Servant of Pod Travis McElroy Episode 35
Fri, 4/23 1:17PM • 26:13
people, podcasts, brother, laughter, travis, griffin, cincinnati, feel, project, shows, mcelroy, making, dog food, chicken soup, friends, famous, nice, thinking, burnout, justin
Justin McElroy, Griffin McElroy, Travis McElroy, Nick Quah
Travis McElroy 00:00
I find a sense of fulfillment from that, knowing that I've given somebody else some kind of catharsis, whether that is laughing... See, this is where it's good that my brothers aren't here, because if they were here, any kind of like, when I talk about stuff like that, like if I say, "the catharsis I give," they would rag on me so hard for being very pretentious, which I am.
Nick Quah 00:29
For a director, Travis McElroy doesn't strike me as all that pretentious.
Travis McElroy 00:35
But this idea of, if I can make somebody laugh, or give them something to think about, or make them feel something--make them feel some kind of emotional release that they feel better--I get that from watching movies, or going to stand-up comedy shows, and that kind of thing. I like being able to offer that to somebody else, right? It makes me feel like I'm kind of passing it on and that I'm providing a service, I guess, in a way of like, I am doing something, I'm making people happier, I'm making them feel better, I'm I'm helping them deal with something, or helping them escape something for a minute, or whatever it is. It feels nice. It feels like I've accomplished something, I guess?
Nick Quah 01:23
But what Travis and his brothers Justin and Griffin have to offer is more than just comedic release. From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: how Travis McElroy and his brothers built their funny, nerdy universe.
Nick Quah 02:03
The McElroys give the listeners a lot of themselves: their silliness and hot takes, their brotherly bond, and a whole lot of nonsense.
===Excerpt: My Brother, My Brother, and Me Episode 304: “Chicken Soup for Boys”, May 23, 2016===
Travis McElroy 02:11
The "Chicken Soup for the Boy Teen's Soul" could just be one page with one sentence and it
just says, "Put it away."
Justin McElroy 02:17
Do you guys want to know a quick, very true thing? It's about the Chicken Soup for the Soul
brand large breed adult dog food. [Laughter]
Griffin McElroy 02:17
Just don't anymore.
Travis McElroy 02:25
Justin McElroy 02:27
Because food is more than just nutrition, it's also about comfort, love, and appreciation; here's a
****ing dog food with the Chicken Soup for the Soul brand on it. Chicken Soup for the Soul
brand dog food.
Griffin McElroy 02:42
You can't do that. You can't have two different foodstuffs...
Travis McElroy 02:45
Griffin McElroy 02:46
...in the name of a product. It can't be like, "What's up? This is Hamburger Helper's Kid Wine."
Travis McElroy 02:51
Griffin McElroy 02:53
Yeah, it's wine for kids, but it's made by Hamburger Helper.
Nick Quah 02:56
My Brother, My Brother, and Me is hosted by Justin, Griffin, and Travis McElroy. The show started out in April 2010, and in the last 11 years, they've branched out far beyond their flagship show.
Nick Quah 03:07
So, okay, Travis, I have this theory that you and your brothers are actually among the most famous people in America.
Travis McElroy 03:14
Nick Quah 03:16
Well, it's... I just...
Travis McElroy 03:16
Based on what?
Nick Quah 03:18
Well, let me put it this way: so many people that I've met, when I tell them I write about podcasts for a living, they'll bring you guys up. It kind of feels like the McElroys are this semi-underground but popular brand or something.
Travis McElroy 03:31
I have a lot of friends who are internet creators and people who've been doing it way longer than me, and being, as we like to say, "internet famous" can be very strange, right? Because what you don't have is a visual recognition that other people get sometimes, from being on a TV show, or movie, or even like print ads, or anything like that. And it also is still, even though we've been going now over a decade, it's still a new kind of media, and so it is a weird thing to tell people you do. It doesn't always register as being that. But one of my friends put it like, you're the mayor of a city, and if someone lives in that city, they know who you are. But as soon as you step outside that city, you're like, "I'm the mayor of My Brother, My Brother, and Me!" and people are like, "I don't care." And you're like, "Okay, great! Great great great great great."
