We all have that one overzealous friend who is perpetually primed with a Wikipedia-like bank of information just in case someone in their midst might happen to be misinformed about something. Comedian Adam Conover is that friend – and he made a career out of it. “I’ve always been in the habit of correcting people, like, ‘Oh, you’re talking about this. Well, actually, what most people don’t know is…’” Adam Ruins Everything, the CollegeHumor viral video-turned television series, is back tonight at 10pm on truTV with the first of 14 all new episodes. After debunking popular understanding on everything from charitable giving to death, Conover is now taking aim at popular subjects like football, Hollywood, and (as if engagement rings weren’t enough) weddings. I talked to Conover about the history of the show, his upcoming fall tour, and how ruining everything is actually a good thing.
Your show started out as a web series with CollegeHumor. The first segment is where you ruined engagement rings, right?
Yeah. Do you want to hear the origin story?
Let’s go back to the beginning.
I came from an academic background. My folks are all PhDs. I wanted to go to grad school for philosophy, but I couldn’t hack it in college, at least I couldn’t at that level. But I’ve always been in the habit of correcting people like, “Oh, you’re talking about this. Well, actually, what most people don’t know is…” At one point when I was doing standup in New York, while writing for CollegeHumor, I started putting that kind of material in my act, starting with the engagement ring story. It was just something I had read in The Atlantic five years prior. I noticed that people would lean forward in their seats like, “Oh, is that true?” I could see them thinking. Afterwards they would come up and say, “I looked it up after the show.” They would remember it. So I turned it into a sketch for CollegeHumor because I was looking for interesting comedy. It’s one thing to make people laugh, but after a certain point, comedy is almost cheap. It’s easy to make people laugh once you reach a certain level of comedian, but the question is: what else do you give them that keeps them sticking around, makes them remember the bit, makes them come back to the website, makes them watch the show again? What is that extra thing that you’re giving them? So with CollegeHumor I said, “In this case, we’re going to give people information. We’re going to teach them something.” When I wrote it I was sensitive to whether the other writers would hate it. “Oh, here goes Adam again.” So I wrote in two of the other writers, Emily Axford and Brian Murphy, being annoyed by me talking about the information as a way to get ahead of them making fun of me in the writers meeting. That ended up being the combination for the whole series.
How long had you been doing comedy before you decided to make a move to something more educational?
I don’t consider myself an educator. I still consider myself a comedian who is doing comedy that also informs. To me this is just more like what I would like to have been doing the whole time. I think the best comedy enlightens, informs, and changes the way people look at the world. But I have been doing it since 2002. I was in a sketch group called Olde English. We met in college and worked together for six or seven years in New York doing sketch comedy. We went our separate ways, a still ongoing hiatus, in 2009. That’s when I got more serious about doing standup.
I’ve seen the show described as “educational sketch comedy.” Do you think that’s an accurate label?
I think so. The thing about the term educational is that we often think about educational television content being…like reading, writing, science, something like that. That’s not really what the show intends to do. The show is trying to give people more information about reality and the world around them, but it does through so through a process of questioning commonly held beliefs, then investigation, and overturning the structure of society to see what’s underneath. Our project is to engage the audience in critical thinking and ask them to question the world around them. I think that’s slightly different than saying we want to educate people. I want to encourage the audience to question information that they’ve been given and eventually come to their own conclusions. But if people call it educational I’m not going to argue.
This has become a brand for you. If I Google your name I see things like “Comedian Blows the Lid off of the Red Carpet” or “Comedian Just Obliterated All Stereotypes About Millennials.” Your instinct to give people information they might not already have has become how you are recognized. Do people ever come up to you in public and say, “Hey man, you’re really bumming me out with some of this stuff?”
No one has said, “Hey, I wish you didn’t say all those things.” I mean a couple people of said, “Now that my boyfriend saw your video he’s not going to get me an engagement ring.” But they know it’s silly. They’re not really upset. Some people have said, “Oh my God, since I’ve seen your video my girlfriend and I talked…and instead we’re going to take a trip,” or something, which is great. That’s wonderful. The thesis of the show is that learning these things is temporarily uncomfortable. The moment you hear it it’s uncomfortable because you’re like, “Wait a minute. I based my whole life around thinking this way and now you’re telling me it’s not true.” But our show – we hope – gives you a broader perspective. So for the first three acts of the show Adam offers this information and it makes you temporarily uncomfortable. But at the end of the show Adam always says, “Here’s why you’re better off,” which is what I believe. There’s no reason to ever maintain ignorance. For the most part, everyone who comes up to me understands that and is on board with that part of the show.
This has become a successful enterprise for you. You now have a podcast of the same name and you’re getting ready to embark on an Adam Ruins Everything tour of the country. Should we be looking out for a bathroom reader or a feature film?
Right now I’m focusing on creating the best show that we can. I like these other projects, but I want [the show] to be the primary focus. The podcast is a really awesome companion to the show because I get to talk to these experts for a lot longer. Doing the podcast came out of the fact that I would be on set with them chatting during lunch and I would be like, “Oh my God, this stuff you’re saying is so fascinating. We should talk longer.” On the tour we’re going to be doing a really cool synthesis of the TV show and a standup ethic. I will be on stage with slides and live actors in order to illustrate everything. As for a book, other shows, things like that, I’m trying to not spread my efforts out too thin. People have told me there’s potential for a book based on the show, or a bathroom reader, for example. But I’m not a prose writer. I’m not a non-fiction author. When I read books, magazine articles, similar research…it’s our job to spread those to a wider audience. That’s the main function of the show.
You’ve got an election special coming up in October. Can you give us a little preview?
The special is going to be the culmination of the tour. We’re developing the special on the road. We’re going to do a lot of different stories about the election. Obviously this is a very contentious election cycle. It’s really intense and people have very strong feelings about it. Our goal is to talk about why this election feels so crazy and why it should all feel so terrible. We want to do it in a way where anyone in America can watch and laugh and learn something.
In true political fashion I would like to ask if you have any closing remarks before we wrap up.
I’ll say this: I feel like there’s a desire for people to want to prove the show wrong. I saw it a little bit last year and I feel like it’s a little bit more this year. Like, “He got something wrong! You can’t trust Adam because he’s not always right.” One thing I want to be clear about is that the show does not claim to tell you the absolute truth. The process of the show is the process of investigation. We do our research and try to find the best answers we can, then we show our work. The goal of the show is a journey of questioning, investigating, and asking. It’s not the end point.