In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.
Travis McElroy is the “middlest brother” of the podcast world, thanks to his status as one of the three hosts of comedy advice show My Brother, My Brother And Me, and he’s used the popularity of that series to build a little media empire along with his brothers Justin and Griffin. They branched out into a spin-off podcast called The Adventure Zone where they play tabletop roleplaying games with their dad, they made a TV show on Seeso, and McElroy has even split off from his brothers to do an etiquette podcast with his wife called Shmanners.
A graphic novel adaptation of The Adventure Zone’s initial story arc, “Here There Be Gerblins,” will be released on July 17, bringing a new visual component to the lovably wacky (and surprisingly heartwarming) Dungeons & Dragons quest of Magnus the fighter, Merle the cleric, and Taako the wizard. The A.V. Club spoke to McElroy ahead of the book’s release, covering topics like the bizarre turns of Jim Carrey’s movie career, having a crush on Amy Grant, and getting magic powers when you turn 18.
Travis McElroy: Well, I spend a lot of time now with my baby daughter who is about a year-and-a-half. And it is really wonderful that she gets this inherent joy out of asking for what she wants and getting it, and that’s a thing that I really hope to kind of, you know, foster and continue to grow in her. And it’s really nice to see a—not even the next generation, but the next next generation—especially a young woman who gets joy out of asking for what she wants and just stepping forward and saying, “That. Give me that.” I think that that’s great.
The A.V. Club: I think that’s always a good parental instinct, to just want to give them whatever they want.
TM: Also, she’s very confident in her voice. She’s not quite talking yet, but she’s so close, and she’s not shy, and she’s very confident to step up to you and say “hi” and make her presence known, and it just makes me really proud.
TM: [Laughs.] Which single work of mine... well, I’ve started doing a really weird video series called Carrey On that was a cinematic journey through the films of Jim Carrey where I started at the beginning of his IMDB filmography, and I think I did like the first four, and they were really bad. Not just bad like, “Oh, I don’t enjoy these.” But bad like, “I don’t think these are actually movies.” And I did four, and there were some folks who thought it was funny, but more—I think more of those people were like, “I don’t know what this is,” and so I stopped doing it. But eventually, I would like to pick it up and keep going, because my theory is that there’s a moment that was just like peak Jim Carrey that was like, yes, there was the right amount of restriction, but also he was funny. And then after that, people stopped telling him no, and it just kept getting worse and worse. I just want to find out where that middle point is. That’s my goal.
AVC: That sounds noble, because his career goes in some directions.
TM: Oh yes.
AVC: For every Eternal Sunshine, there’s…
TM: Right, a The Number 23.
AVC: That’s exactly what I was thinking.
TM: Have you ever seen it before?
AVC: Oh, I’ve seen it. It’s weird.
TM: The next one I think I need to watch is Once Bitten. I think that’s the next one in his career. But there were some ones there in the beginning... ugh. There’s one called Copper Mountain, and it’s him and Alan Thicke, and it actually is just a Club Med ski resort ad disguised as a movie.
AVC: [Laughs.] That sounds great.
TM: It is... it’s mind-boggling.
TM: It was Amy Grant’s Heart In Motion. Bought it on cassette, and I think at the time I was like 8 or 9, however old I would have been when that came out. And what I didn’t quite have the concept for at that point was [that] I had a really big crush on Amy Grant. Looking back now, I don’t think I actually enjoyed the music a lot, but I will say I did know every word to “Baby, Baby.”
AVC: Is it something you’ve ever gone back to and been like, “Oh yeah, I didn’t really like this”?
TM: You know, I haven’t yet. It’s just so fossilized in my mind as being just like, “I loved that album.” And now I’m so terrified to go back and listen to it and be like, “Oh no, wait. This is garbage.”
TM: Wow, that is a good question, because there’s lots of layers to it. I don’t believe in ghosts as most people would think of ghosts, but there is a concept that I’ve tried and tried and tried to let go of—but I can’t—which is the idea of like psychic saturation. Where when you go someplace where something really bad has happened or someplace where something really good has happened like, you know, like a theme park or something... but if you go to, for example, an old asylum or something, it’s hard to feel at ease there. And maybe it’s all psychosomatic. Maybe it’s completely placebo, but I do think that there’s something about like, “I do not like this place. This place is not a good place.” But the idea of walking up a set of stairs and seeing the ghost of a child that died on those stairs, no, I don’t. I don’t think that’s a thing, though I will say I am open to the idea. If somebody showed me very conclusive evidence, I think I would be like, “Okay, finally. Thank you. Checkmark. Ghosts. We’re on.”
