“Adam Ruins Everything” is quickly becoming one of TV’s most intriguing hybrids. Part TED Talk, part sketch comedy catchall, with a dash of existential meditation on human interaction on top, the truTV show currently in its second batch of episodes is quietly carving out its own niche in the basic cable landscape.
It’s the logical evolutionary step for a generation raised on “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” only in this iteration, the host has swapped out the lab coat for a bespoke suit and matching pocket square. Star and creator Adam Conover began the show as a CollegeHumor web series back in 2014, tackling public assumptions of dog breeding and engagement rings and tipping at restaurants, before bringing the format to a half-hour TV format last fall.
Covering some of the same area as they did on the web, the truTV iteration of “Adam Ruins Everything” has expanded its focus to episodes on cars, nutrition and American workplace practices, all built on a solid foundation of scientific research. On the horizon? An October 25 special all about the current presidential election.
Like its late-night politi-centric counterparts, “Adam Ruins Everything” is becoming a fresh gateway for reexamining areas of American culture. And given the origins of the show and the variety of its week-to-week subject matter, the “Adam Ruins Everything” format isn’t tied specifically to television. (The podcast of the same name is also serving up regular expert deep dives into fields as disparate as cybersecurity and eyewitness testimony.)
We spoke with Conover about the process of shaping each episodes, the show’s diverse staff and what it’s like to turn angry feedback into understanding.
Your first two episodes for this run tackle Hollywood and football, which you could argue are the two biggest pillars of American pop culture right now. Are you bracing for any sort of blowback? Was there any hesitation to go after these?
I’m not worried too much about blowback. The things that we address in the Hollywood episode are very much topics that almost everybody in the industry knows. If you live in LA, you see For Your Consideration billboards, but most people in America don’t know how big a part campaigns play and that it’s this huge industry. No one is trying to protect that information.
In terms of the football episode, we come to a very strong conclusion about how unsafe the type of football played today is as a sport. Children should not be allowed to play it and I don’t think any adult should make the choice to play the game. We basically say that the game’s going to die unless it’s changed. And I feel very strongly about that, based on our reading and our research. That’s a much stronger stance than most people make and so I don’t know if anyone’s gonna come down on us and say, “How dare you!” But we are on the edge of the spectrum there, for sure.
When you’re breaking an episode, does it start with a news story that you then sort of build out to a greater topic, or do you set out to look at something like weddings and work the research in?
We mostly focus on starting from the story level because the stories are hard to find. A lot of times, we’ll start on our story and find that it doesn’t really work as well as we thought it would. We never want to force a story into the shape of the show when it doesn’t warrant it. That’ll tend to happen when we say, “Okay, we’re doing our episode about chairs or whatever. What are three things that we’re gonna expose about chairs?!”
The writers and the researchers we find are people have been reading magazines and listening to podcasts, reading journalism for the last twenty years and have a broad base of knowledge. There’s no replacement for having a burning desire to talk about something: “I know this and other people need to know!” And so we try to start from the topics that we have that about.
Some of these issues that you talk about, they require a lot of people to make a significant change, but include small, personal, everyday things that you can do in your life. How do you find the balance between that — not just going after big things every week?
We very much try to do both things on the show. The way to describe the show is kind of a liberal arts comedy show. For this run, we do some episodes that are about cultural artifacts, like the history of the American wedding tradition. Then we also talk about huge, systemic problems. We’re doing an episode about the U.S. immigration system and all the problems it has. We’re doing an episode about the U.S. prison system. But we do still try to end the episodes with an individual call to action to people to say, “Hey! If you’ve seen this and you’re concerned about this, here’s something you can do today.” We found that people really, really enjoy that element of it.
How much of a role does that play in deciding the topics you go after?
We talk about the need to find a call to action on the show, to not leave it too academic and leave people feeling hopeless. I’m an extremely un-cynical person and the show is anti-cynicism. There is a part of the show that attracts people who have a cynical worldview or appeals to the cynicism in people.
We learned a big lesson last year, when we did an episode on the voting system. We talked about structural problems like the electoral college causing votes to be weighted differently. A surprisingly large part of the audience took that to say, “Well, I’m not voting!” Even though the end of the episode says, “You need to go out and vote because our democracy’s been more unequal and had worse problems in the past! It was less equitable, but we have moved towards a place where it’s more equitable because people have used democracy to make democracy better, right? Democracy is self-correcting, so therefore you need to go out and vote.”
That’s what we say at the end of the episode. Too many people, in our opinion, watched the episode and said, “I’m not voting because of these problems. My vote doesn’t count for anything.” And so we took notice of that because us as writers, we don’t wanna sanction that cynicism. And so that’s something we’re very aware of.
Because it’s not just enough to point out and say, “This is bad!”
Yes! Exactly. I don’t wanna spoil anything, but the show does have a storyline, right? That’s one of the things we’re proud of, that we also manage to work in a character arc for my character. A big part of that for this run is the tension between what he does — in terms of pointing out problems — and the need to take action in the world. He still has to confront the fact that it’s not enough just to criticize and observe problems, that that something has to be done at the end of the day.
The show is built on transparency, especially with citing all research onscreen. Have you gotten any feedback on specific episodes about why did you use this specific sort of research rather than another one?
Absolutely. Listing the sources means that rather than someone saying, “You’re a liar!” or “You’re mischaracterizing!” or whatever, they can say, “You used the wrong source. You misinterpreted the data.”
Because mistakes are going to happen, right? We don’t claim to be infallible. I don’t claim to be giving you truths from on high. We did our research and so if someone wants to debate us, then we’re happy to have a conversation about data, about sources, which ends up automatically being much more productive.
That’s why it’s really important to us. Having the sources onscreen, I initially did it because I’m a comedian and I wanted to show the audience that they had a good reason to believe me. People really love it and it almost makes me surprised that it’s not more common practice. When I see other shows making factual claims and they don’t do it, I’m like, “Why don’t we all just do this?” All these shows have research departments, they’re all getting it from somewhere. Why not just toss it up there for the same reason that a book or an article that has a bibliography at the end?
Between the actors that you cast and the scientists and the experts that you bring in, it’s a wide, diverse range.
We really pride ourselves on diversity. The diversity in our creative staff is really strong.
We do that because we’re looking for stories that are outside. I wanna be surprised by the stories too and so we had people bring in — without spoiling anything too much — we had writers bring stories to the table that we wouldn’t have gotten if we had eight white guys in the room. We also make sure that in terms of the cast that there are a lot of times where Adam, the character, cedes the floor to another character.
With the first run of episodes, you talked about very personal issues that don’t get discussed very much. Is there a limit to what you guys would cover?
I don’t think there’s any limit whatsoever. It’s really anything about human society or the universe. There are certain topics that we are saving because we wanna make sure that we can do them extraordinarily properly when we do them. We’re aware of that, but there’s really nothing that you can’t talk about if you talk about it honestly and responsibly and transparently. I believe that very strongly.