Photo Credit: Erik Westra
A dwarf cleric, a human fighter and an elf wizard have just rolled initiative and are now locked in battle with a crystal golem in the middle of a floating space lab. The dwarf cleric is busy trying to disperse a spell that has paralyzed his two comrades. The human fighter, still paralyzed, requests the help of a well-meaning robot to swing his leaden limbs into the golem. And the elf wizard, from his position prone on the floor, casts a spell that summons black tentacles from the ether to attack the golem, calling out, “I’m about to tentacle your dick.”
Thus begins the meet cute of Taako and Kravitz, two characters in the The Adventure Zone (TAZ), a biweekly podcast chronicling the Dungeons & Dragons campaign of three brothers–Justin, Travis and Griffin McElroy–and their father, Clint McElroy. You may know the McElroy name from their long-running and beloved comedy podcast, My Brother, My Brother and Me (MBMBAM), their TV show on SeeSo of the same name, the YouTube series some of them do through Polygon, or any of the other million or so podcasts and video projects they have a hand in. They’ve built something of a comedy empire since MBMBAM started in 2010, but TAZ is their first foray into fiction.
In The Adventure Zone, Justin, Travis and Clint play the characters of Taako, Magnus and Merle, while Griffin is the Dungeon Master who roleplays all non-player characters that the main three interact with, and narrates and steers the plot. The show has been running since 2014 and averages roughly 2 million downloads a week, consistently placing in the top 20 comedy podcasts in iTunes rankings. Taako is the adventuring party’s elf wizard (and former celebrity chef) who stands out as the most skeptical and pragmatic of the three heroes. In their first big boss fight, he shouts “Abraca-Fuck-You!” before casting a climactic spell, a line which became iconic both for Taako and as a general representation of the podcast’s irreverent take on high fantasy tropes. Another one of his catchphrases is “Taako’s good out here,” indicating his reluctance to take unnecessary risks–he can sometimes be found chilling in the background eating a sandwich while his more earnest companions rush into battle.
Taako illustration courtesy of the artist.
Taako is also gay, and in recent months the show has been exploring a romantic arc between him and the non-player character (NPC) that he meets mid-combat and mid-tentacle, who turns out to be a grim reaper of sorts named Kravitz. Taako and Kravitz have what is so far the only romance that has actually developed ‘onscreen.’ There’s not much romance on the show in general–in addition to Taako and Kravitz, we’ve seen glimpses of two heterosexual relationships in Magnus and Merle’s backstories, and two lesbian relationships between NPCs that have gotten a fair amount of airtime and attention considering that, due to the nature of D&D, the narrative is mostly locked into the point of view of the main three players.
After Taako goes on his first date with Kravitz, he chooses not to tell the other characters about their liaison. Justin McElroy (who plays Taako) quickly clarifies for the listeners that this decision is not because Taako is cautious in talking about his sexuality, but because he’s very reluctant to share any personal information and doesn’t think it’s anyone’s business.
When I ask Justin about Taako choosing to keep his relationship with Kravitz to himself instead of telling his friends, he says, “Taako is somebody who has been betrayed by people he was very close to. He’s someone who has had to fend for himself for large portions of his life, and as a result, I think trust probably looks different for Taako because it was someone very close to him who burned him in the past.” Taako’s backstory involves a number of tragic elements, but none of them made in him ashamed of who he is. His sexuality is one important piece of his overall character, but it doesn’t come with a side-helping of angst.
Justin first brought up Taako’s sexuality in The The Adventure Zone Zone, the McElroy’s show-within-a-show in which they answer audience questions and provide commentary on the story (the stuttery title sprang from a joke about a possible Talking Dead -style breakdown of TAZ). He said that even before TAZ, when playing video games he would often create characters that were very different from himself. This sprang from the fact that most video game character creation generators don’t allow you to create overweight characters, so Justin couldn’t get close to playing a character that felt like himself. Since he doesn’t want to play “some bullshit idealized version of myself,” he got used to playing as characters who were not straight white men like him.
