Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy are three brothers who have turned their genuinely charming family dynamic into a series of podcasts. Their flagship podcast, the advice show My Brother, My Brother and Me, premiered over 10 years ago, and soon after, the audience for the brothers' offbeat advice giving and goof making exploded. While it isn't quite as popular now as it was when it premiered, it's still in the top 50 of iTunes's comedy podcast charts.
They've since expanded into more podcasts—each brother has a podcast with their spouses, and at least one spouse has started a podcast of her own. They also sell tickets for live shows, have a best-selling book, and not just one, but two television shows based on their existing properties. Think of them as something halfway between the Kardashians and Hank and John Green, happily playing out their family dynamic for an audience of nerdy, perennially online fans.
The influence of the McElroys is not limited to the success of their business model of selling the idea of being a fly on the wall to their family's gags. The size of their fanbase has exploded in part because of their intersection with another rising trend in podcasting: tabletop role playing games. The second most popular McElroy family podcast after My Brother, My Brother and Me is The Adventure Zone, which features the three brothers and their father Clint playing tabletop games, like Dungeons and Dragons.
The first campaign, now dubbed Balance, premiered in 2014, and was a surprise hit for the brothers. While they weren't the first tabletop roleplaying podcast, their relative popularity within the space brought a new and different audience to the podcast. While The Adventure Zone is just one of many tabletop roleplaying podcasts, its popularity helped usher in shows like Dungeons and Daddies or Critical Role, and The Adventure Zone still rests at number 6 on the iTunes fiction podcast charts.
The Adventure Zone is, at this point, much more than a family D&D game.
For the McElroy family, hanging out with their brothers is now a part of their full time job. The particular way that the brothers have presented themselves have created a devoted, passionate, but occasionally overzealous fandom. Early on in the oeuvre of My Brother, My Brother and Me, the family introduced the concept of "no bummers," not wanting to answer questions that are depressing. The "no bummer" ethos has bled into their other podcasts as well, and while that doesn't mean that the brothers avoid all criticism of the show, the positivity policy has now worn on some of their fans, in particular The Adventure Zone fans. The latest season of The Adventure Zone has divided fans to the point where a vocal portion of them believe the show has jumped the shark, and that the brothers have led them on a meandering, confusing journey filled with “performative allyship.”
That simmering frustration has now led to one of the brothers taking a break from social media, and raises questions about how internet celebrities like the McElroys should engage with criticism from their fans as they grow from small family affairs to larger enterprises. It also raises questions about how much slack fans should give a show like The Adventure Zone, and how much ownership they should feel over a podcast that is run by a few brothers.
The Adventure Zone is, at this point, much more than a family D&D game. It's also a future television show, a series of graphic novels, and a lucrative merchandising enterprise. Increasingly, the fandom is seeing you can't have your "we're just a family" cake and eat it too. They might be just a family, but with an audience of hundreds of thousands of people.
One person who described the Adventure Zone as "a family D&D game" to me was McElroy's PR person when I reached out to them for comment; most family D&D games do not have their own press representatives.
"I hate to see a family D&D game dragged through the mud," they said.
For some in the fandom, the current season of The Adventure Zone is a disaster. Some fans who have spoken to Motherboard have said that things have gotten so bad that they've dropped off the show after listening to it for nearly a decade. While the complaints are numerous, almost all of them revolve around the way the story is being told. Some of these fans feel that the current Dungeon Master, middle brother Travis McElroy, has made the show unlistenable.
The first two campaigns of the show, excluding fundraiser events, had youngest brother Griffin McElroy as Dungeon Master, meaning he was in charge of ushering the story from point A to point B. The first couple of seasons—especially the first—are considered among fans to be the high water mark for the show, and parts of this arc have been turned into graphic novels. The most recent arc, Graduation, is not nearly so beloved. Now that Travis is Dungeon Master, some fans point to Travis's relative lack of experience in comparison to Griffin, saying that the middle brother is making very normal rookie mistakes that are nonetheless hard to listen to.
