A few years ago, two friends of mine told me about a podcast that they thought I’d enjoy. It was called The Adventure Zone, and it was a relatively new podcast by the McElroy brothers – at the time they told me about it, only the first 2-3 episodes had been released. Now, I knew of the McElroy brothers – I’d heard of My Brother, My Brother, and Me, their famous podcast, but never gotten around to checking it out. But I didn’t know anything about them – not their humor, not their personalities, nothing. And yet, The Adventure Zone sounded like a great hook – three brothers and their dad playing Dungeons and Dragons together, and just generally being silly and having fun while doing it. And after a little bit of a rough first episode that dragged a bit, I started thoroughly enjoying the show. Oh, it was silly and gleefully childish (the first episode ends with a character convincing guards to not come in by explaining how aroused he is about the man he just killed), but I giggled a lot, and started enjoying the show, slight and silly though it might be.
Cut to nearly three years later – earlier this week, in fact – when I kept refreshing my podcast reader all morning, waiting for the final episode to drop. An episode, mind you, that was over two-and-a-half hours. And as I jumped in (at the first possible chance I got), I laughed, sure…but that silly, goofy, childish podcast? Damned if it didn’t somehow make my room really dusty – no idea how that happened – to the point where it even affected the goofy, big-hearted family recording it.
What happened during those three years? How did this ridiculous, silly, slight podcast become something incredible – not only my favorite podcast of all time, but one of my favorite stories in recent years, and a constant source of joy, humor, and light through good times and bad?
The answer to that is complicated, and to be honest, there’s maybe no single moment that I can point to that nails down that transition. Sure, there’s the “Petals to the Metal” arc, whose multi-episode climax takes the form of a massive Mad Max/Fast and Furious style car race that had my jaw dropped in glee with every new episode over the weeks that it unfolded; yes, there’s some of the reveals in “The Crystal Kingdom,” where it started to become more obvious how deep and complex this story was getting, and just how invested I was getting in these characters; and, sure, there was the astonishing, mind-blowing “11th Hour,” that might still be my favorite arc in the campaign, with an approach that found the boys trapped and learning from their mistakes. In other words, it’s not as though this podcast changed overnight; its evolution was gradual, to the point where it could sneak up on you without warning – and did so, often. But if you really want to understand what made The Adventure Zone turn into something great, you need to understand a little bit about the McElroys.
By the time The Adventure Zone ended, the McElroys’ fame had grown exponentially, to the point where they need far less introduction than they did then. But what you mainly need to know is that the McElroys’ brand of comedy is largely defined by its positivity and welcoming nature. That’s not to say that they’re absurdly cheery or optimistic always; it’s more that they refrain from judging people, indulge heavily in silliness and absurdity, and make an effort to simply be open to the world and those around them. They’re the sort of people who realized they didn’t want their fantasy world to be just straight white guys, and so between all of them, gay characters were introduced of both genders, as well as a trans character, all passing without much more than a remark, and no judgment. They’re the sort of people who did their best to never describe people more than they had to, enjoying the benefits of an audio medium to allow people to identify with characters in whatever way they wanted, and never judging anyone’s as being uncanonical. They’re the sort of people who abandoned a long set-up joke for fear of it being interpreted as cruel or offensive, and found a way around it while being open about both the original joke and why they dodged in. In other words, they’re big-hearted, kind individuals, all of whom have sharp senses of humor, wicked comic timing, and kindness to spare.
And as you might imagine, having people with this level of heart and empathy means that, as the campaign continued, every single person involved found themselves more and more empathetic to their characters and the story. Of course, it doesn’t help that as DM for the campaign, Griffin delivered an absolute knockout of a plot, with no shortage of astonishing reveals, compelling foreshadowing and hints, and a surprisingly long-form game that I’m only now starting to appreciate (now that the campaign is over, I’ve started listening again, and realizing that Griffin started laying seeds for all of this within the first five episodes). But what made The Adventure Zone special wasn’t just Griffin’s story, great though it was; it was the way he shaped it around the input from his family, from the critical (Justin’s choice to have Taako not only be gay, but strike up a relationship with a most unlikely choice; Travis’s heartfelt backstory for Magnus; the surprisingly touching revelation of how Merle spends his off time) to the supremely goofy. To say more would be to get into spoiler territory (and yes, there are incredible spoilers for this show, and reveals that I wouldn’t ever want to rob someone of hearing for the first time), but much of the joy came from realizing that Griffin had listened to absurd, silly comments by his family and crafted them into plot threads, shaping his world around them.
In other words, The Adventure Zone was truly collaborative storytelling of the best kind, with Griffin creating a world and turning his family loose in it, and letting them wreak all sorts of havoc. From towns populated by hundreds of Tom Bodettes to cigar-chomping heroes named Boy Land, from quests to understand the power of Mexican cuisine to failed youth pastors, The Adventure Zone lived and breathed in its details, and it was there that the show always hooked you in, as the McElroys would cackle with glee over the freedom they had. And then, just when you’d be caught up in an adventure, or cracking up over a turn for the absurd, one of them – and you could never be sure who it was – could hit you with a gutpunch, and you realized just how much these characters had come to life for you, even in such a short time. Yes, I loved the plot of this all, and the craft that went into it – how Griffin could simultaneously keep an overarching plot together while giving them total freedom in the individual arcs – was always astonishing. But what I truly loved was getting to hear McElroys bounce off of each other in every imaginable way, and the joy they all brought to the project.
The McElroys have said that, in some ways, they regret letting this campaign run so long – that it’s made people wonder what sort of form the podcast could take after this, and left them scrambling a bit.But in the end, the length of the Balance arc was the most satisfying thing about it, as we slowly immersed ourselves in this world, and laughed and chuckled and had fun, and slowly – and without realizing it – got invested in it all. That a show that started with such silliness and anarchy could end with me tearing up so many times shouldn’t be possible – but it did.
So, you want to listen? A few pieces of advice:
- If you just want to sample a couple of episodes that give you a sense of the show at its best, check out either “The Boston Stunt Spectacular” or the “MaxFunCon Live Episode”. Both are standalone episodes that require basically no major knowledge of the show, and give you a great sense of the characters and the rhythms of the show. They’re also both absolutely fantastic episodes – I’d recommend the Stunt Spectacular and then MaxFunCon, in that order, but both not only have me laughing uncontrollably, but show off both Griffin’s ability to tell great stories and the crew’s ability to mix excitement, comedy, and banter.
- If you decide to jump right in – great! But one piece of advice: instead of listening to the full pilot episode, start with episode 1.5, which is a “supercut” of the pilot. I almost bailed on the show the first time I listened to the long pilot; at this point, I enjoy it a lot more, but it definitely drags and takes a long time to get going.
- Give it at least four episodes, if you can. I’d say the show starts to really find its comic rhythms and footing in episode 2, and by episode 3-4, Griffin has started to leave behind the D&D practice campaign and get into his own ideas, and that’s when the show truly starts to grow.
- Don’t skip “The The Adventure Zone Zone” episodes – they sound goofy and terrible, but if you’re enjoying the series, you’ll love them – they’re a great window into the creative processes that go into the show, and they spoil nothing, as long as you listen to them when they fell or later.
- Do skip the episodes with the Flop House crew. YMMV, of course, but I personally hated both pretty deeply – unfunny, uncharming, and really lacking everything I love about the show.
All art, except for the podcast logo, comes from The Adventure Zine, a collection of fanart which was created to raise money for the Facing Hunger food bank.