Guided by Voices
Griffin McElroy reveals how a simple podcast with his two brothers gained a cult following—and just became a TV show
by Brittani Sonnenberg
Photography by Matt Conant
Can you remember your childhood imaginary friend? Most of us had one. Mine went by the spunky name of Judy Polly. The rest of her has since faded, but I suspect we nurture imaginary friendships as adults, too. Maybe you’ve got a badass guardian angel. Or you invented a boyfriend so your sister will quit bugging you about meeting someone. Or maybe you, like me, feel like the voices of your favorite podcasters form a circle of invisible intimates. You take long walks and drives with them, and they offer advice and crack you up. Sure, they do most of the talking, but you’re in more of a listening mood with them anyways.
What’s it like to be that imaginary friend, the weekly voice in our heads? When my friend Peter mentioned that his buddy Griffin taped a podcast that enjoyed a devoted following, I had to inquire further. “Devoted following” turned out to be an understatement: “My Brother, My Brother and Me,” (Or MBMBaM, as it’s shortened) now in its seventh year, enjoys a cool 5 million downloads per episode. Like a humble taco truck turned brick and mortar foodie darling, their audio show recently became a TV show. The premise is brilliantly simple: three brothers offer listeners “advice” and opine on burning Yahoo Answers! topics like “Will the Loch Ness monster get into Christian heaven?” The podcast was also conceived as a way for the brothers to stay in touch; they live in three different states.
McElroy, who lives in North Austin’s Wooten neighborhood, kindly agreed to meet me at Genuine Joe’s and shed light on the life of a podcast baller. He’s been having a good year. There’s the TV show, a new baby, and, oh yeah, showing up on Forbes’s 30 Under 30 Media list for his work as founding editor of Polygon, Vox’s gaming site, in addition to his four podcasts (including “Rose Buddies,” a Bachelor “fancast” with his wife, Rachel, whom Griffin describes as “the funniest person I ever met.”). Over a cappuccino and a sandwich, he told me about a childhood steeped in comedy, his biggest podcasting lesson, and the challenges of developing a TV show.
I love the brotherly banter of your podcast. Is what we hear on the show what it sounded like at your house, growing up?
More or less. We engaged in a kind-spirited contest to make our parents laugh. We cracked jokes whenever we were going through tough stuff. Comedy is a central part of our DNA. I have a eight-month-old son, so I’ve been thinking about what cultural stuff I’ll wind up passing onto him. Our dad passed on his love for Monty Python, Kids in the Hall, Second City. It’s how our family communicated. Our dinner table was basically like a sitcom writing room. We’ve tried to mimic that in the podcast.
That’s intense. Did it feel competitive?
Not in a painful way; it wasn’t like we were keeping score. There was an expectation to come out with something good, not to just make the first obvious joke. I didn’t talk that much as the youngest, I had to pick my moments. We each have our own discrete ways of telling jokes, our own styles of humor. It was harder to make my mom laugh: Dad was always cracking jokes, so her expectations were sky high.
How has the podcast evolved since your first episode?
In some ways the format hasn’t changed much from the original vision. You can jump in at episode 1 or episode 350. We’ve changed the most; the way we view the world, and our terminology. When we started the podcast, we had a much narrower perspective, and we could be pretty un-PC. We never came from a hurtful point of view, just uneducated.
All comedy teams are built on that trust; we cheated our way into it by growing up together.
A big turning point came after an episode where we talked about “Furries,” and had this attitude that was like, “Isn’t it funny to say mean stuff about Furries?” A lot of people wrote us on Twitter and said, “Hey, I’m a Furry and that sucked. It really, really hurt.” There’s no defense for that. The concept of “Furries” had been abstract for us, but that forced us to realize that these were real people that we’d said horrible shit about.
Now as a rule we don’t just avoid punching down, we try not to punch in any direction. You’re always talking about real people. It’s a subtle thing, but it’s been an important change in how we approach shows.
Did that make you feel self-conscious or reined in? How do you navigate expressing yourself versus offending someone?
That is the spectrum in comedy. Most comedians are purists; they say, “I have to be able to be as transgressive as I want, I can say whatever otherwise it’s not true comedy.” We come down on the opposite end of it. There is absolutely a merit to creating the most accessible comedy as possible. I don’t buy the idea that you shouldn’t have to apologize, you can’t say anything if you start limiting yourself. That’s not true at all. It’s possible to make comedy that doesn’t attack.
Does the intimate nature of podcasting affect how listeners respond to the show?
Sure, it’s definitely an intimate medium; listening to a podcast feels like sitting in on a conversation. We can be very prolific because it’s not that difficult to make. If you’ve followed our show from the beginning, you’ve listened to 350 hours of us talking; that’s like the equivalent of 350 standup comedy specials. It’s a huge time investment. As a result, fans of podcasts tend to be more hardcore.
What’s it been like to translate the podcast to a television show?
We were determined to avoid artifice. Our podcast is totally unscripted, and we wanted the show to be that way, too. Otherwise it would have been as weird as watching an unscripted episode of “Friends.” It took two years for us to find a model that felt right, and it was hard work once we started taping, with ten-hour days. I had imposter syndrome, and I felt really nervous. We were doing something that no one had really done before, and I worried it was going to be bad. But the stuff we wound up cutting was when we forced it; it worked best when we stayed true to the podcast.
Is it difficult to work with your brothers?
No. When we started, we agreed that if it ever got in the way of our relationship, we would bail. It’s only been a benefit. We know we can trust each other, and it’s just gotten easier and easier. All comedy teams are built on that trust; we cheated our way into it by growing up together.