Numlock Sunday: Justin McElroy, Chicken Sandwich War correspondent
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week, I spoke to Justin McElroy, who you might know from his work on the podcast My Brother, My Brother and Me or The Adventure Zone.
Wednesday will mark a shocking milestone: As of September 13, the Chicken Sandwich Wars will have gone on longer than the armed conflict of the American Civil War. Yes, the conflict between quick-service restaurants over who has produced a desirable chicken sandwich offering began in August 2019, what feels like a lifetime ago, and nobody has covered this more persistently than McElroy on his Munch Squad podcast within a podcast.
I’m a big fan of his work, and in addition to this devastating conflict we also chatted about increasingly unhinged limited time offerings, his multiple bestselling comic books, and the current “Steeplechase” season of The Adventure Zone.
All this can be found at TheMcElroy.family.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Justin McElroy, thank you so much for coming on.
Thank you for having me in this important journalistic endeavor.
This is a critical moment. We find ourselves at the week the Chicken Sandwich Wars will have gone on longer than the American Civil War. You have been on the ground covering this day by day, hour after hour.
At what point do we just recognize that this is the second American Civil War? I mean it's all the bad blood, brother versus brother versus colonel. It's got everything.
Why don't you take us back to the beginning? Munch Squad, a podcast within a podcast on My Brother, My Brother and Me, has been dedicated to covering the latest and greatest in food offerings, as you'll go on to explain. Chicken Sandwich Wars have been dominating this for years now at this point. How did this start?
I have always been, and I think I got this from my dad, I've always been sort of a sucker for— I mean, I don't know how to say it other than just marketing. I'm like an absolute sucker. A lot of that is me being willing to just sort of go with it, and finding that I'm happier if I'm not fighting the thousands of advertising messages that are being sent to me on a daily basis. I just kind of go with it. I love to try new consumer products, and I know that's goofy, but whenever you would go to Columbus, Ohio, it's a popular test market for new products so you'll see drinks you hadn't heard of before, whatever. Dad would always do that when we were kids. Any new drink, he would come home with a 12-pack like, "All right, guys, this is the new Crystal Pepsi, they're calling it, so you guys have got to try this."
Yeah, anytime I see new stuff like this, it comes from a genuine place. I genuinely think it's fascinating. What I love, though, is when I find out that these companies have to put out press releases for these dumb products. No matter how dumb the thing is, they’ve got to let people know about it and someone is tasked with the job of writing the press release for something that is a sentence.
I mean it's always a sentence, right? "We now have a chicken sandwich." "We are Dunkin' and we put beer in coffee, and you can buy it at the store. Please go buy it." I did one a few weeks ago that was like, "Extra gum has a new pink lemonade flavor. Here's the press release." It's like, how would anybody know that's even a new product? If I saw that, I’d assume they’ve sold it for 20 years. It's just wild and I think that that's really funny.
The first one I did was Taco Bell doing the naked chicken taco, which is when they made a taco shell out of a chicken breast, and it's so vulgar.
Everything about it is vulgar! It makes me want to be a vegetarian. It's a vulgar exercise, and I was like, "This is too great. I’ve got to share this with people." That was back, I don't know, 2016, around there or something like that, and we just kept going with it because the press releases just kept getting wilder.
It slows down sometimes. But there's always new stuff to make fun of, and I just think that it's great. It feels like when you're somebody who cares about doing comedy that doesn't specifically target people, especially marginalized groups or just anybody specific, anybody individually; we really try to be upbeat. I feel like making fun of not just corporations, but marketing for specific consumer products is as near to a victimless crime as you can get. Even the people writing these things know like, "Yeah, this isn't going to get me my Pulitzer. It's all in good fun." But yeah, that is the Munch Squad.
Yeah. Limited time offerings, they've always existed, right? There's always been the McRib, there have always been things like that. They are increasingly unhinged and I don't think anybody's been following that quite like you.
Yeah, I do. I have exposed myself to a wide variety. Sometimes, the product will be wild, but there's just nothing. They don't have the press release. I’ve got to have the press release. I’ve got to have the news. I have to have someone reporting it journalistically who is also paid by Pepsi or Taco Bell or whatever, and it was the same company, but you know what I mean. Yeah, I have followed the space very closely.
