Film Crit Hulk SMASH: Game Realities, McElroys, And The Power Of Meta-Narrative

A look at the weird ways we can build an ecstatic story truth.


I recently made a joke that 80% of my media diet is Mcelroy Brother related.

Only it wasn't a joke. It's 100% accurate. Between their podcasts and shows like My Brother My Brother, and Me, their Seeso TV show of the same name, The Adventure Zone, Monster Factory, Peacecraft, Carboys, Interrobang, Cool Games Inc. and going through backlogs of Shmanners, Sawbones, Trends Like These and Still Buffering, it all makes up for a swarth of entertainment that seriously eats up most of my day. It's my consumption preference to most anything besides going to the movies. I even listen to Rosebuddies though I don't watch The Bachelor. The main reason I'm into all these shows is obvious: they're hysterical and it makes me really happy. They all have their own lovely in-jokes and other-worldly riffs. Watch a clip like this and the allure is undeniable: 

But the way this consumption has taken over my life has also turned on the analytical part of my brain. As good as they are at the tangential goofs, there is something deeper that genuinely sticks when it comes to not only their flow of logic, but the understanding of "story" within all of this. It's not just riffing. I mean, what is riffing anyway? What is actually happening here? What is the medium? Why do all these shows work so well? And perhaps most importantly, what's the most interesting thing we can get from all of it?

It all snapped into focus on a recent episode of The Adventure Zone, their podcast in which the three brothers and their daddy (popular West Virginia DJ Clint McElroy) play an ongoing game of Dungeons and Dragons. If you've never listened, I recommend starting from the beginning. It takes a few episodes for them to find the rhythm, but once they do it just picks up more and more steam. At first, much of the storytelling floats along classic D&D fair, but as they begin discovering their own tone, rhythm and unique way of approaching their particular fantasy world, it comes to life with spectacular verve. I've genuinely become enamored with the way dungeon master Griffin McElroy unspools the story. Not just in the loving video game touchstones from Majora's Mask to Undertale, but in the constant act of balancing. Being a good DM takes a lot of understanding because you have to see the way communal storytelling affects your sense of timing with narrative. There is a way you build the story and the parameters together and find the groove. The way the characters slowly slide into realizing the kinds of conventions they're falling into. It's not just about making the rails of creativity feel invisible, but the way you frame dramatic moments from the comedy and turn them meaningful. From the absurd:

To the surprisingly sweet:

When done well, there's a kind of "reality" to a D&D game that is hard to accurately describe. Movies absorb you into not thinking, video games tap into your reactive synapses, but D&D taps into a weird hybridization of both writing and acting. There's a joy that feels like it's really being lived in, because in part, you really are. And because of the impossible freedom of collective storytelling and the sheer thrill of a story moment coming together "live," that means there's a real power to it. Through those moments, you build a sense of history in your own "show". A sense of expectations wholly unique and yet wholly accessible. A language of jokes and rhythms and understandings that build up. And in listening to The Adventure Zone, you get all of this. I'm not kidding when I say that Taako is one of my all-time favorite characters; a slightly idiotic and self-involved dick that spends half the time playing off the idiocy of his cohorts, with surprising moral streaks. I'll always think of him just burning spell-slots in the corner like a dick as apocalypse rains down around him. But it's of course the kind of moment that builds up an understanding that can be undercut.

Which brings us to the aforementioned "moment" I referenced above. I won't spoil it, but on this show, there was a story reveal that, I shit you not, was one of the best storytelling reveals of the last 20 years. I am not exaggerating. When Griffin unfurled it the actual players in the game started giggling and clapping. Me? I sat straight up in my bed and got an idiot grin on my face and started pacing around my room in gleeful joy. It was a simple story reveal that depended on an almost incalculable amount of context. Not just understanding of the basic story and clues that had been piling up for literally over a year, but needing the long running off-hand jokes, comments on Twitter, and cultural dialogue around the show. Which is not to imply it was part of some LOST-ian puzzle game, lord no. It was just part of the communal spirit that surrounds the show itself. One that resulted in a satisfying reveal that is not only a goof which made good on some of the best jokes of the series, but retroactively added a deeper meaning because it directly tied that goof into some of the most meaningful developing stories in the show. Which put the moment at the nexus of like five different emotions, all of which is why my hair stood on end. It's almost impossible to describe, but to prove I'm not insane, simply know that every person I knew who listened to the show could not stop talking to each other about this amazing story moment and was in full agreement. And that's when I realized how much the moment works as a rosetta stone to understanding what makes their collective work so garsh darn compelling...

The McElroys are incredible at meta-narrative.


Meta-narrative has two distinct and somewhat contrary definitions:

1. a narrative account that experiments with or explores the idea of storytelling, often by drawing attention to its own artificiality.

2. an overarching account or interpretation of events and circumstances that provides a pattern or structure for people’s beliefs and gives meaning to their experiences.

