” And so when we joined everyone gave it a listen. And I think there’s something about the fact that we are brothers, that we have a real brotherly connection and a very similar frame of mind, but we’re trying to be pretty nice guys, and we’re trying to learn. And we’re just about to put out our 300th episode and there’s still so much for us to learn from our audience.
The whole reason MBMBaM took off was because we used to do these listening parties. And whenever there were two or three people getting together to listen, we would record a special message for the party. And we had to stop doing it because so many people were inviting their friends and having parties. We had to stop because we were met with too much love!
It was overwhelmingly supportive, in a way that still kind of chokes me up. We literally would not still be doing the thing we are doing if it were not for our audience.
I want to talk about Trends Like These for a minute. It’s definitely the show that, one would assume, could evoke the most ire from your listeners. You’re talking about politics, recent events, and often times divisive topics. How do you manage that?
I think that it’s a lot like physics. The energy you put out is the energy you get back, and I think there are many personalities and there are many shows that thrive on a kind of “I dare you to come back at me and disagree,” and that’s just not my style, that’s not Brent’s style, we’re all about learning.
I think the key is that you have to open yourself up to other opinions and other people’s points of view. Because the sheer hubris that would come with thinking “I know the answer to all things and that my point of view is right in all things because it is mine”…like, I am a huge narcissist and even I would be crazy to think that.
There are experiences that I have never had, will never have, could never have, and I want to open myself up to that.
One of our goals in starting Trends Like These is to go past the headlines. You know, you scroll through Facebook, you scroll throughs news stories, and all you read are the headlines that are written to get your attention. They don’t actually convey the story. Or you see a headline that is absolutely based on nothing and the story is absolute horse shit, except it’s what got people to actually click “share” without ever actually reading it. So we decided to talk about the trending stories so that people could get a little more insight into them.
And we wanted to express our views and opinions in a way that invited discussions instead of arguments. I’m a huge fan of debate and I think that debate is so much healthier than argument. Our Facebook group is a hub of discussion and debate and people offering their opinions and we welcome it, we are very open to that.
There are a lot of people who hear your voice every day. What’s your advice to them? To the average people stuck in the hustle and bustle of a nine to five job. What advice would you give them on finding their dream job?
I would say, don’t try to. I think that there is an unreasonable expectation in society that you’re supposed to get happiness from your work and I think that if you get happiness from work that’s amazing, but if not do something else that gives you happiness. Work is a necessity, something you have to do, but you could also write, you could also paint, you don’t have to get paid for it.
If your work is stopping you from being able to do the things you love to do in your free time then that’s a good time to reevaluate what you’re pouring into your job, but you know I didn’t start podcasting because I wanted a job, because it would take me away from a job I hated. I did it because I wanted to do it and I wanted to talk to my brothers. I think there are many many people in this world that do a job so that they can pay the bills and they have day jobs that don’t make them happy and then they go home and spend time with their family and that makes them happy, or they go to jobs so they can go on trips and they are able to do that because they have a job that they don’t like. I think it is an unreasonable expectation to put on yourself if you think that every aspect of your life should imbue you with happiness at all times because otherwise you’re always going to be dissatisfied because there’s always going to be some aspect of your life that doesn’t make you happy.
Happiness is where you make it. There’s nothing that is inherently good or bad, it’s how you react to it that makes it good or bad. If it’s not making you happy, rather than changing jobs, try change mindsets, and try and figure out why it’s not making you happy and try and figure out what does make you happy.
Does that answer your question at all? I feel like I just rambled a bunch.
Yes! It was great. I always love interviewing people who are comfortable talking, it makes my job a hell of a lot easier.