Of particular note is the sheer number of characters that Travis has introduced, something that multiple fans noted as a common mistake for new DMs. On the subreddit for the show, one fan took the time to list every single named non-playable character introduced in Graduation. As they go on, their descriptions contain more and more frustrated asides, noting when Travis doesn't meaningfully describe what characters look like, or even what fantasy race they are. By the end of the list, they've identified 86 named, non-playable characters, taking a brief pause to invent one out of boredom. That character, Bingus, has gone on to become a small meme within the fandom, with fans facetiously calling them their favorite character.
For what it's worth, Justin McElroy, the eldest of the brothers, agrees that some aspects of this season have been rough. Justin told Motherboard that in particular, the amount of NPCs was "tough, for sure."
"I think Graduation has taught us a lot about finding the balance between narrative and more mechanical linear encounters," Justin said. "Trav had put a lot of thought into his world, and I think maybe he was trying to unfurl it too quickly at the top. He’s repeatedly told us there’s a lot that he’d do differently if he could start over."
Justin said that from his perspective, working with his family is a source of strength. The rapport that the McElroy family has with each other is a huge part of the appeal for listeners.
"It certainly raises the stakes when it comes to stuff like criticism," Justin said. "There is a vocal part of our audience that has been truly hostile to Travis throughout Graduation and speaking as his brother, it’s heartbreaking to see. The guy really did try his best and, in my opinion, still succeeded a lot more than he failed. But I can’t just be the big brother who tells him to shut it all out and keep his chin up, I have to be a collaborator who asks 'OK, what do we learn from this? How do we improve?'"
For some fans, this is a reminder of their own embarrassing or even painful tabletop memories.
Longtime tabletop game players told Motherboard that many of the issues of the season are ones that Dungeon Masters eventually learn to overcome. Most Dungeon Masters also aren't recording their play sessions for other people to listen to, with ads running on each episode.
People do recognize that Travis is going to play the game differently as DM than his brother Griffin, but for fans, these growing pains just aren't fun to listen to. Some fan complaints with the show include: The way that dice rolls don't seem to matter. NPCs often talk to each other without including the player characters, something that Travis noted as an issue when the series premiered, but fans say has not meaningfully been addressed. When the player characters do get to talk, Travis's brothers joke about sailing away from the current plot on a boat or having their characters die offscreen.
In other instances, Travis's brothers gripe about the tasks that Travis has set up for them, like taking an in-world accounting class.
In the fourth episode of the season, while Travis explains to them the importance of accounting in this season, he is interrupted by Justin, who says, "Let‘s pretend, Travis, that a listener, when that started, thought, 'This seems pretty boring. I'm gonna zone out for a little bit,' and then realized at the end that it was important, and they should‘ve been listening."
Travis replies, "A listener who might have to play the game?"
For some fans, this is a reminder of their own embarrassing or even painful tabletop memories.
"I played D&D a handful of times with my friends in high school, and we were like the McElroys in Graduation. Lots of jokes, not much of a story, each of us trying to wedge our personalities into the game in an overbearing way," A fan who goes by MMT_Megan on Twitter said. "Our attempt was frustrating, and something about listening to Travis as a first-time DM, and how his family responded to him in that role, really made me feel that frustration again."
“It's like laughing with a family eating dinner from the outside, through the screen door.”
It's about as far from "no bummers" as you can possibly get—it's the non-stop bummer of listening to a family snip at each other when everyone would rather be having a good time. Breaking the bummer seal has opened up old wounds for the fandom as well, in particular for fans who are people of color and LGBTQ fans.
For fans of color, the McElroy policy of "no bummers" has made it hard for them to express their criticism of the podcasts. One fan who asked to be anonymous out of concerns of harassment within the fandom, said that much of the McElroy brand is centered on inclusion and approachability, where fans are supposed to feel as though they're part of the family. But speaking up when they have fallen short on issues of diversity and inclusion can make you feel like an odd one out.
"It's like laughing with a family eating dinner from the outside, through the screen door," this fan said. "A fandom built on comfort will fight nail and tooth to stay comfortable, and the truth of the matter was early on, there just wasn't enough fans of color in the McElroy brand/fandom to really make their comfort count for a long time."