Nick Quah 04:25
Yeah, but cities can be big and cities can be small, right? Like that's, I mean, and I get the sense that the McElroy community, and just the community of stuff that you've created, is pretty far-reaching at this point. Like, you've bled into Trolls 2. Like it's a...
Travis McElroy 04:44
That is a good way of putting it. Yeah, that is an excellent way of putting it. [Laughter] We were not cast in Trolls 2, we seeped into Trolls 2. That's a good way of putting it. I agree.
Nick Quah 04:52
So then how do you view your fame?
Travis McElroy 04:55
It used to be, when I was a kid, when I was like 15 or 16, I would have said, like, "When I grow up I want to be famous!" And I have seen people who are legitimately A-plus level famous, and the kind of toll that that can take on your ability to just exist in the world and do things, and I'm like, you know what, maybe I don't actually so much want that. I'm pretty happy where I'm at right now. Where... Here in Cincinnati--well, not right now, because the pandemic, but back in the before times--maybe I'd be out at the store and someone go, "Oh, my God it's Travis McElroy!" And I'd be like, "Yeah, hi!" And that would feel very nice, but the rest of the time, I was fine just like going to a restaurant or hanging out with friends. And the time when it feels really special is when we get to do conventions, or live shows, and stuff, and you get this spike of--more than just feeling famous--feeling... connected?
Nick Quah 06:00
Travis McElroy 06:01
Well, yeah, that too, but I mean, we get that from people saying nice things about us all the time. But this feeling of being connected to the group, where when we're doing a live show, or able to do a meet-and-greet or something, and you're actually on stage, and you're directly giving something to the audience in the performance, and they're directly giving something back to you. And I think that that is something that is easy to kind of take for granted when you're working in a job where you get to see your base all the time. And because we're on the internet, we don't necessarily get to do that all the time. So when we get to actually face-to-face interact with the audience, I think that's what people think of being famous as, which is like being connected, and like standing there in front of a group of people who are connecting with you on that level of like, this is important. I think that that is what people--a lot of people--really want when they talk about being famous.
Nick Quah 07:01
Travis--who's the middle brother, by the way--lives with his wife Teresa and two kids in Cincinnati, Ohio. And he says that now, at 37, he's reached the type of fame he's always wanted.
Travis McElroy 07:12
I spent a lot of my life trying to figure out what I wanted to be as a performer. I knew from a very young age that I loved performing. I grew up doing community theater and children's theater. There was even a point at which I thought about like, "maybe I want to be a preacher"--I just wanted the attention. And then I went to college and got my degree in acting at the University of Oklahoma, then I left there and worked at Best Buy, which I don't think counts towards any of this for a while. Then I worked with the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company for many years as a technical director and occasional actor. And then I moved to Los Angeles where I did some improv comedy classes and performed with that a couple times. And now I'm doing podcasting full time. And of those, the thing that I kind of realized, by accidentally more or less backing into it with doing the podcasting stuff, was what I really wanted to do in performing, which was just being myself with an audience. All the other things it was like, I'm working to create a some kind of character, or facade, or premise, or all of this as a way to interact with the audience. And while I like all of that, and some of it can be really fun, I think I like this kind of much more direct--and sometimes, much more scarily intimate--connection with an audience, where it's just you out there, you know, talking to them, and I really enjoy that.
Nick Quah 08:47
That connection with the audience is in the DNA of My Brother, My Brother, and Me. They call it "an advice show for the modern era," but it's really a way for them to read and answer ridiculous questions from listeners and from Yahoo Answers.
===Excerpt: My Brother, My Brother, and Me Episode 367: “Shrimp! Heaven! Now!”, August 14, 2017===
Justin McElroy 09:00
"I am a cashier at a farmers market in Michigan. We sell a huge variety of stuff, including fresh
shrimp. Today a toddler walked by our shrimp cooler and started..." [Laughter]
Griffin McElroy 09:15
Just read it, read it, read it, read it.
