For seven years now, brothers Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy have been dispensing terrible advice and excellent comedy as the hosts of the fan-beloved podcast My Brother, My Brother And Me. The nucleus of a small family empire of shows on the Maximum Fun podcasting network—including a Bachelor fan-cast, a medical history show, and The Adventure Zone, in which the trio plays Dungeons & Dragons with their dad, Clint—the show sees the three brothers take questions from the audience and mostly ignore them in favor of cracking jokes about horses, ghosts, haunted dolls, and whatever other obsessions are working their way through their minds. Now, the brothers McElroy are getting ready to launch the long-in-the-works TV version of the podcast, which debuts on Seeso on February 23. Talking with The A.V. Club, the brothers laid out the difficulties of adapting their format to TV, their dream projects, and the half hour of footage they swear will never see the light of day.
The A.V. Club: What’s one thing you want someone who’s never listened to My Brother, My Brother And Me to know about your show?
Griffin McElroy: The shorthand that we use to describe the genre of the show is a “comedy advice” show, which, those two words, I’ve found, if you put them together, they don’t really mean anything? Basically, we just take questions from people, and in trying to stumble across an answer to those questions, we try to find off-ramps that we can use to talk about things we actually want to talk about. Which is a cruel way to summarize what we do, but very rarely, by the time we reach the end of a segment, can we even remember the twisted road that led us to where we end up.
… I just realized that if you write down, in print, what I just said, it makes it sound like I used the word “twisted” in a genuine way, like I would describe our comedy as, like, “a skewed view,” and boy, that’s just giving me the creeps. Gave myself the creeps there.
Travis McElroy: We tried to make sure that the show wasn’t just, “Inside joke, inside joke, inside joke.”
AVC: Is there anything you want to say to fans who have been following your show for years?
Justin McElroy: We tried to make a show that was accessible to everybody, but in our hearts, our guiding principle was, “What will make people who like our show laugh?” We wanted to make something everybody could enjoy, but more than anything, we wanted to do right by the people who’ve been listening to us for so many years, because there honestly wouldn’t be a show without them. So if we let them down, it would be pointless.
Griffin: It took us forever to figure out—not how to make the show, because once we knew what the show was going to be, figuring out how to make it was easy. It was a two-year process, though, of figuring out how to adapt the podcast without losing the core DNA of what the show was, which was tricky, because that DNA is visual poison.
Like, if it was just us sitting around a desk, that would be the most boring thing ever. But if we also tried to visualize, for example, a gigantic version of Scott Bakula, you know, we’d have to pay him for the rights, hire a CGI team to generate that… I’m confident that the TV show is the best version of a TV show of our podcast that we could make. Maybe the only version. I don’t think it could exist as something scripted, or as, like, a man-on-the-street prank-style show.
AVC: What’s the 10-second pitch you guys used to solidify the show? How did you sell this to Seeso? Or did you have to?
Justin: Seeso took a gamble on us. They liked what we had done already, and they trusted that we—along with a bunch of really talented people—would be able to find what the show was. We really didn’t have an “elevator pitch,” [and they told us] nothing beyond, “We believe in you guys, so do your best.”
Griffin: A long time ago, before we met up with Seeso, we had a meeting with some production company about making a MBMBAM TV show. And this was a long time ago, but it was the most infuriating conversation I’ve maybe ever had in my professional career, because it was them asking us what the “pitch” for our TV show was. “Well, it’s a comedy show where people ask us questions and we give out advice, and then from those questions we kind of spiral out.” And then they would come back, “No, no, no. What’s the pitch, though? How would you summarize the show?” “It’s a comedy advice show about people who are bad at giving people advice?” “Yeah, but what’s the pitch of it?” “I do not know what you want from me.”
And I only mention that story because it is literally the opposite experience of what we have had with Seeso, which was, “Go work on this thing forever, and don’t even worry about the pitch until you’ve got it.” Which, thank you, because if we hadn’t had that freedom, we would have made something very bad. Or wouldn’t have made anything at all.
AVC: In some ways, it’s a show that feels like it’s about you guys making a TV show. When did you decide to leave those elements and little asides in?
Justin: That stems from our inability to sort of “pretend,” very much at all. I say this a lot, and it’s funny, because two of us have degrees in theater, but we’re really not great actors. The way the show works, and the way our comedy works, we can only talk about what we’re thinking about. It has to be a little bit stream-of-consciousness. And the honest-to-god truth is that our consciousness was fairly preoccupied by the fact that there were cameras pointing at us, and we were making a TV show. So we didn’t have much choice, because the alternative would have been to pretend. The alternative would have been acting. [Laughs.] And unfortunately, that’s just not in our skill set.