The first definition is one I don't feel is all that fair. The "drawing attention to its own artificiality" comment is certainly true of many talk-right-the-audience spoofs, but it seems to be a thinly veiled criticism of anything that tries to be even aware or play with storytelling conventions or expectations. Heck, I've heard this criticism lobbed at almost anything that strives for the most desperate realism. Which is why I see the "meta-narrative" complaint often lobbed at filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Joss Whedon (AKA some of our best writers). So if I can be blunt, I think that complaint is facile. Not only can story-aware-narratives use that awareness to play with your expectations, but they can then use that expectation to release some of the most dramatic and cathartic moments imaginable (the deft hand of Buffy gutted me constantly). I also think it's largely a juvenile expectation to put on narrative itself. Because what it's really complaining about is the textural details that "take you out" of a given story, regardless of the actual emotions and characterization on display. Which I find to be indicative of indulgent "please please make it real" cinematic instincts that define something like the worst of Nolan's Batman movies. It misses the actual storytelling for the placation.

The second definition is interesting because it identifies how we draw and paint narratives from the events of real life. We find meta-narratives everywhere, in politics, in relationships, in Twitter trends, and even in running jokes. Heck, every time you go to therapy you're writing a meta-narrative. But in looking at the two definitions I realized what I really love about the McElroy's work. Because of the unique media formats of podcasting, Let's Plays, and video commentary that they work in...

They truly do both at the same time.


Last year I wrote a brief column about the boys and specifically one of their shows, Monster Factory, declaring it the funniest show on "TV". While a lot of the column centered on the shifting idea of what constitutes "TV" nowadays, I did at least touch on the inclusive and positive qualities of riffing. More to the point of this column, I also touched on the unique qualities of "Let's Play" videos and how you need the ability to manipulate the environment of the game itself to create a joke. But what's perhaps even more fascinating is the ability to "react to" jokes that weren't even intended. Because a video game is a like a system that can spur on complex and unintended reactions that essentially exist outside the artist's control. It's like the chaos of doing a "man on the street" segment, but there's something more seemingly random and yet well-defined, as it's reacting to the oddball fabric of a "separate universe". The difference may seem small, but it's weirdly everything when it comes to comedic expectations.

Take one of their shows Carboys, which Sweet Baby Brother and 30 Under 30 Media Luminary Griffin McElroy does with his Polygon cohort Nick Robinson. In the show, they explore a hyper-realistic car simulator game known as BeemNG.Drive and record their various experiments. What started as a mere chance to explore slo-mo car crashes and slamming hilarity (best exemplified in this montage of every time Griffin says "Nick"):

then morphed into one of the weirdest experiments in meta-narrative I can think of. To the point that even trying to explain the narrative of the show's core jokes would seem foolhardy... So that is, of course, exactly what I'm going to try and do. But please understand that this instantly makes it less funny and all of this is best experienced in the organic way all jokes riff out, but hey, we're being analytical so them's the breaks.

It all began when they discovered that the school bus they loved crashing so much did in fact have a little stunt driver man inside of it, who they affectionately named "Busto." So of course they immediately began tormenting Busto and putting him through the most horrific car crashes possible. But try as they might, they could never seem to dislodge the poor fella as his physical points of interest are helplessly connected. This all leads to the discovery of another crash test dummy they affectionately named "Busto 2.0" A much sturdier cohort who could not only survive all sorts of crashes, but led to all sorts of insane game breaking physics (the lexicon of video games matters in all this, btw). A good example of the insanity can be seen here: 

From here, the show went a riff where most of the episodes revolved around whether or not they could effectively destroy their new indestructible opponent, often to nightmare-ish results. Busto 2.0 almost took on a god-like stature. There was even a subplot where he haunted Nick and Griffin's waking dreams (really). The show eventually moved on for awhile to bigger crashes and goofs, but it all came back full circle in a recent episode where they figured a way to finally dislodge the original Busto from his bus prison. The two boys screamed in joy, finally achieving the goal after like 30 damn weeks of attempts. They watched in unison as Busto sailed upward into the sky, all before he disappeared into the weird nonsense physics of the game. That all would have been enough, were it not for the fact that a fan took the moment, and understanding all the lore that had gone into the show, took Busto's release and made this video in a vein of a certain movie. Seriously, turn up your speakers and put on full-screen: 

When I watched, my hair stood on end. It made me actually feel something deep and connective. "This is canon" is what's what Griffin and Nick replied when they saw it. A joke that gets at an interesting point, this show actually has canon. It's a goofy canon, a dumb canon, a canon that often defies normal logic, but it's a canon that's as important to the fabric of the show as any other. And the reason it's so weirdly interesting is because it's a canon that exists at the halfway point between our actions and the ever-shifting digital, reactive universe of the 1s and 0s that built the game. It has the similarly weird effect of watching the objective reality of a sports event. But it goes beyond the mere notion of the meaning of interactivity; it's really about exploration and discovery. The reason Busto's escape feels weirdly meaningful and cathartic, even more the amazing video, is because it ended up being possible in a reality where we thought it was not. And I'll say that last part again...

