Adam Ruins Everything‘s Adam Conover talks to Awards Daily about his hopeful self-funded Emmy campaign that would do anything but ruin the final season for the TruTV series.
For five years, Comedian Adam Conover has stuck strictly to the facts on his TruTV series Adam Ruins Everything, so he’s hoping his truth-seeking and -speaking will reach Emmy voters with the series of billboards he self-funded around LA. They include messages like, “Matt Garrett is a great cinematographer,” “Lara Cilento made my hair look this good,” “Alex Perrone is a great makeup artist,” and finally “It shouldn’t be this hard to get a nomination for ‘Outstanding Hosted Non-Fiction Series.'”
With the billboards, Conover not only wanted to highlight the talent behind the show, but since it’s the final season of the series, he thought it was time to make a play for Emmy (“5 Years. 192 Ruins. Zero Nominations”)—even if he ruined awards seasons with his episode “Adam Ruins Hollywood.”
In the final episode of the series, Adam literally ruins himself in spectacular fashion, turning the tables on the network and his series, revealing uncomfortable truths about advertising and television. It’s a fascinating 30 minutes of TV, pushing buttons in a way very few shows get away with. If this situation were a movie, the network executives would be running down the stairs and trying to stop filming—but in Adam’s case, TruTV did anything but ruin it.
Awards Daily: So you took the initiative to do your own Emmy campaign. I know you wanted to highlight the talent on your show, but I was wondering whether you wanted to find a new home for the show? I feel like there are so many other ruins that you could be doing.
Adam Conover: (Laughs) I would certainly love to. I’m currently working on a new project that I can’t talk much about that’s taking my attention. It’s still me doing what I do, but the nice thing about being a comedian is that you are the show. It’s not like One Day at a Time situation where get somebody else to pick it up or it doesn’t exist. I can go do my style of informational comedy anywhere, and I’m working on doing that now, although things have slowed down because of coronavirus, they’ve definitely been delayed.
AD: This series started from College Humor, which also came to an end this year. What has that been like, seeing both properties come to an end?
AC: In the case of College Humor, it’s very sad. I think what we’ve really seen is—to get a little bit big picture here—it’s the death of middle-class comedy. I was able to work for the middle part of my career on this website where I got total creative freedom, but my work was being watched by people and I was getting feedback and working in a group and learning all of those important skills of comedy, and that wonderful primordial soup is where I ended up creating Adam Ruins Everything. It came out of that work. We were able to take it to the next level. My show wasn’t the only one that did that. There are a half dozen other College Humor TV projects that came out, but that entire business sector is dead now. There’s no more video comedy being done that way on the internet that actually has a budget behind it. There is YouTube, which doesn’t finance anything—you have to pay for it yourself and you have to give the content to them for free and maybe they break you off a piece of their ad rates. But that means budgets are extremely low. The comedy we were doing on Comedy Humor—the original Adam Ruins Everything sketches cost maybe $30,000 each to make. Very small from a TV standpoint, but massive from a YouTube standpoint. But it was because they had that production value and specifically you’re able to do types of jokes there that you can’t do without spending that kind of money—jokes involving costumes, props, visual effects and that’s getting the show made. The fact that Facebook and other advertising companies like Google have entirely killed that portion of the online creative ecosystem is really a bummer, because future comedians won’t have the same opportunities that I did.
As far as Adam Ruins Everything goes, it’s kind of a similar story. Something similar is happening with basic cable now, where basic cable is losing viewers year over year and everybody’s moving to streaming. It feels like we’re in another seismic shift. I’ve often felt like in my career I’ve been constantly moving from platform to platform to wherever the eyeballs go. And that transition to me seems to be part of that story.
AD: I love the final episode of the series, which turns the lens on itself. You even delve into the idea that you had to get rid of some story ideas because of advertisers. How did that episode get past the network? You make some bold statements. How did that happen?
AC: Part of our strategy, every single year we’ve always done our season finale as if it were a series finale. They’re all plotted that way so that they would make sense as a natural ending for the show. But this one, (Laughs) my contract was up at the end of the year, so we sort of felt where things were headed and said let’s put everything we can in this one last episode and make the big final statement that we want to make. Let’s have an opportunity for me to grapple with some of the internal contradictions of the show. It always bothered me that I’m a show that critiques advertising, but the longer I do it, the more I realize, the whole reason the show exists is so people can watch the ads in between. The only reason is that anyone’s paying for them is that they must work! (Laughs) They’re probably more powerful than my critiques of the ads on the show, so what does that say about what I’m doing? That was one thing I really wanted to get into on the show.