Justin McElroy 09:16
I can't! [Laughter] That's the problem with reading a few words ahead, is that sometimes I can
mess myself up while I'm trying to read it good. "We..." [Laughter] "We sell a huge variety of
stuff, including fresh shrimp. Today a toddler walked by our shrimp cooler and started chanting,
'Shrimp! Heaven! Now!'--emphasis on the 'now'--eventually leading his mother to say,
'Please...'" [Laughter] "'Please Daniel, we can't keep doing this.'" [Laughter]
Travis McElroy 09:50
We're just not really trying to help. [Laughter] We're trying to help in a much more roundabout way of slowly crafting... I don't know, making people feel nicer, I guess? Make them feel better, but not directly at all. We're not trying... No, please don't. Please don't do the things that we say, we're not helping directly at all.
Nick Quah 10:09
But the McElroys don't just make My Brother, My Brother, and Me. They have a ton of shows, including Can I Pet Your Dog?, Shmanners--which Travis hosts with his wife Teresa--and The Adventure Zone, which all three brothers co-host with their dad. And that's not even half the list. It was back in 2014 when Travis decided to take the plunge and become a full-time podcaster.
Travis McElroy 10:33
At that point we were making Adventure Zone and My Brother, My Brother, and Me. And it was like, okay, so what do we... What do I do with my time? And it was like, "Oh, well, make more." And so I just started shows, hoping that... Instead of doing it the right way, which is to wait and develop a concept that is so perfect, and so absolutely clicked that I couldn't not do it, I instead had friends that I loved talking to and loved working with and said, "Well, you're so great, we should do a show together." And then just kind of like made one, which is a perfectly fine way to do a fun show, or your first show, or a show for fun, but when you already have two like full shows going, and you're trying to make like professional podcaster decisions, just throwing it at the wall and starting full-blown shows without thinking about if you could see yourself doing them for three or four years can really be a misstep waiting to happen.
Nick Quah 11:44
So that urge to just make, and make, and make, that's got to be mentally exhausting. How do you deal with the burnout that comes from making so much stuff and having to use so much creative energy all the time?
Travis McElroy 11:57
The thing that I think me, and Justin, and Griffin all have kind of come around to now after a decade is rather than start new projects whole cloth, devoting more time to developing deeper connections to the project we're already doing. And so that's why you see things like Adventure Zone. And then we're doing The Adventure Zone graphic novels, and The Adventure Zone board game, and working on a pilot for The Adventure Zone animated series, the script for that, being able to say we have this thing that we love so much, so rather than try to create another project we love so much out of nowhere, let's instead give this project the time and care that it deserves to develop it and grow it. And that kind of thing I think helps with the burnout. And more than that, it also is like, we reached a point where we are working on enough projects that we can justify hiring people to help us with them. And I think that there was a long time where that felt really bougie.
Nick Quah 13:16
Tell me about that, because I feel like I know this feeling, because I feel the same way about like hiring new people to support certain projects that I do, but tell me about that "bougie" feeling, because I couldn't wrap my head around getting past that, personally.
Travis McElroy 13:29
I don't know, there's something I... Maybe it's imposter syndrome, right? Where you like you say like, "I employ people," and you expect people to be like, "You??" And you're like, "I know!" But the thing is, it has allowed us to do more things like work on the board game, and develop the TV show, and make things a priority. And given us the chance, like... Doing more live shows was a thing we were able to do because we worked with people. And I think that that was the thing that kind of tipped the scale for us as far as making the decision to be more serious about it, and be more adult about it, is that it allows us to output more creatively. If we let people use their skills and expertise to help us do it. You know, Teresa and I would do Shmanners, and at this point we got two kids, and doing Shmanners can sometimes be like a full-time research job for Teresa. Having someone help with research lets us keep making the show, and that was kind of the thing that eventually helped us get over that feeling of like, "Are we just three kids stacked up inside a trench coat, or are we really adults?" And let's really do this if we're gonna do it.
