“Can birds get allergies?”
“Is it okay to bring jellybeans on a plane?”
“I need love potion ingredients, help please?”
Questions like these were the typical fare of the Yahoo! Answers service, a global message board where users could solicit answers from strangers on any topic that came to mind, and an internet-wide joke that not quite everyone was in on since it was opened in 2005. For those who were in on it, there was My Brother, My Brother and Me – "an advice show for the modern era."
Since 2010, brothers Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy have been delivering a weekly podcast where they offer unqualified advice for the precarious and increasingly unlikely situations that their listeners find themselves in for help. (More accurately, an extended riff of improvised jokes using their predicaments as launchpads.) These questions were augmented by those culled at first by Griffin, and then by listener volunteers from Yahoo! Answers, where the most truly deranged personal inquiries could be found. Usually about horses or ghosts. It was a rich comedy mine, and one the McElroys would continue to tap for 11 years.
But we all knew that, eventually, Yahoo would realize their Answers service was a joke. And one which must have been costing them some amount of money to continue running. Yahoo! Answers was unceremoniously closed on May 4, 2021. The perplexed would now have to find even stupider resources for answers to their baffling questions, like ChatGPT. And My Brother, My Brother and Me, the cornerstone of what had over a decade become a sizable empire of podcast and entertainment products from The McElroy Family, found themselves missing half their flagship podcast.
My Brother, My Brother and Me sounds like a mean-spirited show if you describe the premise as broadly as we just did. And in the earliest episodes of the podcast, it did sort of start out that way. Their earliest turning point was when some misguided jokes about the furry community around their 30th episode brought their listeners who identified that way brought them to task for callous remarks. From then to now, the show has been, in addition to one of the most consistently funny improvised podcasts on the internet, the chronicle of three midwestern men broadening their experiences, owning up to past mistakes, and learning to empathize with their expanding audience. As the show’s footprint has grown, the McElroy brothers’ comedy has shifted to a feeling of laughter with the audience, and not at them. This policy guided their famous dictum at live shows of ‘No Bummers,’ where those approaching the microphone to ask questions in person act in good faith not to bring the mood down. (Recently, these incidents have been more rigorously avoided through pre-screening of live questions.)
To me personally, a listener to the show since 2012, the end of Yahoo! Answers felt like an inevitability. The listeners who sent in their own questions were giving their tacit consent to a drumming on their situation through their voluntary participation. Yahoo! Answers often provided funnier points of discussion than the listener-submitted questions, but involved sniping at targets who may not have been asking for ridicule. Although, sometimes, they were.
“Honestly, towards the end of Yahoo Answers, it became hard to discern the legit questions from people having a bit of fun,” Justin McElroy says when we reached out to him for comment on this piece. “But also, most any bit gets old if it runs long enough. It was a good opportunity to try something new.”
Approaching the Wizard
It might have been well past time to move on from Yahoo! Answers when the McElroys were forced to, but it’s hard to abandon something that works. Crisis, however, breeds creativity, and the show has continued to evolve over the past two years in a way that constantly keeps it fresh. If they really wanted to, they could have continued answering questions from anonymous weirdos using some of Yahoo! Answers’ still extant competitors, like Quora and Metafilter. They entertained the idea for an episode or two, but all agreed it felt kind of sweaty.
“I think it has prompted us to be a bit more creative in looking for bits to fill the show,” Justin tells Popverse. “We’ve created a lot of different segments since Yahoo! Answers died, which overall is pretty good.”
Some of the new segments on the show range from high concept to utterly bizarre, including the debut of Justin’s vaguely European ‘Richard Stink’ persona, who seasonally updates listeners on the latest in celebrity fragrances, Travis’s ‘With Special Guest,’ where Griffin and Justin are tasked with predicting the tone with which a past celebrity Saturday Night Live guest introduced that night’s musical act, and Griffin’s ‘Sound Bath,’ where each episode ends with harmonic improvised mouth sounds each of the brothers provide. (Personally, I’m not so sure that one’s a keeper.)
But the true successor to Yahoo! Answers is ‘The Wizard of the Cloud,’ which centers the WikiHow website where the fallen Yahoo! platform once stood. In each episode, Griffin features a user-written WikiHow article (once again, typically submitted by a listener volunteer) featuring a step-by-step illustrated guide on how to accomplish a very specific task – such as ‘How to Hide from a Murderer,’ ‘How to Act When Near a Coyote,’ or ‘How to Make Your Cousin Jealous.’
Comedically, WikiHow features the same flavor of mirth as the Yahoo! Answers which preceded it as reaction to found user-made internet content, but it feels a little less like punching down. These WikiHow articles were made to be read, after all, where Yahoo! Answer seekers may have sincerely wanted to know how many pushups they needed to do to become a werewolf.
“I think it’s nice that Wikihow is a series of comedic prompts rather than just one question,” Justin tells us. “We tend to talk about bits like this in terms of vines, like Tarzan. When you’re working on a prompt, or vine, it’s good to know what your next vine is, the next thing you’ll swing to. WikiHow is like a series of vines, which makes it flow a bit better than Yahoo! Answers.”
Much of My Brother, My Brother and Me has remained the same since it launched in the early years of podcasting. The same cast, the same core premise, the same comedic sources of inspiration. Picking up a long-running podcast again after a long time away often feels like coming home – and MBMBaM is no exception. But whether they like it or not, any long running project, no matter how steady she goes, is going to change with the tide. Familiar, but not too familiar.