The Q&A board Yahoo Answers is shutting down on May 4. When I heard the news, my first sympathetic thought was for the podcast My Brother, My Brother and Me; I wasn’t the only person to think of it. This 11-year-old show hosted by brothers Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy took the weirdest stuff Yahoo Answers had to offer and riffed on it; the resulting show, which interspersed “Yahoos” (as they called them) with listener questions, has been in the top comedy podcasts list on iTunes for years. The McElroys now have a podcast empire, and listeners like me have held on as the brothers moved across the country and back again, became parents, and grew up. The fact that all this happened because, for 16 years, a tech company hosted an online space where oddballs could ask if it was OK to bring jellybeans on a plane, or how to unbake a cake, is a little miracle of the internet.
Yahoo Answers was integral to the MBMBaM world. The people who combed the board and sent in the best questions and answers for the brothers to address became personalities in and of themselves. One, Drew Davenport, was so good at it that his proficiency became a running gag on the show, as Griffin invented increasingly elaborate honorifics to describe him. (The New York Times, rightly, called “Yadrew”—as Griffin often dubbed him—for a quote for their coverage of the Yahoo Answers shutdown this week.) Every MBMBaM show ends with a “Final Yahoo”—one last preposterous question that hangs in the air, going unanswered, as the hosts sign off and the final music plays. The MBMBaM wiki has a list of all the “Final Questions”: “What are the benefits of circumcising a hamster?” “During sexual intercourse … do you put the balls in?” “ANY GOOD WEBSITES I CAN MEET HUMAN SUGAR DADDYS ?? NOT THE CANDY BUT MEN SUGAR DADDYS ??”
This stuff is unhinged, but MBMBaM’s approach to Yahoo Answers worked because it was fundamentally kind. On Esquire this week, Justin McElroy wrote that he often found the questions and answers quite touching: “We enter and leave this world alone, but spend the time in between seeking connection,” he mused. “It’s the human experience. But when we’ve strayed too far from the pack, when we’re at our most ashamed, our most lost, our most … too high, Yahoo Answers was there to lead us back home.” He also gave a lot of credit to the weirdos who provided the fodder for his podcast: “The things my brothers and I create … will forever be shaped by the sort of surrealist vulnerability and absurdist humanism that Yahoo Answers was so abundant in.”
Such tender treatment of Yahoo Answers has been far from universal. This week, BuzzFeed’s Katie Notopoulos called it “one of the dumbest places on the Internet.” A PCWorld roundup published way back in 2009 under the headline “The 20 Dumbest Questions on Yahoo Answers” proves that this way of talking about the board isn’t new. The 2016 YouTube video “How Is Prangent Formed,” by J.T. Sexkik, is a good example of the kind of comedy that takes Yahoo Answers for a ride. Ninety percent of my soul loves every second of “How Is Prangent formed,” which is a compilation of what feels like thousands of hilarious misspellings of the word pregnant in Yahoo Answers questions. The other 10 percent of me wonders how much of the joke comes from the fact that the voice reading the malaprops is male, and from an undercurrent of eugenic disbelief that question askers (mostly women) so out of touch with the rules of spelling and grammar are reproducing. As for me, I’m just glad that they have somewhere to ask the question!
Yahoo Answers isn’t the only place comedians go to collect internet hay to spin into viral gold. There are a lot of ways to do this distastefully: grammar-shaming, misogyny, elitism. One way to get around the problem is to make fun of the stuff that’s very obviously on the wrong side of history. And so the podcast Your Kickstarter Sucks (it’s very funny) mocks the griftiest of Kickstarters, posted by what the show’s description characterizes as “scammers and dummies.” The podcast Report This Post is about “bad posts and bad people”; more often than not, the “bad people” are fools, with malice at their hearts.
But a lot of the mockable internet stuff that people use for comedy is just written by random users who don’t understand anything about format, context, or (you might say) reality. The “Amazon Movie Reviews” Twitter account—along with the many similar accounts—screenshots and shares reviews from people who simply did not understand the assignment. The Wolf of Wall Street, one star: “There were no wolves in the movie.” Cats (2019), one star: “There were no peanut m&ms available in the cinema.” The @InsaneLetterbox Twitter account is the same idea, but with reviews from the film-focused social network Letterboxd: The Babadook, ½ star: “This is defiantly me when I smoke meth.”
Near the end of each episode of the How Did This Get Made? podcast, co-host Paul Scheer reads “Second Opinions”: five-star Amazon reviews of whatever movie the hosts just spent an hour ripping apart. On Reddit, some listeners recalling their favorite “Second Opinions” remembered the “illiterate” ones, but it’s not often that Scheer—who has a very light touch—picks those, favoring instead the reviews that march straight off the edge of the map. Another Redditor remembered a Second Opinion on the podcast’s episode discussing the 2003 Kelly Clarkson–Justin Guarini rom-com From Justin to Kelly. The reviewer wrote: “This sweet little departure from reality saved my life … I lost my father in September, and then I lost another fifteen people in my life over the course of the next two years. So whenever I couldn’t bear it, I would put in From Justin to Kelly.” As the current theme song for the “Second Opinions” segment goes: “The movie was a piece of shit/ Yet this person recommends it/ Tell me, what is the message?/ Maybe that art is subjective.”
This gentler use of found material truly drives home the daily ridiculousness of trying to connect with strangers over the internet. This is also what makes the work of Lubalin, the musician on TikTok who sets what he calls “random internet drama” to songs—please, please watch—so wonderful. He’s not mocking the people who fight over horse size and salad dressings, but rather the weird, jerky rhythm of these spats, the way they escalate and repeat and go on and on, the needless anger and sudden aggression. This is something we can all recognize.
People, the better “found internet” comedy reminds us, will never stop surprising you. There’s one Yahoo Answers question addressed way back in MBMBaM Episode 33. “What are some good warrior cat names?” asked a Yahoo Answers user. Griffin McElroy read the answers from one user, who really just absolutely went for it: “I love creating warrior names. Here’s some for black cats: Nightshade, Nightriver, Nightfall, Nightfire, Nighthunter, Shadowskin, Shadowrose, Shadoworchid, Shadowbird … ” This answerer’s list goes on so long that the brothers become breathless with laughter. “The horrifying truth we have unearthed with this show is that there are whole other worlds,” Justin McElroy says. “There are whole other things that don’t connect to us. … It’s a completely different planet.”
The Internet Archive announced this week that it will put that planet in its vault; MBMBaM says it has no idea what it’ll do next. And just like that, another corner of the Weird Old Internet is gone with the wind.