Justin acknowledges that playing Taako has been different from his previous explorations of other identities in his personal gameplay. “The thing that makes it pretty daunting is that I’m doing it in front of people, people who have had this life experience that I have not had, to whom the verisimilitude of what I’m doing would be blatantly obvious. So I’m doing my best to imagine that, but honestly it’s all best guesses because I have not lived that.”
This daunting factor contributed to Taako’s sexuality being somewhat slow to emerge in TAZ canon. Of course, most of the story’s weightier elements were slow to emerge, considering that the McElroys’ stated intention when they began the podcast was to have fun, make some jokes, and not much else. They started it as a side project to fill airspace when Justin had to take time away from MBMBAM recording because he and his wife were starting a family. They didn’t expect it to be a long-term thing or for people to get invested in their story. In the most recent The The Adventure Zone Zone, the McElroys discussed how they couldn’t have imagined the narrative intensity that TAZ would develop over time. Justin described the story’s depth as being “like a car that flew all of a sudden.”
Finding yourself behind the wheel of a suddenly flying car has its advantages and disadvantages. The McElroys are essentially doing long-form improvisation, and while they’re all comfortable with improv comedy, throwing in the story element naturally makes it harder. “It’s kind of like being in a writer’s room and being onstage shooting the show simultaneously,” Justin says. “There’s no ‘let’s throw this at the wall and seeing what sticks,’ instead it’s, ‘we’re throwing spaghetti at the wall and someone’s filming the spaghetti.’ Narratively speaking, it’s why the storylines were much simpler in the beginning.”
And in the beginning, Justin did not bring up Taako’s sexuality. Justin says that he conceptualized the character as gay from the start, but that he had to “back in” to making it canon and forward-facing. He worried about not being able to do it well, and he acknowledges that his own demographics have affected and perhaps hindered him. “As four straight white dudes making a podcast, we are pretty aware of the fact that we’re already working at something of a deficit with regards to making the sort of media we want to see in the world. But as long as I’m going to be a creator, I should try to make things that people can see themselves in. Maybe that’s less valuable coming from a straight white dude, I don’t know, but it’s the best I can do.”
Is it less valuable coming from a straight white dude? Or do people actually appreciate it more? A huge part of the McElroys’ reputation as comedians and creators hinges upon their ethos of valuing kindness and sincerity over cruel or cynical jokes that denigrate people. One recent profile of them in Brooklyn Magazine described their brand of comedy as “inclusive compassion” and credited them with having a “radical openness to criticism.” This openness is evident in the latest The The Adventure Zone Zone, a third of which was devoted to addressing criticisms that fans have brought to their attention and acknowledging that they have screwed up in the past. (Griffin in particular says he thinks that he “stepped in it” regarding the Bury Your Gays trope, considering that he gave two lesbians in TAZ a tragic ending).
I asked Justin how he felt about the positive attention he and his family have received for espousing inclusivity in their work. “If I’m being honest, it makes me uncomfortable. I always feel like I’m doing the bare minimum we should be doing as people. When people talk about kindness, it messes me up a little bit because I feel like I’m just treating people the way I was taught to treat people. It’s weird to me that that’s so much of a unicorn, that it’s worth noting.”
Photo Credit: Erik Westra
The question of whether or not the McElroys, and by extension other straight white dudes who make an effort to create diverse content, deserve credit for their efforts is one that often seems to tie commentators and fans up in knots. As queer fans, we’re all aware that content creators shouldn’t be “given cookies” for doing the bare minimum, and yet it’s impossible not to notice when the effort is made because we’re painfully aware that it’s optional–that our culture still allows most straight white men to coast through their careers without making even that minimal effort. And so we find ourselves caught in this embarrassing rhetorical moebius strip of giving the cookies and then trying to take them back only to give them again, talking in circles about the relative merits of thanking someone who has more privilege than we do.
It’s enough to put one off the taste of cookie dough entirely [Editor’s note: never.]. Before I started listening to TAZ, I was so exhausted by this discursive pattern that I was reluctant to give the show a chance, let alone join the greek chorus of praise. Weirdly, when I started hearing more criticism of their diversity fumbles in the story, my resistance started to relax a bit; if I wasn’t expecting something that was a perfect paragon of diversity and inclusion, then maybe I could sit back and listen to a good story.