Nick Quah 14:56
Coming up: what it's like to make a podcast with your family.
Nick Quah 15:25
So Travis, one thing about My Brother, My Brother, and Me that I really respond to is this really special playful relationship that you, Justin, and Griffin have, and that the heart of the show is basically the same as it was from day one. So, I'm curious: where is that line between business partners and brothers? How does it all mesh together?
Travis McElroy 15:46
Well, the truth is--and this is gonna sound like a real Hallmark, "nice" answer, but it's the truth--very, very, very early on, we made the commitment to each other that we would stop doing it if it ever in any way threatened our relationships with each other. And so I think that our business relationships are directly impacted by the fact that we are brothers. So we try really hard to communicate very openly with each other. And that doesn't just mean like, "I don't think this is a good deal!" But rather on an emotional level, as well, if you're like, "You know what? I don't feel like my ideas are being heard about this project, and that is very frustrating to me, and it makes me not look forward to having these meetings..." Being able to have that kind of discussion. But also, the other side of it--the much more positive side of it--is being able to very comfortably state to the other person, like, "I'm gonna be honest, I have no idea what I'm doing and I really need your help on this," or like, "I really trust you to handle this, because I don't know how to do it." And I'm not worried about a business partner thinking like, "Travis is really dead weight on this project. Why is he getting to be a part of this?" Because we're all very good at recognizing everything that the others and ourselves are bringing to each thing, that there's no need to like compete, or worry. If somebody is dragging their feet on something, being able to say like, "Hey! Come do your job!" [Laughter] Another level of the reason I love working on projects, and doing live shows, and stuff like that, is I get to hang out with my brothers. I get to see my dad. Our kids all get to play together. We travel with our whole family. There's like 14 of us that go and do live shows, and the kids are all playing together backstage, and during the day, before we do the show, we take all of our kids to an aquarium, or to walk around the French Quarter in New Orleans, or whatever. And that's time I get to spend with my family, or we get to make a TV show together, and do that thing, and I'm sitting there nervous, not knowing what I'm doing, but I'm with my brothers and I trust them. And it makes it a lot less scary. Where if I was there by myself, I just don't know that I'd be able to do it. All of that. I don't know that any kind of business thing could ever really get in the way of that because, at the end of the day, the only reason I'm able to do this, and the only reason I'm confident in doing it as a career... The only reason I started doing it was because I was doing it with my brothers. There's no voice in my head saying, "Actually, Justin and Griffin don't think you're funny. Actually, Justin and Griffin hate working with you. Actually, if Justin and Griffin could, they would cut you out of the show." And I guarantee if I was working with just like two people, occasionally those thoughts would creep up in my head, and I'd second-guess myself, and I wouldn't be able to do the show the right way. But because it's my brothers, I don't worry about that. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they love me, and trust me, and like doing the show with me. The thing is, I don't see not making My Brother, My Brother, and Me, ever. It is a thing of, I think we will keep doing it as long as people let us.
Nick Quah 19:14
Well, that's beautiful. So aside from doing the shows, and the board games, and the TV series, and all that, you guys also somehow had the time to write a book about making podcasts. It's called Everybody Has a Podcast (Except You). Why write this book?
Travis McElroy 19:31
Well, so when I started kind of taking this seriously, I want to say back in like 2013, and thinking maybe this will be my job, I went looking for some reference. I was like alright, let's take this seriously. How do you grow a podcast? How do you make it good? How do you do all this stuff? How do you get good at podcasting? And everything I found was all about like, making money through kind of cheating the system, or inflating your numbers, or marketing.
Nick Quah 20:02
It's a lot of e-book, self-publishing situations with that.