AVC: The My Brother, My Brother And Me podcast has a recurring segment about listings for haunted dolls on eBay. Do you think there’s any legitimacy to that?
TM: Well, here’s the thing: No. Not in the way we cover it, right? Because this is the thing... I fall a little bit in the Houdini kind of mindset and the Amazing Randi mindset of like, by all means, I’m super open to it if you can prove it to me. And I guarantee that anybody who is selling the thing on eBay, if they could actually prove that that doll had a ghost in it, they would be bajillionaires. You know what I mean? They wouldn’t be selling it. They would not be selling it. That’s not to say that I don’t think maybe there are haunted objects out there. I just don’t think they’re being sold on eBay.
TM: Does salt count? Is salt a condiment?
AVC: No, it’s a seasoning.
TM: It’s a seasoning. Okay… It’s tough, right? Because how do you split your love between ketchup and mustard? I would actually say mustard… I really like mustard as a flavor-heightener. I like ketchup, but I think when you eat ketchup, you’re just getting ketchup, whereas I think mustard pairs well with things where it’s like, “Oh, the mustard really brought out the pretzel a bit.” That’s a weird example, but that kind of thing.
AVC: In this scenario, would you eventually start putting mustard on weird things since it’s all you have? Like steak?
TM: I would put different forms of mustard on other forms of mustard, like maybe mix some dijon on yellow. And then you have to wonder which one is the condiment, and which one is the entree? And we’ll never know.
TM: The answer to that is in any kind of small talk situation, especially like at a grocery store when the check out person is like, “So how’s your day going? Oh, are you planning a party?” Like, I’ve often thought it would be really great if I could wear a special wristband that the color denoted like, you don’t need to talk to me. I will think you were doing a great job if we don’t try to exchange—and it’s not because I don’t like people. It’s that suddenly, it’s like the bike chain of my brain misses and it all goes off. And they’ll ask you a question like, “So any plans for the weekend?” And I’ll just be like, “Great, thank you! I mean, ugh, what— [Exasperated breath.]” It gets so bad because I think in all times I’m expecting no one is going to talk to me, and then somebody does, and the things that come out of my mouth are from a completely different conversation from like two weeks earlier that somebody asked me.
AVC: I have a similar issue. I write for a website, so it’s kind of a weird job, and I hate getting my haircut and having to explain it to them.
TM: What’s nice is I go to the same person every time. I’ve been going to her for like a year now, and she knows: 10 minutes of pleasantry, and then I’m going to close my eyes and just try to zone out and just enjoy the brief moment of calm and silence in my life. And yet, I’m a very social person. It’s not that I have any problem talking to people, it’s just something about small talk [that] makes me so anxious. I have no idea why.
TM: I went through a lot of different dream jobs. Ironically, ghost hunter was one of them. I did dream about being a paranormal investigator when I was young. I also wanted to be a veterinarian for a while until I realized that being a veterinarian didn’t mean just like petting puppies all the time. That there would be very traumatic, scary things that I would have to work with animals on. I didn’t want to have to put animals down. That part really bummed me out. I dreamed about being an actor, and then I went to college for it, and now I don’t dream of it anymore. I don’t know. I had lots of dreams of like being a real-life superhero.
I wanted something that was really dramatic, right? I dreamed about being a wizard. I don’t think that counts. My older brother and I share a birthday, and on his 18th birthday, everybody was making a huge fuss out of it. I was 15. I was like, “What’s so important about an 18th birthday?” And my parents said something along the lines of, “Well, when you’re 18, you’ll find out.” And for some reason, my first impulse was, “Oh, that’s when we get our magic powers.” I was 15 years old. I had been reading a lot of Harry Potter, it all made sense to me at the time.
AVC: Yeah, I think that’s pretty reasonable.
TM: I mean, if you consider voting a magic power, then yeah.
AVC: Oh sure, yeah. It’s the most magic power.
TM: Isn’t it? Because it shapes everything. Hey everybody: Go register to vote! It’s coming up soon.
AVC: [Laughs.] I’ll make sure to put that in bold.
