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The three McElroy brothers started their first podcast together in 2010 as a way to keep in touch as their lives grew further apart. Thirteen years later, one content franchise bears their name. They’ve hosted more than a dozen original podcast series, written half a dozen books, and are working on an animated adventure pilot episode for Peacock.
Justin (42), Travis (39) and Griffin (35) McElroy grew up in Huntington, West Virginia. Ahead of the launch of their flagship podcast, My brother, my brother and I, Justin and Griffin were working on a podcast for Joystick, a video game news and review site. Travis worked as a carpenter for the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, a job he landed several months before the podcast launched.
My brother, my brother and me is a comedy advice podcast with over 600 episodes and 550,000 estimated listeners. Maximum fun, a podcast production company, asked the brothers to join the organization in 2011. The company hosts a network of podcasts that viewers pay to subscribe to, which is how the brothers earn most of their income. They also shoot advertisements and sell merchandise, which the brothers try to make as “weird and stupid as possible”, according to Travis.
The McElroy brothers have launched another podcast, The adventure zone, with their father in 2014. A narrative podcast where the family solve puzzles and fight enemies while playing Dungeons & Dragons, an imaginative role-playing game. The storytelling podcast has since evolved into a series of graphic novels that have appeared in the New York Times. bestseller list. The brothers are developing a pilot episode for it The Adventure zone series, which will appear on Peacock.
Travis McElroy, the middle brother and former carpenter, spoke to the Observer’s Rachyl Jones about podcasting with family and developing the graphic novel series.
The Observer: You started making podcasts before podcasting got cool. Why was that the medium you chose, rather than maybe a vlog (video blog), which would have been more mainstream in 2010?
Travis McElroy: I had no idea there was a point where podcasts became cool. It made sense for us to create an audio format, as our dad had been a radio DJ for about four decades. We grew up with the idea of doing radio shows. And also, most of the time, we like to talk to each other. The show grew out of a desire when we all moved to different places to keep in touch and make sure we had an excuse to talk to each other once a week. More than anything else, the podcast was a scheduled phone call, an excuse for us to get on the phone and joke around.
Did you expect this podcast to become popular or just live in the corners of the internet?
You know, I don’t think we thought about whether it was going to be popular. I mean, I wanted people to listen, and I hoped people would like it. But I don’t know if the question ‘Will this be a success’ actually occurred to us. It was exactly what we wanted to make. As more people said, ‘You should check this out. This is good,” we were like, “Wait, is it? Okay, cool.’
Is it weird working with your family?
No, honestly. Right now it’s weird not working with them. Justin, Griffin and I were on an episode of @midnight when it was still running on Comedy Central. It divided the guests to get ready for the show, and when we did, we couldn’t think of anything funny to say. We had to say, ‘Hey, the three of us are just going to hide in a locker room together, and we’ll come up with funny things to say that way.’ We don’t know how to operate as separate individuals nearly as well as we do together.
On My brother, my brother and I, that’s just how the three of us talk to each other all the time. We have become very good at understanding how each of us works best with the other. At the moment we have a lot of experience working together, and it usually goes quite well.
Which of your podcasts did you enjoy working on the most?
Man, it’s up there with one of our strangers. But The McElroy brothers participate in the Trolls World Tourwhere we more or less forced our way in being Trolls follow-up. It was so wild and silly, and it made me really happy to do it because it was just so weird. It finally came down to us being inside Trolls World Tourwhich also just made us drunk with power.
How do you get these kinds of wild opportunities?
The short answer is we shoot a lot of shots, and many, many, many of those – I would say most of them – don’t land. We’ve put a lot of things in the universe and said, ‘We’d like to do this. can we do this? I’d like to try this.’ Finally someone says, “OK.” I also think we try to be nice guys who are fun to work with and people like to be around. That also seems to help quite a bit.
The term ‘content creator’ has become popular in recent years. Would you consider yourself a creator if you used the modern definition of it?
Yeah I think so. Doing Adventure zone helps me feel better about that because it’s a narrative, story-driven show. Doing My brother, my brother and me felt like what we do anyway – you know, joking and acting silly with each other. He always felt that we were cheating by saying we were ‘creating’. I really like the term ‘creator’ because it feels very accessible to people.
How has being a creator changed since you started?
People better understand parasocial relationships and how we give people access. I remember a shift on YouTube from people making five-minute music videos or sketches to two-hour vlogs where someone sat in front of the camera and told all about their lives. People expected that level of access for any YouTube creator. They got into big trouble because there were no access levels. It was all one level. People are learning that they can be an internet creator and still have limits.
As a podcaster, there’s a shift in what people are looking for at any given time – just friends sitting and talking; or well-researched, scripted shows; or true crime, scripted dramas and scripted comedies.
How should podcasters keep up with changing trends? It’s not like you can change the entire format of your podcast, but if what you’re doing isn’t popular anymore, where do you go?
What makes podcasting really special is that the threshold to create is so low – the amount of money and time it takes for at least the shows we do. And for us, it’s not so much about popularity as about audience commitment. Our audiences love our shows and we are supported by them. It’s not really about what everyone is talking about on the show
Can you tell me about the graphic novels? That’s a revenue stream many creators have never heard of.
Yeah, one of the fun things about making a narrative podcast, adventure zone, is that when we were making it, it was all improvised as we went, so it kind of became a “writer’s room.” When the first arc called “Adventure Imbalance” was done, we had done a full story. Our now literary agent, Charlie Olson, reached out and asked if we’d ever thought of making it into a comic book or graphic novel. We teamed up with an artist named Carey Pietsch and started adapting it with First Second, our publisher. We kept adjusting them and on February 21 our fifth came out called Eleventh Hour. It’s like a time loop, western, magical mystery. They keep getting better. I say that as one of the writers, but I mean it. We are really very proud of them.
Who do you think your audience is?
It’s so hard to say because once I think I fully understand it, I start meeting people (I wasn’t expecting it). One thing that does surprise me is, at this point we’ve done it Adventure zone for a while — we have people who are of age and they will be sharing their graphic novels with 12 and 13 and 14 year olds. It always amazes me how many teens and tweens come to book signings because we’ve been doing these shows for 13 years now. My assumption is that our listeners are in their 30s – they started listening when they were 18 or whatever. But we have a lot of college and high school students who come to shows and come to us. I’m glad I’m still relevant, I guess, is what I mean.
This interview was originally published in The Creators, a newsletter about the people driving the maker economy. Get it in your inbox before it’s online.