Film and TV

Adam Conover of Adam Ruins Everything on Debunking Myths and How Facts Don't Seem to Matter in This Year's Election

Think you’ve got a good understanding of the world and how it works? Better have a seat, pal, since we’ve got some bad news: Everything you think you know is probably wrong, or, at the very least, a half-truth.

No, really.

Think fingerprints are an infallible methodology of forensic science? Nope. There are flaws. Believe that the Transportation Security Administration prevents terrorist acts from happening? They haven’t so far. And all those canned goods you’re planning to donate to St. Mary’s Food Bank? Better toss 'em, since it's better to give cash instead.

These are just some of the myths and misconceptions that stand-up comedian Adam Conover has debunked over the past few years on Adam Ruins Everything, his hilarious and informative edutainment series that airs on CollegeHumor’s YouTube channel and truTV.

If you’ve never seen the show or any of its segments online, most of which tend to go viral, Conover plays a snarky and dapper know-it-all (basically an exaggerated version of his real-life persona) who debunks many commonly held myths, beliefs, and misconceptions about everything from sex, love, and death to lighter fare like sports and reality television. Each episode features a series of zippy and stylized vignettes about the particular topic where Conover lays down the truth in humorously witty fashion.

Or, as IndieWire describes it, the show is like “part TED Talk, part sketch-comedy catchall, with a dash of existential meditation on human interaction on top.”

What started out as a one-off CollegeHumor video in 2014 that detailed why engagement rings were a ploy by the De Beers company to sell more diamonds became a series of shorts that covered such things as “The Real Reason You're Circumcised” and “Why Tipping Should Be Banned” before getting picked up as a basic cable series by truTV last year.

The show and Conover himself are pretty fearless, having tackled many contentious topics during the first two seasons of Adam Ruins Everything. And this fall, he’s taking on the election process, both in an upcoming episode of the show during a 13-city live tour that comes to Crescent Ballroom this weekend.

Inspired by a previous segment of the television program covering the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College system, Conover’s live show tackles numerous aspects and myths about the election.

During a recent phone interview with New Times, he described it as being like a mixture of an episode of Adam Ruins Everything and a stand-up comedy performance with a series of videos, photos, and graphs projected onto a screen behind him. Just like his show, Conover promises it will be both entertaining and enlightening.

“We definitely on the tour are going to be doing some debunking of some received wisdom about the election system and democracy. But what I'm really excited about is we also bring a historical perspective to the topic, which is something that not many other people do on television certainly,” Conover says. “We're going to have weird presidential history and the history of how our election system got like this.”

New Times
discussed more about the current election season with Conover during our interview, including the fact that facts haven’t seemed to matter all that much, especially when it comes to Donald Trump’s bid to become the POTUS.

After watching your show and videos on College Humor, I’ve gotta ask: Are we just all puppets of corporations and traditions created by companies? I mean, Listerine created bad breath and De Beers made us want to all buy engagement rings.
[Laughs] Well, I know it can seem that way based on the [material] we do on the show, but no, not at all. I mean, obviously that's sort of one of the meta topics of the show is that some things were created by corporations for marketing and that's certainly the type of topic that people like from the show so it's one that we make sure we do a bunch of in every season, but no, it's not the case that corporations have infinite power over us or anything like that, but I think we as a culture underestimate how susceptible we are to marketing. I think most people think that advertising doesn't work on them, if you ask the average person, they'd be like, 'Advertising doesn't work on me. I don't watch the damn ads.' But the truth is that it does to a [certain] extent.

There's an extent to which you can't really escape it where it's something that's sort of done to you. And the striking thing about, say, our more famous topics like the engagement ring one is that the advertising is so powerful it became part of our culture, right. It actually put down roots and even though the originally source of it, De Beers, isn't running those adds any more, it's so deep in the culture that you have to get it out with a backhoe if you wanted to excavate it. It'll probably never happen. It'll probably be a part of our culture forever.

So, more broadly, one of the things with the show is that you can't escape culture. Once something's in there that deeply, you know, you can't just say, "Well, I'm not going to get an engagement ring," because everyone around you is still going to ask, "Hey, where's that engagement ring that you didn't buy?" That's how deep it runs.

But in general, corporations are one group that we talk about but they're not the only one, you know. It's not an anti-corporate show, it's a pro-curiosity, pro-questioning show. And corporations are one of many sort of organizations or forces that can cause the wrong idea and that's because they're looking after their own interests. Corporations are a group that's going to push an agenda that benefits them because that's what they are right? They're an organization that's out for their own skin.

But we also talk this season about how the government's spreading this information, we talk about ... well actually, you probably saw the hydration piece in our feed [recently].

Yeah. It was great.
So, yeah, corporations push the idea of hydration, that you need to hydrate, hydrating is really important, running ads that you've to drink that much water. But if you look at the hydration panic, it's coming from individual people. It's just people spreading it. It's like, we also dramatize the bit about, "I heard it from my source, he heard it from his source."