Travis: It’s just like when we do the podcast. Whenever we do the intro, it’s a lot of, “So, what’s going on right now?” So when we’re making the TV show, the thing that’s happening is making the TV show. So it’s really hard not to talk about it. Because it’s all we’re thinking about, and there’s really nothing else to reference when you’re sitting in a room with cameras and lights pointed at you. “Well, this is what I’m doing, so I’m not going to not talk about it.”
AVC: The show has a very improvised feel. How much of what you guys filmed made it into the show?
Griffin: Oh my god.
Travis: We filmed about 20 hours per episode, and each episode is about 25 minutes long.
Griffin: We have so much additional stuff, it is astonishing how much more stuff we have. That concept of having to do additional takes was so alien to us. I remember, the first day, the very first thing we shot was just a cold open, and J.D. [Amato], our director, was just like, “Let’s just go into it, and take a run at it, and see what happens.” And we did the cold open, and I think we all felt pretty exposed in that moment. And we finished, and we were like, “Guys, I think we can do it. I think we can TV show.”
And then J.D. was like, “All right, let’s do that all over again.” And it was like, “Uh, uh, huh? [Assumes scared voice.] ‘But we did a funny thing! Is it not good enough? Did we do bad?’”
Justin: That was the tricky thing about it, was that we did do multiple takes of most things. We weren’t so fucking arrogant as to think, y’know, “One-Take McElroys,” which is not a phrase that will ever be said outside this interview. Just now. Just when I said it just then.
But it couldn’t be the same stuff again. Because that wouldn’t be funny to us.
Travis: And we couldn’t remember it, if we were being honest. After we finished, it would be, “What was that? What did we say? How did we get there?”
Justin: We always had the same loose prompt, but we just had to redo it with different jokes. And honestly, part of the advantage of working with people who know better than us, and having outside influences, is that there were many times that we did it once, and we thought, “Well, that’s all the funny things I have to say about that.” And we had to deal with people who could recognize that in us, like, “Oh, they don’t have another one. They just have the one funny thing to do. They don’t have multiple funny things to do.”
And there’s a lot of stuff that we shot that we all really liked, but [that] just didn’t make sense within the context of the show. And coming from podcasting, that was so hard, because we have to make an hour of show every week, so if we say something funny, it’s in the fucking show. That’s a rare mineral that we are not going to dispose of. And it is really weird to go from that to leaving stuff that worked on the proverbial cutting-room floor, which is really somebody’s recycling bin on their desktop.
AVC: What are some moments that it really hurt to lose?
Griffin: Aw, man… I mean, some of it will eventually see the light of day.
Justin: I’ll tell you about one that won’t see the light of day, ’cause it wasn’t funny. We did—this is going to sound like I’m bullshitting, but we were just kind of finding our sea legs while filming the first episodes—we went to this old, old cabin and filmed a scene—
Griffin: Oh god.
Justin: —without a lot of preparation, and it turned into… The story kind of veered into me getting possessed by a ghost in the cabin named Joshermy, and it devolves into a literal—I’ve watched it—30-minute, joke-free, psycho-sexual exploration of me being possessed, with light themes of horror. It’s bizarre. There’s no jokes! We didn’t say a fucking funny thing in the entire half hour. [Laughs.] But we didn’t know how to stop! So it’s like a 30-minute-long terrible short film about me getting possessed and being unable to leave the property unless my brothers free me, etc., etc., etc. It is inscrutable.
So that I am okay with losing.
AVC: That’ll be on the DVD, right?
Griffin: You don’t want to see it! It sucks. It’s bad.
Justin: The Joshermy Expedition will never see the light of day. It’s 30 minutes of unpalatable material that is not in any way funny. And we weren’t even attempting to make it funny! That’s the worst part! It’s just a shitty improvised horror movie.
Griffin: We had made a quiet decision—maybe we were protesting unsatisfactory craft services that day—but we had made a silent decision to just waste everybody’s time.
Justin: It was a huge waste of time, for everybody. Even you, hearing about it now. Your time has been wasted by association by Joshermy.
AVC: J.D. Amato was your showrunner for the series. How did you guys get connected with him?
Griffin: Justin knew him pretty well from 12-Hour Day, which is a podcast that J.D. does with his friend Connor Ratliff, which is a 12-hour podcast. And we ended up getting dinner with him on a trip to New York, talking about the show, and he knew about MBMBAM. And I remember walking away from that dinner like, “We can’t not make this show without this dude.” Wait. Was that right? Did I put too many double negatives in there? “We can’t make this show without this dude.”
He had answers to questions that we had about adapting the show, and they were questions that we had been frustrated by, answers that had eluded us, for months. And during this one dinner, J.D. was just, “It should be this. You guys shouldn’t have all this artifice about it. Nothing should be scripted. You should build a show where you can kind of figure out what you can do before you get there, and then once you get there, you can figure out what works and go off from there.” Like, everything he said, it was just, “Oh, god, oh, yeah! If you had been on this phone call a couple of months ago, we would be in production right now.”
