At the “Adam Ruins Everything Election Special” taping earlier this month in Los Angeles, even the warmup jokes had their eyes on politics. As standup comedian Jared Logan primed both the audience and the sound technicians for the ensuing show, he invited the audience to test laugh: “Imagine if Tim Kaine just told a joke.”
After 19 episodes of the truTV show already under their belts, Tuesday night’s special represents the most ambitious “Adam Ruins Everything” project yet: an hour-long examination (and in most cases, refutation) of some of the most commonly held refrains of this election cycle.
It’s the culmination of weeks of nationwide touring and refining, all done during the midst of production on this year’s batch of “Adam Ruins Everything” episodes, which have been airing since late August. Conover, along with writer Gonzalo Cordova and researcher Peter Miller, crafted the framework for the special before the host embarked on a three-week, 15-city tour that helped prep the material before the live taping.
As the show’s eponymous host, Conover is adamant that the show isn’t partisan, but that’s not simply a shortcut to comedic objectivity. He argues that the tour helped to affirm one of this special’s core tenets. “The ultimate thesis of the show is that we’re not that different, that the ‘red team’/’blue team’ is, to some extent, a fiction,” Conover said to IndieWire.
That cross-partisan view of American life also resonated with “Adam Ruins Everything” executive producer (and president of CollegeHumor’s offshoot production arm Big Breakfast) Sam Reich, whose father Robert served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton White House.
“I remember growing up, there was a real stigma against Republicans in our household. But one of his best friends in the whole world was this Republican senator named Alan Simpson. I remember as a kid thinking, ‘How bad can Republicans be if one of my dad’s best friends was one?’” Reich said in an interview. “I think we need a heavier dose of that sentiment coming out of this election. We need to remember in the era of the Facebook echo chamber, we’re all human beings and we all have common interests.”
By the time Conover made it to the Belasco Theater for the final taping, the show’s distinct blend up of standup and sketch was ready to take on election-cycle sentiments like “We’ve never seen anything like this before” and the belief that presidential candidates can buy election results. The special does (inevitably) have a Trump-themed section, but when talking about the state of Washington, there’s a specific balance in the on-screen graphics and jokes depicting current DC mainstays. The Pelosis are right alongside the Ryans, the McConnells framed next to Reids.
“I have a very deep belief that all the problems in society are not because some people are bad and some people are good and we have to get rid of all the wrong people. Everything that we want to fix is because of a flaw in humans in general, something that humans together do incorrectly,” Conover said.
Regular episodes of “Adam Ruins Everything” have tackled everything from weddings to workplaces to hygiene. But this special isn’t its first foray into political issues. The show’s seventh episode touched on voting and last month, the show tackled issues related to immigration. Aside from the logistical challenges of mounting an episode in front of a theater audience, there was the task of keeping this election special within the show’s regular philosophical approach.
“Adam doesn’t want to present his audience with anything they’re already decided about. He wants to surprise people. So we tended to, in Season 1, avoid partisan issues in general,” Reich said. “In doing an election special, we wanted to see how much we could continue to remain faithful to that concept. This isn’t about taking sides, it’s about putting the election into context.”
Another way that Conover and company were able to preserve the feel of the series in a live setting was featuring some of the show’s familiar cutaway gags on stage. In the special, frequent “Adam Ruins Everything” guest stars Adam Lustick and Eliza Skinner run the gamut in on-stage sketches featuring lesser-remembered figures in American politics like Woodrow Wilson’s wife Edith and former Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen.
The special also gave them room to needle some household names like Jeb Bush and former president Lyndon Johnson, the latter of which may have unintentionally offered another of the show’s guiding principles.
“Maybe it had more influence on me than I thought, but there’s a thing that LBJ said: ‘If you do absolutely everything, you’ll win.’ I guess that’s my approach to comedy as well. If we throw everything into the show, hopefully everyone will find something to like. That’s my hope,” Conover said.
Implementing storylines and lessons from beyond this election cycle kept the show from passing a sell-by date by the time it made it to air. (Just think of all the stories that broke in the past 20 days!) But it also helped reinforce another one of the special’s arcs: America’s resilience.
“We’ve had erratic, weird presidents before. America’s still here. Late 19th-century America was basically a plutocratic enterprise while people toiled in mines and died of coal dust poisoning. I’m not saying that America’s guaranteed to be fine, either. But it’s nice to remember that,” Conover said.
One of the hallmarks of the recent political comedy entertainment boom during this election cycle has been an increasing call to action. These shows have realized that it’s not enough to point out how terrible things are: If there’s a need to email the FCC about net neutrality or rally around the importance of midterm elections (even when the next one is still 24 months away) audiences will take note.
Conover explains that they went through a few ideas for this special’s parting shot (including the power of democracy beyond voting and the importance of subscribing to local newspapers). But what they landed on speaks to a show trying to inject some agency into a political environment that threatens to drown out that optimism.
“The direction of the country isn’t controlled by one person on top making decisions. It’s a mass movement of people making a lot of individual decisions that add up to something broader,” Conover said. The particular way that this special invites people to kickstart that process is one that isn’t always proposed as a solution. As long as trolls will be trolls, it’s not a foolproof plan. But Conover is optimistic.
“I do consider it my responsibility, if someone’s coming at me with a lot of ignorance, to try to see what I can do to change their mind. And I hope that other people take that on as well,” Conover said. “But I also think that empathetic dialogue cures a lot more than people think it will. The number of people who you absolutely cannot have a conversation with, who will never let you break down that wall and let you have that dialogue, I think they’re in the vast minority.”
This weekend’s success of “Black Jeopardy” on SNL and the wave of political podcasts frequently reaching across the aisle for weekly guests show that maybe this special might be onto something. If anything, Reich hopes that the show’s fans will help lead the way to amplify this message beyond just those who are predisposed to tuning in.
“We often talk about how ‘Adam Ruins Everything’ is like burying a vitamin in a dog treat. Luckily, now we have people showing up to accept the treat,” he said.