Yeah, it's been just genuinely a pleasure to listen to. Again, you've developed this form of taste, I think, among these sorts of products. You've been able to clock if they're only in one restaurant for one hour in Anchorage, Alaska.
I'm glad you're bringing that up. Thank you. That does make me very angry and that is something that has happened in later Munch Squad and almost kind of put me off of it, is you start to see these companies that are just doing it for the bit. If they're doing it for the bit, it's a lot harder for me to do jokes about it because they already know that it's dumb. Pepsi did Peeps-flavored Pepsis and you had to get them from a contest or whatever, and it drives me crazy.
Just have the strength of your convictions to make your dumb soda and let the market sort it out.
I don't even think this is on Munch Squad; it's something we talked about on my cereal podcast, the Empty Bowl, but Carvel, the ice cream cake people, they made a "cereal" that was just the crunchy chocolate bits that go in the middle of the ice cream cake with the fudge sauce. You know what I mean? They made a cereal out of that, but they're in little tiny boxes and they only sold them for one day at their stores.
It's like, just make it or don't. You know what I mean? Cowards, everybody. I don't like that stuff. Make a product, put it out there for everybody. Don't do like the CurderBurger where you only do it for one day. I did talk about the CurderBurger because it was a burger with a loaf of cheese curd on it in Wisconsin. That was pretty good. But by and large, wide release or nothing. That's what I say.
You can't not talk about a CurderBurger.
Yeah, and people could go buy that. You could go buy it in the store. It's usually my cutoff. I prefer a wide release, but still.
You've been covering this for a while. Again, I can't imagine the amount of time that you spend on QSR magazine.
Paper and digital.
Oh, you get the print? You get the dead tree edition?
Some fun-time jokesters signed my P.O. box up for a subscription to that. I get lots of them. Someone signed us up for horse magazines. Thank you. That's great for recycling. Someone signed us up for the gas station mag — they have a publication for new gas station convenience offerings — so I try to track the sources wherever they are.
That's incredible. Again, your history is journalism. You founded Polygon. I've always enjoyed that element of Munch Squad where it's like, "Clearly, this is something that's going on." And I'm glad that you alluded to, again, your father has roots of journalism as well, that this is a trade that you've been applying for quite some time.
Yes, that was my first job outside of retail. It was in my mid-20s. I got hired to be the news editor at a small paper in Ohio, and I was desperately underqualified, but I just sort of kept scamming my way up and pivoted over to video game coverage, mainly. I know enough journalism to know how to pretend I'm doing journalism in the Munch Squad, so that's about where my skillset is at this moment.
Do you have any favorites that come to mind? Any specific limited time offerings or press releases that just really kind of made a dent in you?
Let me think. Taco Bell did a naked egg taco. You know when they did the chicken, but this was a gigantic fried egg that they folded up into a taco shell and made a breakfast offering? That's unacceptable. That's simply not a product that anybody should be consuming.
Burger King, the Nightmare Burger where it was black for Halloween, remember that? It gave everybody black poops. That was a fun time to be in the business. Yeah, Burger King will dye their buns sometimes and it ruins people's bowel movements.
Man, Chris Angel had a restaurant. Do you remember? I had to look up the acronym. Chris Angel made or opened a restaurant, it's spelled C-A-B-L-P. It's Cablp, and that is short for, of course, Chris Angel Breakfast, Lunch, and Pizza. They call it Cablp. I don't even know if that's still open. That was back in 2021, but Cablp. Oh, God, that still hits. Cablp.
The Chicken Sandwich Wars were obviously launched into devastating effect in August of 2019. Where do you see that going? For a while, there was quite a bit of activity and now it's been, kind of they're in the long haul, I’ve got to say.
From your view, where are the Chicken Sandwich Wars at?
At this point, I feel like a lot of us have moved on from the war part of it. I feel like what we're seeing now is we're entering a phase where we're all sort of culturally accepting that every place has a chicken sandwich. This is what's weird about the Chicken Sandwich Wars, if I may.
These places all had chicken sandwiches.
That's the thing that people forget, right? They had chicken sandwiches. They were bad.
The only one people liked was Chick-fil-A, and they turned out to be a little bit questionable on some of the donations of groups they're giving to, a lot of anti-LGBTQ places, so people stopped eating the chicken sandwich.
