Clint McElroy is a man of many talents, many careers, and, especially lately, many voices. Serial Box listeners know him as the voice of Ben Franklin in 1776. But residents of the Huntington, WV area have known him for years as the co-host of WTCR’s morning show. And podcast listeners know him as the voice of dwarf cleric Merle Highchurch, and now reluctant cryptid-hunter Ned Chicane, on the D&D/comedy podcast The Adventure Zone, which Clint makes with his three sons—and for which Clint has also written the graphic novel adaptation, coming this summer. His is a wide-ranging career, but it all makes sense when you see it through the lens of serials: telling big stories, over time, with humor and care.
I talked to Clint about comics, podcasts, American history, and what makes Ben Franklin so damn fascinating.
What was your relationship to Ben Franklin and the American Revolution before you started working on 1776?
I went through the usual steps in school, studying history. But then, about 15 years ago, I got cast in the musical 1776 as John Adams. I always like to research, and I had a basic handle on the history and the founding fathers, but I really got into researching John Adams—the McCullough book was like a bible for me. And the show itself shows so much about what these people went through, the risk they were taking, risking their very lives and families and what little property or fortune they had, and it really changed how I saw the founding fathers.
Right after I did the show, we took a vacation to Philadelphia, and we did the tour, and I can honest-to-God say it changed my life. It really opened my eyes about a lot of things. And ever since, I’ve picked up every book I could about that time in history.
And that’s snuck into The Adventure Zone, too—there were Ben Franklin allusions in the game you led recently.
When my mini-arc came about, I’d been kicking around for years and years this idea about a person feeling like they had a legitimate claim to be the King of the USA. Probably 25 years ago, I sold a comic book premise, a different telling of that story, almost an alt-history. And so my mini-arc played off of that.
I think Ben Franklin was the first superstar in American life. He was Leonardo, he was Prince. He really was an incredible human being, not only a genius but incredibly funny. I think he was the first prototype of what Americans could strive to be. I’ve always just been fascinated with Franklin and how he kind of manipulated and molded what happened. He was a very complex guy.
Serial Box fans might just know you from 1776, but you’ve had a long and varied career in serialized narrative. Does that start with comics?
I’ve been a comic book fan since my dad picked me up a Superman 80-page annual when I was ten years old. I’ve always loved it. I think it’s such an important medium. Even if gigantic movies come along and kinda supplant comics a little bit, they’re never going to go away.
Marvel started serialized stories first—they started having these continuing arcs where the story really developed, instead of just How is the Flash gonna use his power to solve this month’s issue? But they didn’t invent it, obviously, if you look back on movie serials. I’m still a big fan of those, too.
But then also in my radio career, I worked mornings for 44 years, and we had a lot of running characters that actually developed over the years. In a way, those were serialized radio. When I retired from radio, four or five months ago, it was because I wanted to be involved in more of this kind of storytelling. It’s always going to be powerful, especially having those earbuds in your ears—it’s an intimate medium.
Which brings us, in a way, back to The Adventure Zone. It started as a simple, funny show—three brothers and their dad play D&D. But over time, it became much bigger and deeper than that. Justin [one of Clint’s sons] has described it as a car that, while you were driving, you discovered could fly. What was it like seeing a fun, silly idea develop over the course of several years?
I’m not sure if I totally have a handle on it yet. When you work in radio, you don’t get instant feedback, and in some ways, podcasting is like that, too—you can see how many downloads you have, but that isn’t an accurate showing of how many people listen. So I was really knocked down at our first live show in Boston. It was sold out, but the thing I’ll never forget—I’ve been on stage hundreds of times, but we stepped on that stage in Boston, and they went berserk. The energy, the love that these people had, it caught me flat-footed. When people talk about it, it’s not just “this was a funny gag,” it’s the heart that it shows. At the start, our characters didn’t really get along very well, and there was a lot of messing around and goofing off, but it reached a point where we suddenly realized we were onto something a lot bigger than we had ever imagined. That, yeah, this car can fly.
And now you’ve turned the first arc of that story into a graphic novel—what’s that process been like?
It’s been really fun. Obviously we wanted to maintain the kind of meta atmosphere of three guys and a dad playing this game, but at the same time, the story itself became the center of things. Some of the humor is audio-based, and without the delivery—and I’m a big fan of delivery—some things just don’t work. But other things work better when you have a visual element. So enhancing the visual element was a challenge. But we also got to come up with new things. All in all, the majority of what people loved in the podcast is also right there inside the comic.
Circling back to 1776, has working on that changed your understanding of Ben Franklin?
I had forgotten how damn funny he was. He really was far ahead of his time. I’m a big student of comedy, and to me, funny is funny is funny, and it doesn’t make any difference if it’s from a podcast a week ago or in front of the British parliament 350 years ago. In doing the research and reading I did, you can’t escape how funny Ben Franklin was, how witty he was.
I gotta tell you, you talk about research, the AP writers who wrote 1776, it is absolutely incredible the depth of detail that they’ve brought to it. It honestly is transporting. It makes you feel like you’re really experiencing it. I think if we understand the situation and if we understand those people, we’ll see they were just like us, they were just just trying to live, and you can identify with that. I think it’s really good to be a patriot. That’s become a kind of a negative word, but in the true definition of it, if it’s about loving your country, well, you have to understand a thing before you can love it.
The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins will be published July 17. The Adventure Zone (the podcast) is newly into its second story now, Amnesty, which means it’s a good time to get onboard. And the latest episode of 1776 is all about Ben.