The McElroy brothers, as their flagship podcast My Brother, My Brother and Me warns at the start of each episode, are not experts. They’re just three guys who started a podcast: Justin, 37, the oldest brother; Travis, 34, the “middlest” brother; and Griffin, 30, the “sweet baby brother.” But over the last seven years since the podcast’s launch, it has expanded into an earbud empire with multiple podcasts earning hundreds of thousands of downloads each week, a TV show, and a devoted fanbase. (And now they’ve got a graphic novel out as well: The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins.)
The idea that podcasting would one day be their careers, let alone that they would reach the level of success they have, was unimaginable in 2010 when they first launched My Brother, My Brother and Me, a sort-of-meta advice podcast. It certainly wasn’t their goal. Their goal was fairly simple: to maintain a close relationship as their lives took them in different directions.
“They moved and we had always lived in the same city,” said Justin, who still lives in their hometown of Huntington, West Virginia. “I think we were concerned about losing touch.”
At the time, Travis served as technical director at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, while Justin and Griffin were editors at Joystiq, the now-defunct AOL gaming blog (they later became founding editors at Polygon, Vox’s gaming site). Their success with the site’s popular podcast inspired them to start their own. “We thought it would be a fun thing to do together. It would help us to stay in touch,” Justin explained.
For something that would later come to define their professional lives, the amount of work that went into developing the podcast is laughable.
“This is kind of staggering looking at how long we’ve been doing this and how big a part of our lives and careers it’s turned into,” Griffin said of coming up with the show’s format and title. “But this happened in one AOL group chat. One chat over the course of maybe one hour.”
“We spent more time coming up with the title of the show than all the rest of development put together,” Travis added. Those alternate titles? “Oh they’re so bad,” Griffin cringed. They include “Bro Your Own Way,” “Brother Bot 5000,” “Honorary Brother,” and most fittingly given their penchant for runs on entertainment nostalgia, “Justin and Travis and Griffin and Keenan and Kel.”
They achieved a sizable listenership pretty quickly, largely on the back of their existing Joystiq podcast base, but also thanks to some creative—if wholly unsustainable—marketing techniques.
“One of the things we did jokingly, we told people if you have a listening party,” Travis said, “and I think we said two new listeners—“
“‘When four more gathered in our name,’” added Justin.
“We’d record a brief 30-second ‘Hey Steve, Debbie.’ It was a joke but then people did it,” Travis continued. “It brought in new listeners.”
What would be an impossibility today given the size of their audience (the show consistently ranks among the top ten comedy podcasts on iTunes) provided at least some means of highly focused word-of-mouth. As Justin put it, “Listening parties were an extremely inefficient way of growing your podcast literally person to person.”
These unconventional methods managed to capture the attention of Jesse Thorn, NPR host and creator of the Maximum Fun podcast network.
“In the early days they were in some ways kid brothers or something,” Thorn said. “They were the comedy podcasters of MaxFun who weren’t professional comedians. They were the newbs.” And soon enough, growth was occurring in far higher numbers than any “four gathered in our name” listening party. “It seems like every year their audience has expanded by some multiple,” Thorn said. “At this point their two flagship shows are the most popular on the network.”
That’s no minor feat for a network featuring established podcasters as John Hodgman and Thorn himself. Joining MaxFun represented the first major benchmark of success for the McElroys, the first time they realized this could be bigger than just a fun side project. It wouldn’t be the last. One such increase came thanks to one very big MBMBAM fan: Hamilton mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“I was on a long flight,” he explains. “So I downloaded a bunch episodes to listen to, and found myself laughing helplessly.” He tweeted about his enjoyment, and started a rapport with the brothers that became both a friendship and a mission for Miranda.
“If life is a video game, I made it my side mission,” he said. ‘’How happy can I make these good good boys?’” The ways he’s gone about it include posting a series of videos of celebrities saying, “Great job,” a reference to one episode where Griffin invents a car horn to provide positive reinforcement to fellow drivers. In fact, watch closely anytime Miranda is on television. Without fail, he’ll pump his hand, honking the “great job horn,” starting with the Hamilton cast performance at the 2016 Grammy Awards.
But even with some MacArthur Genius-level help, the McElroys get a bit nervous about their status.
“Every time I think, ‘This is it, we’ve hit it,’ something else happens,” Travis said. “Eventually people will stop liking us, I assume. Just in the grand scheme of things.”
So far, that hasn’t happened. Though they haven’t gone without backlash. The brothers admit that their early MBMBAM episodes weren’t as inclusive or progressive as they would grow to be, and the trio has since adopted a commitment toward bettering that. Part of that response to criticism stems from all three brothers’ struggles with anxiety. Each wants to please people in his own way, and with a lot of people who love them and more every year, it’s been overwhelming at times.
For Travis, his anxiety—along with ADHD—brings a fear of disappointing his fans. “I’m so worried I’m going to say something wrong. As soon as we finish any live show, I sit there for 20 minutes just to take stock of the things I said.”
For Justin, the issue is more internal. “We had to always build these shows based on being very connected with our listeners, which is easy broadly speaking because our listeners are pretty much all super cool fun people. But as that number got much bigger and I was on Twitter getting a constant stream of messages—both positive and negative—I found that it just sort of depleted the energy I had to combat my basic generalized anxiety. I was spending so much energy trying to win over people one by one on social media I was not taking care of my own mental health and my own mental headspace.”
