My Brother, My Brother and Me
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Episode #328 The Anxiety-Free Cruise
Every morning, I stack the pillows side by side in that ordered, generic way. Every night, I sort out a new arrangement: I like to have them tiered all around me. The first pillow I put down needs to be a bit flat. I bring it forward, in front of the others, so that it just about slips under my back. Above that one, I curl another pillow up and around my neck like a travel pillow. It’s best when this one has some integrity, some roundness. I like it to stay touching my neck. I want every little part of my body to lie flush against the bed, no gaps. If I am sleeping alone, I place two bonus pillows either side of my head so the travel pillow becomes raised at its edges. Then, I’m at the centre of all the soft shapes. I’m surrounded, inside, warm, fenced in, and I’m almost ready to sleep.
I try not to play on my phone when I’m in bed. I don’t want to look back at the world, I’m done. I drop the brightness and open the Podcasts app instead. I’ve been listening to podcasts for years but over time, I’ve gotten into a habit of listening to the exact same episode each night. Not the same podcast, the same episode. It’s from ‘My Brother, My Brother and Me’ and it’s episode #328 titled ‘The Anxiety-Free Cruise.’ I come to it like a bridge I cross to fall asleep. It’s an hour and 4 minutes long. I know this because I get into bed, sort out the pillow situation, open the app and scroll down to the Recently Played section where it’s there waiting for me. After I press play, I scroll down again to find the Sleep Timer and I set it to one hour so that it will automatically turn off. The next night, the episode will always have 4 minutes remaining. I’ll rewind it and let the cycle repeat. I’ll place my phone face-down on my chest, put my arms inside the quilt. I'll listen to the beginning of the episode, float away on the anxiety-free cruise, and soon enough I’ll sleep.
‘My Brother, My Brother and Me’ is an advice show by three brothers in America who, since 2010, have taken it upon themselves to respond to the many people in need on Yahoo Answers. I don’t listen for the advice, honestly, and I don’t think they make it to explicitly help people either. I listen because I like the places they go when they talk, their rapport; and more than that, I like the fiction they play with along the way. I want to think about all of that here in this text. But I should give you a sense of the episode first.
God, I could recite the words. I know them off by heart at this point. I could type out like, the first 10 minutes or so. I’ve listened to every episode of MBMBaM but I’ve never made it to the end of this one - I just fall asleep, happy. It goes like this:
J: Hello everybody and welcome to… the… Island.
J: My name is Justin Island Boy McElroy, here - wait - hold on, let me just - I have prepared this for you. (Clinking sounds) Let me get it - finish stirring it up. I’ll get the mint out of there. Perfect. I’ve prepared you this mojito. Please, take it. Take a sip. Make sure the mint’s not too pronounced. Sometimes my muddling gets away from me. I’m still Justin McElroy.
T: Hi there. I am Travis Hammock Time McElroy. Stop — hammock time. Take a little nap here. I’ve strung this hammock up over the cool white sand between these two palm trees. You can just slightly hear the crackle of a bonfire here down the beach where we’re getting some roast pork ready for you. But for right now, you just take a little nap here.
G: Hi, I’m Griffin Coconut Bra McElroy. Hey, where’d my plate with a nice fresh sandwich on it go? Looks like a couple of little hermit crabs got it and, scuttling down the beach - that’s okay little dudes, you can keep that one. Just listen to that fucking tide roll in, so soft.
J: Welcome to our super chill anxiety-free oasis. Welcome to My Brother, My Brother and Me island, a place where you can get away from it all for an hour and just fucking chill.
They take a break from the picture for a second to allude to the stress orbiting real life: one of them has just had a baby, one of them is about to have a baby, and this episode was released on November 7th 2016, the day before the bad people in the US voted to elect Trump. They shush each other and go back to the island with purpose. Griffin switches it up and becomes a character called Gary who lives there and whose job it is to shield visitors from any anxiety-talk. Gary speaks to the brothers about putting any anxiety they have in a basket so he can push it down the river and get rid.
