Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
The ubiquity of product placement might seem to be a relatively modern development. Yet in many ways it marks a return to the golden age of radio and television, when the stars and announcers of hit radio and early television shows crowed about the wonders of their sponsors on air and the names of said sponsors often made it into the titles of the shows themselves, like the legendary Texaco Star Theater that made Milton Berle a star.
The advertising spiels found in podcasts today are an even more direct descendant of the sponsor spiels of the golden age of radio, although they’re far more likely to be about website developers or the popular podcast app Howl than biscuit mix or cigarettes. Last year the delightful McElroy brood of My Brother, My Brother and Me fame decided to take podcast advertising to its logical end and its delirious extreme by devoting not just a few minutes to their beloved Totino’s Pizza Rolls but an entire episode to singing the praises of the microwavable stoner favorites.
For one magical hour (or forty four minutes, if you want to get technical about it), My Brother, My Brother and Me, one of the flagship podcasts of Jesse Thorn’s Maximum Fun empire, transformed unexpectedly but brilliantly into The McElroy Family Fun Hour brought to you by Totino’s Pizza Rolls. The McElroy brothers were still answering questions and doling out advice, but this time they were only answering questions about Totino’s signature line and their advice was exclusively pizza roll-based. And, as one of the pizza-roll-loving bros concedes, pretty much all of their advice comes down to pleas to eat Totino’s Pizza Rolls.
In an astonishing turn of events, this was not solely a hilariously meta parody of product placement and what it known as “native advertising”; it also doubled as a brilliant exercise in product placement and native advertising. The McElroys weren’t just pretending Totino’s was paying for the episode as an inspired bit. No, Totino’s genuinely sponsored the episode (and were apparently overjoyed with the results). They put up the cash so that these wisenheimers could devote way too much time and energy to cranking out nearly forty-five minutes of exclusively pizza-roll based entertainment.
The McElroys were consequently able to have it both ways. They were able to have their pizza rolls and eat them too, to pervert the old cliche. It helps that the McElroys are genuine Totino’s Pizza Rolls superfans. That lends an off element of emotional authenticity to what is otherwise a massive goof on advertising, on old timey radio, and on the freakishly intense relationships we sometimes have with our favorite consumer goods – how Coca-Cola or Apple can be more important to us than our own friends and family.
The episode begins with a 1940s-style announcer (in fact, we learn later on that he’s not just 1940s-style; he’s actually from the 1940s, which makes him a time traveler of some sort) introducing the family but also such whimsical old-timey characters as “Little Skrunky”, “Trimbo, The Drunk Chimpanzee” (who, despite his prominent billing, never makes an appearance), and “Tipsy Pete, the Totino’s Tale Spinner”, who does make an appearance and tells a rambling, go-nowhere tale about Totino’s against an appropriately Southern-fried musical backdrop.
From the first minute on, the McElroys are clearly having a ball. Their laughter and their goofy enthusiasm are infectious. It’s as if they understandably still can’t quite believe they got away with getting a prestigious pizza roll concern like Totino’s (verily, the Cadillac of microwavable pizza rolls) to pony up money for them to devote an entire episode to making fun of product placement.
To illustrate their obsessive love of Totino’s, one of the brothers sets out to eat a pizza roll every minute, or 60 pizza rolls in an hour (that’s for you non-math wizards out there), an experiment that quickly morphs from a source of pleasure to a grueling culinary death march not unlike Forrest McNeil’s epic and tragic pancake pounding on Review.
But there’s more than just ill conceived eating challenges: the brothers also answer all of the pizza roll-related questions plaguing humanity. A question about what wine is best to pair with pizza rolls leads to an inspired riff on a pizza-roll-infused wine that would be the product of a pizza-roll-obsessed McElroy burying 800 pizza rolls in the soil so that the pizza roll-essence would penetrate the grapes used to make wine and create a nightmarish Pinot Grigio/Flavor-Blasted Pizza Roll mutation.
The McElroys have enormous fun with the painfully extreme names given pizza roll variations, really savoring the way “blasted” shows up again and again. They suggest new ways to enjoy pizza rolls, like with pasta instead of meatballs, but they also know when to draw the line. When a letter writer writes of combining Goldfish with pizza rolls, a brother loudly and indignantly retorts, with accidental poetry, “(Totino’s brand pizza rolls are) a bullet full of pizza that you shoot into your face! It couldn’t be better than it already is!”
The episode ends on a gloriously excessive note, with an elaborate, pizza roll-themed parody of “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square” that becomes extra-meta when the singer starts critiquing the song parody while it’s still happening. With this instant-classic episode, the McElroys created both the perfect parody of native advertising and the perfect illustration of native advertising. More importantly, or less importantly (I haven’t quite decided yet) they made me want to scarf down some Totino’s brand pizza rolls, which sort of seems to be the point of the whole endeavor, but also seems perversely irrelevant.
Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.