Hydration is part of the received wisdom of sort of like folk exercise science, like it's just what soccer coaches tell each other. And that is very powerful and it's not just corporations. It's more like when I was growing up and I would say, "I feel a little sick," and my mom would say, "You're dehydrated! Drink some water." That's coming from a different place in addition to the corporate message. So ... I sort of went a long way with that. I hope I answered your question.

Have people been resistant to the fact's you're present on the show? In other words, they say, "I don't care. I'm still going to do this anyway," whether it's donating canned goods, buying an engagement ring, or buying a funeral.
[Laughs] Well, yeah. To a certain extent, some of those things you can't choose not to do or it's very difficult not to do. And some of them I still do myself. As an example, we did one last year about how you don't need to take a shower every day, and I do still take a shower every day. I am a person who doesn't feel clean and happy until I've taken a shower first thing in the morning. On a weekend I'll put it off, but on a weekday, if I don't take shower before going to work, I literally feel like there's some sort of film covering my body that I didn't remove. And I don't know if I'll ever get away from that and it's going to be one I'm going to keep doing just because it makes me feel better.

So there are lots of ones like that. I even bought my girlfriend a diamond necklace once right after producing that engagement ring [video] because it was an important occasion and I wanted to get something sparkly. Now, I bought it vintage, right? I didn't go buy something new from Jared, I bought a used one, which is part of the reason I felt okay about it. But at the same time, these things are in there so deep that it's hard to escape them.

As for the sort of more scientific ones, for instance on the hydration story, we worked with an exercise scientist who's very reputable — Dr. Tamara Hew-Butler — and it was mostly her ideas on screen. Like she was our primary scientist source. Now we've had a couple of other exercise scientists [who] have mostly tweeted me so far. There's a guy with the handle Dr. Hydration who tweeted at me and said, "Oh, this isn't true what you've said," because they have an actual scientific disagreement with the idea that we present.

And that's something that we really welcome, especially when we're talking about science-based stories. We don't every claim to be able to fit all the matter in a story. That's why we use experts, so that if someone disagrees with us, we get to have a conversation about the substantive sources that we use. They could say, "Hey, I disagree with Hew-Butler's work" or "This source that you used is not ideal," and then we could have a discussion about instead of just flinging our poop around about the actual validity of the information. That sort of thing is always going to happen and I really think it's part of the process of the show.

Seeing as every election year is filled with a lot of misinformation, half-truths, hyperbole, and over-exaggerated claims, is the subject you're tackling on your tour and the election special a natural fit for Adam Ruins Everything?
Yeah, I mean it definitely is. Look, we're doing an election special and a tour based on it because we did an episode on voting last year. And then we thought, "There's so much more material on this and it's an election year, let's do a full hour." So that's what the special's going to be.

But yeah, there's so much to plumb. We definitely on the tour are going to be doing some debunking of some received wisdom about the election system and democracy. But what I'm really excited about is we also bring a historical perspective to the topic, which is something that not many other people do on television certainly.

"I think one of the most worrisome trends in our election this year is the idea that facts don't matter."

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We're going to have weird presidential history and the history of how our election system got like this. People have a sense right now, like there's a huge national frustration with out democratic process, like pretty much everybody who stops anybody on the street and they're going to have a cynical, frustrated view of it. They're going to be like, "It's so messed up. This is worst it's ever been." And we wanted to answer the question, "Is this the worst it's ever been?" and look at it from a historical perspective and parse out what is truly unique about this moment in history versus what we've truly seen before.

So I think people are going to have a great time at the show. I think they're going to laugh and they're going to learn something and their minds are going to get blown and they're going to come away thinking about elections in a whole new light.

On the show, y'all go out of your way to cite sources and be transparent and basically show your work. So does that make y'all the antithesis of the Donald Trump campaign?
[Laughs] I suppose. I mean, I wouldn't characterize it that way by myself. I think one of the most worrisome trends in our election this year is the idea that facts don't matter. Trump is sort of the culmination of the, "Well, you have your facts and I have mine" strain that I've already seen in political media. [Trump's] really the culmination or fulfillment of it where he personally says things that are at odds with reality. And so, yeah, I hope that our show can be a little bit of a pushback from that. I mean, he's really something that the media hasn't known to handle in that way because of his willingness to repeat things that are plainly untrue and no one has ever done that before.

You've said before in previous interviews that the underlying principle of Adam Ruins Everything is to question, to think, and to be curious. Do you think that puts you at odds with the anti-intellectual movement that has been growing in the U.S. or the world in general as of late?
Um, yeah. I think we are at odds with that movement. I don't think the power of that movement should be overstated, though. I do think there is a certain strain of anti-intellectualism but I think there always is that in American history and we're just sort of seeing it in new forms. Maybe it ebbs and flows or ebbs and recedes, but right now it's at a high point. But I think that the American people and people of the world in general really love learning. They really love knowing more about things and the success of our show is evidence of that. I mean, if anti-intellectualism was the dominant theme in American culture, our show wouldn't be a success and thankfully it is.