A reality.


I think the most important part of narrative comedy is understanding the baseline reality.

That may sound strange, but it's absolutely true. I talked about it a bit in my comedy sequel column, but when you look at the logic of set-up/punchline, you're really just talking about the the nature of audience expectations. A person has a frame of reference, an understanding of what is true, which is inherently critical to them getting a joke. And then a comedian plays with that expectation and either doubles down on it or zigs when you think they'll zag. But in order to zig, the expectation of a given "reality" must be first established. If you understand that, then you know that following the logic of their crazy podcast riffs like Glass Shark is less about seeing the endless connections, getting the weird frame of references, and appreciating the goofy sense of diction and lexicon, but instead all about us implicitly understanding that the joke is made by three guys talking into microphones. It's made all the more powerful by the live characteristic of Griffin and Travis laughing over Justin's epic stream of consciousness. That's the presentation, the core reality of the comedy being created. If "Glass Shark" was suddenly a character put into a cinematic story or even a live SNL sketch, it would have an entirely different set of needs to establish a baseline reality in those respective forms. I can't even imagine what a cinematic Glass Shark sketch would look like without that podcast format. Because when you make cinematic narratives work, you need to believe in the reality of what you're seeing, even if you know it's a joke.

To continue that thought, whenever I think about the "reality" of The Adventure Zone, I notice the only time I have a problem is NOT when they break character and talk about the game, or each other, or even when they get a Coke or stumble through their explanations. The problem is when they go on riffs where they joke about doing things in the game that they won't actually do in game, because that's the only thing that can undercut the two most fundamental realities of the podcast: the in-game canon, and the canon of what's being played and discussed by the players. You mess with that, you mess with the fabric of the comedic expectations with both.

All of which is why I was deeply curious going into the brothers' Seeso TV show. Because I'll be clear: establishing baseline cinematic narrative is fucking hard. Even in a sketch, there are so many important ways you have to establish realities in order to then break them for jokes. How and why characters react to that becomes twice as important. Consistency is critical. The reason Nathan for You works so well is because he never, ever breaks character (minus the drinking pee reaction) and delivers the consistent reality to his program, even if we know it's a joke. So let's just say I genuinely fret anytime something from the riff-heavy nature of improv or podcasts enter those dangerous waters. And with the Seeso show you get a diaspora of different results. At times it absolutely captures the goofy sincerity of the riffing (them creating the Facebook page for Ranchos and spelling the sentence one word at a time, good god). And there are even times they nail the make-fun-of-other-tv-shows mentalities (mostly by calling attention to it), but there are times where the sketch inclination is reality-breaking in the wrong way when it takes cinematic turns. You see acting, not talking. And the lines of realities are not being zigged or zagged, they're becoming blurred. But the absolute best parts of the show are, unsurprisingly to the point of all this, the chronicles of them struggling to get through goofs and make an actual TV show. It's not them "breaking" that's funny. It's not that it's merely the "real beneath the facade." It's the fact that it's the most real reality for the show in that it captures them at their most funny. For example, I think of this clip of Justin cracking up as he's trying to get through a cinematic goof: 

It's a perfect meta-narrative gag, in terms of both definitions. But in discussing all this, I want to also make it clear there's no kind of humor that's inherently better than the other. Each depends on a series of clear cohesion and choices made along the way, along with the specific skills each person has. Anchorman upends cinematic reality constantly, but it's guided by the deft hand of Will Ferrel's over-stuffed, fully-committed performance. Cinematic reality breaks, but Ron doesn't. Still, I want to reconfirm that creating the reality of narrative is hard to pull off. You have to pile up artificiality in order to make something feel natural, human, and earned. And within the other burgeoning forms of comedy, there are so many that can break that naturalness and then earn it back with surprising gumption. So even though it's using the Interstellar music verbatim, even though it's a construction literally based on a joke, Busto's Interstellar video somehow works better because it's real in a way McConaughey's emotional journey never was.

Which is sort of amazing when you think about it. Yes, making a film like Interstellar is 100 times more difficult and that's not even to say the movie was all that far away from succeeding. A few narrative decisions and manners of execution tweaked, and it would probably work like gangbusters. But alas, all our narrative suffering can sometimes pale in comparison to a few people, a microphone, a drawing, and understanding of the comedic reality that they are in. Even more strangely, the grander truth can come in the bizarre glitches, accidents and parameters of a game itself. I don't know how to say it any other way really, but the inherent advantage is that the glitches are real. Irreversibly real. And they reflect the randomness of results that all our minds can throw at it with reckless abandon. Luckily for us, truth comes in many forms...

The most obvious is laughter.