A huge part of what makes The Adventure Zone a good story is the improvisational, anything-goes spirit the McElroys bring to the table. While Justin may find it daunting to play Taako, he hasn’t let performance anxiety prevent him from fully committing to making Taako a fun, funny, and unpredictable character. “When I decided to make Taako’s sexuality more of a concrete thing in the show, I decided that I cannot overthink this. I felt like it had to be honest and it had to be real to what I thought he would do or say at any given moment.” He wants Taako to be fully realized and not defined by his sexuality: “I wanted him to be somebody who, if I was a gay person, I could be like ‘oh that looks like me, a fully realized human who has other things in their lives going on besides who they want to romance.”
If a straight person was looking for a blueprint on how to write queer characters and queer relationships, they could do worse than following this model. While creators should always think through what they’re doing and be aware of the broader context of their characters, it doesn’t make for great fiction when you can tell that the writer is overthinking it. Queer fans want representation that flows as organically within a story as every other narrative element.
When I ask Justin when he made the decision to start incorporating Taako’s sexuality more fully into the canon, he says, “If there was a moment when I decided to start talking about it in the show proper, it was seeing the response from people as to how much that meant to them. I decided that whatever price I will pay for saying the wrong things playing as a gay man is not worth denying the representation of what I think is a cool gay character. So it was like: ‘well okay I’m gonna step in some shit but that’s my problem, and that’ll only be on me, but in the process I can probably make something nice.’”
Despite his awareness of the potential pitfalls of a straight man writing a gay character, he frames his portrayal of Taako–and all of the discourse and fan engagement that has come to him because of Taako–as having a positive impact on his life.
Often when creators are asked why their stories don’t feature more diverse characters, the stock answer is that it would be too much of a pain in the ass or make the story feel inorganic, as if writing about people who aren’t straight white men automatically saps all fun from a project and turns creative endeavors into arduous, joyless work. But Justin does not describe his work playing Taako in TAZ as some selfless exercise; he says it has helped him as a person. “I think that the highest level of maturity is the ability to empathize. In your day-to-day life, empathy is hard and you have to be cognizant of it constantly. But one of the strengths of games is that ability to live in someone else’s skin. Obviously it’s not a substitute for real life experience, but I think having the ability to live in someone else’s skin for a while is really valuable for me as a person.”
Sadly, the current campaign following Taako, Magnus and Merle will be wrapping up soon. The podcast will continue with a different plot and different characters, but the McElroys have been open about how they don’t want this particular campaign to continue indefinitely. The most recent episodes have been setting up a final long climax and the end of the story is in sight.
I asked Justin if he’s learned any lessons from playing Taako that he’ll be thinking about for the future, and instead of talking about do’s and don’ts he has in mind for the next campaign, he talked about gaining something more personal: “[Playing Taako] has made me understand a little bit better how taxing it can be when your sexuality is politicized, rather than just your own thing. When who you…and who you want to love…becomes polarizing, it’s very stressful. Being Taako became a lot more complicated once Taako was a canonically gay character, and I’m sure that is true ten-thousandfold for people for whom that’s their actual life.”
The whole concept of giving brownie points for diversity makes the representation conversation revolve around a kind of allyship that is performative, perfectionist and almost transactional. I would prefer to see the conversation shift towards the kind of empathy and understanding that creators stand to gain, as Justin references. I’m not going to make the bold claim that straight content creators should make more of an effort to write queer people because it’ll help them become better, fuller people, but I’m not not saying that.
The Adventure Zone is my current favorite car that flew, and like many fans of Taako I’ll be sad to see him go when this campaign ends soon. But the McElroys’ enthusiasm for telling inclusive, imaginative stories that are grounded in empathy has ensured that I will follow them to wherever their dice rolls take them next.
Cléa works, writes, and overthinks her life in the Triangle region of North Carolina. Her work has been published in Yearbook Office, the Billfold, and elsewhere. She has two cats named after characters from the TV sitcom Community. Find her on twitter @liveliketrees.