And so I think there's equally as much of a movement of people who love learning as a form of entertainment. I think that's the sign that's uniquely of this moment that we hadn't really seen before where you have podcasts, which are a huge medium built on educating people — and talking to comedians about their relationship problems, that's the other thing that's on podcasts. [Laughs] But you know, other than that, look at the most popular podcats and it's Stuff You Should Know and This American Life and all these things that inform people. And then you see how much Neil deGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking are pop-culture figures and Bill Nye is coming back with a new show, which I'm excited to see.

It's a real trend in the American media because it fulfills a real sincere need in people and desire in people to learn more about the world around them. Like, it's just something that people love to do. So my show's very happy to be part of that. You know, I have to believe between that and the people who don't want to know more that our side's going to win, that ultimately the innate human desire to better ourselves and learn more about the world around us is going to be even more powerful than the one to keep our heads in the sand.

Do you think we're ultimately going to become like the society in Idiocracy?
[Chuckles] I could tell you were kind of going there because that's where your questions were headed. But, no, I don't believe that at all. I don't believe that we are. I'm a very optimistic and non-cynical person and, look, the fact is that — and this is a point of view that I push back a lot against in my work — the idea that things are worse now than they were before — and that we're losing something great that we once had isn't the case. And that's what Trump's entire campaign is based on. It's based on the idea that we've lost something that we once had and that we're sliding backwards into something. You just sort of expressed the same point of view but about a different topic, like about intellectualism or whatever, I just wanted to draw attention to the fact that question is similar to Trump's point of view in some way. And I disagree with that entirely.

First of all, if you look at the march of human history, if you look at now compared to 50 years ago, we're doing better on so many, many, many metrics in terms of how educated people are, how open media is, how long people live, right? To me, it's pretty plain that the present depends on the past. It's sort of the joke of, you ask Trump, "Hey, you want to make America great again? When was America great? Oh, the 1950s, that's when African-Americans couldn't use the same lunch counter." If you look at it on a macro level, the present is better than the past. And I think it will continue to get better and, like I said, that innate human desire to learn is so powerful that I think it will overcome and we just need to feeding it and fueling it.

I think its very easy to look at people and say, "Oh, these people, they don't want to learn anything and they just want to do this and that." That's an easy reaction to have. But it's harder and more interesting to say, "Hey, how can I fuel their innate desire to learn and educate them in a way that's entertaining and funny and will enlighten them and open their minds so they can see the world differently." So if I thought the world was sliding backwards into Idiocracy, I'd probably give up and go home, but the reason I do this show is because I think the world is getting smarter and better and more educated and I want to bring it there. I want to be a part of that.

I mean this next question in the most benign way possible, but has anyone ever told you to shut the fuck up? You know, like the types of people who don't like a know-it-all.
[Laughs] Hmm ... that's an excellent question. I mean, yes, definitely, but those are the ruder [people], maybe someone on the New York City subway, like they used those words specifically. But, yeah, the show really came from my feeling that people didn't really want to hear this stuff. I was interested in it but people in my life were generally irritated by me talking about this stuff.

I can remember a situation where — and this is sort of like when I look at things I did that were as bad as Adam on the show — me and my sketch group Olde English, we made our own comedy videos during our early 20s and we were filming on a private jet. We had contacted an airport and they had let us shoot for free in a private jet. It was a really nice favor because they thought we were really nice kids.

And so we were chatting with the pilot, we didn't fly in the jet, it was parked and one of the guys asked, "Why do you have to turn your electronic devices off when the plane takes off?" And the pilot says, "Oh, it's a good precaution because they do emit electromagnetic waves." So I said, "Oh, I read an article that says there's no possible way your Gameboy is going to interfere with the plane taking off, so that's impossible. That's just an old regulation that no one's had the guts to change because its a pain in the ass and we don't need to be doing it." And the other guys looked at me like, "Are a fucking idiot? You're dogging the pilot of the plane? Who the hell do you think you are?"

And I was really embarrassed by that, but that is sort of the person I've always been. It's hard for me to keep this stuff to myself. And, by the way, I was right and I always knew I was right. But everyone was like, "I can't believe you said this. What a bizarre thing to do." But I was right the whole time and that's why I said it. And of course I was borne out a being correct because the FAA, like a year ago, changed those regulations. But the wonderful thing about the show is that I managed to convert something that I always slightly chastised for doing in my personal life into something that people really like that I do. And now people tweet at me, "Oh my god, I love all these facts." It's extremely fulfilling.

Adam Ruins Everything Live! with Adam Conover takes place on Saturday, September 17, at Crescent Ballroom. Tickets are $32.50.