Travis McElroy 20:05
Right, it was not about making a show that you liked, making a good show. It was about like, "here's some tips and tricks to sell your show to advertisers," which don't get me wrong, fine. It's great. But that didn't really help me in what I was looking for. So then Justin, and Griffin, and I started talking about it. And then we each at different times have done some either public speaking to classes about making podcasts, or I taught a six-week course at a theater here in Cincinnati about it. And we were kind of compiling notes as we went along. And then one day, we were just like, "Okay, let's just do it, let's just write it, let's just sit down and write this book that is like, hey, we've been doing this for 10 years, here's all our mistakes, here's everything we did wrong so you don't have to do it wrong to learn." And write it in our voice, in a way that we think is not only informative, but interesting and kind of funny, and make it about making a show that you're proud of. And so then we sat down and looked at it from that perspective, not about how to be the next successful smashing podcast, but rather like, "at the end of the day, here's the show that you will be happy to show to people," and to give to people, and share with people. And then it was completely inadvertent that it was going to be published during a pandemic in which people are less connected than they've ever been and more distant from friends and family than they've ever been. But I hope that it is able to help people reconnect. And, you know, there's a lot in the book about recording remotely, and getting individual setups done, and all that stuff. And I don't know, maybe it will help people reconnect with family and friends and say, like, "Hey, I haven't talked to you in a while, let's do a podcast together." I hope so! That would be nice, wouldn't it?
Nick Quah 21:14
So that's something that I believe in, and I think that's part of the central thesis and spread of the book, that more people should be making podcasts. But I also feel like there's been this growing sentiment that maybe there's too many podcasts. And maybe that sort of idea has some merit from a business standpoint, but that's only if you're talking about podcasts as a business. What are your thoughts on that? And what are your thoughts on the future of the business?
Travis McElroy 22:07
I think that when people talk about there being too many podcasts, I think that is because we are used to thinking about media in terms of television, and movies, and even radio to a certain extent now, where we think about them as having limited space for publishing. Right? So if you're a TV network, for example, you only have so many hours in the day.
Nick Quah 23:00
Well, maybe it's a little different now with streaming, right? Like everybody has that. Yeah, yeah.
Travis McElroy 23:02
That's true, right? That's changing it a lot.
Nick Quah 23:04
But I see where you're coming from. Yeah, yeah.
Travis McElroy 23:04
But even then, right, then you can look at it from like, we need to bring in viewers and everything. Here's my point: is that you have podcasts that are like, big, and you have podcasts that are small, you have podcasts that are niche, and you have podcasts that are, you know, wide-appealing, and the one does not crowd out or infringe on the other. The only thing that people are competing for is the listener's time. And the thing is, is if you are a niche podcast, right? I'll listen to it if I'm interested in that thing. And if you're a wide-appealing podcast, I'll listen to it if it's good. And so it really is, you know, if you make a good show, and you make about a topic that's interesting to me, it's good. This is a good thing. And it's not like a movie theater, where there's limited screens, and you're paying the overhead of a movie theater, so we only sold 10 tickets for this movie, so now we're not going to show it anymore. And it's not like TV shows where it's just like, hey, no one's watching this. There's like 20 people watching this, so it's canceled now. This is like, okay, 20 people listen to this, it doesn't cost me anything to make it, I have a lot of fun making it, they have a lot of fun listening to it, so I'm just gonna keep making it, and no one can cancel it. I think when people talk about that there's "too many podcasts," I think that what they are really saying is, "I don't want to have to compete with this thing. I don't want to have to compete with other shows. I want to make a mediocre show that people have to listen to, because there's nothing else on." And instead I think that this is like, you know, there are plenty shows I listened to where I know it's not for everybody. Where I know it's like, no, this is a show that I love because this is a very obscure topic that I'm interested in. That's fine. You know, I think that that's the most beautiful thing about podcasting, is it gives you a chance to talk about something you love. And I guarantee there's at least one other person on this planet that will be excited someone's talking about it.
Nick Quah 23:31
Travis, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me, I really appreciate it.
Travis McElroy 25:22
Oh, thank you for having me.
Nick Quah 25:34
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show is produced by Andrea Asuaje, James Trout, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.