My first experience with Adam Ruins Everything—the truTV series where comic Adam Conover debunks popular narratives around everything from restaurants to football—was like starting the Star Wars saga with Empire Strikes Back. It’s great, but whoa.
“You are going to die,” Conover says, a camera pushing in on him throughout the monologue. “You, the person listening to me right now, are going to die. It’s difficult to even imagine, isn’t it? Take a moment and try to picture what it’s like to not exist. You can’t do it.” It’s ponderous and philosophical, and then it shifts on a dime. And then it shifts again. You should watch it:
It reminded me how much of comedy—of entertainment—is about the artist staying just slightly ahead of what you expect. That’s more or less how Adam Ruins Everything works. With the series back tonight, starting with an episode about Hollywood, we called up Conover to talk about the absurdity of awards shows, what would make The Bachelor even better and the ever-blurring line between comedy and news.
Your first episode of this batch is about Hollywood misconceptions, and you got Golden Globe winner Rachel Bloom from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to appear without makeup. Did that take much convincing?
We knew we wanted to do a Hollywood episode about awards shows and how much marketing goes into winning awards. Rachel Bloom and I go back years to when we performed in basement clubs in New York, and I worked on her first music video. She actually pitched us the idea of doing something about Hollywood style and how everything is chosen by stylists and marketers.
The episode demystifies that without deglamorizing it. Neither of you is saying, “Don’t wear the $3,000 shoes.”
The thesis of the show is that learning about something may be temporarily uncomfortable because it dispels your naive notions about how the world works, but it’s always better to know more. One of the themes of that episode is that so much of Hollywood is an illusion, but once you understand the illusion it’s more fun to watch reality shows, award shows, etc., because you have another level of things to talk about—how the producers get the bachelor to say crazy things, how the dresses are chosen for red carpets.
You’re pretty rough in this episode on how icky the campaigning is with the fairly small group of voters who decide the Golden Globes awards.
In Los Angeles, this stuff is not a secret. It’s just not talked about as much outside of Hollywood. Like anybody who makes a TV show, I would love to win an Emmy myself. I want to make this our Emmy submission episode next year as kind of a meta-wink about the process. We expose things, but we don’t do so in a way that’s disrespectful or accusatory, so I would hope that people in the industry would watch the episode and say, “Yep, this is how it works.”
So much of Hollywood is an illusion, but once you understand the illusion it’s more fun to watch.
For the Emmys in particular, where the guild members—actors, directors, tradesmen—are voting for the awards, do you think all of the marketing even works?
It works. It’s not like whoever spends the most money wins automatically, but the voters are people just like anyone else. Marketing works on people. We like to think that we’re above advertising, but we’re really not. When Netflix first started winning awards, you could tell living in L.A. that they had great marketing. The first year they won a lot of Emmys, they spent a massive amount of money on For Your Consideration campaigns.
Netflix has run some good award campaigns and won a lot of Emmys.
Before Netflix started winning Emmys, people weren’t even sure whether to call it television. People would joke that House of Cards should win Webby Awards. Netflix got it from the beginning that it would need to win Emmys to be taken seriously as a TV network, and then Amazon did the same thing with Transparent.
I was surprised that an Oscar campaign can cost $10 million. What’s so expensive? The ads? Billboards?
It’s billboards; it’s sending out thousands of DVD screeners with very expensive packaging. They have swanky cocktail parties that are very expensive.
I have thought about reality TV in terms of producers manipulating vs. talent acting, but your take is that it’s a lot more complicated than that.
There are a lot of different ways that reality shows are produced. Some shows have actual scripts that are covered by the Writers Guild. On The Bachelor, there was a scene where Ben dumped a girl on an island and then boated away and left her on the island. There’s a helicopter shot of this girl alone on the beach. She probably had to stand there for an hour while they got that helicopter shot ready, and then they probably had to do it twice. It’s fun to watch the show knowing that. Wrestling has gotten more popular since they stopped pretending it was real.
Your background is comedy. Why do something with a journalistic approach instead of a sitcom or a talk show?
It’s what I’m interested in doing. After you do comedy for a while, you realize that just making people laugh is a little cheap. I wanted to work a little more on what to make people laugh about. What story am I telling? People are interested in learning more about the world and how to make things better, and I wanted to make a show that leans into that.
Do you think you’re in the same space as politically engaged shows like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee?
Those are two of the best shows on TV, so I would never say I’m in their category. We are doing a show on immigration later this year that is political and topical, but instead of saying “Donald Trump is an idiot,” we’re going back through the history of the immigration issue to try and change the way people look at it. The big thing I learned from watching Jon Stewart is that comedy can make a valuable contribution to the discussion and actually change people’s minds.
You started Adam Ruins Everything at CollegeHumor, which is a digital studio like RocketJump and Funny or Die. Is there still much of a difference between digital studios and traditional Hollywood studios?
The people I developed the show with at CollegeHumor—Sam Reich and Jon Feldman and others—made an episode online and had a reel to show to networks. If we hadn’t done it first at CollegeHumor, we would never have gotten it off the ground. If we had taken a pitch as a sketch comedy show with a self-deprecating host who gets made fun of a lot, the networks would have said, “I don’t know. Can you sit behind a desk?” You have to see it to understand it.
Are you doing what you always wanted to do, or do you have some other things in mind?
I’m doing what I want to do. I’m lucky to have a show with my name in the title where I get to say what my writers and I want to say. We get to share ideas that we care about in a very funny and unmediated way, and that’s the holy grail for any comedian.
Adam Ruins Everything airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on truTV.