For me, that's the beginning of the chicken sandwich. That was the only good one you could get. They turned out to be some nasty dogs over there, maybe, and so nobody's going to eat that chicken sandwich anymore. Somebody had to step in.
As long ago as 2005, McDonald's came at the crown. They came for true at Kathy's Kreations, which, they still insist that they made the first chicken sandwich, and that just seems wild to me. It's a fried breast between a bun. Come on, nobody can invent that. It just is. It just exists as these two products are created. As soon as we had bread and chicken, somebody was like, "Wait, I got it. Hold on. Step back." So I don't grant that to Kathy or Popeye's, to be fair, that both of them claim to have the first chicken sandwich.
Anyway, so McDonald's in 2005, they had a Southern-style Chicken Sandwich, and that was it. That was straight up. We got a potato bun, we got two pickles, we got pickle-brining, let's go. It had a good run. I think it was a decade that it continued. Even they were in the game.
Then when Popeye's decided like, "Hey, why don't we try? Why don't all of us other restaurants try to make a good one instead of making a forgettable option for your cousin that doesn't like hamburgers? We'll actually try,” then you started having more and more people come out.
Walter, do you know — this is true — between the beginning of 2019 and the end of 2020, do you know how much sales of chicken sandwiches increased?
I do not.
It's really easy to remember this statistic because it is 420 percent.
That's a memorable statistic.
It's a memorable statistic. It's how I remember that my daughter was born at 4 p.m. and 20 minutes. 4:20 is when my kid was born. 420 percent. That is how much chicken sandwich sales increased.
Everybody's just like, "Hey, restaurants are selling good chicken sandwiches now. We should probably go get them." But the wars, I don't know why it had to be a war.
Everybody in the war, by the way, always shouts out all the other people in the war, which is wild because that doesn't seem to be a good marketing strategy to just be like, "Here are some other places that have done this and now we're doing it too." But I think it's also the Chicken Sandwich Wars, I think what that is is directly connected to Munch Squad.
Because I think it is someone that had to do a press release about a chicken sandwich, and they're like, "It's got to have some kind of angle. I don't know what the first line of this press release is going to be. Maybe wars; I keep talking about the wars that are going on that everybody seems to be so hot on," and that was just like the angle. It's solved. If you have a chicken sandwich and you're writing a press release about it, you’ve got to mention the wars.
And the more belabored it gets, the better for a lot of these. It's like, "We're finally strapping on our chicken rifles and wading into the trenches to blow the other sandwiches straight to hell. We're going to make some chicken sandwich widows out here. Let's go," and it's gross. Just say it's a good sandwich or bad.
For years, we've maintained neutrality, but today, that is enough.
Right, and neutrality, I have to be clear, is a bad chicken sandwich! It's not like no chicken sandwich. It's just, let's try to make a good one.
Yeah. It is really funny that you can draw a fairly direct line between the success of the gay rights movement and a 420 percent increase in chicken sandwich sales.
It's beautiful. It's a story of love and acceptance. I mean really, war is such a misnomer. It should be a cultural shift of people unwilling to accept lesser treatment by buying evil cursed chicken sandwiches.
To show you how seriously these places took it, in Huntington, West Virginia, where I live, they opened up a Bojangles — which is like lower-tier Popeye's, it's a mid-tier Popeye's — but it was huge in Huntington, so much so that they had to reroute traffic on Route 60 around the line for Bojangles.
It got so bad, KFC, there's another KFC down the road about a mile, and they put up a sign that just had a big picture of the Colonel and it said, "We make chicken around here." Outside the Bojangles, the KFC put up like a, "Hey, not in our town. This is a KFC town," and hey, hand to God, that Bojangles closed. I don't know what the Colonel was working over there, but it worked. They're back to the only chicken on Route 60 as far as I know.
Listen, you start a battle? Send in the Colonel.
Yeah, if you're going to come for the Colonel's crown, you best come for the bow tie. You’ve got to come correct. No way. Is it the bolo? What would you call that? It doesn't matter.
I would call it a bolo.
You get the idea. Bolo? Yeah.
