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What We Learn from the McElroy Brothers, No Bummers, and “The Adventure Zone”

In "The Adventure Zone," comedic trio the McElroy Brothers have created a space of inclusion, levity and "no bummers."

The legacy of the McElroy brothers — Justin, Travis, and Griffin — began in 2010 when the trio started their podcast, My Brother, My Brother, and Me (MBMBAM for short). Described as “an advice show for the modern era,” the hit show started as a weekly comedy advice podcast, using a chaotic sense of humor to explore and find levity in the world without actually degrading or attacking their neighbor, á la their “no bummers” policy.

“No bummers” was introduced in MBMBAM early on. The brothers asked people to submit questions that avoided topics they considered “bummers,” such as politics or relationship advice. They didn’t deny the importance of such topics, but considering the diversity of individuals present at their shows, they did not want anyone to be alienated. So, they said “no bummers” — a concept captured in the podcast that has gotten the most vocal fanbase and media presence for these three, The Adventure Zone (TAZ).

The show began as a one-off episode in 2014, in which Griffin was the Dungeon Master for one of Dungeon & Dragonsprewritten campaigns for Justin, Travis, and their dad, Clint (a former Country music DJ from West Virginia). Over time, the story became infected by the McElroys’ chaotic energy and took a turn toward something far more interesting, eventually becoming a part of the brothers’ legacy. The show is currently the number one Comedic Fiction podcast in the United States.

How both players and fans own The Adventure Zone

(Spoilers below)

TAZ’s first journey begins when a family member requests Magnus Burnsides, Merle Highchurch, and Taako to escort mining supplies to a small town called Phandelver. This is a typical beginning for a campaign — players are put into a role that involves “small potatoes,” in which the task is a simple trip that will pay the players a menial fee for fighting off something like goblins, or “gerblins.” As the group of three adventurers travel, they soon find out that the family member was kidnapped and taken to an old mine. There, they fight monsters, flirt with a dark elf named Brian, and discover an artifact with massive power that cannot be named. Their actions result in their recruitment into an organization called the “Bureau of Balance,” a secret organization that strives to protect their world from these artifacts.

This journey sets the stage for “Balance,” a 69-episode arc filled with madness and adventure as the heroes hunt down artifacts across their fantasy world to prevent others from wrecking the world they live in. While “Balance” is framed using tools and standards that are typical to D&D, such as “find the McGuffin” or “the secret main villain,” that doesn’t take away from the unique storytelling that the brothers craft for the heroes themselves. While the characters were originally designed to be comedic, the campaign quickly draws out layers of depth and understanding. For example, Taako was named after, well, tacos — but when given time, Justin fleshes out his character in meaningful ways. These include a deep understanding of his backstory, offering chances to develop relationships in the story, and even finding romance in the Grim Reaper.

While Taako was clearly Justin’s character, he was still open to fan interaction. Griffin said in early interviews that they had unintentionally not established canon appearances for their characters, beyond unique features (such as Magnus Burnsides having burnsides and Merle being a dwarf). This meant that fans were allowed to project their understanding of the fictional world onto the characters as much as they liked as an expression of their own identities. Many roleplaying-focused shows often create their own art or designs, which set the stage for how a listener’s favorite rogue might look. TAZ rejected that, allowing for the characters to exist as we, the listener, wanted. And that made it an amazing outlet for creativity and expression, whether it was in creative use of race, overt feminization of Taako the elven wizard, or unique ways to incorporate blue jeans into everyday life in Fantasy-Land.

Character features were left solely to the fans until recently, when the “Balance” arc was adapted into a graphic novel by Carrie Pietsch. These decisions often stood in contrast to how players would identify characters in Dungeons & Dragons, since the settings in the main sourcebooks often drew from European-influenced notions of high fantasy. But it allowed fans to take aspects that interested them and implant them onto the characters more easily.

Fans were not the only ones who sought representation. Throughout the “Balance” campaign, the McElroys did their best to represent a multitude of people as they lived in TAZ’s world. This included Taako being gay, his sister being trans, and the presence of several gay and lesbian couples in canon. These decisions gained a lot of attention from feminist and LGBTQ-friendly outlets and inevitably won them fans. These choices were not colored out of some desire to offer token representation, but to allow for the McElroys to create an inclusive place as an expression of the “no bummers” policy.

This decision matters for the LGBTQ community, which has consistently struggled to gain meaningful representation in traditional media. This level of inclusion has made popular podcasts like TAZ, Critical Role and Welcome to Night Vale even more important, as they offer fully fleshed out representations of queer characters that are likable and relatable, giving listeners a diverse cast of people to identify with.

Learning as they go

One of the hardest things is to say when we are wrong. But there is a willingness from the McElroy brothers to own their mistakes. In the middle of the “Balance” campaign, Griffin received unexpected backlash from the LGBTQ community due to unintentionally embracing a trope that ended with killing off two lesbian characters. Rather than doubling down on his decision to kill the characters off, Griffin eventually publicly apologized for this trope and stated that he would do better.

Ultimately, the plot point was “reversed,” and the characters returned to life in the climax. But the decision was ultimately a dynamic point in this mediascape since the brothers did what many online creators do not: listen to their fans when they believe it matters.

The brothers’ ability to listen speaks to the depth of why these three individuals have such loyal fans. It isn’t that they’re comedic geniuses or have hit upon a unique idea. It’s that they channel a sense of joy and empathy that can sometimes be missing from everyday life, and want to be a beacon of “no bummers” to their fans. It’s love for their fellow human.

In an interview with GQ about dating and masculinity, Griffin was asked about what manhood looks like in the 2010s. His response: “I can’t think of much advice that we give that’s like, ‘So if you want to really be a man … ’ We’re much more concerned with just being decent and being right first.” Justin added: “Be decent because you’re a human, and there are other people around you in this world and the things you do have an impact on other people.”

The McElroy brothers matter because they try to care. They want to treat others as human beings and not degrade them. Through their desire to express meaningful storytelling and representation in their content, the McElroys have created an outlet that many see as “bummer-free.” In a time of conflicted feelings and complicated politics, this desire is even more important to help  us maintain our humanity.

Freelance writer. Graduate Student. Covers Politics, Religion, Pop Culture. Indiana Resident. @chris_journo on Twitter.