G: And listener, I know you’ve got some stress, some freak-out juice in there too. I need you to just barf all that up right here in this basket and down the river it goes. And where do the baskets end up? It’s a mystery that we’ll never solve. It’s like Lost season five.
They’re so high energy. They’re colourful and funny in the way that they speak. However, listening to the brothers describe this island every single night for at least the past year and a half has worn down the energy I first heard in their words; repetition has made the intro soft, like glass on a beach into sand. It’s gone from a podcast to a sleepcast, and it is the soundtrack I hear when I lie back and let the day go. I pretend my to-do list has been completed. I pretend the news isn’t full of death. I pretend the dishes are done. I pretend every inbox on every platform is at a clean zero. I pretend The White Pube doesn’t have trolls. I pretend anything I’m in the middle of working on is settled and sleeping too, in its own cradle on the desk or in the drawer. There aren’t enough hours in the day, I know that. There’s the girl I want to be and then there’s the girl I am in practice; and anxiety festers between the two. But I climb in between my pillows and put all my stress and freak-out juice in the basket. I hover to balance my foot over the river and give the basket a light kick, a push. I can pick life back up tomorrow. Sleep is just ellipsis. Until the dot dot dots reach their end, I’ll be here on the island eating roast pork straight off the bonfire with my friends.
Sometimes I’m already asleep at that point, sometimes it takes the next few words for me to fold. The brothers go on to describe an alligator in the water that straight up eats the anxiety; a creature that has ‘the weight of a nation’s woes upon his scaly shoulders.’
Then, Griffin proceeds to go back and forth between his own voice and the one he has created for Gary, the island’s protector. He tells the brothers about the kite museum Gary has. He bought kites from the store and then did some decor on them, ‘cut little holes in fun shapes - now, they don’t fly so much anymore but it’s okay. These aren’t flying kites, these are display kites.’ Justin asks if he has any fighter kites in the museum and Gary, in character, gets upset because he doesn’t. The conversation brings on a bit of illegal anxiety but Justin calms it down: ‘I’ll get you one later so don’t even worry about it.’ They make up, the main show begins and they start giving advice.
After the island chat, the first question they answer is very funny, like, I sometimes laugh out loud in bed if I’m still awake at this point. Rather than a Yahoo plea, someone has written in directly in a panic. They’re a college student in the US who has taken a ride on their school’s shuttle bus that makes getting around the campus a little easier. But it’s late and it’s dark. The driver has not realised the question-asker is still on the bus. He has parked outside a Popeye’s, left the vehicle and gone inside to get some food. The person writing in is wondering what move they should make next because they are currently locked on the bus and at any moment, the driver is going to come back (and potentially get the fright of his life). They do a Yahoo after this one where a 13 year old is asking the internet how old you have to be to eat in a restaurant without parents. The brothers joke about it seeming like a trite question but actually, if you were working ‘and a fleet of six year olds walks in, how’s that gonna shape up?’ Can they order? Can they pay? They think out loud and laugh about it.
I’m gone now, I’m always asleep by the 13 minute mark. I did make it to the third question once — I think it’s something to do with a bike but I cannot confirm. All of the island stuff happens before the episode even reaches 5 minutes.
No, I know. I am looking too closely at a very niche moment in a podcast that has given years of episodes to its listeners. If any of you are reading this, we’re in the meme with the guy playing music off his balcony while his three friends dance below. My writing as a critic largely involves bringing something new and popular in front of my eyes so I can then write about the encounter. I forget that I can stop to look back on the small parts of culture that I already spend time with. So much culture comes and goes through our lives, so little stays on repeat. I think it is worthwhile to consider the pieces that stay. What is it about the first 5 minutes of this episode that I love so much? Honestly, in short, it’s Griffin McElroy pretending to be both himself and Gary. It’s the kite museum. It’s Justin giving him a fighter kite to calm him down. It’s the fact that every night I listen, Justin donates another fighter kite to the museum and by now the place must be full.