I really mean that. Yeah, it's a phenomenal season. I think the setting is excellent and I want to talk a little bit about that because it is very theme park, Disney inspired, I would say. I think that that ties in decently well with Munch Squad in the sense that there is a commentary about commercialization, but nevertheless identity-bound to American pop culture. I guess I'd love to ask you a little bit about where some of that season came from and where that setting came from.
Yeah. Everybody else in my family had run the game. Oh my gosh, my Arby's big cheddar bowling shirt just got delivered. What a delight. Remind me when we're done, I'll make sure to grab it so you can see, it's going to be a wonder.
I hadn't done the game master thing yet. It always seemed kind of overwhelming and I waited, and I put it off as long as they would let me, because I didn't think I'd be very good at it. I finally was kind of forced into it and we found this game, Blades in the Dark, that's about theft and heists, and I liked that kind of thing. I think that that kind of thing is cool and a nice change of pace from murdering your way through caves or whatever happens in others.
I am a huge theme park nut, I always have been. I think that they are fascinating. I think I even like reading and understanding and learning about them more than I like actually being there. It's more like a hobby. No, I'm the most annoying person to walk around Disney World with. You do not want to look every fucking four steps at some other dumb thing I've got to point out. I love that kind of stuff.
So I was like, "Well, okay, if I were going to make a world that could incorporate all this junk in my brain, then I would make a giant park like that on a grander scale." So the theme worlds, in this park I called Steeplechase, the theme worlds are layers stacked on top of each other, and each layer is a completely immersive sim. I love immersive stuff like that, too, like Sleep No More, things like that where it's bringing you into the experience, so I thought this would be amazing.
I kind of made my dream place to go to, and then the show, as we've gone on, has really been about me wrestling with these ideas of a society obsessed with entertainment and obsessed with distraction. I'm not coming out as a cultural critic, because I'm very much lumping myself in with that, this idea that you lose yourself so deeply in distraction and entertainment that you lose contact with the world around you or forget what you would consider your actual or real life.
That has been the thing that I've been sort of exploring with it, is what is the impact of that? What kind of obligation do you have to the real world and the people around you versus losing yourself in it in a fiction? Very aware, the whole time, that we are making an escapist fiction at the same time as I'm talking about this, so it is a little bit of an ouroboros, but yeah, that's what it's been.
Also, that's a very highfalutin way of describing it, and I'm terrible at describing stuff in ways where people would actually want to listen to it, but I swear it's a lot more fun than that. There's a layer that's like a noir crime kind of deal, so I watched a bajillion, every noir movie I could get my hands on to really tap into that aesthetic. There's a fantasy layer where we've incorporated elements from previous Adventure Zone shows. There's a reality show dating kind of thing.
But that's the idea. Every layer is people pursuing their fantasies while these three creeps try to rob them blind, so it's been a lot of fun. We're heading toward the end, I think. The next few episodes, probably, it's finally wrapping up, it'll be somebody else's problem, but I feel really good about what I've been able to do.
When I started, it seemed so overwhelming until I realized it's just like eating an airplane. You start, you’ve got to take it into really small chunks, and then eventually, you're halfway through the wings.
It's a really fun listen.
Again, you have some really exciting ideas in there.
I read no internet feedback at all. No Reddit, Twitter, nothing about it, so when someone does tell me that they like it, it is a genuine delight because I'm basically in a vacuum, and my wife won't listen, so I don't know.
It's very fun on the ground, like you were saying. It is three interesting people stealing interesting stuff from a cool place. There is just something that you were talking about when it comes to escapism where it's just, escapism as a genre is a reflection of the society from which you're trying to escape, right?
I think that you're pulling out some interesting strings in the show when it comes to how creative work is valued, how it's not, how people engage with it, how it's not how people engage with creators. I'd love to hear a little bit more on how you feel about that.
I can't help but notice that at the time that AI is attempting to replicate a lot of the creative efforts of people who really try at making art, you have an element of the show that's talking a little bit, I think, or at least reflecting a little bit of some of that subtle change.
It's weird, right? That was not a conversation when it started. It's moving very rapidly. The idea that a computer could do a reasonable facsimile of me, Justin McElroy? I'm not exactly like a once-in-a-generation talent. I'm like a bunch of SNICK and Pee-wee's Playhouse, and then I had an acting major, and you stir all those together. I'm not one of the A-listers there. I feel like a computer could get me pretty quickly, honestly, but seeing that start to take place, that's been tough, right? Because I didn't ever think that would happen to me. I still don't for me, specifically, but there's definitely a future where this stuff is algorithmically generated. It's scary. It freaks me out.
