Last Monday we took a trip to The Adventure Zone, which has become one of my alltime favorite podcasts. It’s still Max Fund Drive season this week, and I’m in a podcast sort of mood, so it seems like time to stroll through another round of recommendations. Specifically, shows headed up by the stunningly charming and adorable members of the McElroy family. They’re practically a podcasting dynasty at this point, and the world is really better for it. Here are a solid half dozen podcasts to try out (and don’t forget The Adventure Zone!).
“An advice show for the modern era.” This is the flagship show, with almost 300 episodes and a catalogue that stretches all the way back to 2010. Oldest brother Justine, middlest brother Travis, and babiest brother Griffin offer a mix of semi-genuine advice, bits, and horrors from Yahoo Answers (if they weren’t the first to start that now-prevalent trend, they were certainly one of the earliest). It’s closer to the “friends talking” style of show than a more strictly on-theme production, but the question format gives it enough bones of a format to keep the pacing tight. Within that format, it’s a lot of improv goofery, usually riffing on a topic and then bleeding on into the next one with an easy-going “you’re totally full of shit and I love you” air.
The only caveat with this one is that because it’s the longest running show, it also catches the brunt of the growing pains for its hosts – the sort of thing we all go through, but most of us don’t have preserved in .WAV files for eternity. The earliest shows are rough around the edges in terms of style and content, and I personally didn’t really click with the podcast until about episode 150 (2013, in timeline terms). I’m happy to report that the slight bro-gamer gaucheness of the beginning wears off and leaves something really fantastic behind – all of the warm, lifelong rapport, with the added element that these are three genuinely good people trying to learn and make their comedy ever-more inclusive. As long as you’re cool with so, so many usages of the word fuck.
Episodes to Try: Episode 273: Smizing Through the Tears, Episode 255: Kangaroo Jack Blood; if you’re curious about the best parts of the early episodes, you can also try the Bro’s Better, Bro’s Best episodes, and while they definitely have a different feel I’m a big fan of the live episodes (Face 2 Face)
Doctor Sydnee McElroy, the expert; and her husband Justin, our know-nothing for the evening, tour through the horror stories of medical history and relate how incredibly awful we’ve been at figuring out how to fix each other. I’ve recommended this show before, ages and ages ago, but it still holds a special spot as one of my first and favorite podcasts. The show’s tone if half spending a lazy afternoon with your cool aunt and uncle who tell deliberately hokey jokes and half with your friend who wants to tell you, holy shit dude you have to hear this, about the brain-blowing Wikipedia article they just read (though the researcher goes a bit deeper than that).
For anyone with even a passing interest in history, medicine, or weird factoids looking for an entertaining way to pick up some new knowledge, this is an absolute top-of-the-line option.
Griffin and Rachel McElroy do the impossible and make The Bachelor gripping. Alright, that’s not very fair – clearly there is something about this show (this horrifying in concept and execution show) compelling for a lot of people and brings them together to enjoy it in some kind of group setting, which is always a nice thing to see. But it is a show about taking a bunch of humans and commodifying heterosexual dating in about the grossest way possible. But I know deep in my heart that if there was a queer version of the show I would be so there for that trainwreck, so I can’t throw stones. I digress.
The point is, that if ever I came close to loving a show I never had even a passing curiosity about, this podcast managed it. Geeky passion is a beautiful thing that can make just about any subject fascinating, and this is a beautiful example of it: Griffin and Rachel enjoy the show in the same way wrestling fans enjoy their drama, and aren’t afraid to point out when things are getting uncomfortable or gross while still showing compassion for the competitors and a real investment in the competition. They even have a fantasy league for this thing.
It’s the best of all possible worlds, with the bonus element that it’s still entirely enjoyable without having seen the show itself (whether you can’t get hold of it or just don’t want to). I’m not sure it isn’t better hearing some of those boggling occurrences described secondhand.
Episodes to Try: At time of writing they’ve just finished covering their first full season, so it’s best just to start at Episode 1.
Sydnee and her little sister, 15-year-old Rileigh, compare the teenage experience across generations. Like MBMBaM, this show has a lifelong sibling rapport to benefit from, and very quick wits on the part of its younger host. While a lot of the shows come down, in spirit, to Sydnee asking if certain traditions are still a thing and Rileigh explaining how they are (occasionally with more than a bit of bafflement on how those were ever a thing), it’s all done in a very genuine way. All of the cross-generational joking is kindhearted and pretty gentle, and both sisters have a good dollop of self-awareness about the more ridiculous things they are/were growing up with.
It’s even a learning experience of sorts for both sides of the isle – I, for example, have at least the most basic inkling of how SnapChat works now; and somewhere out there a teenager has now heard of Mallrats. And Sydnee is judicious but well-timed with the occasional sisterly advice she doles out on the bigger topics.
Griffin McElroy and fellow Polygon contributor Nick Robinson come up with super amazing concepts for games based on Twitter suggestions. By which I mean, they look for the weirdest and most off the wall concepts and spin it through to surefire zillion dollar making hits.
Griffin and Nick have a long history working together (Exhibit A), and this is basically just a new way for them to ping pong riffs off of one another. If you’re into their dynamic, this is an amazing way to get more of it, and if you’re a fan of gaming-related improv then this is likewise a great go-to. They buy just enough into their own fantasy that these game ideas are viable that it lets the absurdity ride to new and grand heights, and the usual inclusion of a guest in the final act of the show lets them go completely over the deep end in selling whatever concept they’ve come up with. It definitely trades on being familiar with the cynical nature of the games industry, but it’s by no means a barrier to entry for listeners who aren’t tuned in to the latest news. Run by two podcast veterans with a concept that keeps the improv focused, this show really hits the ground running.
Note: This podcast was discontinued following multiple women coming forward with sexual harassment allegations against Nick Robinson.
Travis McElroy and Brent Black (sometimes known as Brentalfloss) give you the rundown on current events from the eye of the storm. Occasionally with musical interludes, including the greatest thing Donald Trump will ever spawn. While I’m a big fan of a bit of irascible satire, there is something admirable about this show’s attempts to remain measured and calm while discussing things on the internet. It’s not a stance every show should take, but it is nice to have out there, if only to prove that it’s still possible.
“Measured” doesn’t mean “devoid of passion” either – it’s just that the discussion (and the snark) tries its best to incorporate the context of what’s going on with a given event. Which is one of the best ways to keep a show enjoyable even if you wind up disagreeing with an opinion in the moment. The show benefits immensely from Travis’ spot as the “voice of reason” among the McElroy brothers, giving it a different but definitely not unwelcome vibe to the rest of the shows on this list.
Episodes to Try: Because this is by nature a topical show, it’s best just to start with whatever episode is the most current at time of reading.
Note: In the wake of the election I wound up dropping this one; “trying to find the ‘real’ middle ground on news stories” as told by cishet white men kind of leaves a bad taste in the current dire climate.