Thursday, April 13, 2017

Thy Brother’s Peeper: The Ascension of My Brother, My Brother, & Me

Justin, Griffin, and Travis McElroy. (Photo courtesy of Seeso)

Adapting a podcast into a television show might seem like a strange idea, but if anyone can make such a bizarre transition work, it’s the McElroy brothers. Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy – with frequent contributions from their father Clint – have emerged as media superstars in the past few years, reigning over an empire of websites and audio podcasts so expansive that they’ve earned a Midas-like reputation. Everything these guys touch turns to pure comedy gold, and they took the extra leap to prove it by returning to their humble, bucolic hometown of Huntington, West Virginia to tape a TV version of their biggest and most influential work: My Brother, My Brother, & Me, their “advice show for the modern era.”

I’m a bit obsessed with podcasts. They occupy the majority of my walking-around time (which, as a car-less Toronto urbanite, is substantial), and I tend to burn through a few hour-long episodes on the daily. As a medium, they’ve absolutely exploded in popularity, so I’m spoiled for choice: when I’m feeling intellectual there’s NPR’s Radiolab or Invisibila, or Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History; when I crave gripping narrative, I can sink into classics like Serial, This American Life, or Karina Longworth’s smoky Hollywood history lessons on You Must Remember This; and when I’m in a movie-loving mood I can celebrate the best with The Canon, or the worst with The Flophouse. But few things can balance out my mood – and make me look like a grinning madman on public transit – like a good comedy podcast, and the brightest star in that particular firmament must be MBMBAM (or, affectionately, “Ma-Bim-Bam”). It’s one of the funniest shows in any medium that I’ve ever enjoyed, full stop. And that’s entirely due to the trio of brothers who host it.

There’s a madcap alchemy to the way the McElroy boys will riff on a joke or a concept. The format of the podcast – in which they read both user-submitted pleas for advice (Dear Abby-style) and archived questions from Yahoo Answers (infamous for their illegibility) – is just a springboard for the brothers to draw on their innate chemistry to create incredibly infectious comedy material . They’re extremely lovable goofballs, whose love for each other is obvious (and often expressed aloud), and whose comedic chops come from lifetimes spent joking and riffing and making each other laugh. And if the questions submitted to the MBMBAM podcast are just an excuse to keep that tradition going, then their Seeso-produced TV show is just an extrapolation of that same idea: an excuse to spend the show’s budget on extravagant real-life goofs that are designed primarily to make one another giggle.

Justin, Travis and Griffin McElroy in a scene from My Brother, My Brother and Me. (Photo courtesy of Seeso)

In the show, those giggles are often the result of one or more of the brothers' being made to feel uncomfortable by the others – whether it’s the specific scenario (like their quest to re-brand tarantulas as the more hip “ranchos,” resulting in Travis's facing his very worst fear), or the simple fact that these self-proclaimed “softboys” are hardly the handsome, unflappable television show hosts they think they ought to be. In fact, it’s that pathos that runs beneath the show, in a deep vein of humility and self-deprecation, that elevates it beyond the silly antics on the surface. The McElroys have achieved astronomical success, but they’ve never stopped working to earn their adoring audiences, and perhaps it’s seeing them capering about in their own idyllic Midwestern hometown that really drives home how genuine they are. They’re small-town boys, shocked to have found themselves thrust into the limelight, just doing their level best to rise to the challenge. In the show’s finale, after a raucous live show performed in Huntington to a packed house of enthusiastic fans, Justin sits with his brothers in the ringing silence of the empty theatre and can’t help but weep. “The whole time I worried we weren’t appreciating this enough,” he says. “But for once, we did the most we could with something.” His brothers assure him that they love him, and Griffin immediately praises his tear ducts for providing them with “that sweet Emmy juice.”

My Brother, My Brother & Me made the leap from my iPhone to my television screen with ease, but this is really the reason why. The show is crisply produced, with energetic pacing, tons of variety, great recurring bits (like their daily check-ins with Daddy Clint at his radio station day job, or their frequent visits to the put-upon Mayor of Huntington, whose patience they continuously strain), and even some impressive celebrity cameos from people like Weird Al Yankovic and Lin-Manuel Miranda, which does nothing if not speak to the calibre of artists who also appreciate the McElroy brand. It’s just as frequently hilarious as the podcast, and the brothers acquit themselves marvellously – though they would never think so – as comedians worthy of TV syndication. But it’s their honesty, their humility, and their genuine love for their hometown and one another that cement the transition from phone to screen, and prove that the Midas theory holds true. Everything the McElroy boys touch – even TV – turns to gold.

One full episode of My Brother, My Brother & Me’s six-episode season is available on Youtube . I implore you, for your own sake – please watch and enjoy.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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