Travis in particular has attempted to address some of these issues on Twitter. The middle brother is currently taking a break from the platform, where he was recently called out on the issue of "performative allyship." The McElroys are also known for their LGBTQ advocacy, especially in the small town where they grew up, Huntington, West Virginia, where the brothers appeared in the local gay pride parade. They are allies though—all of them are white hetero, cisgender men. As such, when Travis McElroy made and then later deleted tweets about finding Harry Styles attractive despite being straight, people called it out as making same sex attraction seem more unusual than it is.
"I talked with a friend and I truly think I understand now," Travis wrote on Twitter at the time. "Though subconscious, I tweeted what I did earlier so folks would tell me how progressive and cool I was. I was playing in the space for attention. I also realize that this is a pattern."
Fans do recognize the folly of looking to a group of white guys from West Virginia for their progressive allyship. But still, because Travis does recognize his behavior as a pattern, it makes it stand out all the more when, for instance, he introduces a character that uses a wheelchair, in a way that three fans told Motherboard they found insensitive.
“Mainly, we work really hard to listen as best we can and try to be respectful. We don’t wanna create worlds where everybody looks and sounds like us.”
In the episode, Travis introduces a character named Rainer that he describes as sitting in a floating chair. After the character has been introduced, Travis, playing as Rainer, says, "Uhh, anybody want to ask about the chair? Go ahead and get that… out of the way?"
Griffin replies in character, saying that he thought it would be impolite.
In the episode, as Travis explains that Rainer has a chronic illness that makes it difficult to stand, he does describe the fantasy wheelchair as having a "snack drawer" and gives the player characters trail mix from it. During episode 26, Travis describes an unnamed character knocking at a door, with the force of "a battering ram." This is soon revealed to be Rainer.
"You open the door, and you see Rainer in her chair come flying through, and she‘s been slamming her chair backwards into the door to try to get your attention," Travis says in the episode. "So she comes hovering into the room backwards, and kind of like, skids to a halt in the air."
It isn't like fans don't want diverse characters. One fan, who goes by AwuBuwu on Twitter described the concept of a wheelchair using character as "hot as hell and I love it."
"But instead of having a person with disability be a major part of the story or doing anything interesting, he just talked about cupholders or some shit," AwuBuwu said.
To fans, it feels like this is the tabletop roleplaying equivalent of a very special episode, where the idea of people who live in the margins are introduced, but not meaningfully incorporated into the world.
Justin McElroy told Motherboard that on the graphic novel for Balance, the family worked with a diversity consultant. Doing that for the podcast isn't exactly feasible, because tabletop games are all about improvisation, and don't necessarily have the time to interrogate story decisions that are made on the fly.
"But we’re looking for ways to incorporate more professional feedback for our next season and hopefully requiring less emotional labor from our audience," Justin said. "Mainly, we work really hard to listen as best we can and try to be respectful. We don’t wanna create worlds where everybody looks and sounds like us, so we have to step outside our life experience sometimes. But we try to approach that fact with a lot of humility and open hearts and gratitude."
"It’s an echo chamber that sometimes the brothers take part in creating.”
None of the fans that spoke to Motherboard expect the McElroy brothers to be perfect paragons of representation within their show. But at this point in their business of being a family, some fans are not happy with hearing that the family is still learning and growing considering how big and influential the enterprise has become.
If bringing up ideas that are related to politics are a "bummer," then you don't leave very much room for fans who have criticisms that are political in nature. Since the fandom takes its cues from the family for what kind of behavior is appropriate, some feel that the "no bummers" policy does undue harm to fans that just want to talk about issues in their favorite podcast.
"The fact that they 'try' and that 'everyone is going to mess up' and 'no one is perfect' is completely valid and not where most ill-will comes from, from fans who are often silenced. It’s the response from the fandom that positions most criticism as coming from a place of needless cruelty or skepticism," the anonymous fan from Twitter told Motherboard.
In other words, some fans take the “no bummers” policy as a cue to shut down legitimate criticism: "It’s an echo chamber that sometimes the brothers take part in creating," the anonymous fan continued.
This isn't to say that some aspects of this fandom aren't being toxic or harassing the family—that is an aspect of living in public that's impossible to escape. As the McElroys and their fans feel out some of these issues, they’ll need to figure out who owns the show: the family or the fans who made it popular? And when is a family D&D game no longer a family D&D game?