There are just too damn many TV shows these days. It's reached the point where I've lost the capacity for white lie politeness when friends wax poetic about their new favorite shows that I just have to watch and have begun honestly respond, "Cool. I'm probably never going to watch that." Our time is finite, after all. But when pressed about the shows I happen to be watching there are three responses I give. The first two are niche, but highly lauded by TV critics and comedy nerds: BoJack Horseman and Review. The third is the wildcard: truTV's Adam Ruins Everything. It's the one I safely assume no one I encounter watches, and that's a problem. Because it's delightful.
Adam Ruins Everything is infotainment in the truest sense of the word. The show centers on the titular Adam Conover, a walking umm, actually fact checker that "looks like a pidgeotto went to grad school" who forcibly inserts himself into other characters' conversations and "ruins" their favorite things by exposing various truths. Originally created as a College Humor web series, the show puts serious research into debunking commonly held misconceptions about everything from engagement traditions to vitamins to fingerprint evidence to hymens (even citing articles and research papers on screen). But it isn't just some dry televised term paper, Adam Ruins Everything surprisingly has more of a sitcom feel, where narratives arcs stretch across episodes and reoccurring characters grow throughout the series. Throw in Adam's qausi-magical ability to summon experts and transport to needed locations or dimensions in order help with his explanations, and you've got a uniquely quirky show where laughs and learning share equal footing.
To help promote the Adam Ruins Everything's currently-running second season (which airs Tuesdays at 10 on truTV), Conover is hitting the road with Adam Ruins Everything Live!. The live event features an hour of all new material never before seen on TV, and it focuses on the topic of the presidential election. A multimedia mix of a standup show and a comedy TED Talk, Conover explores the history of the American election system and presidents history to contextually understand how we've arrived at this insane election. The Adam Ruins Everything Live! tour kicks off in Seattle at the Showbox next Tuesday, September 13.
For the latest edition of our Points of Reference series, we chatted with Conover about the pop culture—from Jon Stewart's snark to his partner's BoJack Horseman cartoons—that influenced Adam Ruins Everything.
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
My greatest influence as a comedian is Jon Stewart. I just really grew up watching him as a comedian, and what he taught me—and what I think he taught everybody—was what a powerful place comedy could have in society. That comedy was capable of talking about real issues in real time, and could actually move the needle of society and culture by doing so. That’s the top of the mountain top for comedians; that’s the highest aspiration. I never put what we do in the same class, but I think we are trying to get to the top of the same mountain. [We similarly try to] not talk down to the audience, trusting that they will be there for you to do comedy about serious issues.
Mid-way through making the first season, I suddenly realized how similar our show is to all the children’s educational television I watched growing up. Shows like Beakman’s World and Bill Nye the Science Guy made serious scientific topics very light and fun. They made it exciting to learn those things.
Everyone remembers Bill Nye the Science Guy, and he’s even coming back with a new show, but I actually liked Beakman’s World even more than Bill Nye. It was more explicitly a comedy show. And also, like me, the guy who hosted it—Paul Zaloom, who played Beakman—was not a scientist, he was an actor who was educating himself and playing that role. But the information that they gave was really good, really visual, and really stuck with you. That sort of style wasn’t something I ever intended to bring back, but halfway through making the show I was like oh, we kind of did.
Growing up, The Simpsons was a huge comedic influence on me. And as a sketch writer that was really huge. [Adam Ruins Everything] kind of came from the synthesis as me as a standup comic who’s also a sketch comedy writer. And like so many people in this generation of comedy writers, I inhaled The Simpsons. The show sort of taught me how to write comedy.
I loved the idea that someone could say something and right next to them would be a character who is referenced by that, or a character who is going to react to that, or the person from history. And they could just be standing there, say one funny line, and then the scene ends. That was the first place I saw the comedic tool of that sort of anything is possible world building being used.
When we started I wanted to make the best most ambitious show possible and since we had established in the original web shorts that Adam sort of lived in a world with Emily—she’s the most common person I’m interrupting—it sort of made sense to every time we added a detail to build on it and ask what does that detail mean? If this, then what else? I somehow knew from the get-go that the most unexpected thing that we could do on the show would be, in addition to all the facts, to add story. That was something we were shooting, and it’s something we’re still developing. It’s a very hard needle to thread. We’re trying to do comedy and information and story all at once. I can’t think of another show that tries to do things like that.
I always like shows where as you’re watching it you think it’s one thing, and then a little bit of story leaks in, and connecting threads start to form, and you realize there’s something larger going on. The show this happened most recently to me with was Steven Universe on Cartoon Network. It’s one of the best shows on television. It starts out like a monster of the week show, with a little kid fighting a monster every week. But then as the show goes, they sort of start to drop little narrative hints of a larger story. And you start to get really excited cause you’re like wait, there’s more here that they haven’t uncovered.
I sort of wanted to bring that element to the show a little bit. So this year on the show, we sort of build out Adam’s world. So we meet Adam’s family, we see where Adam lives, and things like that.
99% Invisible, Planet Money, and This American Life
I’m a huge podcast fan. I, like everyone else, have been listening to the podcast revolution over the last ten years. Shows like 99% Percent Invisible, Planet Money, and even This American Life to a certain extent really taught me how even the driest topics can be made interesting if presented in the right way, if you find the story within them. They showed me it was possible to mix history and storytelling in a way that really makes the topics really stand up and breathe and take a life of their own.
I’ll give you an example: we have an episode coming up on housing. That’s the topic, housing. Which sounds very dry. It came from the fact that we were talking, and there’s a rental housing crisis in America right now that nobody is talking about. Rents are sky high. Literally every city, they’re like rent is so high here that we can’t live here. You haven’t heard the presidential candidates talk about that once, but it’s a major, major problem in the U.S.
So we wanted to talk about the issue. And we said, well that’s very dry. How do we make it interesting to people? We’re talking about housing policy. We’re talking about the effect Airbnb has on cities. We’re talking about homeless polices. We’re talking about renting versus buying. And the idea that we came up with was that Adam would be kicked out of his house, and so Adam the character is looking for a new place to live. And that’s sort of our narrative through line connects the story together. It turns it from a very dry topic into a story.
My partner Lisa Hanawalt, who I’ve been with for eight years now, is a cartoonist and an illustrator. She’s the head illustrator of BoJack Horseman. She drew all the characters and all the background for that show. And she also has a new book out called Hot Dog Taste Test, that’s her own cartoons. She’s a constant inspiration to me because instead of staying in her lane artistically and just doing TV character designs and comics, she’s constantly exploring new modes of expression. Her book includes ceramics pieces she did, travel logs, and prose writing. She just did music video for Tegan and Sara. That sort of fearlessness and creative ambition, and that inability to say no and stop herself from pursuing those things, is really inspiring to me. It’s a constant motivating force to push ourselves to try new things and go in new directions with the show and not be complacent.
Adam Ruins Everything Live!
Sept 13, The Showbox, $33