For Griffin, his anxiety gets poured into his work, focusing heavily on production and quality. “I recognize I’m not talking about a fucking Ferrari,” he said. “I’m talking about a ding-dong podcast.”
Their frequently sold-out live shows bring their own issues. “I get nervous because I don’t think we’ve had the calamitously bad live show yet,” Griffin explained. “And I’m nervous every night. Tonight could be the one.”
With that anxiety has come a mean case of imposter syndrome, something that’s only grown with their popularity.
“We’ve had so many projects that have been so successful,” said Justin. “It still feels like a scam we’re running where somebody’s going to realize—“
Travis finished his sentence about this imaginary scenario: “‘Oh, you’re nobodies.’”
They carried that sense of being “nobodies” with them even into their television show, which streamed on the since-departed platform SeeSo.
“The first thing we recorded was an intro for the episode,” Griffin recalled. “And nobody was laughing or reacting, and all three of us simultaneously thought, we’re bad at this. Everyone in this room is now thinking, ‘We invested money, we’re here, oh god, we gotta film three weeks of this terrible show.’”
J.D. Amato, the TV show’s director and producer, did his best to mitigate his stars’ fears and talked to the crew. “You’re not supposed to laugh if you’re on a crew,” Justin said. “So he had to have this conversation, like, ‘If you want to laugh, you can.’”
“That actually made it worse when they didn’t laugh,” Griffin laughed.
After releasing the six-episode first season, the brothers were told season two was a lock. Within months of the show’s launch, however, SeeSo went under.
“We were super bummed out because Seeso gave us a shot,” Griffin said. “We had lots of production meetings with lots of other places that were fucking terrible. And Seeso was the first one that said ‘we’ll let you do whatever you want to do.’”
The brothers are exploring their options to continue the show in some form. For now, they’re plenty busy with their podcasts and tours. Indicating during our interview that this was something that would likely happen in the near future, Griffin and Justin announced that they would be leaving Polygon to focus more fully on their other projects. Months before that, their father, Clint, left his 40-year career as a radio host in Huntington to be able to travel with his boys for The Adventure Zone, which just launched its second full arc, “Amnesty.” Sharing the spotlight with their dad and working together as a unit of four carries a special significance. After the death of their mother, Leslie, from cancer in 2005, the McElroy men had to figure out how to forge on without her.
“We had a couple of months after she died of us realizing, and this is cliche say, but this glue that was the center point of the family is gone,” said Griffin, who had just turned 18 at the time, and was at his high school prom when she passed away.
That loss took its toll on the three brothers, putting a strain on their lifelong closeness.
“We all floated away really fast,” Griffin said. “And I remember we had one or two nights, like, ‘Oh shit. Guys. We’re actively fighting.’”
“It’s so easy to see how something like that happens in a family and everybody just loses touch and drifts apart,” Travis continued. “And you either make the decision of ‘this house is crumbling’ or ‘we’re going to rebuild with what we’ve got.’”
Part of that rebuilding was the thing that brought them closer than ever: their podcast. “I’ve never thought about it until this exact moment,” Justin said. “We talk all the time about [how] we started MBMBAM because they moved away. But I think closer to the truth is we started MBMBAM because our mom died.”
”We spend more time together now through touring and talking every week than we all did living in the same city for two years,” Travis said.
For Clint, he sees Leslie in his sons and echoes them in saying the devastating loss ultimately brought them closer together. “It was the worst thing that ever happened to them and to me and they really helped each other get through it. They helped me get through it,” he said. “Everybody can hear the jokes and the timing and the references, but the fact that they had this amazing, incredible woman for a mother for a good 20 years or more made them really good people and good adults and have made them good parents and I think they got closer, I really truly do.”
That closeness can be seen on their skin thanks to the matching tattoos they got following Leslie’s passing. It’s a triforce from Zelda. “The idea being that three pieces together are stronger,” explained Travis.
Since launching MBMBAM, the “good good boys” have grown into men. All three have become fathers (in February, Justin and his wife Dr. Sydnee McElroy became parents for the second time), and, with their wives, they’ve delivered new podcast projects into the mix. Justin and Sydnee host the medical history podcast Sawbones, and are releasing a book based on the program in October; Travis and his wife Teresa host the etiquette show Shmanners; and Griffin and his wife Rachel host Wonderful!, a podcast dedicated to focusing on specific things the two enjoy. Their weekly effort to stay close as brothers has turned into a full-family empire, making fans feel even closer to the McElroys than ever before, something Miranda highlights as one of their biggest draws.
“Podcasting’s such an intimate medium,” he said. “You listen to it when you’re walking your dog or you’re washing the dishes or you’re on a long flight. So they’re in your ears in a very intimate way. And so I think we all feel this closeness with them.”
With that support, and some famous friends, the brothers are getting closer to embracing themselves as deserving of their success. Even if they need a few reminders.
“On the first day of filming [Amato] gave us each a little compass on a chain,” Justin said. The compass was engraved with the words “professional comedian.”
Griffin placed his on his desk to look at it as a reminder. “It’s not inaccurate.”
They have the rest of their careers to let themselves believe it.
‘The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins’ is available for purchase on Amazon and in bookstores nationwide.