This story was initially published in The Creators — a newsletter about the people powering the creator economy. Get it sent to your inbox.
The three McElroy brothers began their first podcast together in 2010 as a way to stay in touch as their lives grew increasingly separate. Thirteen years later, a 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. Prior to launching their flagship podcast, My Brother, My Brother and Me, Justin and Griffin worked on a podcast for Joystick, a video game news and reviews site. Travis worked as a carpenter at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, a job he secured just months before the podcast launched.
My Brother, My Brother and Me is a comic advice podcast with more than 600 episodes and 550,000 estimated listeners. Maximum Fun, a podcast production company, asked the brothers to join its organization in 2011. The company hosts a network of podcasts that audience members pay to subscribe to, which is how the brothers earn the majority of their revenue. They also record ads and sell merchandise, which the brothers try to make as “weird and stupid as possible,” according to Travis.
The McElroy brothers launched another podcast, The Adventure Zone, with their father in 2014. A narrative podcast, the family solves puzzles and fights enemies while playing Dungeons & Dragons, a fantasy role-playing game. The story-telling podcast has since developed into a series of graphic novels that have appeared on the New York Times’ best-seller list. The brothers are in the process of developing a pilot episode for The Adventure Zone series, which will appear on Peacock.
Travis McElroy, the middle brother and former carpenter, spoke with the Observer’s Rachyl Jones about podcasting with family and developing the graphic novel series.
The Observer: You got started creating podcasts before podcasting became cool. Why was that the medium you guys 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 at which podcasts did become cool. For us, doing an audio format made sense because our dad was a radio DJ for like four decades. We grew up with the idea of doing radio shows. And also, mostly, we like to talk to each other. The show sprung out of a desire as we were all moving to different places to stay in touch and make sure we had an excuse to talk to each other once a week. The podcast was like a scheduled phone call more than anything else, an excuse for us to get on the line and joke around.
Were you expecting this podcast to become popular or just kind of live in the corners of the internet?
You know, I don’t think we had any thoughts about whether it would be popular. I mean, I wanted people to listen, and I hoped people would like it. But I don’t know if the question of ‘Will this be successful’ even entered our brains. It was just the thing we wanted to make. As more people were like, ‘You have to check this out. This is good,’ we were like, ‘Wait, is it? OK, cool.’
Is it weird to work with your family?
No, honestly. At this point it’s weird not to work with them. Justin, Griffin and I were on an episode of @midnight when it was still running on Comedy Central. It split the guests up to prep for the show, and when we did that, we could not think of anything funny to say. We had to be like, ‘Hey, the three of us are just going to hole up in a dressing room together, and we will come up with funny things to say that way.’ We do not know how to operate as separate individuals nearly as well as we do together.
On My Brother, My Brother and Me, that’s just how the three of us talk to each other all the time. We have gotten really good at understanding how each of us best operates with the other. At this point, we have a lot of experience working together, and it tends to flow pretty well.
Which of your podcasts has been your favorite to work on?
Man, it’s up there with one of our weirder ones. But The McElroy Brothers Will Be In Trolls World Tour, where we, more or less, forced our way into being in the Trolls sequel. That one was so wild and silly, and that one made me really happy to do because it was just so weird. It actually did end up with us being in Trolls World Tour, which also just made us drunk on power.
How do you get these kinds of wild opportunities?
The short answer is that we shoot a lot of shots, and many, many, many of them—I would say most of them—do not land. We put a lot of stuff out there in the universe, saying, ‘We’d like to do this. Can we do this? I would like to try to do this.’ Eventually, somebody’s like, ‘OK.’ I also think we try to be nice boys who are nice to work with and who people enjoy being around. That seems to help quite a bit as well.
The term “content creator” has become popular in the last few years. Would you consider yourself a creator, using 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 the thing we do anyways—you know, make jokes and be goofy with each other. That one always felt like we were cheating to say we’re “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 access to people. I remember a shift on YouTube from people making music videos or producing five-minute sketches to two-hour long vlogs where someone would sit in front of the camera and tell everything about their lives. People came to expect that level of access to every YouTube creator. They found themselves in a lot of trouble because there weren’t any levels of access. It was all one level. People are learning they can be an internet creator and still have boundaries.
Being a podcaster, there’s a shift in what people are looking for at any given time—just friends sitting down and talking; or well-researched, scripted shows; or true crime, scripted dramas and scripted comedies.
How are podcasters supposed to account for changing trends? It’s not like you can shift the entire format of your podcast, but if what you’re doing isn’t popular anymore, where do you go from there?
The thing that makes podcasting very 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 less about popularity as much as it is audience commitment. Our audiences like our shows, and we are supported by them. It isn’t really about which shows everyone talks about at the
Can you tell me about the graphic novels? That’s a revenue stream I have not heard of for many creators.
Yeah, one of the fun things about doing a narrative podcast, Adventure Zone, is that when we were making it, it was all improvised as we went, so it became a kind of “writer’s room.” When the first arc called “Adventure Imbalance” was finished, we had a full story done. Our now literary agent, Charlie Olson, reached out and asked if we had ever thought about adapting it into a comic book or graphic novel. We worked with an artist named Carey Pietsch and started adapting it with First Second, our publisher. We kept adapting them, and on Feb. 21, our fifth one came out, called Eleventh Hour. It’s like a time loop, Western, magical mystery. They just keep getting better. I say that as one of the writers, but I mean it. We’re really, really proud of them.
Who do you think your audience is?
It’s so hard to say, because as soon as I think I have a full grasp on it, I go and meet people (I wasn’t expecting). One thing that does surprise me is—at this point we’ve been doing Adventure Zone for a while—we have people who are of parent age, and they will share their graphic novels with 12-and-13-and-14-year-olds. I’m always surprised how many teens and tweens come out at book signings, because we’ve been doing these shows now for 13 years. 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 come out to shows and come up to us. I’m glad I’m still relevant, I guess—is what I’m saying.
This interview was originally published in The Creators, a newsletter about the people powering the creator economy. Get it in your inbox before it’s online.