The week that I met Adam Conover, the elaborately pompadoured stand-up comedian and Bard College philosophy graduate who hosts TruTV’s comedy explainer series Adam Ruins Everything, had been a particularly rough one for entertaining public service television.
First, Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show, a late night comedy show that kept a relentless focus the racial divide in our country, had been unceremoniously canceled by Comedy Central due to low ratings. Then John McLaughlin, the Screaming Mimi conservative moderator whose McLaughlin Group reinvented the political talkshow by upping the yelling and partisanship, died at age 89, a week after missing his first taping in 34 years. Wilmore’s show, the pundits suggested, was a victim of choosing issues over jokes in a way that put off the young men that his channel coveted. Meanwhile, McLauglin’s stratospheric success in the 80s and 90s was a pyrrhic one, bringing him fame and fortune but forever cheapening public policy discussion to the point that it now resembles WWE.
Conover, who calls his show “liberal arts comedy” and takes his responsibility to the public as seriously as any public service host, is trying to chart a middle course. Rather than rely on loud opinion, Conover’s show, which had its midseason debut on TruTV Tuesday, August 23, bludgeons you softly with facts. He keeps this dry toast buttered with ceaseless comic bits and a goofy overarching concept that has him playing a version of his real self who runs around harshing the world’s assumed knowledge mellow with the truth about everything from summer vacation to the prison system to reality TV.
“All my life I have been the guy who always says, ‘Oh I think I read a thing about that and you know it’s actually true about that is yada yada,’ ” says Conover, who claims to have read every issue of the New Yorker cover to cover until the show sucked away his reading time. “The reaction that I got when I would do that from people when I did that was not always good. So I just sort of made that into the show.”
The concept of the show grew organically, germinating out of a widely viewed College Humor video where Conover repurposed information from an Atlantic article to show the engagement ring industry is a total scam. It was picked up for series by TruTV, which was in middle of rebranding as a comedy channel with shows like Impractical Jokers and How to Be a Grown Up. The series has found enviable crossover appeal, drawing in kids and parents, and pretty much anyone looking to out Cliff Clavin the rest of beer line at a party. It is a concept that really should not work as well as it should in this anti-mansplaining era we live in, but it does, buoyed in no small part by Conover’s convivial spirit and optimism.
“People who only know the show superficially accuse it of being cynical and the fact is this show is profoundly uncynical,” says Conover over lunch on in the lone trailer on the Los Feliz set of his show, which is currently shooting an episode about the justice system. “As a comedian, I am attracted to truths that are uncomfortable. I like funny bummers. That’s what we look for on this show, like, ‘Oh man doesn’t this suck.’ It is sort of like the comedy equivalent of something really violent or tragic happening. It is the same thing but for knowledge. But at the end you’re always better off for having looked at the world straight on and face the true facts.”
Conover adds, as he breaks a fork tyne on a creole shrimp, “Once you do you are finally equipped to make things better. That is just a very deep core belief of mine.”
It is a curious form of hybrid comedy. According to Conover, it comes from crossing his study of philosophy in college (he learned German to study Kant and spent his senior thesis trying to “solve the fucking mind-body problem”), his a love of the science based TV shows he watched as a kid (he calls Beakman’s World and Bill Nye the Science Guy “the golden age of children’s educational commercial television”) and his devotion to the comic principals of the man Comedy Central desperately wishes was guiding us through the 2016 election.
“Growing up as a comedian the most influential person on me was Jon Stewart,” says Conover, who chose comedy after college over a Ph.D. in philosophy because, among other things, the pay was much better. “He showed that comedy could have a real tangible effect on the world. He showed that comedy could move the needle of society and that a comic can do real things and make a real contribution. I still believe that that is the highest thing that comedy can do, actually affect the world around us.”
I remind him that there are other professions where one can be an agent of change without there being a two drink minimum, like social worker, or teacher. He insists that they are not for him. “I am not an educator and I’m not a journalist,” says Conover, who grew up on the North shore of Long Island the son of a marine biologist and a botanist. “I am a comedian. But I do truly believe that the point of comedy is to make the world around one better. This is the means by which I try to do that.”
His public service to clear away the fog of assumed knowledge, which can look and feel a lot like ignorance. In the midseason premiere, for example, he takes on Hollywood, from the showroom floor that is the red carpet the Frankenclip world of highly scripted reality TV. He sometimes aims higher, like immigration or the electoral process. His show on the latter during Adam Ruins Everything‘s first half season, which showed that the electoral college made the one person one vote concept less true than one would hope, lead to the 33-year-old Conover’s first crisis of conscience. (By contrast, McLaughlin went nigh on four decades without having a single one.)
“In the end we say, look, the founding fathers couldn’t bring it about perfectly in their day but they created a system that we have been able to improve through the exercise of democracy,” says Conover, who concludes each episode with a very solutions oriented message. “The conclusion of that show the cure to what ails democracy is more democracy.”
Says Conover, regarding his election episode: There was a bit too much of people tweeting to me, ‘Yes this is what I’ve been saying all along. I’m not going to vote. I watch your episode and you taught me that my vote is meaningless.’ When we read that in the writers’ room, we were, like, ‘That is not what we meant at all. No! What a disaster.’
Unfortunately, that wasn’t how many people responded to that episode. Says Conover, who is still proud of that episode, “There was a bit too much of people tweeting to me, ‘Yes this is what I’ve been saying all along. I’m not going to vote. I watch your episode and you taught me that my vote is meaningless.’ When we read that in the writers’ room, we were, like, ‘That is not what we meant at all. No! What a disaster.’ ”
Conover and the the shows writing and producing staff has been very conscientious about not repeating that mistake again this year. “It is a pitfall of the show,” he says. One thing that everybody loves is, everything you think is true is not. But people especially love it when it’s everything you think you know is false and that means you can be lazier. That’s the opposite of what we want this show to do. We want this show to challenge people’s laziest and worst impulses.”
This sense of shiny, happy and couch-friendly activism that distinguishes Adam Ruins Everything. He is not saying that the system is rigged, as so many people have this election cycle (and yes, he is planning an election special closer to the vote); he is saying it is a little messed up and maybe we can fix it. “With societal problems, it is almost always good people making honest mistakes,” he says. “Sometimes it’s a malefactor, like a corporation that gets its way a little bit too much, or someone who is working for their own interests, and then everyone else went along with it.”
He uses, as an example, private prisons; the day that we met, the Justice Department announced that they would be ending their use. “Private prisons rose because of a combination of some people saying, ‘Hey, let’s make a little bit of money and feed our families,’ and the state saying, ‘You know what, let’s save a little bit of money,’ ” explains Conover. “They get those two ideas together, and they create something really really awful. But it didn’t start that way. It wasn’t some boardroom filled with shadowy people saying, ‘Let’s make something evil.’ ”
Adds Conover, “I am not saying that there are not bad people in the world or bad people in government, but the overweening cynicism that everything is run by this corrupt shadowy cabal is simply just not true. Despite the flaws in our election system, at the end of the day, it is a pretty good one. Believing that everything is some vast conspiracy is dangerous. It keeps people from trying to understand each other or even try to make progress and fix the things we can.”
The second season of Adam Ruins Everything premieres tonight at 10 p.m. ET on TruTV.