TM: Usually, it ends up being Mysteries At The Museum. Any time that there is a show—either Mysteries At The Museum or a show like Mysteries At The Museum—that is on 24 hours a day somewhere. Where it’s just like, “Huh, this is interesting.” And it’s just interesting enough, right, that you can work or pack or get ready for something and still be interested in it, but not so interested that it’s distracting from those things? That’s my favorite. If I can find something that is a marathon, that’s what I watch. I like the idea of, “I know what I’m watching for the next six hours. Done. Mark that off the list.” I like a marathon.
AVC: It seems like there are a lot of TV networks now that sort of build their entire schedule around shows that you could put on in the background with everyone being okay with it.
TM: It’s ideal. It’s perfect. I love those shows, because the problem is now... like when I travel with my baby, we’ll put on kids’ programming, and it’s amazing how often I’ll be watching kids’ programming and think, “Wait, hold on. What’s going on? Who is that? Wait, why do they have all those gumdrops? What’s happening here? Who is this?” It’s very distracting.
AVC: Yeah, there’s a lot of unexpected lore in something like Peppa Pig.
TM: Yes. Yes! Right? Something is like, “Wait, who is that? Wait, hold on, why are they climbing a mountain now?”
TM: It’s tough, because I think the answer to that question is—and this isn’t good answer—but it depends. Because for some people, it is removed. Like, it always bothers me when people attribute quotes from plays and works of fiction to the author, where they’ll use a quote that Hamlet said and attribute it to Shakespeare. Shakespeare didn’t say that; Hamlet said it. It was a fictional—just because Hamlet said it doesn’t mean Shakespeare agrees with it, right? So there’s a separation there. But then, if you’re talking like about a stand-up comic where the art is them? Right? They are playing the character, they are saying the thing, it gets a little trickier to try to separate it. And especially now as we’re dealing with all of these like, you know, “It turns out this person is terrible,” then you have to really look in yourself and think, “Do I still like this piece of work even though I find this person to be atrocious?”
I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and right now, I don’t have an answer that’s across the board. This is the scale. Right? Right now, I think it’s a case-by-case basis, but I think the answer is it really comes down to the intention of it. So for example, I think if you’re talking about a movie, I think it’s a lot easier to separate a movie from the actor who is in it because a lot of different people worked on it. Right? A lot of people’s time went into it. It’s not just about them. But if you’re looking at, like, somebody wrote a blog post or made a video on YouTube, that’s them. They did that. It is so intrinsically tied to them that I think it’s really hard to separate.
AVC: Without even going into specifics, has there been a time when you found out somebody was a jerk in real life and you felt like you couldn’t like them anymore?
TM: No. You know what’s interesting—it’s usually the other way around. Like, I’ll become friends with somebody, and then I’m watching something and I can’t stop being distracted from like, “Hey, there’s my friend!” I’ll be watching a TV show, and for example, there’s an episode of Parks & Recreation that my friend Andie Bolt is in. And I’ll watch it, and every time she comes on, suddenly it’s like, “Hey, there’s Andie!” And it like completely takes me out of it.
But I don’t know of anything personally that I’ve done and been like, “They’re a jerk.” But there are now, you know, as more and more stories are coming to light about people, you’ll be watching a movie and suddenly you’re like, “I don’t know how I feel laughing at this because that man is terrible.” You know? It’s not so much like, “Oh, I met them, and they were rude to me at a party.” It’s like, “Oh, I just read an exposé about all the terrible things that person has done.”
AVC: And it colors the whole thing.
TM: Right, and I think that that’s important. I think we have to find that line, because I think it’s very important not to support terrible people. And I think it is important to figure out where that line is, because I think it can result in terrible people not getting to keep working. You know what I mean? We have to figure out where the art and artist do connect so we can figure out how to deal with the issues.
TM: Well, I’ve had to stop doing a couple of podcasts, and that was really, really hard. The two that sprang immediately to mind is a show called Can I Pet Your Dog? and a show called Bunker Buddies, both of which were incredibly fun to do, and I loved the people I did them with, but 1) I was moving, and 2) I was having a baby. I committed so much of my time that I knew I wouldn’t be able to do all of it once the baby was born.
