'How Do You Get Spaghetti Stains Out of Underwear?': An Ode to Yahoo Answers

Justin McElroy
·4-min read
Photo credit: Elaine Chung
Photo credit: Elaine Chung

When my brothers Travis and Griffin and I started an advice podcast in 2010, we only had one major problem. No, no, it wasn’t finding the confidence to tell people how to live their lives—we’re straight white men, that comes naturally.

Our problem was this: Without an established audience, who would we advise? We had a few followers from our work in game journalism, but nowhere near enough people to create a sustainable flow of lost souls that only we could cobble back into fully-functioning humans.

Blessedly, Yahoo Answers was there.

Here was a never-ending font of queries from people desperate enough that they had already resigned themselves to asking internet strangers for help. They had nowhere else to turn and, presumably, an unwillingness or inability to use search engines. They were perfect.

But here’s the shocker: What we initially thought would be an unending source of punchlines actually became a foundational aspect of the aesthetic of not only our show My Brother, My Brother and Me, but, I would argue, all of our family’s creative work.

In Episode Five, we closed with a Yahoo, as is our custom: “Can you take parakeets in the shower with you?” It’s bizarre, right? Hilariously so. But it’s also the most amazing window into the life of a fellow human being. And—like all great Yahoo Answers submissions—this request for an answer just generated more questions.

Were they just standing at the threshold of the shower, bird in hand (way better than two in the bush) just waiting for their answer? Why are they in such a hurry that they can’t clean up individually? And, perhaps most terrifyingly, how the hell did the birds get so dirty?

In the process of asking these questions and coming up with our own bad answers, the anonymous question asker transformed into the—admittedly largely imagined—sketch of a fellow human being. We’ve watched this phenomena repeat with so many Yahoos over the years.

I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think the key to understanding Yahoo Answers is examining the use cases. So, when does one turn to YA?

1. When your query is frankly too strange or embarrassing to ask anyone who knows you in real life. (Consider Episode 37’s “How do you get spaghetti stains out of underwear?”)

2. When your problem is so specific that nearly no one has ever had it before or so non-specific that search engines are rendered useless. (Episode 172: “Where can I get some spaghetti in Denver?”)

3. When you have gotten too high (See also Episode 356: “Did the owners of Prego spaghetti sauce think of Pregnant women when they came up with the name since Preggo is short for Pregnant?")

We enter and leave this world alone, but spend the time in between seeking connection. 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.

“Spaghetti is an Italian dish and ‘prego’ in Italian is an interjection that means ‘please’, ‘after you’, ‘don't mention it’ or ‘you're welcome’, depending on context,” generously answered level 7 YA user Donut Tim. But he might as well have been saying “It’s OK, I’ve gotten too high before myself. We all have. Let’s eat an orange slice and talk about spaghetti for a while.”

It’s been a punchline longer than it hasn’t, but there’s no denying that in losing Yahoo Answers, we’re losing a massive chunk of our online culture, no matter how spaghetti-centric that culture may be.

Gone though it may soon be, its legacy will carry on. The things my brothers and I create, just as an example, will forever be shaped by the sort of surrealist vulnerability and absurdist humanism that Yahoo Answers was so abundant in.

We’ve had so many people ask how we’ll fill the gap that Yahoo Answers will leave in our podcast’s format. We’ll still talk about fast food, we’ll still sort-of-but-not-really help our regular listeners. But how on earth will we find a person so concerned about whether or not “the Loch Ness monster will get into christian heaven” that they’re willing to post on the internet about it? (Ep. 346)

The fact of the matter is this: We have absolutely no idea. The real tragedy? It’s such a specific problem, there’s only one website in history that could have provided an answer.

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