People criticize our show all the time. “You got this wrong” or “You’re biased.” People are certainly free to do that, but I wanted to show that even beyond that there are concerns that I have about internal contradictions of the show.
In terms of getting it past the network, we just held our fire for the rest of the year. You choose your battles on what you push to get through. We made sure we had built a lot of trust with them, and we made our case that this would be the best episode to do. To their credit, they got it. One thing I want to be very clear about with TruTV is that they’ve always been extremely supportive of what we’re doing, even though there have been times that—as we dramatized on the show—we’ve had to have tough conversations about an advertiser. They’ve always understood the ethos behind the show and the purpose of it and that that’s what the show has to be to be successful at all. The show can’t compromise. So they gave us space to do that. Certainly a couple of those lines there, the exec characterization of some of the events that happened in the scene, going back and forth with the network executive, they had a couple of notes on that, but at the end of the day, that’s what happened. It was partially smart producing on my producer’s part to help get it through, but partially just truly getting it.
AD: It’s such an effective episode. I also want to talk about the “Adam Ruins Cops” episode, which mentions no-knock raid statistics, something that is pretty relevant right now. How often have you thought about that episode in the past month and a half? Or even since it aired?
AC: Oh, I’ve thought about that episode quite a lot. I’m extremely proud of that episode and extremely grateful to our writers and researchers who championed us doing that episode and who made it as great as it is. Part of our goal is to take a really penetrating look at American society, in a sense that we take for granted. Taking on the police, we knew it would be a controversial topic, but we felt that that was a big area of American life that we have questions about. Partially that was in response to the police violence we’d already seen across the country, but it clearly is also what we’ve seen in the last year. I do informational comedy, and there are a lot of other people who do similar things. Jon Stewart’s descendants—Trevor Noah and John Oliver and those folks. But they’re all doing topical comedy, the news of the week or news of the day. And because we go out a bit further and we’re talking about bigger problems, our topics become perennially relevant. They come back again and again. The show works in reruns basically. I think this is probably the clearest example of that. The message the episode has is that we need to rethink how we police America had a lot of resonance this year. My only regret is that it’s been hard for people to see that episode because it’s caught in between the transition from Netflix to HBO Maxx, because of how the contracts work out for that. The episode is currently on neither network. I wish we could have made it more available. I watched it live on my Twitch channel with some fans.
[Editor’s note: You can watch it here on trutv.com].
AD: Are there any things that you wanted to ruin that you weren’t able to ruin? How would you ruin the pandemic we’re currently going through? Or have we already ruined that one?
AC: First of all, stay tuned for the new project that I’m working on. There’s always more that I want to do, and I’m not limited to Adam Ruins Everything in the ways that I can get material out there. Every so often I do come across a topic—that would be a perfect Adam Ruins Everything topic; we should do that. Then I realize, oh, I’m working on something else now. On to the next thing. I file those things away and I’ll use them for something else. In my stand-up or in future projects.
We talked about in the “Adam Ruins Himself” episode, the segment that I always really wanted to do was on the NCAA—which I think is one of the most massive, corrupt schemes in America right now. They deprive so many talented athletes of so much money in the most prime sports years of their lives. I think it’s really a scandal. When you look at the history of how it came about, it’s clear that it’s nothing but racism and exploitation at the formation of the policy. But that was the one topic in the history of our show where the network said—no you cannot do it. We will not allow you to do the topic. It’s because they broadcast NCAA games every year. They can’t have that disruption. Sometimes you reach your limit. My goal is to make anybody I work with uncomfortable with the topic that I tackle. That’s part of the point. (Laughs) You push that as far as you can, and you don’t win every single battle, but the only reason I sleep easily at night, is that I know I made an effort and tried to make it happen. I didn’t give up until the head of the network told me no personally.
AD: What kind of legacy would you like your show to leave behind?
AC: That’s a good question. With this Emmy ad campaign, I wanted to highlight how much you need to spend. We’re not on a major network. We don’t have a ton of money. I’m not super famous. But the public loves the show. I have teachers telling me that they use the show in classrooms. The Christopher Columbus episode as an example. People reach out to tell me that my show got them to change their behavior. They told me they didn’t have their kid circumcised! [“Adam Ruins Circumcision”] People really remember the show. And I think everyone who catches it will remember the facts—it sticks with people.
I never wanted this to be a low-effort show. We had animation, period hair, visual jokes—everything under the sun. Our research team is incredible and we presented arguments that aren’t recycled. One of our researchers read The End of Policing—she read that years in advance before it started to trend recently. I think we made a show that’s very special. And I at least wanted to get it into the arena for Emmy consideration. We’re a fucking nonfiction series. We’re gonna make a go for it.
Season 3 of Adam Ruins Everything is available on trutv.com.