I have AI characters in the story and a lot of those AI characters, we call them “hard light,” and it's basically a hologram that has feeling, that can feel things, tactile, and they're very much having conversations about sentience and what it is to be alive. We have a few different characters and classes of people who are trying to break out of that idea, that if you have been created by someone else, are you devoid of creative energy? Can creative energy exist being created by a computer? Again, there's a nice thing about this: I don't have any answers. I'm just doing a role-playing podcast. You can think about it all you want in your own time. I’ve just got to fill 60 minutes and then I'm out.
A computer doing a reasonable facsimile, like animatronics, are a fundamental element of the history of theme parks.
Yeah, and those have continued to improve. When you look at it, Lincoln was the first one, and that was very much a Walt Disney passion project, wanting to create a Lincoln that could be entertaining on its own.
There was so much work that went into that, and such a big valley between the real and the fake, and that valley obviously has continued to shrink. Animatronics were a big part of what I was thinking about with Steeplechase. Specifically, the Carousel of Progress is an attraction at Disney World, and it is the only attraction at Disney World, as far as I know, that was directly worked on by Walt Disney, because it was created for the '64 World's Fair and then it was adapted to the form it finds itself now in Walt Disney World.
It is the stage show that has had the most performances of any show in America. It's about a family through the generations, and basically the stage is split into a four-quadrant pie and the audience is in a big ring that moves around to the different quadrants, which is the same family in different eras.
I started thinking about how these animatronics have done this show more times than anybody on earth. If you start to let your imagination go a little bit, especially with the AI stuff happening, you're like, "Well, what if they realize that?"
You know what I mean? What happens when they're like, "Wow, I'm tired of doing this show over and over again"? And I find that a really interesting thing to think about.
That's really fun. Again, it's definitely worth checking out. It's a good entrance point, I think, if folks are interested in checking out the podcast.
Yeah, all of our arcs are sort of self-contained. “Steeplechase” is a fine place to start if you can deal with me shaking off the jitters for the first three episodes.
It's great stuff. Last thing I wanted to throw on the table is that you've been doing graphic novel adaptations of the first The Adventure Zone arc, Balance. How's that been? You just have a new one out this year. I think there's a new one coming out next year.
Usually, about one a year.
How's that experience been?
It's amazing. Honestly, it's a weird project where so much of me is in it from where we did The Adventure Zone, but it's such a team project. Obviously, Carey Pietsch, she's the artist for the series, she's bringing so much to it and creating so much of the visual language of that world. My dad, Clint McElroy, has been a comic book writer for many, many, many years, so he's really taken the lead on it, and I'm mainly tweaking the dialogue from my characters, putting in more boner jokes and stuff.
It's funny because they were so wildly successful. I think the first two or three were number one New York Times bestsellers on a specific chart, like a pretty specific chart, which no one ever puts on the book jacket, right? New York Times bestseller in self-help paperback trade version number eight. No, but this is a number one, I could say; yes, I'm a number one New York Times bestselling author, and what I did was I told my dad to make these few jokes better.
That is why in my freaking obituary, it'll say number one New York Times bestselling author, because I told my dad that "Kenny Chesney might be a funnier reference here than Jimmy Buffett. Why don't we do Kenny Chesney?" Okay, great. Here's your bestseller plaque. No, but they don't send you bestseller plaques. My dad made one for me for Christmas. It was beautiful. I have it hanging up and I can tell people like, "Yeah, I punched up my dad's jokes. No problem."
Wow. Justin McElroy, New York Times bestselling author.
Number one. Sorry.
Sorry. Thank you. You don't want to be that guy, but...
I apologize. Justin McElroy, number one New York Times bestselling author on a specific chart.
Several-time number one. No.
Where can folks find you? Where can they enjoy more of your work?
My manager gets mad at me because I always give people the wrong address, but it's themcelroy.family. If you go there, you'll find all of our stuff. Tours are there. We got a few more shows this year. Videos, podcasts, whatever you like, it's all there waiting for you.
Well, hey, thanks for coming on.
Hey, thanks for having me, Walter.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.