And it’s really hard because when you’re doing a podcast, one of the very nice things about it is you are in complete control of it. It’s your show. You’re not getting studio notes, you’re not going to get canceled because of ratings or anything like that. But that also means that because you’re in complete control of it, you’re the one responsible for it. You have to make the tough decisions. And so these are conversations I had to have with my co-hosts… and it was very hard, right? Because I wanted to keep working with these people, but it was the right thing to do as father and as an adult. It was just really hard to leave these shows that I loved and stop working with people that I really cared about.
AVC: And because it’s you making the decision, it’s that much harder to have to make.
TM: Right, because there’s no shield to hide behind, right? I can’t say like, “Well, I wish I could, but they’re saying...” It’s like, “No, listen, this is a decision I have made. This is me doing this, and I’m completely responsible for it.” It’s funny because I think that also translates a lot to what it’s like to be a parent where suddenly, there is no other line of defense to hide behind. You are the final decision. You know what I mean? What you do, what the choice that you make matters. And so it’s actually really good preparation for that, of like making hard decisions and being responsible and everything. It’s never fun, but sometimes it’s the right thing to do.
TM: That’s a very good question. The problem is I really like my life right now. I’m getting happy with it. I get to do a lot of really amazing things. You probably caught onto it because I’ve mentioned it a couple times, but I’m a big fan of my baby. I think she’s great. But if I could have all that but with the youth and vitality and health I had when I was like 21, then the answer would be 21, because now I wake up every morning and my back is made out of stone, and my legs are made out of rubber. And I feel hungover all the time, even when I have not drank at all. And even if I go to bed at 9 p.m. and wake up at 10 a.m., I’m so tired. And so I do miss being 21. So if I could have everything I have now, but I was 21, that would be the answer.
AVC: So it’s less about you want to go back in time and more about you just don’t want your back to hurt as much.
TM: Yeah, yes. My body is just falling apart before my very eyes, and every day, I crumble a little bit more, and it would be really nice if I had the young, strong body of 21-year-old Travis.
AVC: Now the 12th question, which comes from Andie MacDowell…
TM: Oh, really?
TM: I just got starstruck, okay.
12. Who do you think came up with the idea that we should have flowers? Was it God? Was it an evolutionary development?
TM: Well, I think it’s an evolutionary development, because I took a botany class in college. And as I understand it, the thing about flowers is they are like landing pads for insects and other creatures so that they will carry the pollen and help pollinate the flowers. So the brighter and more attractive the landing pad, the more likely that it will be spotted by pollinating insects and animals. So I think that flowers must have developed over time as a way to say like, “Hey, I’ve got the goods. Come here are check it out. We’re going to work together, you and I, bee. And I’ll give you honey, and you help me spread more of my flowers.” So I would have to think it’s evolutionary.
But what’s interesting about it is that it didn’t have to mean they were pretty, and yet so many of them are. What’s interesting to me it resulted in a very beautiful thing out of necessity, and I think that is a lot of—not just [about] evolution, but just kind of the world in general, is it’s amazing how many things you can find beauty in that were not pre-planned, and [it] was just a way that something worked out. I mean, think about a butterfly. A butterfly could have looked like anything, and instead it looks beautiful to communicate that it is poisonous and shouldn’t be eaten or whatever. I just think that that is amazing. But to answer Andie MacDowell’s question, I think it’s evolution.
AVC: That was a very well-informed response. We’re going to have to let her know.
TM: Well, thank you. And thank you to the botany class I barely paid attention to in college.
TM: This is one of my favorite hypotheticals to ask people, and it’s the question: Based on your own personality and what you know about yourself, what superpowers do you think you would actually have?
AVC: Oh, interesting.
TM: Because everyone knows what superpowers they want.
TM: But you don’t get to pick your superpowers. It happens in some kind of accident, or you’re born with them or whatever. So I think it’s way more interesting to think about what powers someone would actually have.
AVC: So it’s something that’s relevant to your personality. Like, say, Daredevil is a lawyer and he’s blind...
TM: Like justice—it’s blind.
AVC: Exactly. Do you have an idea of what your superpower would be?
TM: When I was much younger, I would get frustrated a lot, so I would say it was something like the Hulk or the Human Torch or something. But now, I think it’s much more of, like, I think I would be able to change people’s emotions at will and emit waves that would calm everybody down or make everybody happy. I think I could affect people’s moods with my presence. I think that would be my superpower now, mostly just because I’ve spent the last year and a half soothing my baby, and I’ve gotten really good at talking people down. It’s like, “Hey, let’s all chill out for a second. How about a cookie?”