Justin: And that’s not to disparage anybody who’d been working on it up to that point, because we couldn’t figure it out either.
Griffin: Yeah, we’ve been doing the podcast for seven fucking years, and we couldn’t figure it out. So we brought him on as a director and a showrunner, and that was the moment when it was, like, “Oh, this is actually going to get made.” Everything just firmed up.
AVC: What does it feel like to have made a TV show? Do you feel different now that you’ve “arrived”?
Justin: [Single, sharp laugh.]
Travis: [Laughs.] I just want to hear Justin’s reaction to that question.
Justin: You know, I always thought that there would be a moment when, if I had arrived, I would know that I had arrived.
Justin: But the longer we’re at this, the more I feel like… it’s all a matter of degrees, right? There are so many people that have arrived harder than we have, that I still feel like, by comparison, I guess we haven’t arrived at the same thing they’re arriving at, but we’ve certainly arrived at something. We are somewhere, fer sure.
I think the more overwhelming feeling I have is gratitude and pride in the fact that we made something that we’re really proud of. Because I’m here to tell you, there are so many dark fucking timelines for this TV production that we could have stumbled down, that this would be a very different conversation, and I would have a very different feeling leading up to the release of this televised program. Luckily, we are in the good reality, for us, specifically—I can’t speak to Earth—but for us, we’re in the good reality where the show that I’m really proud of and happy with exists.
But there are moments when you get that feeling, like when we saw our two column inches in Entertainment Weekly, I felt very, very proud. Seeso sent us a framed version of our poster for this show, and the feeling I had—this is terrible, but this is true—is that it’s the sort of thing that you see in the homes of people that used to be famous, y’know, and are clinging to it? “Oh man, I’m going to cling to this! This is the thing that I’ll cling to. I’ll have this up for the rest of my life!”
That was definitely a moment where I felt something like “arriving.” But yeah, I don’t know that I feel all that different.
Travis: This is going to be pretty schmaltzy and dorky, but the most overwhelming feeling I’ve had is since we put the full episode out. Everybody seems very happy, and they like it. All of the people who have supported us for the last seven years like it. And it’s like we made a thing for our friends. It’s like we made a gift for them, and we put a lot of work into it, and we taught ourselves how to do it, and they liked it. It’s a very nice feeling.
AVC: Speaking of that support, when did you decide to make your dad such a big part of the structure of the show?
Justin: He just kept fucking showing up! He just kept showing up.
Travis: Yeah, we couldn’t get rid of him.
Justin: Honestly, through the production process, there were two bits that have been constant—whatever the show is—we wanted to do. One is the mayor, us meeting with the mayor and getting shot down. And the other was us checking in with our dad to tell him what a good job we did. It’s been a constant the whole time, even down to the idea that he would have food, each time, that he had made for us. It was something we had talked about for the entire production process. We always knew we had to have him for that sort of role.
AVC: Last question: If someone came to you tomorrow and offered you unlimited time and resources to create something, what would you guys make?
Griffin: The thing I’ve found a lot of creative satisfaction in these last couple years is The Adventure Zone, which has kind of become a bigger thing than we originally set out to make. I’m really happy with the storytelling and production elements that are going into that show. I would love to do something, like an animated show of that. But it would have to be this dream scenario that you’ve cooked up, where not only do I have infinity dollars, but there are all of a sudden 36 hours in a day, which is not true quite yet.
Justin: I host a food-review quiz show called Things I Bought At Sheetz with my friend Dwight on YouTube, and I would probably turn that into a feature film. I feel like that’s where the format would really shine, if expanded to two and a half—well, two and three-quarter, maybe three—hours for the film. I would do that, and then, simultaneously, what I would love to do is a Project Greenlight, but for TV shows, where, after our one season of making a TV show, we’re the mentors, and we have to walk a person through the process of making a TV show.
Travis: I would do a dark, gritty, adult version of Encyclopedia Brown, in the style of True Detective. Maybe with Woody Harrelson as Encyclopedia Brown? I don’t know, I’ll have to talk it over with the production team.
Griffin: I didn’t know we were allowed to say fake bullshit, so I’m changing my answer to The O.C. season five. The O.C. season five, original cast, we’re going to get everybody back together.
Travis: If you had unlimited resources and time, you don’t think I would make a true crime version of Encyclopedia Brown?! For real?
Griffin: No, I’m saying that’s impossible, because I don’t think you’re going to get the rights for it. If I can get the rights to anything, it would be [Emphatically.] The O.C., season five, Peter Gallagher is back.