I started playing tabletop role-playing games not long after the pandemic began. I don’t know what took me so long. If you are not familiar with the format, essentially you speak a story out loud. There’s a game master or dungeon master that leads the group through the story, using speech to describe the scenes and all the in-between moments and action. As a player, you imagine what is happening. You describe your own movements, make choices, and often roll a dice to see how those choices pan out. In playing these games, I feel like I have reclaimed a specific kind of fun I didn’t even know I was missing: role-play from childhood, from playing house, playing doctors, just playing pretend all the time. There is something special about finding a group of friends you can make that kind of magic happen with, especially when it comes to you in adulthood. When you’re in a group that gels, imagination comes in quick and with wit; with lightness, humour, creativity and fun. It makes space for a kind of joy that is free of self-consciousness, or that’s what I’ve found anyway. I have grown to really enjoy this mode of play.
I think My Brother, My Brother and Me are experts in making this magic, they do it all the time. They actually have a whole second podcast called The Adventure Zone where this is all they do — play different tabletop games amongst the three of them, accompanied by their dad. They’ve played games forever and 2 come from games journalism too. Plus, they’re brothers and friends who have conversations together as a profession. The gel is assumed then, it’s crystallised. I don’t listen to The Adventure Zone personally because the episodes are long and I find it hard to concentrate in that passive way; so, I’m glad that I can enjoy their practice of fiction when it blossoms out in smaller moments on the advice show. And they’re good at it. They can offer so many details and build a full picture in such a short amount of time. They make it look easy.
If Yahoo Answers is a site (RIP — was a site) where people would come to express their upset that we must all raw-dog reality, My Brother, My Brother and Me is a magic mirror held up against it where three brothers try to make the medicine go down a little easier by saying, ‘look, life is hard, and I know you should probably do this easy fix to solve your problem but what if you actually did this other thing instead — it might be impossible, it might just be fantasy, but it would be so funny if you tried.’ The podcast is glued together by surreal moments of imagination and I listen out for them because they make me feel good; they make me feel like I’m sat at the table playing an RPG with the lads, all trying to one-up each other to give the best response.
In episode #328, they open with this reverie of an anxiety-free island as a means of spiriting themselves and us away from the bad reality they were in at the time, but that can apply to most of us, most days. The intro is a portal to a safer space. In other episodes, that imagination comes in bits attached to the answers themselves — lyrics made up on the spot to the tune of the ice cream song, a cult for people who love mangos, a google for teens, a whole discussion about horsebonology, and a recurring segment called Haunted Doll Watch that reads the descriptions of eBay listings. Over the years, they’ve built a lore of their own. They’re able to deploy imagination on the advice show when the fancy takes them; and when it happens, it acts like a floatation device that lightens the dull burden of life’s difficulties. Suddenly, we lean into life’s unknowability. We wonder what to do in certain situations, we look at the different branches we could go down. We imagine what would happen if we did this or that… and life becomes a very well produced RPG; it becomes fun again.
This is too many words now about the first few minutes of a podcast episode you probably haven’t listened to, an episode I haven’t even listened to in its entirety. But once again, I write things and I have to admit that I believe them.
People fall asleep to podcasts all the time but sometimes I wonder if anybody else has chosen this specific episode for sleeping, if it’s not just me. I like to imagine someone at the Maximum Fun network head office is in charge of audience analysis. They have all this data in front of them. They’ve got their hair tied back, and blue-light glasses on because they spend so much time in front of a screen. There’s a mug of coffee on the desk as well. It’s in one of those special mugs that keeps drinks hot for a really long time. Other people are leaving the office, and one by one this staff member tells them to have a good night. They’re going to be here a little longer, they’ll lock up, don’t worry. And they sit there, scratching their head. It does not make sense. Every night, in Liverpool, GB, someone on an iPhone listens to episode #328 for exactly one hour even though that episode is one hour and 4 minutes long… I hope you have your answer now.
You can listen to the episode here.